Rob Povolny | Crain's Tampa Bay

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rob Povolny

Background:  

Rob Povolny founded Eat Fresco in 2014 after spending more than a decade working for major global brands like Coca-Cola and Nestle. Eat Fresco produces ready-made, preservative-free meals – using high-quality ingredients – that can be found in Tampa Bay-area specialty grocery stores, neighborhood markets, and some Winn-Dixie supermarkets. The company is building a $1.5 million, 12,000-square-foot food production kitchen in eastern Hillsborough County set to open in January 2017.

The Mistake:

Not knowing how long it takes to raise money.

We hit our production capacity about six months into the business. It became apparent when Winn-Dixie called back and said they’d like to have us in 50-100 stores. But we couldn’t handle that. We started talking to Publix about a year ago, and they love what we’re doing, but they said, “We’re not going to start you off in two stores if you can’t handle 500.”

The vision for Eat Fresco Foods from the very beginning was a big business, not a small, lifestyle business … a food company that could go nationwide, or at least take off regionally. But we didn’t have enough capital to support that. We had to raise it. But at what point do we do that? I’ve never raised money before; I’ve never met with investors. I worked in sales in corporate America so this was a totally new experience for me.

My biggest mistake, though, was not knowing how long it takes to raise money. It takes a long time. You’re not going to meet with a bank or an investor and have the money within a month, or even two or three months. It’s going to take six months, minimum, maybe even a year. Because of the vision of the company, we always knew we’d have to raise money.

I had a mentor who said we should try to get a viable product into some local stores without raising capital, using just what we had available at the time, which was less than $100,000. We were able to do that; we were able to get a product developed, made, packaged, and into stores without raising any more money, but the catch is that we needed capital to ramp up production.

I had an idea that I’d already put my own money behind.

The Lesson:

They key is starting early and networking. You’ve got to get in front of potential investors. I went to the Florida Venture Forum, which is a great conference where you can present to investors. We made it through their screening process and pitched there. In total, it was six months of pitching and presenting and fine-tuning our story: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Where are we going? And we met with every bank in town.

What I would have done differently is started raising money from day one. We basically got to a point where we were at capacity and said, “Oh, now let’s raise money.” The demand really outpaced what we were able to do.

Looking back, my mentor was correct when he said, “Just get a product in stores.” Because when it was time to go to an investor, I didn’t just have an idea. Instead, I had an idea that I’d already put my own money behind and gotten into stores. I could say, “Look, we have a product; it’s already in stores; it’s selling really well, and we have more stores in the pipeline.”

If you can get to the point where you have that kind of story to tell, it shows you are capable of executing an idea. I just didn’t understand the timing.

Follow Eat Fresco Foods on Twitter at @EatFrescoFoods.

Pictured: Rob Povolny at his company's new facility under construction in eastern Hillsborough County. | Photo by Brian Hartz for Crain's Tampa Bay.

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