Mason Arnold has been an organics pioneer and serial entrepreneur since graduating the University of Texas in 2001. He has founded several companies with sustainability at the core, most recently Cece’s Veggie Co., which a year ago was ranked as Inc. magazine’s 3rd Fastest growing private company in 2019.
Tell us a little about your background, and how you ended up founding Cece’s Veggie Co.?
My prior start-up company was called Greenling, where we did grocery home delivery. We had created a value-added kitchen, so we were processing and selling value-added vegetables that we got from local farms. Often, this local produce isn’t as pretty as some in retail, and so processing them leveled the playing field, and we would sell them chopped or diced.
Over that time, I saw a lot of brands come and go, and got pretty good at guessing which ones were going to do well, and which ones weren’t. And then—in what turned out to be a really influential event in leading me to found Cece’s—my family and I had to go gluten-free due to allergies. So, I was looking for the best gluten-free pasta out there, as well as trying to get more vegetables into my kids’ diets, and I felt like that vegetable noodles might be a plausible business model. I researched all the way down to the microbiology of what happens when slicers and blades cut vegetables. With that research, I actually invented the machine that we still use to this day to make pasta out of fresh vegetables.
With that machine, I knew I could make a good noodle, and so then the very next question to me was, “what does the packaging need to look like?” I identified where in the store I wanted it to go, and then from there, I decided on what I felt like the best packaging would be. And got some help from a local agency, Shelf Studio, Austin, Texas, to design the perfect package and brand, in order to sell these vegetable noodles.
Are there any specific packaging challenges with vegetable noodles?
When you cut a vegetable into a very small cross section, there’s a whole lot of surface area for degradation of that product. And because we sell it fresh, and there’s no kill step [pasteurization or HPP, for example] involved, shelf-life and pathogens are the two biggest considerations. All of that did have to go into it our business model, and how we do that is kind of our black box, our trade secret.
What was the genesis of Naturally Austin?
I’ve been a mentor for SKU, a consumer products accelerator program in town, and seeing the community come together around that was inspiring. But even though there was this great accelerator program where entrepreneurs got to meet all of these mentors and suppliers, SKU is mostly focused on the companies who enter their program. I wanted to help create something that extended beyond that, to anyone who wants to be involved in the CPG community.
I think it’s really important to have community within industry. Actually, I’m also a mentor at Capital Factory, which is a technology accelerator for all things tech. It’s kind of the central hub for technology start-ups and entrepreneurship in town. And I had watched that grow—the founder of that, Josh Baer was on the board of my last company—and I wanted to create something like that for the CPG community.
Rather than the SKU accelerator, which is very focused on growing businesses—and most of them are already revenue and such—I felt like we should create a place where people can just get together, and talk about their ideas, and meet other people doing it.
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So, I combined the best parts I saw of the two. I saw how much more robust the Capital Factory community was around tech, because they had a lot more resources. In SKU, you kind of had to be in the program to get access to the resources. And as I started to talk to other people in the CPG community, there were multiple people that really wanted the same thing, so we all got together, and we started to ask, ‘how do we build community around CPGs in Austin?’ As we were evaluating the idea, one of the people that we were meeting with knew of Naturally Boulder and said that they were really interested in helping. So, we ended up partnering with them, because they already had resources like documents, structure, and all kinds of things that we could lean on. And so that’s when we decided to form Naturally Austin.
How does it operate, and what does the structure look like?
There are multiple phases to it that we sought out from the outset. The first phase was just building community. So, there are membership options for it, and the least expensive one is $65 a year. But really, lots of events are open to the general community. We just wanted to be a resource, and for people to know that they could come to Naturally Austin to talk about ideas, and learn about the CPG industry, and do education. For instance, we get some of the really high-profile CPG brands and personalities in town to talk about different areas that new entrepreneurs will come across.
We have educational sessions, networking, and community gatherings in general. And then, as the organization grows, we want to add services, and we want to find a location that we can call the Naturally Austin’s own location to host all these events and such, so we’ve got a lot of big plans. But the first step will be as a non-profit that just wants to help educate people and gather people around CPG entrepreneurship.
Mature brands and brand owners know packaging matters from the beginning. But often, new business owners or entrepreneurs don’t recognize this off the bat. How does Naturally deal with that common dynamic?
I personally view packaging as absolutely critical to a CPG brand, and I think it’s one of the things that needs to be focused on and worked out extremely early. From the Naturally Austin perspective, we communicate that same perspective—that packaging is something that needs to be well-thought-out from the very beginning, and Naturally Austin can provide resources to do that. Because there are a lot of resources out there these days for that kind of effort, and just helping people know that they need to think about it up front, and not wait until they’re at scale.
Do you partner with packaging machinery builders or other packaging suppliers to help members figure out where to start?
Yes, we can. And we do have members who are packaging companies, and we have lot of sponsorship opportunities as well for packaging companies wanting to be able to get themselves in front of the Naturally Austin community.
Some entrepreneurs invent a product and build a brand with the intent to sell it and move onto the next idea. Others are in for the long haul.
We strive for our education sessions to provide information for both of those perspectives, and for Naturally Austin, we don’t necessarily want to lead anyone down either one of those in particular. Both are great paths, and we provide the resources for either path.
Has growing Naturally Austin benefitted your business, Cece’s Veggies, as well?
I would definitely say that we’ve benefited in just having the community aspect that I’ve run across, and resources that I may need at the moment—whether it’s additional packaging resources, or transportation resources, or technology and other resources of people that are in the Naturally Austin community. And then, as I need something, I know that I’ve got this community that I can pose a question to and get lots of responses back. No matter what I need in the business, having that community to lean on has been a really great aspect of it.
What’s next for the Naturally network?
Naturally started in Boulder, but it’s now joined by a network in San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin. Now, the Naturally network is coming together and creating a more national Naturally network. No matter where a brand is, there may be a Naturally member of the network nearby, so they should look and see that. —Matt Reynolds
Visit pwgo.to/5716 to learn more about Naturally Austin and the Naturally network.