From MBA to Entrepreneur Part 7: Caroline Walton, Trove Market
It’s not every day that a student gets to pitch Kevin O’Leary, the star of Shark Tank, on their business idea. Caroline Walton, a first year student at Harvard Business School, not only took it but made the most of it as well.
O’Leary loved the idea and has promised to look into it further. “It was a great piece of validation to have someone who is so well integrated in the investment community like the idea,” said Walton. “He posted about it on Instagram and it’s been circulating around too which has been nice. No comment on what’s happening next, but it was a great experience.”
Caroline has always been passionate about food waste and utilized her expertise working at RXBAR to come up with a novel way for brands to dispose of excess inventory, without diluting their brand equity or bottom line. Trove Market is solving food waste within the packaged food space by allowing brands to avoid inventory write offs and consumers to shop sustainably at lower prices (40–70% off retail prices).
After a successful pilot on Harvard’s campus this spring, the New York native is returning to her home for a city-wide pilot of her company. The hope is to have over 100 brands signed up, with many clamoring for access to the initial pilot as the company emerges from stealth mode. “[With the pilot], we can test at scale and understand if our consumers resonate with the current product. We can test our operations, marketing, and go-to-market strategy. We’re currently talking to about 30 brands who love the idea and want to partner with us and we hope to get that to 100 by the time we launch.”
She credits Harvard with providing her and her co-founder, Andrew Morgan, with an enormous set of resources, funding possibilities and network connections. “It’s been a really positive experience for me. When I think about the resources I had at my disposal before coming to school versus what I have now, it’s a completely different ballgame. I came to school with the ambition to start a business… [and] I’m able to leverage all of the resources here at Harvard like the Rock Center, the Innovation Labs, the professors, and the network. It’s all invaluable and I would not be in the position I am today without [these resources].”
I sat down with Caroline to hear about her path to entrepreneurship, the process of raising a pre-seed round before the end of the summer, and the future plans for Trove & addressing food waste.
To get us started, I’d love to hear a bit about your background and how you got into entrepreneurship.
I’m originally from New York and currently a first year at Harvard Business School. After college, I started in a corporate finance program at General Electric, but wanted to work with a brand more aligned with my passion and values. For me, that was a consumer product and I ended up joining RXBAR when they were quite young. I joined as one of the first finance hires who connected the dots between supply chain, finance, revenue, sales and marketing. Since I was in the middle of the business, I saw almost everything and I was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of cool projects.
I then moved to the London office to help launch the UK business and I fell in love with the food industry. It was dynamic, fun and mission-driven. One thing I did notice though was the problem with excess inventory issues. For a variety of reasons, your demand may change after you’ve locked in your forecast for manufacturing and so you’re stuck with too much inventory on hand. It could be because it’s expiring soon, it has old packaging, or even just seasonal items like pumpkin spice and gingerbread. All of that ends up being too much and you have to liquidate as quickly as possible. For us, the best solution was to send it off to a pig farm because there wasn’t a safe, existing solution that would allow you to sell to an end consumer. More often than not, the end consumer was actually a third party reseller who would re-sell on Amazon and disrupt your e-commerce business. I felt like this was ridiculous — the customers want our products and we should just sell it to them. Going through these trials & tribulations and talking with others who had similar problems, made me realize this was a significant issue. Fast forward a year and a half, I founded Trove as a result of this.
In an earlier discussion, you mentioned some facts that shocked me. I saw that one third of all produced food in the US is never eaten and that Americans on average waste one pound of food a day. Those are crazy to think about — why do you think the problem of food waste doesn’t necessarily get the publicity it deserves?
There is a growing trend to being a mission driven consumer and we’re seeing that across clothing and apparel. People now want to know if what they’re buying also does good so there’s a growing interest in the space. We know food waste is the second leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions but we’re not talking about it in a way that is digestible for consumers. I think by making things simpler and talking about the impact consumers can directly have through solutions on the market, it’ll have a huge difference on helping consumers understand. I think consumers and millennials are really mission driven and that’s changing the whole ecosystem which makes me really excited.
That’s great — it seems like the perfect time for Trove to come in and capitalize on this trend. Can you tell me a bit about where the company is today? I know you came out stealth very recently which is extremely exciting.
We’ve run a very small pilot at Harvard on campus that went really well. We’ve had brand reach out to us organically through LinkedIn who say they need a solution as soon as possible. This gave us the confidence to run a larger pilot in New York City this summer, starting in August. That way we can test at scale and understand if our consumers resonate with the current product. We can test our operations, marketing, and go-to-market strategy. We’re currently talking to about 30 brands who love the idea and want to partner with us and we hope to get that to 100 by the time we launch.
We’re currently raising a pre-seed round through both angel and VCs. We are finalists in the Harvard Presidents’ innovation challenge and we have a few interested angel investors so we’re trying to figure out the runway we need to get New York going. We’re really excited to work on this full time and get this up and running.
I’ve talked with a lot of founders who have gone on to raise money and they all have such unique stories. I know only 2% of VC money went to females in 2021 — have you found it harder as a woman in entrepreneurship?
I think at a high level it’s an elephant in the room. Regardless of whether people agree that it’s there or not, I think you feel it. At a recent Harvard pitch competition, I pitched to a room of one gender and one race. That didn’t surprise me at the time but when I was talking with others later, I realized how absurd that was. I just think recognizing that this does happen and as a society and community of entrepreneurs we can still do better to make sure everyone feels included.
Very true, I hope by sharing your story we can bring a little more light to this. I wanted to switch gears a bit and talk about your MBA experience. How do you think your time at HBS has helped develop you professionally and personally?
It’s been a really positive experience for me. When I think about the resources I had at my disposal before coming to school versus what I have now, it’s a completely different ballgame. I came to school with the ambition to start a business because I thought about it as the two most risk free years of my life. If my business launches, that’s amazing and if it doesn’t I have the MBA degree to fall back on. I’m able to leverage all of the resources here at Harvard like the Rock Center, the Innovation Labs, the professors, and the network. It’s all invaluable and I would not be in the position I am today without that resource. At the end of the day, the MBA has made me very comfortable with ambiguity and taking a risk. Overall, it’s been a really, really positive experience.
Advice wise, what would you say to other aspiring MBA students who are looking to start their own company?
I think reminding yourself why you came to school is important. It’s easy to get distracted the minute you get here and there’s 1000 things you could do like socials, clubs, etc. But being clear on what you’re prioritizing and how you’re going to get there is important. I would also say find out what you’re passionate about and become a subject matter expert in that field. I’m very passionate about food waste and it’s an important part of my business so I know the key stakeholders and the potential customers. I think this will give you a head start when you get on campus and let you tap into resources immediately.
There are so many resources on campus and it’s hard to prioritize your time. How did you think about that, especially during the core when things are extremely hectic academically?
I spent the first semester just doing tons of calls and interviews to further validate the idea from a brand perspective and understand the problem more deeply. I was spending a few hours a day on the phone with key stakeholders. I then participated in a January semester program called Startup Bootcamp where things really picked up. That’s when we launched our website, did LinkedIn posts, and started to have brand reach out. It was really clear quickly that there was a demand for this so we ran a pilot on campus.
Because the demand ramped up so quickly after January, I had to think more about this and prioritize my time accordingly. Quite frankly, I think the thing that took a backseat was my health. I stopped working out as much because I needed the extra hour and a half in my day. I was answering emails, and working before class so I needed all the time I could get.
Speaking of working out, I know you were a college athlete at Hamilton. I’m curious if you see any parallels between college athletics and entrepreneurship? I feel like I’ve noticed a lot of successful entrepreneurs who were athletes in college.
It’s a good question but it may be a chicken or egg thing. Student athletes tend to be very motivated and driven people, which is also traits of successful entrepreneurs. I’m someone who is definitely focused on mind over matter and if something sucks then I’ll suck it up to get through it. If someone has to copy and paste into Excel because that’s the fastest way to get something done, I’ll do it. It’s a mentality that comes with who I am and it was important for rowing or entrepreneurship, no matter what I’m doing.
Switching gears a bit, you mentioned your co-founder. I know you met at HBS — can you talk a bit about how you found each other and generally what that process was like for you?
I met my co-founder Andrew Morgan in my section at HBS. We actually met on our first day because we sat behind each other and we’ve been good friends ever since. I think having the whole semester to get to know each other creates a layer of trust and understanding. In the second semester, we started talking more about Trove and he had worked abroad with farmers on Princeton fellowship previously, so he had some unique insight on the food industry. He asked really insightful questions about our go to market strategy, our customers, and our brands — all things I think about on a daily basis. From that point on, he would help out by doing whatever was needed and we took it week by week. He went above and beyond my expectations and at that point it became really clear that we work well together. We shared responsibilities and we decided to say that we were co-founders — we’re both super passionate about the mission and the food space. It was a very obvious choice for us to be co-founders and it’s been really positive ever since.
Would you say that you just knew it was the right person or were you looking for complementary skill sets to make sure you worked well together?
I think the biggest thing, having worked with other people on different projects, was the idea that I can just give him something to do and not think twice about it. I didn’t need to check in and see if he had done it nor did I feel like I was stepping on eggshells around him. We just shared responsibilities without encroaching on each other. I think the trial is really important because if you’re going to be co-founders, it seems odd to work with someone that you haven’t tried to work with yet. I think having the trial was good for both people to have the flexibility to make a decision together.
Obviously, you have a good relationship with your co-founder which helps a ton. How do you and him deal with any setbacks or negative elements of the founding process?
I think it’s all about hearing negative feedback, taking it, digesting it, and understanding it. It’s focusing on what we can change and update or realizing what we feel confident in. Second, we have a great network of friends and peers — obviously we have a strong section that supports us and is probably sick of hearing about Trove. I feel like I can go and talk to any of those 90 people and be like I’m so stressed — they would understand what happened and be able to give advice or think through things.
Also, I have a great group of friends who will be willing to talk to me about anything and having those outlets has been very helpful. But I think going back to Andrew, having a really good working relationship is key and we are able to check on each other and keep moving forward.
Based on that, what do you think has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
We’re in a pretty competitive industry. Food and CPG isn’t known for having the highest margins, particularly in comparison to B2B SaaS and other sexy startups. We’re on a mission to end food waste which is a large problem but it will never be like a SaaS business in terms of growth and scale. People love the mission, they love what we’re doing but they want to see traction which is a valid consideration. We’re out to prove we can make it work in a city like New York and get up and running and profitable quickly. One of our biggest challenges has been the lack of traction but it’s pushed us to move quicker, be more resilient and scrappy with how we scale this at the beginning.
You’ve talked a lot about the mission and its importance for Trove. Quite clearly you’re super passionate about food waste and how it’s important to our planet. How do you think the mission and a mission-first mindset gets you & Andrew energized to work every day?
It’s a great question. The founder of RX bar always said if you’re not passionate about it, don’t do it because passion is the only thing that gets you through the hard times. If you’re not living, breathing, and eating what you’re building it’s going to be really challenging. So I always go back to why I’m working on this — I realize it’s not a sexy topic but I care a ton about food waste. It’s an extremely important issue that we need to address and I think being super transparent about our mission and our motivation helps brands understand where we’re coming from. We’re solving the mission first and the profit second. I think that’s changing how we talk about the competitive set and how we differentiate ourselves.
How do you think about the competitive landscape? What else is out there at this point?
There’s a couple things happening at this point. There are some great businesses like one that was just launched out of MIT called Spoiler Alert which is a B2B business solution to connect brands with excess inventory to retailers. That’s a great option to offload inventory to more retail locations, but there is less happening in the B2C space. There is obviously Misfits and Imperfect Produce but they’re more on the produce side. I think the consumer mindset is shifting so for us it’s really exciting to see that there’s a market.
Brands want a brand partner because they want someone they can trust to offload inventory. In a nice way, you don’t want to train customers to buy products at a discount but you want to offer a low friction, low cost option that gets rid of extra product.
Now that Trove will officially be launching in NYC this summer, what are you most excited about for the next 12 months?
I just want consumers to start talking about food waste more frequently. It’s really important and I would love to see individuals embracing these stats in the near future. As consumers shop for groceries, being more conscious about their environmental footprint and buying more sustainably is what I’m most excited about. We are also currently raising a pre-seed round, meeting with several VCs and Angel investors and we’re excited to close the round ahead of the summer.
Lastly, what is one thing you’d wish you’d known when first started Trove?
I was just really surprised that my food waste experience at RXBAR was so similar to other peers in the industry. As an industry, we’re so comfortable with waste and we try to offload as much as possible, but there’s always something we’re throwing away. I was shocked that this existed and I wish I realized the opportunity earlier. I wish I wasn’t so hesitant to go after this for so long and could tap into the gut feeling to start something sooner.