The organic food market is proving itself to be more than just a fad.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Nutrition Business Journal, the industry showed solid growth even through the depths of the recent recession, going from about $13 billion in sales in 2005 to an estimated $35 billion in 2014. Another report estimates the market will continue to expand by as much as 14% in the next few years.
And Boulder just may be at the heart of it all.
At least that’s how Bill Capsalis sees it. He calls the area the ‘Silicon Valley’ of the natural and organic industry.
“You have this legacy and history of engaging in support for these firms…companies have been launched here that are international in scope, and those that started here have re-invested or started other businesses, so there’s a community that has developed around these types of products.”
There’s some weight behind those statements. Capsalis is president of Naturally Boulder, a non-profit trade association whose mission it is to nurture community, leadership and innovation in the Colorado natural products industry.
The group got its start in 2005, when Boulder’s then-city manager saw an opportunity in the making. “He realized that there was this concentration of natural and organic-based companies in town and thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we helped foster that kind of activity in town from an economic standpoint,’” according to Capsalis.
So an Economic Vitality Action Group was established with $5,000 seed money, focused on both the community and business aspects of the industry.
“In the early days, there was a group of people that met every month as an advisory board to try and figure out how to promote the natural and organic industry,” says Capsalis. “The city was only actively involved in that first year, and then we sort of took the ball from there and ran with it.”
Fast-forward 10 years and Capsalis says Naturally Boulder is now a reflection of the success of the industry. “We’re close to 900 members strong and we have more than 100 corporate sponsors that range anywhere from $500 to $10,000 sponsorships annually.”
Those corporate sponsors include a wide range of area firms, including Celestial Seasonings, Whole Foods and P2Binvestors, among others.
And Naturally Boulder’s involvement runs much deeper than just overseeing an advisory board. The organization sponsors an education series, promotes networking functions, and holds several annual events to recognize and celebrate the community, all while serving as a strong advocate for the natural and organic industry.
“We have about 12 events a year that are educational in focus and take the form of learning lunches where people meet for a couple hours,” Capsalis explains. “They get fed while we present panelists and experts and industry veterans who speak on a variety of topics.”
That’s in addition to Morning Mingles, where they do a quick coffee meet-up and have a brief project presentation before people head off to work.
“We also have a full-day education program in the spring, for very early-stage entrepreneurs who are thinking about launching a business. We’ll bring a panel of experts in to talk about things like legal and financial issues, innovation, how to work with retailers, how to find a broker, a sales rep or a distributor. We try to bring as much value to them as we can.”
But the staff at Naturally Boulder realizes there’s more to it than just the business side. That’s why they hold regular Networking Nights, where the focus is mostly social, according to Capsalis. “We bring together owners and organizations at local establishments here in town, so people get to mingle and meet up with other people in the industry.”
In fact, “mingling” is what one of their annual events is all about. At the Spring Fling, coming up in May at the St. Julien Hotel and Spa, as many as 500 industry professionals will gather for what Capsalis calls “a big party and the mother of all networking events.”
In the fall, Naturally Boulder holds its annual Pitch Slam event to promote startup firms that show potential but could still benefit from a little boost.
“This is where early-stage entrepreneurs have three minutes to sell their company, their, idea, their product to a panel of experts.” The winner is in line for a cash prize, along with business services, mentoring and other perks.
That cash prize is the extent of the organization’s financial backing, however, as Capsalis makes the point that Naturally Boulder does not otherwise provide investment capital.
“A lot of entrepreneurs are looking for cash and we try to educate them about what sort of resources there are and what that means to them and their business, so we will present panelists who can talk about a variety of finance options, but we don’t actually offer financing advice because we don’t have money to give them. Even so, lots of our business owners are willing to discuss their financial path and what that looked like – what they had to do to get funding.”
Beyond financing, Capsalis says startups face a host of other issues.
“Obviously, a lot of these companies are early-stage and small, and many deal with how to find distribution points, places to sell their products, as well as finding places to make their products – whether renting a production kitchen and doing it themselves or hiring everything out to a co-packer.
Also, because they’re early-stage, the owners are doing a lot of the work themselves, and they’re not always experts in business but they definitely have a passion for what they’re doing, so they spend a lot of time learning about how to run a food business and that’s where we come in.”
A 2011 study conducted by the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado gives some indication of the organization’s influence. It claims that Naturally Boulder member companies were responsible for almost $1 billion in local economic impact while providing roughly 8,300 jobs.
And Capsalis expects those numbers to keep going up. “More and more people are getting into healthy living and healthy products, so I think the industry will only grow and get bigger as time goes on.”