Organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores, according to the USDA. So how can food manufacturers go about finding the ingredients they need at the price they can afford? Well, before Kellee James launched Mercaris—an electronic platform for trading organic goods—it required a lot of leg work, word of mouth and cold calling. Processors had to search through a multitude of directories and databases of certified food associations, an effort which may or may not result in the best prices possible.
“People have built successful organic businesses without Mercaris,” says James, 39, a Crain’s Chicago Business Magazine ‘40 Under 40‘ rising leader. “Our job is to show them how much more efficient and profitable they can be by tapping into our services.”
In Part 2 of BlackEnterprise.com’s interview with James, we learn more about the organic food industry, her mentors, and how she brought this exceptional product to the market.
BlackEnterprise.com: Why is Mercaris important? What need does it fill that wasn’t filled before?
James: The growth of the organic and the non-GMO food sector is a result of consumer demand for more sustainably grown food and information about that food. As organizations, from farms to food companies, adjust to meet that demand; we noted a lack of information, transparency and support along the supply chain. We’re helping to address that need. Overall, Mercaris helps to increase the efficiency of that supply chain, which should ultimately benefit everyone ‘from farm to fork’.
Explain how the technology behind Mercaris works.
Customers access either their trading account or market reports via a password protected portal on our website. We are a technology-enabled business, so all of our technology is designed to support price discovery and to make data accessible to our customer base.
Who will benefit the most from Mercaris and how?
Although ultimately consumers will benefit from having a wider variety of food choices, our own customers are generally closer to the base of the supply chain; growers/producers, mills, food processors, and food companies, in addition to organizations that support growers like agricultural banks, coops, or associations.
What challenges have you faced in growing your product and bringing it to the market?
Overall, the challenge is to be able to do many things well, at the same time. That meant building a great product, acquiring customers, and raising venture capital nearly simultaneously. Any one of those things is a business challenge, but conducting all three with a very small team meant some long hours and epic multi-tasking. We still challenge ourselves every day to get better product-market fit, and to keep learning from our customers.
How will you make money from the platform?
On the market data side, we charge a subscription fee that varies based on the amount and type of information the customer needs to access. We charge a per bushel transaction fee based on the amount traded on our platform.
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