In March, Norm’s Farms participated in the University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenge (NVC), a premier start-up program designed to help student teams turn ideas into viable businesses. After a valuable experience in this challenge, Norm’s Farms turned to another educational opportunity – the Polsky Center’s Accelerator Program.
The Accelerator Program, at the University of Chicago, is a summer-long incubator opportunity for entrepreneurs to realize and grow their start-ups with advice from successful business mentors.
Goals for the Program
Erin Lenhardt, co-founder of Norm’s Farms, applied to the Accelerator Program on the heels of the NVC, explaining, “The New Venture Challenge helped me realize just how much I was invested in Norm’s and its future.” This revived dedication and passion for the company, led Erin to apply to the Accelerator to once again challenge herself as an owner, work to expand Norm’s Farms and learn from leaders in the industry.
Erin and her parents, fellow co-founders Ann and Rodger Lenhardt, set goals at the beginning of the summer for Norm’s Farms to achieve during the program. Their main aim was to grow and scale the business, looking to nationally distribute their products. In describing this goal, Erin commented, “[It’s] a fun and really hard problem to solve!”
Erin recognizes the challenges and hurdles a small company like Norm’s Farms must overcome to reach this national ambition, but she is confident that it can be done. Perhaps this is why, at the midpoint of the Accelerator Program this week, the team’s goals have not changed. In fact, Erin pointed out, they have made progress towards their ultimate end.
Notable achievements this summer include – distribution by Amazon.com, an application to Earth Fare (a healthy supermarket chain with 33 stores in the Southeast and Midwest), conversations with brokers, and an increased online presence with the launching of Norm’s Farms on Instagram, greater engagement with Twitter and Facebook followers and blogger outreach.
Helping Erin, Ann, and Rodger achieve these summer milestones is a team of University of Chicago students. Megan Tang and Eduardo Zulueta, students at The College, collaborate as a business development team to contact brokers, launch Amazon distribution, and manage content organization for the website. Megan also took the lead on launching Norm’s Farms’ Instagram profile. Ashley Campbell, an M.A. student at the university’s Divinity School, works as a content marketing assistant monitoring Norm’s online presence and writing for the company’s social media and blog. Ryan Kern, a fellow MBA student at Booth, does financial modeling for the growing company.
A Beverage on the Horizon
Although the primary goal of scaling Norm’s Farms has not changed since the start of the Accelerator Program in June, an exciting new idea has developed. Norm’s Farms plans to launch an elderberry beverage!
After numerous conversations with mentors and other advisors, it became apparent that creating an elderberry drink was possible. “We were told we weren’t crazy for wanting to create a beverage,” noted Erin, excited that her idea offered a clear path forward for Norm’s. The beverage is still in development, but Erin hopes to present a cohesive plan to investors at the Accelerator Program’s Demo Day in September.
The engagement with mentors that affirmed the production of a Norm’s Farms beverage is only one example of the support Erin says teams have received in the Accelerator Program. She has been astounded by the amount of advice and encouragement official mentors and other advisors have provided. “People are willing to donate their time to us.”
Among the business leaders who have advised Erin are Ryan Coon, formerly of Vitamin Water, Susan Silver at Argentum Strategy Group, Gregory Bunch, professor of entrepreneurship at Booth, and Ben Heins of Crop to Cup Coffee. Official Accelerator Program mentors Waverly Deutsch and Robert Rosenberg, professors at Booth and entrepreneurs, have also given their time to advise and consult with Erin and her team.
The advice from industry experts does not end with the Accelerator Program. “As a young business school student I have been incredibly impressed with the resources that Booth has available to young entrepreneurs and the amount of support they provide to students who are working on start-ups and want to launch businesses.”
Although Erin has “been blown away” by the support, she echoed a sentiment she says every advisor has told her. It is important to ask for and utilize advice, but “at the end of the day, ultimately no one knows your business more than you do.”
Given the achievements of Norm’s Farms during the Accelerator Program, Erin is excited for the future as she and her team prepare for the capstone event of the summer – Demo Day. The Accelerator Program ends the first week of September with Demo Day. Demo Day is an opportunity for the program teams to present their summer accomplishments and goals for the future to Chicago-area investors, entrepreneurs, University of Chicago students, faculty and staff.
By Demo Day, Erin says that Norm’s Farms will have a new online shopping cart for a better customer experience and a pitch for the company’s beverage.
Although the main focus is on the future, Erin understands the importance of lessons learned in the past and the company’s history. She explained that an important part of Demo Day is not only the path forward for Norm’s Farms, but “the story of who we are and where we’ve been.”