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Visible Hands VC

Lillian Cartwright, Co-Founder of ShelfLife

You’ve got to put it out there — that’s the only way you’ll make progress. A lot of people put together pretty decks and surveys from their computer, but you’ve got to get out into the world or you won’t see the results.
Lillian Cartwright, Co-Founder of ShelfLife

Founder Visibility is an interview series that highlights founders that inspire us and shares how they found their firsts: co-founder, customer, capital, and confidence.

Having recently graduated from Harvard Business School, Lillian is the Co-Founder of ShelfLife — a software-enabled marketplace connecting emerging food and beverage brands to prominent ingredients and packaging suppliers. Check out her inspiring founder story below.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tell us a little bit about your journey leading up to starting ShelfLife.

Prior to going to business school at HBS, I worked for several years at a startup in Denver, Colorado called Craftsy, and that was my first exposure to working as an operator at a VC-backed company. I absolutely loved it. I learned a ton from the founders — they built a great culture and a great company.

There was a lot of food and beverage entrepreneurship happening during my time there, and a lot of the folks I worked with came from the natural food space. Being in the Denver/Boulder area made me really excited about starting a food and beverage brand, and exploring entrepreneurship with a food and beverage focus in general.

In business school, I started a spiked sparkling beverage company with a classmate. We would have fun taste tests for it. We honed in on what we wanted our product to be and what we wanted it to look like from a marketing perspective. And we were sourcing all the raw materials for it at scale, as well as the unit price, so I began exploring the sourcing landscape and what was out there for food and beverage companies.

I spent time in venture over the summer working at Bessemer and sourcing different businesses that fit the B2B marketplace profile. At the time, they were targeting the food and beverage landscape This was the first time I seriously ideated around ShelfLife. I took all that I had heard, learned, and experienced myself as it relates to bringing a new packaged food and beverage product to market and I saw an opportunity there to create a marketplace that doesn’t currently exist. I got really excited about it and went through my last year at HBS still honing in on this idea and seeing if it could be a feasible option after I graduated.

In the spring of my second year, I put together a pilot of what we were trying to create from a software perspective with a craft brewery that was within walking distance from campus called Lamplighter. I worked with two undergrads from Brown to build a prototype and pilot this purchasing platform to help them order all their raw materials on a regular basis and organize the sourcing part of their supply chain. So there was an opportunity to continue to build that out, bring more people on, hire people to build it.

Then I ended up joining NextView and there was a lot I hadn't figured out — one of them being I needed a CTO. I knew I needed a tech lead and I wanted an equal partner to ideate with me, as well as for my own peace of mind because I was lonely. But I joined the accelerator without one knowing that I would be spending as much time as I needed to find a co-founder and not making as much progress on the actual product. I put together a pilot of what we were trying to create from a software perspective with a craft brewery that was within walking distance from campus called Lamplighter. I worked with two undergrads from Brown to build a prototype and pilot this purchasing platform to help them order all their raw materials on a regular basis and organize the sourcing part of their supply chain. So there was an opportunity to continue to build that out, bring more people on, hire people to build it.

That same spring, I pitched to dozens of VCs with interest in student-founded start-ups. I was presented with the opportunity to join NextView’s first batch of accelerator companies and there was a lot I hadn’t figured out — one of them being I needed a CTO. I knew I needed a tech lead and I wanted an equal partner to ideate with me, as well as for my own peace of mind because I was lonely. But I joined the accelerator without one knowing that I would be spending as much time as I needed to find a co-founder and not making as much progress on the actual product. Melody Koh, a partner at NextView, introduced me to John Cline, they had worked together at Blue Apron where he was a Director of Engineering. I met him in June and he didn’t leave his current role at Google until mid-September! This is when ShelfLife started.

You mentioned you interviewed ~12 potential co-founders. How did that process go?

I definitely wanted a skillset that was difficult to find — someone who could both build a product by themselves and had a strong track record of managing a team. So I wanted someone who I felt could take that on and could build out the rest of the team. I knew that hiring engineers would be the hardest thing ever. I know several startups right now, even with millions in funding, that are struggling to find solid engineers.

What were you looking for in a co-founder?

More specifically, I was looking for anyone who had worked at some sort of a food-tech company. I was looking at companies like Toast, Blue Apron… I reached out to a number of startups and tried to see who had worked there before, how they felt about it, why they left. I was having all sorts of conversations along the lines of “Hey, I’m looking for a CTO, would you join me?”

I posted on AngelList and had some incredible conversations come out of that. I also had two friends of mine who were engineers — friends from undergrad who I respected a lot. I asked them to interview people for me because I wasn’t sure what to look for in terms of technical talent. They put together a coding test for a small part of the platform we needed to build and they had folks run through it.

How has the dynamic been between you and your current co-founder, John, and how have you dealt with bringing someone new onto the team?

That’s a great question. I think there were a number of people I would have gone with, but I’m so glad I ran into John, and ultimately convinced him to join. We were on a similar wavelength from day one. We got along instantly. Although, he kept me on edge throughout the summer. He was very slow to make a decision, but it allowed us to build a relationship early on as he took his time to figure out what he wanted to do. We’re based in New York — where John is — but I live in DC for COVID reasons. I’d go up to New York and we would hang out a lot.

Ideating was more fun with him. We used sticky notes and plotted out what we wanted to do. We tried to think big for a little bit, which was really helpful. To get to know each other better, we did a founder dating questionnaire — by First Round. It was 50 questions long and we spent an entire day going through that thing. And that was helpful because it made us aware of each other’s comfort level with things like managing accounting and finance vs. handling customer research and sales. It also helped us divide our tasks in half, which was great.

When John officially joined in September, we even took a trip to upstate New York. Along with working together, John and I lived together for a week, which may seem a little extreme, but it ended up working really well. From cooking a ton of Blue Apron to getting lost on a hike, we were able to gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and work styles at a rapid rate.

You’ve clearly had a very entrepreneurial spirit and you’ve been able to identify problems with supply chain processes. But what pushed you to start ShelfLife?

Other than experiencing the problem first-hand, I think one of the biggest confidence builders that pushed me was pitching. From pitching to prospective customers to VCs for those first checks, I would never have imagined that I would be making the requests I’m making right now two or three years ago. Pitching a big idea with very little traction — that’ll take you out of your comfort zone. And then going into Lamplighter, our first pilot customer, trying to pitch my idea — that was very much out of my comfort zone and it has been very rewarding.

I’m hoping I can somehow help others go through these processes down the line. The further I get, the more I feel like I wish I had better advice on certain things. An example is fundraising — I mean, you could write a book on it. It’s insane. But I’m learning a lot. And I’m learning a lot about myself. There’s nothing quite as challenging — at least that I can think of — that I could be doing right now. I feel like I’m in a good place in my life to take it on before things get more complicated.

Let’s go back to the pilot you mentioned — how did you go about sourcing your first customer and how did the pilot perform?

Being a student definitely helped. I went to around 20 different breweries in Boston, and said, I’m a student interested in starting a company in the craft beer space, can I watch you order raw materials? Can you show me how to do it? So I had at least 20 separate hour-long chats or sit-downs with people and they went a variety of different ways. Sometimes, they were super uncomfortable, and other times, people would just go on and on — saying things like, come in anytime, or do you want a beer?

With Lamplighter, I met their head of Operations. He was incredibly supportive — still is. I kept working with him on a weekly basis and would show him mock-ups of what I was thinking. I did this with other people, too. I’d mention the idea to them and asked if they would use it so that I could get feedback. I then translated that feedback over to Figma or Google Slides to put together mocks that I thought looked professional enough.

Then, I ended up joining MIT’s startup group and I met another guy that was interested in the idea and also through that, another kid from undergrad at Brown was interested. I think because of the craft beer lens, it all came together for the pilot in that way. I learned so much through literally one customer, one use case, and that’s how I knew that there was something to further explore and expand there.

What is one piece of advice you would give yourself before starting your company?

I was really hesitant. I was too afraid to tell people what I was working on and to get people’s reactions. So I would have told myself to put the fear aside and just get the idea out there. Get chatting with as many people as possible about your idea. All of these incredible companies started out by sharing their ideas and gauging people’s interests.

I was terrified to go into some of these conversations, both with investors and customers. But I’m so thankful I put myself out there really early on particularly with investors because they’re not going to want to give a million dollars to someone they’ve never met before. It’s such a relationship game, and even if you think you might sound stupid or crazy — you don’t.

You’ve got to put it out there — that’s the only way you’ll make progress. A lot of people put together pretty decks and surveys from their computer, but you’ve got to get out into the world or you won’t see the results.

Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story with us, Lillian.

Visible Hands invests in underrepresented talent who strive to build their tech startups. If you know a founder or an individual who would benefit from our 14-week fellowship program, nominate them now.

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Visible Hands

Visible Hands is a VC fund with a 14-week, virtual-first fellowship program that supports overlooked talent in building technology startups.