Turning down Costco was one of the toughest decisions Gail Becker had to make in the course of building her company. But as a savvy entrepreneur, she knew it had to be done.
Becker is the CEO of Los Angeles-based Caulipower, which has booked a reported $100 million in annual revenue selling buzzy better-for-you products like cauliflower-breaded chicken tenders, sweet potato sliced toasts, and cauliflower-based tortillas. Like many founders, Becker started the company out of frustration: specifically, with how long it took to make a homemade cauliflower pizza crust for her two sons, both of whom were diagnosed at a young age with celiac disease, where eating gluten causes inflammation in the body. Spurred by the death of her father, which she says made her realize she wanted to have a larger impact on the world, she quit a prestigious job in public relations to bring her frozen cauliflower-crust pizza to market.
Caulipower began selling pizzas in February 2017. By January 2020, it had sold 36 million. But that success may never have happened had Becker agreed to a deal with Costco to stock her pizzas back in the company’s early days, Where most entrepreneurs would have leapt at the opportunity, she knew her small company wasn’t ready to meet the demand. A misstep like that would have burned its bridge with the retailer. “One of the keys to being an entrepreneur is knowing what rules you’re going to follow and then knowing which rules you’re going to break, because you’ve got do a little bit of both,” she said in an Inc. Your Next Move interview on December 11.
Here’s Becker’s advice on how to break the right rules, ace the dance with venture capitalists, and manage your company during an unprecedented crisis.
Follow your customers’ rules
The company’s “big break” was getting into 30 Whole Foods in Southern California in February 2017, but Walmart was the first retailer to take the pizza nationwide later that year. Everyone said it was a gamble to make a deal with the retailer, but in this instance Becker knew her mission was too important to pass it up. “I knew I really couldn’t have an impact, unless I was going to be in Walmart,” she says. “My whole reason for starting the business in the first place [was] I wanted nutrition to be accessible for all in every sense of the word.”
The same sense of sticking to mission and roots was relevant when it came time to expand the company’s product offerings. The conventional wisdom would have been to stick solely with pizza and make a hundred different versions. But the company decided to wait for consumers and retailers to say they wanted more. “We took our cues from the people who matter to us most,” she says.
Dealing with investors
Money is cheap these days, Becker says, but it takes a bit of finesse to raise “smart money”–meaning, capital from investors who can steer you away from common mistakes. To that end, she only pitched Caulipower to VCs who focused on food companies. Her one regret? Not starting earlier. Becker only began the process when the company ran out of money, one month before its launch in Walmart. “I would counsel anyone to not wait as long as I did,” she says.
While it’s vital to convince potential investors of your passion and give them as much data as you can, Becker says, she had more of the former than the latter when the company was new. What clicked was finding VCs who shared her vision–and who were willing to make a bet on her.
She learned an important lesson from the experience: Stick with the people who believe in you early. When it came time to raise money for her second round of venture capital, she relied on those same investors, even though many of the ones who rejected her the first time were “throwing money” at the company. “When you’re an entrepreneur, early belief and early trust means everything,” she says.
During the pandemic, Becker says, Caulipower raced to keep up with increased demand at grocery stores and adapt its supply chain. Her advice to other business owners experiencing similar issues is to tell your story to more people than you think you need to–buyers, brokers, and retailers alike. “Make them part of your journey,” she says. Back when Caulipower was smaller, Becker says, those bonds were a huge help.
It’s obviously an important time to consider how you relate to your team, too. Since the first day of lockdown, Becker says, she has sent her entire staff an evening email with something inspirational like an employee innovation, a funny meme, or a note about the product from customers. “It makes people remember they’re still part of the team,” she says. “Even if they’re alone at home, they really are part of a team with a much larger mission.”