In April 2013, Canadian 30-Under-30 winner Caithrin Rintoul co-founded Provender, an online platform that connects food producers and local buyers, garnering significant support and facilitating millions of dollars in transactions. The virtual marketplace is a welcome opportunity in an industry not often associated with innovation -- North America's aging farms. Branchfood sat down with Rintoul to discuss Provender's business model and the rapidly-changing food+tech world.
Branchfood: You've been in the food & tech industry for quite a while. What tools or resources did you glean from past experience that informed your work at Provender?
Caithlin Rintoul: At the time that I was working in restaurants in Montreal, I had the opportunity to interact with the farmers we were working with and visit their farms and listen to their stories and understand their products. I was able to dig a little bit deeper down into the culture around agriculture. I read a lot of Wendell Barry and M. F. K. Fisher and other food authors at that formative time, which gave me a lot of perspective in the food space. I was a 19-year-old kid working in the restaurant and going to school part time, but I had this wealth of resources and tons of books that I was able to tap into. In the context of what I was doing, that was important to me.
BF: How did you come up with the idea of Provender? When did you know there was a potential market for your product?
CR: When I was still in school, I started working on projects on campus, and after that I was working for a non-profit in the food space, helping to create farmers markets in cities. After that I worked as a consultant in the food space and eventually worked my way up to head of product at a very large food & tech startup, so I've been in the industry for a long time. Provender was almost like scratching my own itch in some ways. I'd constantly run into the issue of how to get a diverse, sustainable supply out of a whole bunch of fragmented small local farms and into buyer markets. I knew that this thing deserved to exist in the world.
BF: How did you go about development? Do you have experience in tech as well?
CR: I do, but more on the product side and less on the technical. My co-founder Jeff was instrumental in helping at the very beginning on the technology side and we have a great team at Provender as well.
BF: How did you build that team?
CR: Stone by stone, like anybody else builds an amazing team. We started to talk about the idea in 2013 and were able to find a couple of collaborators in the food space early on who were super interested in what we do, and we kept pushing for more and more exposure.
BF: If someone comes to you and says, "I want to work at Provender, I want to be involved," what are the qualities you'd look for in them?
CR: Well, one thing we look for in everybody that we interview is the degree to which they've been stubborn or dogged or have seen things through. A startup by its very nature is much, much more of a marathon than people think. We really focus on candidates who have the ability to stick things out. We also look for highly capable problem-solvers, and people who have a connection to food. It doesn't need to be, like, "I helped out on a farm every day since I was a kid" -- it can be as simple as having an amazing home garden with their family, or taking a trip that opened their eyes towards food, whatever it might be. We really try to emphasize that part of the culture of food and food systems.
BF: How did you get Provender off the ground?
CR: Because I was on the team of a couple of other startups, I knew a couple of people from the capital side. Then early on in the business we went through an incubator program and were able to raise a small amount of funding.
BF: And you just went from there?
CR: Exactly. A lot of people think the path in startups is very straight and narrow. You know, just have an idea, build a product in your spare time, raise a seed fund, work on it full time, raise an A round, profit. In reality it's oftentimes a more crooked path.
BF: What about scaling your business? Did you face any challenges as you grew?
CR: Sometimes I think people think scaling just means doing more of what you're doing already. For us, the big jump was moving out of Canada and into the United States. But once we landed here we saw that there were lots of people who wanted our tool, and were excited for our tool. The scale here has come very naturally -- we haven't had to push a lot. Now our focus is really on making sure that we find great people to work on our team and to help us with that scale, and also trying to find all the best opportunities we can, so that as we start expanding into new markets and states we choose the right markets and the right time to go there.
BF: You have certain predictions for the food+tech world -- could you summarize them for us?
CR: Sure -- the first one is that Soylent is going to be unstoppable. It'll be a billion-dollar company by the end of the year. The second is there's going to be a huge push to understand what happened at Chipotle, which may drive a lot of those quick-serve brands away from more healthy, more sustainable food because they're scared about health. The third is that we'll see a lot of other business models like those meal kit startups like Blue Apron and Plated pop up this year, looking for new ways to serve fast, frictionless, high-quality food to consumers.
BF: What do you think is responsible for these great shifts that are happening in food & tech?
CR: There's an amazing book by Carlota Perez called Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital that describes the ways that economies move through cycles of innovation. She never talks about agriculture, but what's important to know is that food morality and the food industry in general moves very slowly, because it's something that holds various traditions for us as humans. However, when it does shift it tends to shift very abruptly. That's what we're seeing right now: people are starting to question the validity of what we've been eating in the past, then looking for better solutions -- partially because there's a health scare right now around weight and diet, and partially because there's a sudden interest in the farmer as a figure in our culture. I think the collision of those two events will drive a lot of entrepreneurs into the space because it's going to give people opportunities to change things. Whenever there's a shift in cultural morality, in the way that people think about something, it means the market is open for a moment for new ideas and new changes. I think that's what happened with Munchery in San Francisco or Plated in New York. Here in Boston there's an amazing business called ButcherBox, which does sustainable meat shipped to your door on a monthly basis. And it wouldn't be able to exist unless there was this peculiar paradigm.
BF: What's the next big step for Provender?
CR: Space vegetables! No, the next big step for us is going to be working on our prescriptive planting platform. That's an element of our platform that's been launched for a little while and that's seen tremendous uptick. It allows the buyer, whether a chef or an institutional buyer, to browse through the seed catalog and request things to be planted for them. The platform is going to be built to a higher degree and be more tightly integrated into our product -- we're really excited about that!