As an entrepreneur, I have always been so focused on the tasks ahead that for many years, I used to forget to take the time to reflect on accomplishments. A few years ago, I started doing this periodically as a therapeutic way to take stock of our progress, see where my team was spending the time, and make sure we celebrated small wins along the way. The end of a calendar year has always been a natural reflection point as we gear up for a fresh start of the new year. With that, I want to take a few moments to share this year’s reflections with those close to Blendid.
At the start of 2021, it was still very unclear how the year would unfold. COVID-inspired fear and frustration were rampant. Investors and operators were skittish about making big bets. Consumers were still avoiding many public places and so many people were out of work and struggling. It was also a tough time for an early-stage startup like Blendid that was ready to break out, but needed capital to do so.
In early January, I pulled our executive team together for an offsite (yes, in the heat of COVID, but with masks!) and we spent hours hashing out the challenges and collaborating on the best path forward. We needed to be ruthlessly focused to ensure success in this difficult environment and therefore the full team needed to operate in lockstep.
After many hours, we narrowed down our priorities to three key focus areas:
- Sign up at least one large operating partner for demand generation
- Build the Blendid kiosk at scale with our target unit cost of $100K to satisfy demand
- Raise bridge funding to get us to our growth stage
When we started the company, we had debated whether we wanted to build a food company or a technology company. We ultimately concluded that we wanted to build a technology company that focused on food automation solutions and wanted to work with existing food service operators to bring our innovation to market. There was no precedent for what we were doing but that’s what makes a startup so much fun!
We had recently started a pilot with Jamba (part of Focus brands) and had opened our first co-branded kiosk with them inside a Walmart store in Dixon, CA (the second Walmart location for Blendid). Since that pilot was going well, we decided to put more energy behind the Jamba partnership. As a leader in smoothie retail operations, Jamba knows what it takes to be successful. Jamba was interested in exploring technology solutions to expand their brand into new venues such as big box retailers, travel centers, hospitals and college campuses where a full Jamba store might not be viable. The pilot with Jamba blossomed and in the middle of the year, we signed a large commercial agreement that allows our companies to expand and deploy “Jamba by Blendid” kiosks across the country in various types of commercial locations. It’s a large commercial agreement with very aggressive targets that will change the face of robotic food automation space. I couldn’t have asked for a better brand and a better partner than Geoff Henry to take this next step in Blendid’s journey.
The commercial agreement allowed us to launch our second “Jamba by Blendid” location at the Stonewood Center (a large mall) in Southern California in the fall. Now we’re building on that and gearing up for more co-branded launches in our next geography, Georgia, while also continuing contract discussions with other food service operators to bring autonomous and contactless Blendid kiosks to even more commercial locations.
Build and Cost Optimize the Blendid Kiosk
Blendid started the year with a field-tested food technology platform that was operating at 99% uptime! We had also effectively protected many key components of our IP with 10 patents granted or in-process.
However, we needed to push further. To achieve our mission of making healthy food more accessible, we needed to ensure our system had an even higher uptime at scale and was also cost-effective to deploy and operate in a wide range of locations. And of course, we were doing this in the middle of a pandemic with major global supply chain challenges.
At Blendid, we are fortunate to have a small-but-mighty team of incredibly resourceful mechanical, robotic, and software engineers, led by my co-founders Venki Ayalur and Vijay Dodd. Our engineering team under their leadership thrives on tinkering and problem solving. This approach enables them to repeatedly and creatively cost-optimize and develop new-to-world solutions.
So, after many iterations across several months, the team accomplished another major feat – reaching an even higher uptime of 99.9% AND doing this while the Blendid kiosk was being operated by our operating partners, not our internal team. When someone else operates and services your product, you uncover a whole class of new situations that are unthinkable in an organic environment (when you are servicing your own product). With our target uptime under our belt, the Blendid engineering team accomplished another major feat – developing the next version of our kiosk that was faster, sleeker and met our cost target of $100,000 with the ability to reduce cost further at higher production volumes. This new design will be shipping soon to our next locations in Atlanta, slated to open in January 2022. Woohoo!
Fundraising is a crucial and often constant requirement for startups; it’s the necessary fuel to keep your startup going. As an entrepreneur, you don’t want to raise too little or too much. Too little will starve your company before it grows up. Too much increases dilution and creates unreasonable expectations that results in founders doing unnatural things to keep up with those expectations. Without naming companies, you can look at many once high-flying companies in and outside the food automation space that tried to grow too quickly and ended up crashing and burning. You want to raise just enough that you stay hungry but not starve.
Going into 2021, we wanted to raise a bridge round. Our advisors recommended that we consider crowdfunding – which has become a popular vehicle for consumer products and consumer-facing tech products. We tested the waters with a small campaign that started in late 2020 which exceeded our expectations, especially since we didn’t spend a dollar against it in marketing. With that initial success behind us, we gave it a go again in the spring and fall of 2021. This time we made a small investment in advertising and sponsorships and we were able to raise a large amount for a crowdfunding campaign – $3.4M over two Reg CF campaigns. As we signed a commercial agreement with Jamba, Focus Brands (parent of Jamba) also made a strategic investment in Blendid to support our joint growth plans.
Crowdfunding was more than just raising needed capital, it was also beneficial and satisfying to connect with thousands of individual investors who often expressed gratitude that our technology will one day help provide much-needed healthier food options in their workplaces, schools, and other places they visit.
Through the course of these campaigns, we were able to secure the funding we needed and added over 1400 individual investors to the Blendid family. We are grateful to our investors and look forward to continuing to engage with them as we expand our offering to new geographies and cuisines.
A Peek Ahead for 2022
We are extremely optimistic for the year ahead. We are actively working on launching many new locations and have a strong sales pipeline to support our growth projections. Manufacturing has ramped up nicely to satisfy the demand despite all the supply chain challenges plaguing the economy. Our current sites are performing very well and are serving as strong examples of in-market success.
For all of this, I am grateful to our investors, advisors, partners, and most importantly our dynamic and dedicated team – without whom, none of this would have been possible.
So, to all our team members and supporters, thank you for working so hard to make the Blendid mission of making healthy food accessible a reality.
Have a wonderful end of 2021. Let’s get ready for an even better 2022!
Onward and upward!
Vipin Jain is the CEO and Co-Founder of Blendid. Learn more about our team here.