Three days afterFresh Belliesappeared onan episodeofShark Tank last January (all of the sharks passed),founder andCEOSaskia Sorrosawas in Atlanta to make a presentation at the NFLPA’s annual Pitch Day.Out of the 10 early-stage startups at the event, theorganic baby food maker won first place and received marketing and licensing opportunities from the NFLPA that helped transform her business.At the time, Fresh Bellies was sold in about 300 stores. Now the company’s line of healthy and savory baby food products can be found in 2,000 stores.
A year later,Sorrosa will be atthe 2020 NFLPA Pitch Day (on Wednesday afternoon in Miami), though this time she’ll be a judge looking at startups in three categories: Consumer Packaged Goods, Human Performance and Athlete-Led Companies.
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We recently caught up withSorrosa, who worked asthe NBA’s VP of marketing before launching Fresh Bellies in 2015,to talk about the crossover between sports and business, why she took the leap into entrepreneurship, the ups and downs of growing her company, and her best advice for nailing a pitch.
brianowens.tv: What set your team apart at last year’s NFLPA Pitch Day?
SORROSA: Presenting the statistics was really what allowed us to come out on top. The percentage of children who are predicted to be obese by the age of 35 is 57%. When you look at what we”re feeding them and how that”s a contributing factor, and yet an entire industry has been doing nothing to change it—it”s a really compelling story. Just presenting the facts that helped us win. I’ve always said throughout my career, ‘Focus on the research not the me-search.’ It’s about the stats and data, not about your opinion.
brianowens.tv: How did you prepare to make that pitch?
SORROSA: We made sure in addition to presenting the facts about what the market and nutrition issues were telling us about children, that we also highlighted how our products just stood out from everything else that was in the market, because it met a demand that hadn”t been met in the past. We really highlighted the benefits of the products to address the issues in the market.
brianowens.tv: Where did you get your inspiration?
Saskia Sorrosa: The jump from the NBA to Fresh Bellies, what really triggered that was having kids and realizing that everything offered in the marketplace was oversaturated with sugars and bland foods, and that it was really a contributing factor in the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. I didn”t want my daughters to become another statistic. I wanted them to grow up around food the same way I did growing up in South America. I was born and raised in Ecuador. My dad was in agriculture. He worked for Del Monte Foods as general manager for the region for awhile. Then he eventually purchased a banana farm and started working with a local family in exporting his own bananas. I grew up in and around food. We also owned restaurants because his hobby was cooking, so we were always hosting people at our farm for gigantic, elaborate meals that he would make. So I was always close to the farming aspect of food and also making food that was healthy and nutritious and brought people together. I decided after I had my second daughter that I would leave my full-time job and start this business, and create a product that could help meet some of the growing demands of the baby food space.
brianowens.tv: How did your time in the sports industry and the NBA prepare you to enter the food startup space?
SORROSA: While I was at the NBA, I had a very entrepreneurial goal in what I was doing. I was part of marketing, which is a large group within the league, but within that I managed my own team that focused on targeting our priority fan segments—such as youth, Hispanics, African-Americans, women—and figuring out how to grow those bases so that we had a pipeline of fans toward the future and also an increase in viewership, sales, and attendance.
I was able to pitch to our commissioner at the time, David Stern, and secure a budget for our team to go out and build all of these programs. While we worked closely with the rest of the marketing department, we also worked independently in building these programs and hiring our own agencies, and making sure that we were being really genuine in what we were putting out there to these fans. A lot of the skills I learned in building that from the ground up were skills I took with me to start a business on my own.
I strongly believe in hiring for your weaknesses. And that”s exactly what I did. I knew what I knew, but I also knew what I didn”t know. What I didn”t know was the food industry. So very early on I brought on people that had 20 to 30-plus years of experience in the space to help me bring my idea to life and to take it to the next level, making sure we were doing that strategically and soundly.
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brianowens.tv: We recently spoke to entrepreneurs who had worked with the late David Stern.Did he ever give you any advice while you pursued your business?
SORROSA: Oh, absolutely. David was until the end just an incredible mentor and resource. He stepped down from the NBA a year before I quit to start my own business. And even after I left the NBA, he would occasionally call just to give me unsolicited advice about how to do things and what to do better. He was constantly calling to congratulate me on an article that he saw, or somebody told him we were in Kroger so he was calling to say congrats. When we were first raising capital very early on, he was my recommendation. A lot of the investors, when we were first raising capital, wanted a referral to be able to speak to about my work ethic and my expertise and management system. David was the person I would give for them to call for feedback. He played a pretty incredible role in my life, both in my career at the NBA but also as an entrepreneur.
brianowens.tv: What was the biggest challenge you faced in trying to build your business—and how can other entrepreneurs learn from it?
SORROSA: There are so many challenges. One of the hardest parts is raising capital. Once you decide that you are going to bring on outside capital, going after that and being successful at it is really hard. You get a lot ‘no’ before you get ‘yes’ so being able to persevere through that, it”s a really hard thing to do when you feel like you”re beaten down. Another hard thing when you”re a first-time entrepreneur, you”re sort of at a disadvantage to people out there also raising money who are second-, third-, fourth-time entrepreneurs. So building your confidence to the fact that you can do it, you are doing it, and you can be just as successful as the person next to you who has maybe done it two or three times is important. Building mental strength and emotional strength is probably one of the biggest assets, but one of the hardest things to do as an entrepreneur to get through the rollercoaster ride to build your business.
brianowens.tv: What was your prize for winning NFLPA Pitch Day?
SORROSA: $25,000 in player marketing spend. We launched a program with a select number of NFL players last year on social media with players who had kids within our target age group. They shared their children eating the product and interacting with our products on social media. That did really well for us. We used part of the spend for that. We”re also working with the NFLPA on player camps, which happened in the summer, and having some of our products distributed at these camps to drive awareness and trials, which would go a really long way in getting our products in the hands of the right audiences.
There”s other things that we have been working on that we haven”t executed yet. Things like potentially doing NFL player store visits in some of the stores where we have product available. Also, one of the other assets that we built with this marketing spend is we had a video created with the former president of the NFLPA, saying that the NFLPA has partnered with Fresh Bellies and encouraging retailers to partner with us to bring healthy nutrition to children. We use that video actually in our sales meetings when we go to pitch a new retailer that we”re not partnered with currently. It”s been a really strong asset for us to be able to use that.
brianowens.tv: Do you have advice for startups that receive outside capital and how they should apply the funds to their business?
SORROSA: As soon as I knew that I was going to bring in outside capital, I brought on a CFO. He”s what you would call a fractional CFO. He”s our financial lead and comes with 20-plus years of experience at Kraft Foods and knows the business in and out. I brought him on to build our financial model that we could present to investors to show them what the money would be used for, but also to help us stay on track. So filing every month with our bookkeepers and accountants and making sure that the spending is where it needs to be, if we”re over or under, why? Making sure that all of the accounting is what we planned for and if not, that we”re fixing it moving forward. I basically brought on somebody who knew what they were doing and specialized in this specific area of a business to help me build that. I would not have been able to do that on my own.
brianowens.tv: How has Fresh Bellies grown since winning the NFLPA competition?
SORROSA: Oh my gosh. We”ve grown dramatically since then. By the end of this year we”re projecting to be in 9,000 stores. We now have national accounts like Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods. So it”s been a significant year for us in the year after the pitch.… We launched an additional toddler snacks flavor this month, and we will be launching two additional snack flavors next month. And then later this year, we are planning to launch two new product lines entirely. So there”s growth coming from all ends. Not just growing what we currently have and expanding distribution, but also continuing to bring innovation in the space.
brianowens.tv: What’s your best advice for the entrepreneurs preparing to give presentations at this year’s NFLPA Pitch Day?
SORROSA: Know your numbers, know your business like the palm of your hand. Be prepared and be yourself.