Hi, my name is Patrick Mateer, and I am the founder and CEO of Seal the Seasons. We are a mission drive local frozen produce brand. We partner with family farms across the country, help them freeze their produce mid season, and then help them sell this produce through local grocery stores.
Can you briefly walk me through your journey and how you got to this moment in the present?
It all really started back in college - I was working at the Carboro Farmers Market at a donations station which was a non-profit organization set up to collect the produce that was going to waste at the end of the farmers market. We then had a local pickup truck come and bring all this product 3 blocks down the road to a low income community. Through this experience I got to really connect with higher income shoppers of the farmers market and see how much they love local product and the connection to the farmers. Farmers markets are great for the farmers where they can sell direct to the consumer and capture a really good market, but they can't sell all of their product. If there is a big rainstorm on Tuesday they would have to harvest all their product really quick and it wouldn’t necessarily last until Saturday. I also really got to know the lower income consumers, and learn how much they value the fresh healthy products for their fmailies; every single week they prioritized being at the community center at 12:30.
Do you mind elaborating a little bit more on the present; what does your daily work day look like?
Since 2013-2014 when I was working at the farmers market and came up with the vision to connect farmers and consumers through the frozen channel my job has changed a lot. Back when we started the business, I was doing everything from pitching investors to designing the packaging to managing the production space; I was helping grade the berries as they went across the line, I was picking out bad berries, I was putting the berries in the freezer, I was packing the berries, I was doing the food safety certification with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, I was going to the grocery store and selling the product to the grocery store managers; I had to do the deliveries, I had to do the invoicing, I had to collect the bills. As a young entrepreneur you are really doing everything involved in your business. As we have grown my job has really evolved from doing absolutely everything to really just doing what I am good at; I really have identified my strengths and now just try to utilize these strengths. My job today breaks down into three roles:
Working with our shareholders and capital providers to make sure we have enough money to grow the business.
Building a team and ensuring we maintain a good culture at the company.
Helping with sales. As an entrepreneur you will always be selling your vision and your mission; whether that’s attending customer meetings and pitching the business alongside my VP of sales or whether that’s doing an interview for a news article.
You mentioned that one of your roles is working with investors; my question for you is how do you maintain the return your investors expect while also operating as a social enterprise?
There’s a saying that “without margin you have no mission.” When social entrepreneurs can align their business model with accomplishing impact, then they can really do both at the same time. Our business model really comes down to connecting local farmers to points of sale. The more produce we sell, the more grocery stores we bring on, the more produce we can source from our farmers and accomplish our mission; the more product we sell, the more money we make, the more carbon footprint we can reduce. You have to find that symbiotic relationship and you have to be straightforward about how your investors are going to make their return. There are really two general ways that investors can make their return:
A company can generate a lot of profit and pay them back
A company can grow and be acquired by a larger business and they can be paid back through this sale
We are upfront with the shareholders that we are focused on growing, and the more we grow the more carbon footprint we reduce and the more farmers we can help. Finally at this point (5 - 6 years after we started) we are break even, we are profitable. We did not do this to pay back our investors; we just did not want to be burning capital.
What do you wish you knew before you first started Seal the Seasons?
Probably too many things. I definitely wish I knew more about hiring and managing employees; I wish I had taken more time to hire our initial staff and really go through a longer process there. Once you hire somebody it is a big investment and you don’t really want to switch. What is more important I think is having management skills. When I first started I was a really terrible manager - I had not managed a lot of things. By getting an executive coach who helped train me to use better best practices I was able to improve immensely. Management is something they don’t really teach or prioritize in schools, but out of any position we have as a company, whether it is the sales department, the marketing department, or the operations department, being a good manager is a huge asset. I think that young people don’t get a lot of experience with this, and the more training/ mentors you can get around management the more you can bring to a company or an organization. It really elevates your value to an organization.
Beyond mentors, what do you think has made you a successful leader?
Involving everybody in decision making is really important - while you as a leader may know the direction you want to go, you are really only one person, and you are going to make a stronger decision by working together. By roping everyone in so they are involved in the process you usually end up basically where you wanted to go in the first place, but you get the buy in from your team members, and your plan is probably going to be a lot better than what you would have done on your own.
Throughout your journey what has been the largest obstacle that you have had to overcome and how have you overcome it? What lessons have you learned as a result of these obstacles?
For us the obstacle was raising capital. We have a very different business model than the rest of the food industry, and we produce our product all over the country in different places; we work with twelve different manufacturing partners. This complexity really scares people and just being different and new is a challenge. It has been hard to raise capital, but over time we have really listened to feedback and have tried to understand from the other person’s point of view. We have been a lot more successful recently which we are really happy about. It is just something where you kind of have to accept that you are doing a bad job, and you have to be comfortable accepting that you are not good at it and ask a lot of questions to friends, other entrepreneurs, and to those that have gone before you. You really need to think critically about how you are presenting something; even if you think you are presenting something well, if it doesn’t resonate, you have got to change it up and try something different (you can not be stubborn). I am all about being creative, but sometimes following a formula and giving people the pieces they expect is going to make you more successful. The less questions investors ask, usually the better.
What has been the best advice you have received throughout your journey? What has been the worst advice?
I think we really transformed our business when we brought in a management strategy to our business; we worked with a consultant to start using the same team meeting every week following the entrepreneurship operating system. This accompanied with a focus on accountability among our team members really helped us grow and exceed as a team. We began focusing on "who is accountable for what:" the sales department knows exactly what there job is, the operations department knows exactly what there job is, and the things that cross over between departments we make really clear about who is doing what. It isn’t just me as the CEO telling everyone what to do; everyone communicates about it and we make sure we all agree that we can do it. Everyone has to have mutual buy in from every other team member; everyone feels supported, everyone feels believed in, and everyone knows what is expected from them. This really clear communication and structure is really important for us.
This isn’t necessarily bad advice - but I love the concept of mentor whiplash. As a young entrepreneur new to the industry I had a lot of mentors over time, and sometimes people tell you the exact opposite stuff. You are going to get this, and you just need to know that this is going to happen and trust your own gut - you know your business better than anybody else so you just need to believe in yourself.
Is there any final advice you want to share with an aspiring entrepreneur?
I would come back to mission and margin being so intertwined. As a young entrepreneur I was really focused on accomplishing my mission and less focused on making money, but if you can align your mission with making money then you are going to be really successful.
• Seal The Season's website
• Patrick Mateer's LinkedIn