Lauren Bass didn’t work at a big bank or consultancy before going to business school. She was a professional horse rider. Her background helped her think creatively, and provided the inspiration to start LolaBee’s Harvest—the Bay Area’s first online farmers market. She tells Thoughtful about the bittersweet experience of starting a business that customers loved, but that struggled to gain investor support in Silicon Valley’s high growth culture.
What convinced you to start LolaBee’s?
Both my parents were entrepreneurs, and when I was a kid their small businesses were always a topic of conversation at dinner. So from a young age, it was just what I knew. I grew up on a horse farm in Ohio, and although we didn’t grow food I felt part of the wider farming community. When I was ten, my mom asked me if I wanted to be a vegetarian because she was thinking of doing it. I decided to try it because even at that age I had a sense of how horrible the systems were around animal food production. That’s where the interest started. But ultimately I don’t think everyone should be a vegetarian, so what’s the alternative? I decided I wanted to make more sustainable, humanely-raised meat more easily accessible and more affordable.
So you’d had the idea for LolaBee’s since you were a little girl?
At 18, I had the idea for a healthy fast-food restaurant because I was on the road a lot with the horses and had to get food on the go. That’s when I rode professionally and helped manage our horse business. I started working on the concept for LolaBee’s during business school at Kellogg, where I did research into the market. I noticed there was an opportunity to create an alternative supply chain, where food wasn’t being flown all over the world. There are so many great farmers in regions where people would love to eat their food, but they don’t have very good access to consumers. I saw how the demand for farmers markets was growing and the light bulb went off.
Describe the early days.
I started LolaBee’s on my own, working really hard. I did a beta site and tried it with friends. They ordered, and kept ordering, and told their friends. It was very complex operationally. At different points of the year, I was working with 15-30 suppliers—fruits and vegetables, dairy products, sustainable seafood, pasture-raised meats—everything you’d find in the periphery of a grocery store, all fresh and local. We also did some prepared foods because we knew people were looking for convenience. Although they might cook at home, they still ate out or ordered in a few nights a week. We were able to fill those gaps with prepared foods like fish taco meal kits, hummus and fresh pasta.
Who were your customers?
We had lots of mothers with young kids because they’re incredibly busy and like to order online when the kids are in bed. They cook more often than your average single person. We also saw plenty of young couples—we called them ‘families in training’—who were settling down a bit and leaning how to cook.
Did you face any challenges?
The technology side was really tough because there aren’t enough software engineers out there, and they have so many offers from big companies that it’s actually really hard to get them to take a risk with a small startup. Fundraising was also really hard. There were other online grocery companies that previously failed big-time. Investors in Silicon Valley are looking for companies that can scale exponentially, and LolaBee’s model was more about linear growth. I think it’s changing now and investors are more open, but at the time they just weren’t investing in food startups. We weren’t a pure technology company, and we didn’t have a tech expert. That was a big learning for me. If I could do it again I’d have a cofounder who was a software engineer, because that’s what was going to help make the concept more scalable and efficient, with greater reach. Bootstrapped, we were able to get this business off the ground and grow it. But this is a business that requires scale to be profitable. And to really grow it, we needed financing.
Tell me about getting bought.
By then, there were a few other online farmers markets. Even though we were competitors we kind of wanted each other to do well because we were all on a mission to build a better food system. Good Eggs, who bought us, was started by two guys with a background in technology. I’d met their CEO and it came up in conversation. They’d just raised Series A funding and were looking to really grow their customer base. Our customers were loyal and high value. Since then, Good Eggs has raised quite a bit of money. They just announced a $21 million Series B round.
What did you take away from the experience?
I’ve never learned so much in my whole life about business and challenge and being tenacious. The business feels like a living, breathing thing that needs to be nurtured, and you need to take care of it. Some days you want to tear your hair out—a truck breaks down, an employee doesn’t come in. Then some days you realise you have all these customers that are giving you great feedback. I just love building things, and technology is changing so many industries right now. It’s really exciting, and I’m going to keep at it. Being an entrepreneur is a difficult road, but one of the most rewarding things you can do in your career.
Photo credits: Lori Eanes; Cody and Maureen