Check out our new Food Co-op Initiative blog "Start It Up! co-op stories from the startup trenches"! This new format will bring examples of what other startups are doing, tips frmo the staff at FCI and others, and places to share comments.
Welcome to our occasional musings on all things co-op. The views expressed here do not represent the official work of Food Co-op Initiative or any other organization. We hope that they are thought provoking, informative and possibly even humorous.
May 2, 2016
April 25, 2014
“Everything I learned I learned from the movies.”
― Audrey Hepburn
Hosting a movie night can have many benefits for your startup. Publicising the event will create PR for your project. You can likely raise a small amount of money from admissions and/or sale of concessions. If a social hour is held afterwards, movie night can be a community builder. And if you use the titles below, you’re sure to inspire some first rate discussions of food issues.
Food for Change
Focuses on the food co-op movement in the U.S., including the way they are strengthening communities and helping the local economy. www.foodforchange.coop
Forks Over Knives
Examines whether degenerative diseases can be controlled or reversed by diets free of animal-based and processed foods. www.forksoverknives.com
Seeds of Freedom
Charts the story of seed, including the impact the industrial agricultural system and genetically modified seeds have on communities around the world. www.seedsoffreedom.info
What's on Your Plate?
Follows two 11-year-olds from New York City as they discover where their food comes from and learn more about sustainable food practices, including co-ops. www.whatsonyourplateproject.org
A pro-farmer documentary about a grass-roots revolution in sustainable farming -- starring Virginia's own Joel Salatin and his Polyface Farms -- explains how America arrived at its current industrial system and explores the burgeoning local-food movement of farmers, chefs and everyday folks who are changing the way meat reaches the American table. http://www.americanmeatfilm.com
A story of two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. As the film unfolds, two best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America's most-productive, most-ubiquitous grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat-and how we farm. http://www.kingcorn.net
April 11, 2014
There are an incredible number of email marketing tips available on the web. A quick Google search will yield you reams of analysis on everything from what to say in your subject line to what kind of links to provide. To pare this information down to a manageable size, we will occasionally feature an email we liked and go over what worked and how it could be even better.
This exemplary email is a post-event thank you note from Renaissance Market in Greensboro, NC. It was addressed to their entire mailing list, not just event attendees. It keeps energy high by sharing a successful event. (Click on image to view full size.)
Things that work
Structure: Clear priority of information: concise enticing subject line, what good thing happened at the beginning in bold, move on to quick wrap up, clear call to action, join now in different color and with links(!) for those who didn't attend or didn't sign up at the event, telling people to tell their friends, closing.
Focus: It's focused on one subject, not cluttered with other events or buried in a "newsletter."
Message: Says thank you more than once. Evokes local pride by naming Greensboro. Signing with Lamar’s name gives it a personal touch.
Branding: Consistent header images for branding.
Length: It's short. Makes the reader want to open the next email, knowing it won't take a big commitment.
Ways to make it even better
Pictures: Use an exciting picture (or two!) of happy people at the event.
More depth: Link to more photos or to a longer story online.
Quotes: Make us wish we were there! Add a quote/testimonial from a new member on why they joined or why the gathering was so great.
March 7, 2014
Self-Assessment for Steering Committees & Boards
Building four strong cornerstones is key to co-op development. A successful group needs to be regularly monitoring all four. It is easy to see when you have Systems and Capital in place, but Talent and Vision can be harder to define. This assessment of the Talent and Vision cornerstones is intended to help your co-op’s growth through inquiry around development best practices. Evaluate process, communication, commitment, and more with this collaborative tool.
Board or steering committee members should each fill out the form separately, then come together to discuss the assessment. Are there areas that everyone agrees need work? Are there areas of disagreement that need further discussion?
Submit a consolidated assessment through our online tool if you would like help from Food Co-op Initiative addressing areas in need of growth.
February 5, 2014
- Try to avoid the "raise your hand" technique. Starting a food co-op is essentially starting a business and you want to be intentional about this very important time in your co-op's development.
- Identify and recruit your "dream team". Your "dream team" will build, protect, and carry out the vision for your cooperative market. Think about honest, intelligent, well-connected people in your community who would be great to work with. It's likely that you'll have a hard time finding people with co-op experience. Don't worry about that at this point. It's common for steering committees to be passionate yet inexperienced with co-ops or groceries.
- Know thyself. Be sure to take stock of what you're good at, and what you could use some assistance with. You might be a great "champion" of the project, pulling people in, but maybe not so great at keeping a group organized and on task (or vice versa). Look for people that will compliment you well and create a team with varied strengths.
- Look for cooperators. Be careful about who you recruit to the first steering committee. It will be very difficult later to remove those who may try to make the co-op fit their vision as opposed to the group's vision of a cooperative market.
- Now is the time to seek out and recruit the kind of diversity you want your co-op to have. Try to come up with a mix of people (nonprofit, business, retired, etc.). Be leery of developers or those who might have a serious conflict of interest (this does not necessarily include farmers).
- Educate early and often. Cooperatives are not top of mind for a lot of folks and even the best of us need regular education. We have a wealth of webinars and resources available to walk you through organizing your co-op, cooperative vision, timelines, etc. Here's a good one on Creating Your Vision from our very own Stuart Reid and national expert on startups Bill Gessner.
January 17, 2014
Presenting a professional image is important when you want to attract member owners. Unless you have a graphic designer on your steering committee, getting a brochure made can be an expensive proposition. We have the solution: Use ours! FCI is now offering a professionally designed brochure, ready to be customized with your logo, colors, photos, and content. We also have selected a variety of photo* options to reflect your community.
*Photo note: The images shown are copyrighted images purchased through istockphoto.com. It is recommended that you purchase your license to use them via their website, the fee is nominal. Upon request, we can furnish you with direct links.
December 31, 2013
Here’s a question we recently received:
We are starting a co-op grocery store here in Small Town, CO. Small Town has a population of just over 5000 and a busy tourist trade but no fresh food access. The community is very supportive of the idea of a food co-op. Your materials talk about hundreds of members. I wonder how that number relates to the town's population size? Market study? When a town is a food desert, is a feasibility study still necessary?
Stuart Reid responds:
I'll try to give you some perspective on co-ops in smaller communities, keeping in mind that there are some considerations for Small Town that would result in different outcomes.
The membership goals for a new co-op are usually based on the startup budget and financial projections for the store. The startup budget is directly related to the size of the store, and the size of the store is based largely on the sales projections you will get from a market study. Of course, you will not have that information until you have gotten farther down the organizing path, so most co-op organizers start with "generic" benchmarks.
No matter how small the community, stores with less than 3,000 sq. ft. of retail space have a hard time surviving. Can your community and people traveling through it support a co-op of that size? Sales will probably need to be $1.2 -$1.5 million/year to cover overhead, debt service, labor, etc. Your location, with significant tourist traffic, could easily provide far higher sales potential than a typical community of your size. Planning your store to take advantage of that will be important (e.g. visible location, product mix, ready-to-eat meals and road food.)
However, all those tourists are unlikely to become owner-members, no matter how much they spend at the co-op, so your reasonable membership target may be smaller than other co-ops of the same size. Based on 2,452 households, what percentage can you expect to support the co-op by joining? I would guess 20-30%, or about 600 household memberships.
We might recommend 1,000 members for a co-op of 3500-4,000 sq. ft of retail space, so you will probably need to look closely at your sources of capital. Member loans are usually the major portion of your startup capital, and fewer members means fewer potential lenders. Can you make up the difference with bigger loans from some members, community economic development funds, or other sources?
As far as the need for a market study, the answer is always, "YES, you do need one." It is not enough to know that there is a need for grocery access, you really need to quantify that need in order to create viable business plans. Since your co-op may depend on non-resident patronage for a large portion of its sales, professional assessment is even more important.
As you can see, it can be difficult to establish clear membership goals and budgets early on. If you have a strong and committed group of people who are willing to put in the time to organize your co-op, lots of local interest, potentially viable store sites, and a reasonable likelihood of being able to raise $1 million or more in startup costs... the rest will become clear and fall into place as you proceed along a structured timeline.
Send us your questions at email@example.com
November 7, 2013
When Will It Open?
“When will the store be open?” is a question that echoes in the ears of every food co-op organizer. If only there were an easy answer! It all depends on accomplishing a multitude of tasks. “We have to have this many members, and find a site, and find a general manager, and, and, and...” Why not capture all these details in a simple-to-share timeline? Maria Sourbeer of South Philly Co-op tells us, “Having a timeline gives people something tangible to look at. It helps them understand why they need to become members now rather than waiting until the store opens.”
Timelines serve a variety of functions during co-op development. In addition to being a great tool for communicating with the public, timelines create internal accountability, help coordinate volunteer efforts, and serve as a roadmap for the project. Without a timeline, groups tend to get lost, do tasks out of sequence, and lose perspective on the development process. As Bill Gessner of CDS Consulting Cooperative has said, “Start your timeline today, even if you don’t have all the information. You can always revise it tomorrow.”
South Philly Co-op started with an in-depth timeline development process led by CDS Consulting Cooperative, generating a multipage document. “We pared it down to a snapshot to share publicly,” says Maria. “It’s something we use at every member meeting, when meeting with potential financiers, and to keep track of milestones.”
Avoid Specific Dates
One thing you’ll notice about the timelines in this article: They do not have specific dates. As always in co-op development, we don’t want to make promises we can’t keep. A timeline is a dynamic tool, rather than a fixed schedule. Be sure to use time ranges rather than deadlines. (You will want to have a more detailed internal timeline with dates to keep people accountable.) Maria notes, “Our timeline links accomplishments tightly with the number of members. We have to remind people that the timeline is about goals, and many other factors are involved.”
Some specific tips for timelines include:
Create a one-page timeline to use as an overview. A more detailed version can be created for internal use.
Use the Three Stages and substages to organize tasks
Focus on completion date ranges, rather than start dates
Remember that within each stage, many things happen at the same time. Not all timeline items are sequential.
Revise your timeline regularly to reflect changes and progress
Use an editable graphic, rather than text alone. It doesn’t need to be fancy!
Editable Template - New!
May 23, 2013
Food Co-op Initiative is proud to announce our first Startup Co-op of the Year award. This award recognizes excellence in leadership, strength of community support, and use of the 4 Cornerstone in 3 Stages development model to successfully open a retail food cooperative.
Monadnock Food Co-op is a role model for how an organized community can work together to meet their own needs and create a cooperative business. Their cooperative is a community asset and inspiration to others!
The Startup Co-op of the Year award is co-sponsored by CDS Consulting Co-op.
December 4, 2012
Our co-op has weathered the trials of stage one organizing and done some initial feasibility work. Now we are forming a site selection committee. Do you have or know of any resources that help define this process and the scope of work that this committee should be looking to achieve?
Forming a site selection committee is one of the most fun parts for volunteers – it seems like everyone wants to play a role in determining where the store should be.
You’ll probably get a ton of suggestions, and most of them will not be suitable. How do you keep from being overwhelmed by uninformed public opinion? The committee should first develop criteria for evaluating potential sites. Then you can take everyone's suggestions enthusiastically, and rest assured that the unsuitable ones will be weeded out by the process.
The next step will be doing a very thorough canvass of possible sites in the community. In my experience, most groups at first err on the side of thinking too concretely, which limits their vision. Yes, it's a gas station (or an empty lot) today, but in two years with $3 million dollars, it might be the store of your dreams.
One word of caution: discussion of possible sites needs to be kept confidential.
- Building owners have been known to suddenly up the price on that vacant building, once they knew the co-op was interested. (A developer or commercial real estate agent can help negotiate on your behalf to prevent this.)
- Sites fall through, and getting your member-owners' hearts set on a site is a recipe for frustration, and the perception that a "set back" has happened.
- A competitor, once they know that the site is suitable for a natural foods store, may decide to put one in faster than you can. It's happened.
- For whatever reason, you may later learn more information and reconsider which site is your primary choice. You're free to do that until you sign a lease... unless you've already set the expectation with members. Then it gets tricky.
At a certain point, the site selection committee members (and of course the board) will be privileged with the most valuable information the co-op has. It's good to think about "an inner core" on that committee that finalizes the process, if you have a large committee that begins it. I would set the expectation early that there will be some secrets about the site list, and why. Members are generally fine with that, when they know the reasons. And it's okay for the board to go into executive session when they're discussing sites.
Once the lease-with-contingencies has been signed, everyone gets to find out. It's a great idea to have a party to celebrate, since it will have been a big secret up to then (hopefully). If suitable, have the party on the site -- that's always a great member recruitment device, or a great kick-off to the member loan campaign. No vision is more concrete than the actual site!