Startup Spotlight: Vinder

Startup Spotlight: Vinder

Founded in Port Townsend, Washington, by Sam Lillie, Vinder connects home veggie gardeners with folks who want to buy that fresh produce. The app brings together community members who are interested in ultra-local food and reducing food waste. It also boosts the local economy by opening up a revenue stream for green thumbs who connect with their neighbors to share their garden’s bounty. We recently reached out to the 2018 Food+City Challenge Prize contestant to find out how things are going at Vinder.

What’s your founding date?

January 21, 2018.

How big is your team?

Four full time.

What problem are you solving?

Food waste, cost and food insecurity.

What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?

As much as I heard and read about it, the investor “run-around” has been my biggest surprise. Most professional investors I’ve had the privilege to speak with don’t give a solid “no.” They give advice and information, which is great because it helps hone the pitch and business plan/strategy. But it may not be the right type of advice that works for your company or be useful when approaching other investors. It ends up being a massive time/energy zap.

What part of the food system are you in?

Vinder is situated in the distribution of hyper-local produce — neighbor to neighbor. Yet, we do not own any delivery vehicles or own any inventory.

What was the big idea that got you started?

My community, Port Townsend, Washington, had a big problem accessing local organic produce for a reasonable price. Vinder was created not to be some massive, disruptive company, but to solve a problem in my community.

Whom are you competing with?

For convenience, we compete with HEB or Whole Foods. For freshness and locality, we compete with farmers’ markets. However, we see ourselves as a tool to help those small vendors reach more customers and increase sales direct-to-consumer.

The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…

a company called Vinder that allows you to buy, sell or trade homegrown produce and neighbor-made goods directly from your neighbors. It’s free to sign up and free to sell or trade.

The scariest thing about today’s food system is…

we have normalized an absence of connection to our food system. We have no idea what is actually going into the soil in which our food is being grown (or what chemicals are being sprayed on them), who is growing it or where exactly it is being grown.

What’s your latest big news?

We are now a user-owned and -operated company. After successfully closing an Equity Crowdfunding round of more than $85,000 via WeFunder and receiving matching angel investments, Vinder issued preferred shares to users who are taking a stand against our current food system and are opting to create the neighbor-made food system of the future. Vinder is also now available for iOS and Android.

Best advice you’ve received?

In the words of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham, “Focus on getting 100 people to love you rather than 1,000 people to kind of like you.”

What advice do you give to potential startup founders?

You don’t need a lot of money to start a company. First, come up with the lowest-budget minimum viable product and validate that the market needs your solution. Then build out manually, followed by tech. Let tech be a solution to make a process more efficient rather than the primary focus.

Food for Thought: South End Grocery

Food for Thought: South End Grocery

Dody and Steve Hiller are “mom and pop” of a small grocery store in Rockland, Maine, a fishing village turned tourist town. Fishermen still live and work there, but a few decades ago the town looked toward its art community for income and began shedding its image as a working waterfront.

South End Grocery has endured these changes, competing with modern mega-markets and maintaining a close connection with its community. The store thrives in a city whose 7,000 year-round residents have an annual median income of just $30,000, despite its new persona as an arty destination.

On a steamy summer day, customers form a long line at the lone cash register. The Hillers’ store is the third-largest grocery store in Rockland behind Shaw’s and Hannaford’s, two big supermarket chains. Despite its competitors’ being so large, South End seems to carry much of what they do — and more. You can find baseball memorabilia in one case, aisles lined with beer-packed coolers that share space with bananas and a bustling deli at the back of the store.

A bright blue runner leads customers through its single doorway, in which one often finds a community volunteer, raising funds for the animal shelter or a bereaved family that just lost a child to cancer. Sharing their space is one way the Hillers maintain a connection with their customers, about 75 percent of whom are fishermen. When the economy crashed in 2008, the Hillers saw fishermen struggle to make ends meet and decided to address their needs, seeking lower-priced products whenever possible.

Dody runs the deli area, which is responsible for 60 percent of their revenue, preparing meatball sandwiches and breakfast sausages. Son Shawn manages the bookkeeping and tech side of the business and boasts an impressive knowledge of local craft beers, which may be the reason South End is the top seller of beer kegs in the region.

Steve is the logistics guy, always calculating how much to order and when, then figuring out where to store it. He’s always on hand to meet vendors and distributors who pull up outside. In fact, if truck drivers roll into town too early to deliver their loads at Shaw’s, they rumble down to South End, where Doty greets them with hot coffee.

When a Walmart store came to the area a few years ago, the Hillers thought their store might be threatened. But their business recovered and carried on as usual, holding steady every year since then. Their biggest fear is the arrival of a Dollar General Store. Chances are, though, it won’t come with its own mom and pop.

Dody Hiller (center) at South End Grocery, the small supermarket in Rockland, Maine, that she owns with her husband, Steve (left), pictured with their son, Shawn (right). For more than 20 years, the Hillers have served their waterfront community, weathering the changes that have seen Rockland transform from a fishing village to an arty destination.

Food Movers: Keg Cycle

Food Movers: Keg Cycle

Few pieces of hardware are as synonymous with a good time as a keg. And while other carbonated fluids are stored in these aluminum or stainless steel tanks, when we hear the word keg, we think of one beverage: beer.

Nationwide, breweries opened at a rate of nearly three per day during 2017 — 997 in total — and each brewery has its own fleet of kegs. Each one of these vessels has a salmon-like lifecycle in which it leaves its homeland full of life and returns home depleted. Unlike a spent salmon, an empty keg can jump back in for another round. But like all too many migrating fish, many kegs never make it home. Of those 997 breweries that opened in 2017, 165 went belly up. For a company that’s barely covering its costs, keg loss can make the difference between a red or green bottom line for the year.

When a keg is filled at a brewery, it is ready to go out into the world and do its job dispensing beer to the people. A distributor facilitates its journey, which may include a retail outlet such as a bar, restaurant or liquor store — the first stop before its destination at a party by the lake or other #goodtimes. If all goes well, and everyone keeps their word, the empty keg will eventually return to its home brewery. If not, and the keg never makes it home, the brewery that owns it foots the bill.

An American-made stainless-steel keg can cost a brewery more than $100, and the average annual keg loss nationwide is about 6 percent, says Tim Cognata, business development director of the beer services company Satellite Logistics Group (SLG). This transformation from stainless steel to statistic ends up costing a lot more than the $30 deposit normally collected when the brewery lets a keg go. For a small brewer, he says, replacement costs for kegs can add up quickly and take a big bite out of the profit margin.

SLG offers a service called KegID, introduced in 2012, which uses scannable barcodes to keep track of a keg’s movements, including timestamps at various stops in the keg cycle and notes about maintenance and contents.

If a keg is not returned, services like KegID provide concrete data for tax-loss purposes. Even though breweries may lose more than 5 percent of its fleet of kegs, Cognata says, most breweries are writing off a mere 1 to 2 percent drop in keg numbers because they don’t have the documentation to prove greater losses. If breweries had tracking data for each keg, they could claim all of those lost vessels without worrying about facing a penalty for overclaiming, in the event of an audit.

The same data that allow a brewery to prove its loss to the IRS can also serve as evidence with which to confront a distributor for losing kegs. Sometimes a retailer collects a larger deposit than the brewery charges the retailer, which can be especially bad for keg recovery. Regardless of the reason a keg is lost, and whether or not it’s found, breweries are happy to be armed with the data KegID provides, says Cognata.

“KegID has an invoice function where you can bill a distributor for the residual value of a keg, minus the deposit,” Cognata explains. “Most distribution contracts state that the distributor is responsible for any lost assets. We provide the concrete data so that conversation can happen: ‘We sent you X number of kegs, and Y came back.’”

Thanks to that hard evidence, Cognata says, when distributors know a brewery partner uses KegID, kegs start coming back.

Other technologies are being deployed toward similar goals. A handful of well-to-do breweries are welding GPS transmitters to their kegs to track their every move — but it’s extremely expensive (think satellite phone versus cell phone). In 2009, New Belgium Brewery began attaching Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) to its 100,000 kegs. RFID is a different way to keep track of information similar to what KegID stores.

“(RFID) lends itself to keeping track of whole pallets of cargo rather than individual kegs,” Cognata says. New Belgium has since moved from RFID to SLG’s tracking technology.

The ability to closely track these mobile assets adds up to big cost savings for brewers. Today, more than 200 breweries use KegID, from well-known national micro brands like Sierra Nevada to well-named niche labels like Moustache Brewing Company.

When the container is worth almost as much as the contents it holds, it pays to keep track.

The ability to track a beer keg’s movements through its journey from full to empty helps brewers keep keg replacement costs down. Each steel keg costs around $100. Image courtesy Satellite Logistics Group.

The Return of Sail Cargo

The Return of Sail Cargo

For centuries, sailing ships offered the fastest, best option for transporting goods and people. The Age of Sail (1571–1862) marked the reign of tall ships, with clipper ships representing the apex of commercial sailing’s progression.

The visually striking clippers had strong lines, V-shaped bows that sliced through water and dozens of sails to capture wind. First developed around 1845 by American shipbuilders looking to give small fishing boats an edge over pursuing pirates, clipper ships evolved to carry modest amounts of cargo at unparalleled speeds. A clipper ship could reach more than 15 knots and cover 300 nautical miles in a day, easily outpacing a steamer ship’s 9 knots.

During the Gold Rush, in 1849 — 20 years before completion of the transcontinental railroad — ships carried 25,000 Americans west. While wealthier passengers could spring for Panama-bound steamers, take the train across Panama, then steam up the West Coast, most forty-niners endured a five- to seven-month journey around Cape Horn via clipper ship. Flying Cloud set a world record for this trip, which stood for more than 100 years, when it arrived in San Francisco after 89 days, 21 hours.

These greyhounds of the sea were the obvious choice for the British Empire’s most prized cargo: tea. Thirst for tea was such that a so-called tea clipper could earn £3,000 from one cargo load — roughly 20 to 25 percent of shipbuilding costs. The first ship of the season to reach London’s docks would win a premium.

The Great Tea Race of 1866 demonstrated the logistics underlying tea mania. Clipper ships lined the docks in Fuzhou. The first ship to clear customs had an early advantage, but favorable winds, stronger tugboats and the luck of the tides made for a competitive 16,000-mile race between five of the day’s fastest clippers, Flying Cloud among them. Ninety-nine days after leaving Fuzhou, Taeping and Ariel docked within 20 minutes of one another and split the premium.

But as 45 million pounds of tea flooded the market, tea prices plummeted, illustrating one of sail’s disadvantages: Ships couldn’t keep a schedule, which meant supply-side volatility.

The Great Tea Race occurred between two dips in the popularity of sailing. When American banks shuttered in the Panic of 1857, trade slowed, as did the demand for sailing ships. Later, in 1869, the Suez Canal opened and gave an advantage to steamer ships, which could complete the Europe- Asia route in 50 days. Overland transport improved, too, with railroad expansion.

By the turn of the 20th century, countries were abandoning sailing ships in favor of steamers, which offered reliability and greater cargo space. With the opening of the Panama Canal and the onset of World War I in 1914, sail’s demise seemed assured. By World War II, sailing ships were restricted to commercial fishing trades. Tall ships seemed destined for nostalgia, until — nearly a century later — the winds shifted once more.

From 2012 to 2017, shipping accounted for 3.1 percent of global CO2 emissions. The International Maritime Organization estimates that shipping emissions will increase by an additional 50 to 250 percent by 2050. As some in the industry look to lower their carbon footprint, there’s renewed interested in wind power.

In recent years, sail cargo projects have sprung up along old trade routes. U.K.-based Grayhound Lugger crosses the English Channel, trading Cornish ale and organic French wine. Dutch-based Tres Hombres crosses the Atlantic with cacao, coffee and rum. Schooner Apollonia plans to launch on the Hudson River by year end, bringing cider, beer and apples downstream to New York City.

In 2019, Sail Cargo Inc. will open a carbon-neutral shipyard in Costa Rica. Through its 3½-year build process for Ceiba (a 45-meter sailing cargo vessel with a chilled hold space and 25-ton cargo capacity, crafted from sustainably harvested wood), Sail Cargo Inc. plans to offer a traditional skills apprenticeship program, where participants can learn shipbuilding, blacksmithing or woodwork — all green jobs.

While sail may have traditional roots, its means have been updated. Today’s sailing ships have biodiesel engines or solar batteries to augment wind power, plus GPS and plotting technologies to plan efficient routes.

Still, challenges remain. Routes aren’t operable year-round, and — as in the past — sticking to a schedule can be difficult. Port infrastructure might be set up for recreational boats with floating docks that make loading tricky or for the giant post-Panamax cruise and cargo ships. What’s more, to realize a profit, sailing ships need premium cargo. Vermont Sail Freight’s founder, Erik Andrus, said only one crop would deliver an ROI of $0.50 to $1.00 per pound of weight: Pot.

Growth potential aside, modern sail freight has neither the capacity nor efficiency to supplant tankers. Instead, cargo shippers will look to wind to lower emissions. Maersk is trialing rotor sails (invented 100 years ago) to add wind power to tanker ships, which will conserve some 1,000 tons of fuel. And Cargill, which charters over 500 vessels, is co-funding SkySails, a kite sail initiative.

Sail freight’s early adopters are largely companies with the desire (and cash) to align their business with their values by using emission-free shipping for organic, hand-crafted products. Other clients value the interactive marketing experience sail cargo offers: Guests can board the ship, sample products and form a powerful brand connection.

Unlike sailing ships of yore — which competed as fiercely as any 21st-century big-business rivals — today’s sailing ships operate as a network, sharing tips and routes. That unusual collaboration highlights the focus on relationships that could cement this trend as a viable shipping option.

Jason Marlow of Schooner Apollonia acknowledges that sail cargo’s client base is limited at present. Yet, he is optimistic. The more people start to identify sail transport as an option, the more they will request it.

“As it starts to scale up and there are more vessels and it’s more connected, then it starts to compete pricewise with other modes” of transportation, Marlow says. In the meantime, the new-old industry breathes life into port towns that may be struggling to redefine their economies.

Watch Ceiba’s building progress through a collection of short films.

Chain Gang: New Tech Links Trucks on Open Road

Chain Gang: New Tech Links Trucks on Open Road

Pelotons are not just for bikers. Truckers are bringing their rigs in line with packs of other trucks to save on fuel costs and increase road safety.

Companies such as Peloton and Daimler Trucks are entering the market with their connected truck platforms, enabling convoys of trucks to travel together in close proximity while sharing software and connectivity.

A compromise between driverless trucks and human drivers, these new systems still include a human driver that steers each rig. But the entire convoy accelerates or brakes based on the movements of the driver in the lead truck. Tesla is also joining the pack with its autonomous, electric trucks.

Convoy software can perform real-time route optimization from the cab and provide truckers with an alternative to spending hours, days and weeks at the wheel, navigating traffic and avoiding collisions.