Creative Somerville Series: 4,000-Mile Bike Rides and 30-Foot Foodsheds

Today’s post comes from Mia Scharphie, a multidisciplinary designer, researcher and community advocate, who co-curates the Creative Somerville Series with me. Mia will be sharing her Creative Somerville Series re-caps on the Beat after each event. The events are free, but have limited capacity, so get your ticket now for June’s talk with Mike Dacey of Repeat Press/Fringe Union.

May’s Creative Somerville Series brought us a fantastic speaker–Colin Davis, founder of local foods-based subscription service Something GUD and Redemption Fish Co., an aquaponic fish and vegetable farm. The night also brought a new feature to our series: Dinner vending by Canteen & Co. who seemed to inspire culinary happiness and satisfaction with their silver bowls.

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After telling the crowd a little bit about the distribution of profit in the food industry (very little of it currently goes to farmers), Davis went on to Something GUD’s approach: To cut out the middleman, just like a CSA (community supported agriculture), but with more curation and variety, tailoring to customer’s desires.

Davis, who once rode a bike across the country meeting with sustainability entrepreneurs (he told them, “I just rode a bicycle 4,000 miles and hope that you’ll speak with me for an hour.”), took us back to the series of jobs and projects that led to him starting his current ventures.

Davis started out as a sustainability consultant. While he enjoyed the subject (he is passionate about, if not obsessed with, sustainability and efficiency), he soon found himself frustrated with his role in the larger process of change. He was tired of clients looking over his sustainability recommendations and only choosing the solar panels (which had the least impact on energy efficiency) because of their marketing cache. Being an employee also just wasn’t Davis’ style; he jokes that he wanted to wear flip-flops to work.

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Startup 1: kWhOURS

In search of a career with more flip-flops (and meaning), Davis struck out and founded kWhOURS, a service that would bring automation to energy audits. “Being unemployable, you have no choice but to try start-ups,” he said. Davis soon found himself traipsing around Silicon Valley raising money. The venture raised a serious budget, but there were a number of issues with the project, including that it was slightly before its time–it’s hard to remember ye old days before iPads and smartphones capable of running complex programs–but they existed and the software game changed after their introduction. Davis realized they needed to shut the company down.

kWhOURS taught Davis the importance of testing ideas in the market and the value of using lean methods of product development. He told the audience with conviction to familiarize themselves with “lean,” AKA The Lean Startup and its philosophy of market testing through minimum viable products.

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Startup 2: Something GUD

After ramping down kWhOURS, Davis knew a few things: He wanted to work on issues of sustainability but he wanted to do something that had a much more direct relationship with customers, and with basic issues: Food was the perfect candidate. He also was tired of raising capital, and started Something GUD with his own funds and money pulled together from friends and family.

The company started with a small number of passionate fans that allowed Davis and his team to experiment. These were customers who were understanding when Something GUD got it wrong, and then tweaked and pivoted the business model. One of the company’s pivots? It originally hoped to meet all the food needs of its customers through a meal-based format (similar to companies like Blue Apron) but that was too complex so Something GUD scaled back.

Colin says that the experience of running a bootstrapped company helped him understand more deeply why people make the short-term choice (such as buying less energy efficient equipment) even when they’ll pay for it in the long term. For people starting and running businesses, money is tight today, not tomorrow.

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Scale and Size

Davis spoke about his team with respect and gratitude. He said, “on paper I’m the CEO but in reality I just fetch resources.” His challenge is to be able to rise above the daily commotion and the issues that have to be attended to right now and to make more time to work on the issues that push the company forward proactively. (We were speaking with him the day after a red-eye, by the way.)

On top of his list is to grow his customer base. If Something GUD achieves this, the company will get to a scale where it can support local farmers more consistently, which will in turn support Something GUD’s efficiency goals and bottom line: “We can buy the whole cow every time,” he said. With greater scale, Something GUD could create assured demand for its vendors (a farmer’s best friend) and even put in orders that farmers can plant crops and raise animals to accommodate.

And Davis does think there’s room to grow. While there are a number of companies like his in town, and CSA subscribers, he doesn’t see that market as his target, necessarily. The customers he wants to take are Whole Foods’, which he credits with reintroducing the idea that food quality is worth paying for.

Yet Davis hopes to scale Something GUD carefully and ethically. He cites examples of much larger companies that operate like his, who work with farmers in rural areas. If they fail or switch their sourcing, they could wipe out small farmer economies in those areas, and they might never return. So the plan is to grow in a way that recognizes the power his company has in the ecosystem of small businesses that he’s trying to support.

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Company & Community

Davis also talked about his approach to equity in the company, which is much less tightfisted than entrepreneurs are usually advised to be, “I gave out equity like Pez,” he joked. Giving out equity (with measures in place to make sure recipients are committed and stick around for a while–he made sure to tell the audience), helped him grow his company without venture capital, and also meant that those who chose to work with him were really committed to the company and the idea. “The only people who show up are either crazy and desperate or really love what they’re doing,” he said.

Something GUD is based out of the Aeronaut Foods Hub, where the Creative Somerville Series takes place. Being in the Foods Hub, and in Somerville, has helped Something GUD grow by word of mouth, as people walk past its counter, beer in hand. “I’ve gotten to tell our story thousands of times,” Davis said.

Something GUD has also benefited from, and paid it forward in the small business network in Somerville. At one point, Davis relayed a story of how he had been at a talk with Ben Holmes, one of the founders of Aeronaut. Holmes (who was standing next to our Creative Somerville stage at that very moment–how very meta) told Davis he was starting a brewery. Davis told him, well, he was going to start a business too. So when Aeronaut found its warehouse, Davis was one of the first tenants to settle in to the Foods Hub, which now hosts multiple small businesses.

More are opening soon, and they help to build out that ecosystem of local, independent business relationships that Something GUD relies on–“We can source some of our greens from 30-feet that way,” he said, pointing toward the corner of the Foods Hub.

That’s local.

The Creative Somerville Series of “fireside chats” highlights locals in design, tech, food, social impact and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. Billed as the anti-powerpoint, our speaking events are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. The series is co-curated by Elyse Andrews and Mia Scharphie, hosted at Aeronaut Brewing Company and co-sponsored by Somerville Local First and the Somerville Beat.

RSVP for free tickets for our next event on 6/17 with Mikey Dacey, founder of Repeat Press and Fringe Union.

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