On this episode of the L.A. Venture podcast, hear Matt McCall discuss his journey into entrepreneurship and wearing life like "a loose sweater."
McCall is well-known to the L.A. venture community as a partner at the Pritzker Group. The company came from a very large family office, which owned The Hyatt, Royal Caribbean and the Marmon group, among others.
McCall set up the group's venture investing office about a decade ago, focusing on seed- and Series A-stage companies.
"The way that we've approached the businesses, we have an active seed program where we'll do quite a few number of seed deals each year -- between $250K and $1 million. And the idea is for that to kind-of build out our farm system. Then probably half of our [later-stage] deals come out of our seed deals and then the other half come through traditional means," said McCall.
Pritzker has invested in consumer companies including Coinbase, Dollar Shave Club and Cameo, as well as enterprise companies such as Matchbox, Project 44 and SMS Assist.
McCall's deep experience has made him a kind-of coach for area entrepreneurs.
"I would argue that I think the biggest issue is when something happens to the company, you need to put the mask on yourself first. It's your own fear that needs to be managed as a VC," said McCall.
McCall also shares his insight on investing in consumer companies and vertically integrated brands, as well as his views on cryptocurrency. Click on the playhead above to hear more.
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After a year and a half of the pandemic, the robots have arrived—at least in restaurants.
A new report from market research firm Global Industry Analysts (GIA) found that the global food automation market grew to $9.7 billion in 2020, spurred in part by a desire to offer customers contactless service. The GIA researchers projected the market would swell to $13.6 billion by 2026.
While food automation offers an exciting new avenue for entrepreneurs, there's also a fear that machines will ultimately replace their human counterparts. (Food service is far from the only industry to grapple with the threat of automation.)
Darian Ahler, CEO of Bobacino.
But Darian Ahler doesn't see it that way. The 37-year-old director of product strategy and food automation at Wavemaker labs and CEO of Santa Monica-based Bobacino insists that automation will automate those dreaded tasks and provide a contactless option amid the pandemic.
Ahler argues that his $50,000 boba making-machine will elevate food service, bringing fast, quick specialty drinks to mom-and-pop stores and in the process eliminate lines. (The first Bobacino pod is expected in early 2022.) And he says his new deal with a facial recognition software, PopID will offer consumers a quicker and safer way to pay.
Ahler spoke with dot.LA about Bobacino and the future of food automation.
The technology for automating food service has been around a while, but big companies have been slow to adopt it. Why is that?
If you look at it historically, automation is trying to streamline functionality and production in the food space. New York in the early 1940s and 50s had the automat.
They were building and making meals in the background and then you would go and grab a mac and cheese or a cheesecake at one of these lockers. That ended because people wanted to see their food made fresh in front of them.
Fast forward to today. There is the taboo that automation is replacing human labor. I understand the concern, but it's a bit of a misnomer. What we're trying to do is really automate those less desirable tasks, we're automating the process not the people.
Do you see automation changing the face of restaurants?
To some degree, for sure. I don't think we're going to fast forward 50 years from now and all restaurants are going to be robotic. I think it will be a continued fusion between the two.
Think about how much a kitchen has been automated over time when you have specific machines to do specific tasks rather than having somebody cook a stew. You might do that in an instapot, and that can speed up the process.
We're going to continue to see that trend. We're on the forefront of it. We're not trying to automate away the restaurant. We're trying to automate certain processes so that existing brick and mortars can have their employees do their jobs better.
The trend that I've been seeing that might be changing the structure of restaurants is the growing advent of ghost kitchens—leveraging one kitchen that might serve multiple restaurants for delivery. So removing the front of house for certain restaurants, seeing the delivery sector grow massively.
Many people are worried that technology like yours will replace human workers. What do you say to those critics?
So, it's a little bit of a misnomer. We're not trying to automate jobs, we're trying to automate processes. The difference being that we're not trying to replace people, we want to replace portions of their functions. For example, as an employee, what they're having to do is extremely tedious. We can [allow them] to focus on the customer.
With an existing boba shop, a lot of the overhead goes to labor but a good chunk of it just goes to rent, paying for the bills of utilities and the support of the space itself. With our model, being able to partner with small business owners, we can start to create a hub-and-spoke network where they can have an existing shop and they can drop 3, 5, 8, 10 of our Bobacino units.
We can deploy these out around their space and they're able to have a larger reach and larger impact without requiring the footprint or the utilities or the cost required with a brick and mortar.
How would a customer order a drink using your boba machine and the PopID technology?
If there's a long line, but you want one of the classic drinks you can go to the Bobacino pod and order one there. Everything is staged and ready to go to make your drink. If you want a traditional milk tea with boba, you walk up to our ordering interface which is a tablet with integration of PopID. If you are registering with PopID—which is an opt-in solution—you would opt-in to the process and then scan your face for payment.
You'll see the robotic arm come to life and grab a cup and bring it to the boba dispenser. Then it will deliver your drink to one of the secure pickup locations. If you have PopID, you go to that kiosk and have it scan your face and open the door. If you don't, then we provide a QR code or pin to access the drink and make sure they're getting their drink and nobody else's.
If you want a more custom drink then you wait in line and have a person build that drink for you. That can help expand the company's production and ability to serve more drinks faster without needing a larger footprint which seems to be one of the biggest issues.
Was there pushback on the price of the machine?
Nobody pushed back on it. The other part here is that we are offering leasing options, for those people that can't come up with $50,000 of liquid capital. It would be a monthly spend and that is a little bit more tangible and should have a faster return on investment even though they might be paying that out over a longer period of time.
What other projects do you have going on aside from boba?
I occupy this dual role because I came in as CEO of Bobacino, and that was partially on the business development side and partially on the product development side. But I have now fully embedded myself into Wavemaker labs as Director of Product Strategy for food automation. I work across our portfolio companies.
So we have another company called Maestro which makes pizza from scratch. We have another concept that we are developing called Nami, it's a bowl-based concept. So I help inform across all those channels, not only with the experience, but with the functionality with my background as an engineer.
Your Bobacino prototype is up and running, correct?
Yeah, it's at our headquarters. We're not really showing it off for demos yet.
We wanted to be able to develop a unit so we could show people what we're making for our equity crowdfunding campaign, but also it was for validation. We built this in six months with hardware that is super fast from initial concept to deployment, and it will make the drink, top to bottom, which is super fun!
I will fully admit that the drink can be improved and the process can be improved. But first, we made it fast. This next version is making it good, and excited to get those first units out in front of people and get some real feedback.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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The beauty and fashion industry isn't as skinny and white as it once was. Makeup for darker skin tones are more widely available, shapes are changing and so are perceptions. This year, Leyna Bloom graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. She's a trans woman of color. But sometimes, it can all feel a bit inauthentic.
"We've relied on these platforms to bring us visibility for far too long," she said. "Sometimes that visibility can kind of hurt our communities because it results in erasure because it is inauthentic. It's people that don't look like us who don't come from our backgrounds that dictate what the Hispanic or Latinx marketing strategy is."
For decades people of color felt alienated from a beauty and fashion industry that often set unrealistic and often pale expectations of beauty. But that has been changing.
There is a surge for diverse inclusive brands in the beauty and lifestyle space. Makeup giant Sephora has created a section online to showcase Black-owned brands. And it plans to double its BIPOC-founded brands, according to their Executive Vice President Artemis Patrick.
Still, Chavez said that doesn't feel like enough, especially for Latinos, who can have very different cultural experiences. Her family comes from Central America, a very different country from the small island of the Dominican Republic or the Portuguese speaking Brazil or the U.S. neighbor Mexico.
"I think because for far too long we've been portrayed as a monolith," she said.
Shop Latinx targets the millennial and Gen Z Latina in the U.S. During the pandemic, she said, she saw a spike in sales. The marketplace is a collection of brands by Latinx founders and creators like Nopalera (an emerging Mexican-owned botanical brand for bath & body), Shocks of Love, (a fragrance house at the intersection of wellness, art, & beauty), MCLC, (footwear that empowers the sole).
On Friday the startup announced it raised $1 million in pre-seed funding backed by Precursor Ventures, Backstage Capital, Debut Capital, 2PM, Humble Ventures, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Silicon Hills Capital and Techstars.
The money raised will be used to expand their online presence and hire to expand their current team of four. Chavez told dot.LA that getting backing to launch the site wasn't easy.
"I feel like founders, especially founders of color, like we feel like we have to beg VCs to bet on us. When in fact we're doing them a favor," Chavez said. Statistics constantly bear that out.
But, the Cal Poly Pomona grad said she is hoping to see more Black and brown and BIPOC leaders in positions like hers.
She founded the company, she said, because she wanted to dictate her own terms."Instead of trying to rise the ranks of corporate, let me just bet on myself, I literally have nothing to lose because I'm starting from ground zero anyway."
Correction: An earlier version stated that Shop Latinx debuted this October. Shop Latinx has been out for a year.
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The Grounded Foods founders Veronica Fil and chef Shaun Quade were obsessed with making vegan cheese that "didn't taste like crap."
The couple aren't vegans or even vegetarians but Quade, who once guest judged the TV competition show Masterchef, had been trying to perfect imitation Camembert, Gruyere and Roquefort while the executive chef at the Australian upscale foraging restaurant Lûmé.
For more than a year he tweaked his recipe serving his clients "cheese" plates made from hemp. When his wife, Fil found out she thought he was onto something. After all, Velveeta is a household name, so why couldn't other faux cheeses be?
A trained economist Fil knew he could mass market the product and thought, "I'm going to steal my husband's recipe, commercialize them and build a company out of them just as a side project."
Veronica Fil, co-founder of Grounded Food.
She did. Grounded Foods was born in 2019. The two went out to find backers and it was then during a meeting with one investor that changed their strategy.
Originally, they hoped to open up a restaurant in West Hollywood to feature their cheese, but when the investor offered $2 million for the recipe they knew they had to think big.
"That's when we reevaluated everything," Fil said. "That was the moment I convinced my partner to just give up on the restaurant and just double down on becoming plant-based cheese moguls."
Fil's side hustle turned into a full time business.
The couple decided to move from Australia to Los Angeles where there is a much larger market for vegan products. Seven days after receiving their first investment of $200,000 in venture capital, the couple sold everything, packed up their poodle, and flew to New York for the accelerator program (Big Idea Ventures), getting ready to commercialize the product.
"When we got to the US, we quickly realized that those products would be too niche for the market here," she said of the Gruyere and other cheeses Quade was serving often as part of a charcuterie board. So they switched to cheese that appealed to the mass market in the U.S. including cheddar.
The company uses a fermentation process that harnesses the proteins and fats contained in hemp and allows them to achieve textures that closely replicate dairy cheese. One of the main ingredients is cauliflower, which has a rich flavor that the company allows it to forgo artificial additives.
Grounded Foods offers three cheeses - a Hemp Seed Cream Cheese, Hemp Seed Goat Cheese that packages in cubes and its Cheese Free Cheese squeeze-on sauce akin to American cheddar. The 8 ounce package ranges in cost from about $4 to $7 dollars. All three are available online and at some Whole Foods Markets and Bristol Farms in Los Angeles.
The global vegan cheese market size was valued at $1 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 12.8% from 2020 to 2027, according to Grand View Research.
Fil said the product is so good that she thinks the company can go head to head with dairy makers for their customers. Because the product is made of hemp and cauliflower, it is a healthier alternative to dairy cheese that's high in cholesterol and saturated fat.
"I think vegan consumers have options that they already like, we're not trying to compete with that," she said.
The Australian duo announced Wednesday they raised $2.5 million in funding from investors, Big Idea Ventures and Stray Dog Capital, Route 66 Ventures, Nucleus Capital, Kale United, and Presight Capital.
The startup will use the money to get the company through the next six months and act as a buffer throughout the holiday season, as they are expecting this period to be a bit slow.
Fil said they had zero savings when they started the company, "it blows my mind that we've been able to get to the other side of the world and have a company at this level, and be in a position where we can ask investors for another 2.5 million just for the next few months."
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