The lawn and garden market is projected to reach $26.3 billion by 2020, according to Allied Market Research. Gardening can lift your spirits and help make you feel peaceful and content. Yet, something good for you mentally isn’t necessarily good for the environment. The non-organic chemicals in pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers can be toxic to the environment.
Through her capital and deal flow pipeline for early-stage female tech founders, Vinetta Project, Vanessa Dawson started working with consumer packaged goods (CPG) corporations like P&G. Because smaller CPG brands are often better able to address millennial and generation Z consumer demands, established companies are accelerating investment in emerging brands.
Farmers and researchers have been developing sustainable ingredients in pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Dawson saw using sustainable ingredients as an opportunity and launched Arber on Earth Day 2021.
Dawson’s interest in gardening corresponded to where she was in her lifecycle. Four or five years ago, she moved from New York City to Los Angeles, bought a home, and had a baby. Whether it was for skincare, baby care, or home care, she was using products that were healthy for the planet. But she couldn’t find organic, environmentally safe gardening products. There was a void in the market.
“It was shocking to see that I could transform my skincare, baby care, and even clothes washing [using environmentally safe products], but not garden care,” sighed Dawson. “Garden and [plant] care products were about quick growth regardless of whether it degraded the soil and killed beneficial insects.” Further complicating the picture was that some products labeled “natural ingredients” are harmful to the environment. “There is a lot of ‘green washing’ in the industry.”
Could she develop garden products that use biologicals for the environment and are packaged in recycled materials? The opportunity intrigued Dawson, a serial tech entrepreneur with CPG experience who had extensive operations, funding, and brand development knowledge.
Dawson worked on the idea for two years before launching it in 2021. She discovered no products using innovations pioneered in the agricultural sector. She hired Pam Marrone as a chief scientific advisor to develop the product formations for Arber products. Marrone has a Ph.D. in entomology and 30 years of experience as a biological scientist and has led three successful companies that created natural products for boosting plant growth and reducing pests.
Ingredients were sourced based on scientific research and perform equal to, if not better, than harsh chemical-based products. “It was tricky building our supply chain during the pandemic,” said Dawson. “Prices increased for ingredients, packaging, freight, and labor, which could have had a major impact on Arber’s gross margins.” It was the most significant challenge Dawson faced in launching the startup.
To ensure the startup had suppliers that could deliver on a timely basis and at a reasonable cost, the team sourced multiple suppliers for every part of the supply chain. “We built a network of suppliers and a database,” said Dawson. Arber used a third party to ensure quality control.
“I leveraged many of my founder friends in CPG,” said Dawson. “I leaned on them for advice and connections to supplies, packagers, industrial designers, [and funders].”
“It’s critical to hire the right people at the earliest stages,” emphasized Dawson. Under any circumstance, finding the right people is challenging, but in a tight job market, it is even more so.
“Sometimes, we rushed into the wrong decision because we were growing so quickly and felt desperate to hire. We have become more thoughtful.” Arber is building a talent pool network and using recruiters. The startup is also making the interviewing process longer, with more steps to qualify candidates.
Thanks to the success of venture capitalists like Kirsten Green, founder and managing partner at Forerunner Ventures and a regular on Forbes’ Midas lists, over the past five years, the venture capital community has opened up to CPG as an investment opportunity.
Arber has a complex omnichannel distribution strategy, selling direct to consumers and selling wholesale through independent garden centers, e-commerce sites specializing in environmentally friendly products, such as the Grove Collaborative, and big-box retailers, such as Walmart. “It’s been an amazing way to understand distribution opportunities quickly,” said Dawson. “We identified very early on that selling through retail channels was going to a major distribution channel. Because of the uniqueness of our product, retailers are coming to us.”
While fundraising is never easy, Dawson’s experience operating, investing in, and scaling early-stage tech and CPG startups made it easier for her to address the market opportunity, understand the success metrics, and tell a compelling story when pitching investors. Her investor connections were stronger in the venture tech space. She relied on champions who made introductions to other investors.
“Walmart has been an unbelievable partner to us,” said Dawson. “They care about sustainability and have amazing programs to support diverse suppliers, such as C2FO.” C2FO is an early payment platform that offers a discount on your approved invoices to get them paid early. “They also have a diverse-vendor program where you get even better rates.” Using non-dilutive financing options like C2FO is less expensive than taking on more equity investors.
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