Jill Willett worked in corporate sales and marketing for a decade before taking her entrepreneurial plunge. When she did, she launched a natural hand-crafted baby food business in the heart of Silicon Valley.
From SF to NC: Entrepreneur Jill Willett Connects and Champions Local Food Businesses
Now, she’s brought that expertise to the Triangle, and throughout the past year, has worked to organize and connect the Triangle’s food entrepreneurs. Her initiative, the Triangle Food Makers, runs in close conjunction with a robust ecosystem of support organizations for the Triangle’s food entrepreneurs, including the RDU Mobile Food Association, the Small Business Center at Durham Tech (host of this weekend’s Triangle Small Food Business Conference) and North Carolina State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS).
Triangle Food Makers, which launched in August 2015, is a labor of love for Willett. She openly shares that the process of launching her food business led to a realization that her passion was not in it, but in advising new food-based entrepreneurs on marketing, positioning and growth strategies. After two-and-a-half years in the business, called Little City Kitchen Co., she turned to blogging, teaching, consulting and working in community development in California.
But since her move in 2014 to the Triangle, she’s done it through Coaching For Cooks, her consultancy that provides marketing coaching for food entrepreneurs. Triangle Food Makers is a logical extension of this passion: bringing together the people that create, cook, produce and sell some of the Triangle’s most popular food items to connect, learn and share experiences with one another.
“I think food and beverage companies are ideal candidates for crowdfunding,” Jones told the crowd. According to Jones, the legislation was designed for companies to raise small amounts of capital from local investors, giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to raise money from the very people who buy their products.
This can, and likely will, create a virtuous cycle whereby those local investor-customers continue to be advocates for your business and your products, helping you grow the company by purchasing products and sharing your products with your friends, predicts Jones.
“NC PACES wasn’t designed for the technology entrepreneurs,” she said, “it’s designed for you, the food entrepreneurs.”
Financing through crowdfunding is just one of many options available to entrepreneurs, says Willett, and the purpose of the most recent Triangle Food Makers event was to demystify the conversations around investment, debt and equity financing.
“I remember as a food maker,” says Willett, “it’s a very lonely and isolating experience.”
By bridging the community and providing easy access to all kinds of resources, Willett hopes to enhance the entire ecosystem. Her next step is to build a digital community to supplement the live events. That includes an email list serve and digest in the coming months, with the support of CEFS at NC State University.
“The more we can tap into collective wisdom and support, the better we all do,” says Willett, “and the stronger the local food economy becomes.”