For Bob Craig, the founder and CEO of Centerman Capital, “entrepreneurs are like Tom Sawyer”: clever, mischievous, adventurous and good-hearted. But when it comes to investing, Craig said he can’t back every Tom Sawyer, so he needs to find those who stand out.
Craig — the former head of finance at Food Should Taste Good, which sold to General Mills in 2012 — started Centerman Capital to invest in fast growing, early-stage CPG companies. Since then, Centerman has invested in brands including Grillo’s Pickles, Yasso, Veggie Fries, Biena Snacks and Cheating Gourmet. During a Bootcamp session that kicked off NOSH Live Summer 2018, Craig shared with the audience some of the essential characteristics — in the products and the people — that he looks for before backing any early stage brand.
When evaluating a potential business or category, it first starts with the idea. Craig said he searches for powerful product profiles, an “entrepreneurial force majeure” (meaning the ability to platform), a complete nutritional profile, and leading industry certifications.
Take Biena Snacks, for example. For Craig, the crispy chickpea brand hit on many trends with its attributes: non-GMO certified, vegan, gluten-free, high in protein and made in America. The product itself was innovative — chickpeas were not thought of at the time as a salty snack — while also being an ingredient consumers were familiar with thanks to the popularity of hummus. The approachability was also there thanks to the brand’s embrace of familiar chip flavors like sea salt, BBQ and ranch.
Now, as the brand has expanded, it’s also forayed into the indulgent space with a chocolate covered line and a recent partnership with The Girl Scouts of America for a Thin Mint cookie-inspired flavor.
However, no matter the potential for a product — and with the entrepreneur’s native optimism and salesmanship — it can be tempting to believe every innovation will be an instant hit. So Craig also warned attendees “to be realistic” and look at category data when projecting potential growth curves.
Craig told the audience that he wants to partner with highly motivated people that want to make an exit from their companies within three to five years.
“We have to look for inspiration at strange places,” Craig said. “And everytime we fly we get same advice from the wise and sage flight staff before takeoff: ‘Please take a moment to the nearest exit; keep in mind, it may be behind you.’”
During the presentation, Craig also stressed the importance of sharing equity with employees in order to give back to the team who got the business off the ground. Not only is the team the business’s backbone, he said, but getting employee buy-in makes people want to work harder. In terms of best business practices, the most successful entrepreneurs are “sales obsessed,” and committed to finding top-notch outsourced partners like legal, accounting, co-manufacturing and banking teams, according to Craig.
Aside from these operational values, Craig said he thinks the most successful leaders are emotionally intelligent. His “Perfect 10 founder” balances leadership and determination traits like an original personality, a competitive drive, a need for accountability and a willingness to stop and celebrate a victory, with self-awareness based characteristics like selflessness, sympathy, and a willingness to build a great culture. Regardless, it’s a match that goes beyond company and product, and on to the founder.
“I’m not just looking for the horse,” Craig said. “I’m also looking for the jockey.”