We had a nice chat with Ms. “Emily Branton”, president of the Ontario Canada, Birmingham Michigan- USA based start-up “Link2Feed” about her Company.
Below is the interview we conducted with her:
1. What is it exactly that you do and what your start-up is all about?
Link2Feed is a social purpose (for-profit) business and Certified B Corporation. We make sure that “everyone gets a meal” by providing food banks around the world with software solutions to more effectively manage operations and resources in order to increase their level of accountability and overall community impact. The core Link2Feed platform is a sophisticated data management software that streamlines and standardizes what can often be a complex intake process and allows food banks to report on client demographics and usage levels. Our “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” is to work with partners around the world to create a global metric about hunger in developed nations
2. When has your startup been founded? And what stage is your startup currently at?
Link2Feed started out of a marketing agency called Innivity Marketing Group. A custom food bank management system was created as a favour to a client in 2010. It wasn’t long before the word spread and requests poured in from food banks across Canada. In 2012 the system was redeveloped to meet the needs of food banks everywhere and was branded as “Link2Feed”. Because of the overwhelming social impact of Link2Feed and interest from food banks around the world, Innivity Marketing Group was sold and Link2Feed was spun off and incorporated as a private entity in December of 2013
3. What is your startup’s business model and how does it work?
Link2Feed provides food banks with a sophisticated client intake and reporting software. Food banks pay a modest upfront fee for access to the software, licensing protection, training and a fully supported implementation plan. There is also a monthly fee for security, 24-hour support and access to free product upgrades. We are lucky to work in partnership with Rackspace, to guarantee 100% up time, fanatical support and world class security.
4. How did your team meet? And who in your team does what?
Rob Dawson, our Founder and CEO, is really the glue that brought everyone together. Rob originally hired me at Innivity to manage marketing strategy for non-profit clients. We met our development team lead, Dave Redfern, through one of our freelancers at the marketing agency. Everyone else we were lucky to acquire for specific Link2Feed positions. Rob manages high-level strategy, corporate governance and strategic partnerships. I handle day-to-day operations, international expansion and branding. As our development team lead, Dave manages our technical team and all things pertaining to our platform. We’re really lucky to have the group of people that we have working for us.
5. What, exactly, makes you different from existing options, what will make your product and/or service stand out in the marketplace? In other words what’s unique about you and what’s new about what you make?
The biggest differentiating factor for us is our commitment to the industry and social mission of making sure “everyone gets a meal”- we’re a value driven organization and every decision we make has to do with how we can help food banks and their clients. To demonstrate this commitment we went through the process of becoming a Certified B Corporation, which holds us to a very high standard of social responsibility. We really pride ourselves on being “built in a food bank”, meaning that every feature in our software was defined by a food bank or governing food banking body. We’re committed to the industry and offer our clients a free yearly version rollout of the most requested features. Food banks and their agencies are our only clients, so we put everything we have in to supporting them.
6. What is your growth like? And what milestones has your startup achieved so far?
Growth has been exponential. Last year we started a partnership with the Ontario Association of Food Banks, who has now made Link2Feed a requirement of their membership. This will allow the association to have real time reporting on their membership to ensure effective resource distribution and allow them to do more advocacy work. We also became an official international company this year. We started offering our software to US-based food banks and will be supporting food banks in the UK later this year. A very exciting milestone for us is also the development of Version 2.0 of our software, which will launch later this year.
7. Who are your competitors? And what is your start-up’s competitive advantage over them?
Our competitors are fairly fragmented, from small custom built solutions to software companies who serve an array of not-for-profits. Our advantage is that we only support food banks and have a strong understanding of exactly what they need. Understanding the work food banks do and exactly what they need really goes a long way. We also have a fantastic team that’s fully committed to our social cause- it seems simple but passionate people who believe in the work they do makes all the difference.
8. What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
Bringing significant technological change to an industry brings challenges every day. Many food banks and the agencies they serve don’t even use computers, much less a software to help manage their operations. Accessibility is one of our most important values. We provide a lot of support to our current and prospective clients to make the transition to new technology as easy as possible.
9. What are the key things about your field that outsiders don’t understand?
What a food bank is and the amazing work they do. So many people make comments to me about how food banks (and by default our company) “enable” people to abuse the system. It’s just not the case. I don’t want to get on my soap box too much, but no one likes going to a food bank and people only go if they really need the help. Food banks also do SO much more than just provide food to people; they provide emotional support and referrals to other programs among other things. One thing that I find especially amazing is how many people who use food bank services volunteer at the food bank as well or who will volunteer there later in life. It’s a beautiful cycle of giving.
10. Why are you going to succeed?
Because we believe in what we are doing. Every person in this office believes the work we are doing is incredibly important and that our platform will make sure that “everyone gets a meal”. Our “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” is to create a metric about hunger in developed nations so we’re also invested in making sure we do things the right way in order to produce statistically valid data to make this happen.
11. If your startup succeeds, what additional areas might you be able to expand into?
We get requests all the time for the development of new modules to better support the food banking industry. We’re planning to create a fully integrated suite for food banks and their agencies that also includes Inventory and Volunteer Management. We’ve also had requests to serve other types of programs that support people in short-term crisis or poverty, such as shelters. There are a lot of opportunities for us to grow and really make a difference.
12. Why did you choose this idea and concept to build your start-up based on?
It all came across very organically. We were asked to build the custom system, then another and when the requests didn’t stop coming, we decided to build a platform that could be scaled and used by food banks everywhere. We decided to roll out Link2Feed as a separate company because our founding team was so excited about the social potential. The impact the software was having on our clients was undeniable and we really needed to focus to ensure we could keep providing that value.
13. What have you learned so far from launching your idea?
One, unifying and undeniable vision makes or breaks a business. We all band around the concept that “everyone deserves a meal”, and we use this principal to make all of our decisions. It’s also pretty incredible to see the role a private business can play in helping to solve one of the world’s biggest problems. Hunger is an international issue and we’re just excited to be a part of solving it.
14. Six months from now, what’s going to be your biggest problem?
I think our biggest problem will also be one of the most exciting times for our business. We are excited to be rolling out Link2Feed Version 2.0, but this means migrating clients currently on our legacy platform and training them on the new version. Change can be very scary for a lot of our clients, but we have a solid migration strategy and our new version provides some additional in-line support features to make this transition easier. We have a great team of trainers and account managers who are really experienced with helping our clients manage change.
15. What’s the benefit for the customer/user?
Accuracy, consistency, automation, real-time data. Ultimately our system allows food banks and their regional/national counterparts to better understand their clients and exactly what is happening throughout their organization. This information can be used to make data-driven decisions, ensure equitable distribution of resources as well as to advocate for the hungry locally, regionally and nationally.
16. How did customers / users find out about you?
Word of mouth in this industry is really important; food bankers are very collaborative and we’ve always been really lucky that our clients refer us without any prompting on our end. They are very excited about how our software makes a difference in their organization and are always telling other food banks about us. We also get a lot of inquiries through Google searches.
17. Who are your current customers / users? Who are your target customers / users?
We serve organizations from small “pantries” in church basements to large regional networks with thousands of locations. As we continue to grow and manage these large rollouts, we hope to work more directly with national associations to be able to provide country-level (and hopefully one day international!) data.
18. Where do new customers / users come from and what makes new customers/users try you?
Our clients really come from all corners of the globe and using web-based technologies, we’re able to demonstrate our platform without being physically present. They give us a try because we are able to demonstrate true value (we have numerous case studies about how our software has helped the organizations we serve) and have a very supportive customer base to back that up.
19. What do your customers / users say about your product and/or service?
“I don’t know how I lived without it” is probably the biggest one. We are so fortunate that our clients are constantly calling/emailing us to thank us for providing them with the software and to tell us what it’s done for them. There are a bunch of client testimonials here if you want to take a look at a few specifics.
20. How are you going to scale?
A lot of time has been spent developing a comprehensive plan that outlines long-term goals and growth plans. Our corresponding strategic plan helps to put the business plan into action and outlines individual contributions for staff. This plan aligns very closely with the development strategy for our platform so we can ensure that we have the technology to meet these objectives and do so efficiently. We also have strategic partners to facilitate this scale and work with experts in places we are not; for example, Rackspace (for hosting) and the Trade Commission of Canada (for international expansion).
21. What’s the biggest missing feature? The one thing customers/users keep asking for?
We’re very committed to tracking client requests for new features- every request is logged in our support suite and each year we take the most collected features and rollout a new version for our clients. So when clients ask for something, it’s not long before we roll it out. Customers are also looking for a fully integrated suite, so combining our core client intake software with new modules for inventory management and volunteer management is on the horizon. Both of these additional modules are on our development path and will be development following the release of Version 2.0.
22. Are you going to internationalize? And if yes how are you planning to expand your start-up’s operations accordingly?
We’ve already begun the internationalization process and now officially serve food banks in two countries. This process started well over a year ago through a period of in-depth market research. We were also able to facilitate some initial meetings in foreign markets through the Trade Commission of Canada to get things moving.
23. How big do you think you can get? Why? And how you are planning to achieve your goals?
Our goal is to one day service every food bank in the world, to facilitate our “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”. We have the technology for this scale and the partners to support it as well. We plan to go about it as we are now; ensuring we have the best platform, providing unbeatable customer service and working with our partners to understand market needs.
24. Are you looking to hire a new workforce? And if yes, what job vacancies do you currently offer and where can potential applicants contact you at?
We are always looking to keep the best talent on file. Currently, we are looking for a VP for our US operations to facilitate growth and sales throughout this market, individuals who have experience training/implementing software in large organizations and content marketing specialists. For us, the most important thing is finding someone who is the right cultural fit, who believes in what we do and has the skillset for these positions. Anyone who meets the above can email me directly at email@example.com.
25. Are you looking for partnership opportunities or funding from Venture Capitals (VC) or other funding sources? Or your business is self-sustainable? And if the first option applies where can potential partners / investors contact you at?
Our business is currently self-sustaining, but partnership opportunities and funding sources can allow us to achieve some of our growth objectives sooner. We’re always interested to hear from potential partners or VCs and other funders. Inquiries from these groups can be sent to our Founder and CEO, Rob Dawson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
26. What advice do you have for fresh entrepreneurs?
Find your vision and build your plan and team around that. Always remember that why you do something is always more important than what you do. Entrepreneurship is a tough path (though a very rewarding one) so you have to fully believe in what you do to be successful.