An investor and advisor who helped to build Beyond Meat, Talenti, and Peace Coffee, Kent Pilakowski talks about the evolution of the food industry and his path from General Mills to entrepreneurship.
Wednesday April 1, 2020
Behind every successful founder are the advisors, investors, mentors, and marketers who are integral to getting it right. Kent Pilakowski is one of those behind-the-scenes experts who helped to build Beyond Meat, Talenti, Good Karma and other hot food brands that have sold or gone public. Pilakowski shares his journey from General Mills to entrepreneurship and talks about the evolution of the food industry and what it takes for a new brand to break through today.
“Food has become a lot more fashionable,” says Pilakowski, who got a sales job with General Mills out of college in the 1990s and moved more than a dozen times before landing in general management at corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. He worked on two organic acquisitions: Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms, and that opened his eyes to the opportunity for industry disruption.
“Entrepreneurs start a business for passion, for health, to save the world, to save the environment. I saw a groundswell happening.”
Pilakowski likes to say he isn’t the “ideas guy,” but he can spot a good one. He took six months to de-program himself from corporate culture and spent time talking to entrepreneurs before setting up a team and getting into position to help build businesses.
“Early on, it’s all about the entrepreneur—not the business. You’re betting on the scrappiness that they’re going to figure it out. Often, the business itself has to do a complete 180.”
Pilakowski has seen seismic change in food entrepreneurship since the early days of his career. There’s more money, more innovation, and actually, he says, it makes success that much more elusive.
“A lot more people want to change the world. Now when you walk the halls of food industry shows, there are 8 million different ideas. There’s more money coming in, which enables entrepreneurs to do stupid, non-scalable things. Very few are making money.”
Pilakowski offers advice on defining success, and knowing when to sell. He also talks about the decision to sell his own firm to spend more time with his three young children.
After our conversation with Pilakowski, we go back to the classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship. Deeds points out the important role a partner like Pilakowski can play for an entrepreneur. “They bring things to the game you don’t have: branding, marketing, fulfillment. You either have to find it, or learn it.”