Over the past few days, there has been a myriad of media coverage on the closing of the Coca-Cola Founders Program. Many articles alluded that the program was “one of” hundreds of corporate incubators and accelerators trying to ride the startup wave and appear “innovative”.
It seemed as if many had the preconceived notion of Coca-Cola’s efforts that it was just a "me, too" move or an internal pet project to appear more relevant in the startup ecosystem.
As a co-founder of one of the very first startups backed by Coca-Cola Founders, Wonolo, I could not help but feel a visceral reaction against how the closing of the program was somewhat negatively portrayed publicly. To me, the success of Wonolo, to date, could not have happened without the support and help of the Coca-Cola team. And I'm certain that many entrepreneurs in the program feel the same way.
So, I want to share what an amazing program Coca-Cola Founders was, and how excited we continue to feel about the partnership we have built with the company over the past several years.
Coca-Cola Founders was the best angel investor we could have asked for.
Although the structure of the program evolved over time, the main thesis of Coca-Cola Founders Program remained true to its core: collaborating with entrepreneurs and providing them with not only funding, but also Coca-Cola’s breadth of infrastructure to help startups scale up. For startups to thrive (and survive), having access to capital is crucial. However, it is not the only ingredient of success formula. Startups need customers, partners, industry expertise, and the list goes on.
This is where Coca-Cola Founders wanted to differentiate itself. They called it “co-creation.”
Coca-Cola may not be a household name in the startup scene, but it is an expert in scaling up businesses. Very few companies can match Coke's global reach, partners, consumers and industry know-how. For example, did you know that Coca-Cola has more trucks on the road than UPS and FedEx combined, and is the only company that can deliver life-saving vaccines to the rural part of Tanzania? Did you know that Coca-Cola products are served to almost 2 billion people in more than 200 countries, or that the brand has more than 100 million fans on Facebook? All of the entrepreneurs in the program were given access to these incredible assets freely, which provided a significant competitive advantage during various stages of the startup life.
For example, even before we embarked on solving the daunting problem of unpredictable staffing needs, my co-founder AJ Brustein and I were connected with multiple decision makers at Coca-Cola, from operations, sales, marketing to legal and HR. We even had access to their frontline operations such as their production & distribution centers, and had the privilege of doing a ride along with truck drivers. We even got to do the job as merchandiser helpers at retail stores. In fact, it was through this experience where we identified the challenges around on-demand staffing needs for both companies and workers. The solution -- applying an intelligent, yet easy-to-use mobile software platform -- eventually became our startup, Wonolo.
All of these assets were available throughout the lifecycle of our startup journey and we benefited from them tremendously. We believe that these intangible values are something that traditional angel investors or corporate accelerators could not and do not offer to startups.
Wonolo co-founders AJ Brustein (left) and Yong Kim inside the startup's first office in San Francisco.
Focus on people first helped us stay nimble and flexible.
All entrepreneurs in the Coca-Cola Founders program were selected even before they had any startup idea. Unlike many accelerator programs, the team at Coca-Cola Founders really looked at entrepreneurs vs. ideas, business models, market size, etc. Very few investors, whether they are traditional VCs or corporations, would write their first check just based on two co-founders with nothing on the table, not even an idea.
However, that is exactly what David Butler, Ross Kimbel and Marius Swart at Coca-Cola Founders did. Yes, they looked at resumes and track records of entrepreneurs they selected, but spent even more time assessing entrepreneurs’ authenticity, perseverance, passion and complementary skill sets, and chemistry of two co-founders. How would two co-founders work together on their first day or the worst day of the startup? How would they make tough decisions together? All these questions meant much more to them than the startup ideas. They believed that ideas and solutions could always easily change, but the makeupn of startup founders could not.
'Had the team at Coca-Cola Founders selected entrepreneurs purely based on the business opportunity (shiny things), we might not have been able to launch Wonolo.'
When AJ and I first got together through the program, we had different ideas, interests and problems we wanted to go after. Although we shared many core values -- integrity, transparency, work ethic, persistence, humility -- which later became found blocks of culture of our startup, it took some time for us to identify a problem we both felt passionate about solving together. In fact, during the first few months before Wonolo’s launch, we worked on another startup idea which was in a completely different space until we realized it was not going to work out. The team at Coca-Cola Founders was patient; working with us during this process and encouraging us to make the difficult decision and move on swiftly.
We also saw this from other co-founder teams within the program. Ricardo Suarez and John Cooper in Mexico City initially had an idea around just-in-time delivery solving a logistics problem for millions of mom-and-pop stores. However, based on the initial set of tests, they quickly decided not to pursue that opportunity. Instead, they identified a huge opportunity in providing a mobile virtual network operator for Millennials which eventually became Weex, a rapidly growing startup in Latin America. Again, the Coca-Cola Founders team was supportive and worked closely with founders during the transition.
Had the team at Coca-Cola Founders selected entrepreneurs purely based on the business opportunity (shiny things), we might not have been able to launch Wonolo.
Having Coca-Cola as a customer is every startup’s dream.
In our early days of Wonolo, we knew that the unpredictable staffing problem we wanted to solve was highly relevant to Coca-Cola. as well as many of its partners including large retailers, hospitality companies and consumer product goods companies. We also knew that our solution, leveraging mobility and software, could potentially disrupt a traditional staffing industry (a $100 billion+ opportunity) while positively impacting millions of people’s lives by giving them job opportunities in the most flexible way.
However, our solution was still at its infancy. We had a minimal viable product, which a few contractor engineers produced on a tight budget and timeline. At this point, the product had just three buttons and was buggy, crashing constantly, especially during the demos. On top of that, although AJ was a phenomenal storyteller and I tried to dabble in business dealings, neither of us had any experience in B2B sales.
Nevertheless, through the team at Coca-Cola Founders, we were able to meet every key executive in operations, HR and legal. They provided feedback on our early product and service, and helped refine and scope out what the initial pilot would look like, eventually allowing us to launch Wonolo with having them as one of our first customers. The entire process took about three months -- from pitching our idea to getting a green light for the pilot. It may seem like a long time, but compared to the average sales cycle for enterprise sales, it was a fraction of the time.
'Many entrepreneurs in the program -- from the Hivery team in Australia, which was able to leverage the extensive Coca-Cola network of vending machines, to the S3 team in Vietnam, which worked closely with a large number of small-to-medium vendors in Coca-Cola’s ecosystem -- benefited significantly from Coca-Cola Founders. Without such collaboration, our time to market and ability to scale might not have reached its full potential.'
More importantly, feedback and advice we got from HR, legal and operations experts at Coca-Cola along the way helped us improve and strengthen our product and service. It prepared us in so many ways that when we started pitching Wonolo to other companies, we had answers for all the difficult questions. Having Coca-Cola behind us and working closely with them gave us additional credibility and opened a lot of doors with potential customers.
Many entrepreneurs in the program -- from the Hivery team in Australia, which was able to leverage the extensive Coca-Cola network of vending machines, to the S3 team in Vietnam, which worked closely with a large number of small-to-medium vendors in Coca-Cola’s ecosystem -- benefited significantly from Coca-Cola Founders. Without such collaboration, our time to market and ability to scale might not have reached its full potential.
Even though Coca-Cola Founders program is no longer active, we have been able to build an amazing relationship with Coca-Cola and its partners, and remain excited to continue working closely with them thanks to the relentless effort and support by all involved in the program. I am hoping that Coca-Cola’s decision to shut down the program does not discourage other large corporations aspiring to collaborate with the startup community and continue finding ways to create synergies working with startups.
Finally, I am personally grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity David Butler, Ross Kimbel and Marius Swart have given to me to build Wonolo together.
Yong Kim is co-founder and CEO of Wonolo