As the world grapples with the implications of COVID-19, shelter-in-place warnings and a plummeting stock market, I began to worry about startups forced to navigate a landscape even more resistant to new things. Sequoia Capital warned that this might be a black swan for startups. I could feel many corporate partners starting to roll back their innovation mindsets. But then George Haymaker, Founder of Re:THINK Ice Cream reminded me that founders find a way to breakthrough. And in doing so, he reinvigorated my enthusiasm and hope.
I was introduced to George through the California Milk Advisory Board, whom my company VentureFuel had partnered with to run the Real California Milk Accelerator. We looked for new products and innovations for liquid dairy milk, and they asked if I might help George connect with some of the investors that we work with to source emerging opportunities. Might they be interested in a healthier ice cream that didn’t sacrifice texture and flavor? Everything about Re:THINK looked interesting:
- Already in over 25 corporate and hospital cafes throughout the Bay Area as well as strong retailer growth and sales velocity
- Great founder story, as George founded the company as part of his journey through addiction and into recovery
But I told George I would need to taste it before I could in good faith make any introductions. The proof is often in the pudding, or in this case, the ice cream. So, we planned to meet at Expo West, the largest natural food and beverage industry convention. COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the conference and honestly, I figured I wouldn’t hear from George until long after this crisis, if ever at all.
Then I received an email from George urging me to taste his healthy ice cream, that I wouldn’t believe the texture and deliciousness. Problem: George is based on the west coast, and although he has impressive retail distribution, none of it is on the east coast where my company is headquartered. George offered to overnight a few pints to my office so my team and I could try it. Why not?
As the ice cream traveled, so did COVID-19. VentureFuel implemented a mandatory work from home policy, but I still planned to go to the office to pick up the ice cream. When I received a notice that it had arrived, I began my mile walk to the office to pick it up. During the walk, I got a call that someone had been removed from our shared-space office building by EMS with COVID-19 symptoms. I urgently emailed George, “Your ice-cream is going to melt. I can’t get into the building to pick it up.”
Undeterred, George offered to over-night the pints again, this time to my home. Now, think about the time, effort and costs that George is enduring throughout this process, all while the world is shutting down and filling with uncertainty. I was wowed by his persistence. Meanwhile, my normally endless enthusiasm was eroding. With the news in the background, and video call after video call all starting with discussion on the worsening situation, I was starting to lose my mojo. Then, there was a ring at the door with a box from George.
My mother in-law once told me that when a day is bad, “sometimes, you just need a little ice cream.” This was one of those days. But it was not a day for cheap, knock-off ice cream. I needed the real deal. And WOW, I must tell you that Re:THINK delivered. The creamy rich texture was the perfect hug but without the guilt or the negative health implications. Later that night, my wife also tried it and had a similar reaction: ”Wait, is this good for us? I’m going to get another scoop.”
I started VentureFuel six years ago because I believed that the creative ingenuity of founders provides the ultimate resource to solve any challenge. Throughout history we have created bridges, airplanes, better-for-you products, vaccines, ways to connect and inventive business models. It is this spirit of innovation which fuels me. George made me rethink our potential to emerge from challenging times better than ever. To all the founders out there: keep banging the drum and help us all find a better future.
Editor’s note: The author is the founder and principal of Venture Fuel, Inc., a firm based in Brooklyn, N.Y. that creates partnerships between established companies and innovative start-ups. The firm has created over 100 innovative programs representing startups now collectively valued at over $2 billion. Venture Fuel worked with the California Milk Advisory Board to stage it’s “shark tank” new product competition last fall.