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On Friday February 3rd, 2012, I attended the #BTVSMB Social Hack held at Champlain College’s Miller Center.  You can read a bit about the event here: BTVSMB Social Hack and also here:Localvore need becomes Design Challenge.

The basic premise was to take 75 diverse people from all different backgrounds, divide them into six teams and present them with a challenge.  The teams were supposed to ideate an application or business concept that would further the specific localvore strategic initiatives promoted by VSJF’s Farm to Plate Study.  These strategic initiatives include measurably increasing Vermonters  consumption of Vermont produced food,  developing profitable farms and food processing facilities, create jobs in the food and farm economy and improve access to local healthy foods.

The day started with two great speakers, Richard Ting SVP for R/GA’s mobile and social platforms group and native Burlingtonian Liz Gerber, who is now the founder and director of Design For America.  Richard presented several short video clips to illustrate various social media marketing projects his company had undertaken for Nike as well as non profits.  Liz focused on the design process but she threw in some specific Vermont cultural references to ground her thoughts.

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Then it was show time.  We were assigned to groups of 10-15 people.  Luckily I was assigned to the Arugula group which was led by Liz Gerber.  Liz is a master facilitator and she quickly broke the ice with a series of physical exercises designed to get all of us acquainted with each other but without getting bogged down in mundane details such as who our employers are or the typical things that drive these sorts of ice breaking sessions.  We quickly paired off and I was paired with Chris Lei a recent college grad who grew up in Chittenden County.  Chris has a fiancé, is a self professed “geek” and works for Union Street Media.  Our objective was to listen to the other person’s point of view regarding eating local food and try to find a problem to solve or “customer pain point.”  For Chris his problem was that he was interested in eating more local food but he had trouble with the “accessibility”.  Chris and his fiancé have the same problem most couples and American families do, they have limited time to plan what to eat.  Chris described the almost daily forage where they would go out to shop for what they were going to cook for dinner with only a limited idea of what they were looking for.  Sometimes the supermarket had local foods available but many times it did not.  Sure they might patronize a farmers market on occasion on the weekends but even then they might be stymied by what to do with the produce available.  Chris and his fiancé liked to cook but they are young and they are building their skills and did not necessarily consider themselves experts.

So now it was my turn to take what I had learned from Chris and turn it into a business model.  Luckily for me I have been thinking about this exact problem for quite a while.  I have seen various business models over the years that try to address some portion(s) of this same issue; and even though I am probably 30 years older than Chris I have felt the same “pain” Chris has felt.  I don’t have any more time than he has to figure out how to buy local and plan my meals out for the week.  Liz Gerber gave each of us some materials to aid our brainstorming: Legos, modeling clay, paper plates, markers, and my favorite: several cards from the iconic 1970s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” (yes that explains everything, doesn’t it?!).

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I set to work.  My idea was that there would have to be several things to solve the pain Chris has.  First he is a geek so he wanted some digital application, preferably mobile.  Second, he was overwhelmed by choices in terms of what to cook so the solution would have to simplify his choices.  Finally, he and his fiancé are busy so they can’t run all over the place to find their local ingredients.  My solution was basically My Web Grocer’s shopping meets a simplified meal planner with recipes meets the old fashioned “milk man.” Chris would be presented with some choices for each daily meal, perhaps two or three via a digital application.  He’d select one.  The mobile CSA truck (the modern version of the milkman would deliver the ingredients necessary to make the meal to his place of work or his residence within a fairly tightly defined window of time.  I took the clay and the Legos and fashioned a truck with a carrot on the side (luckily the clay was orange!).  I set the truck on the paper plate then drew in some streets on the top of the plate.  I drew a picture of a cell phone with a primitive order entry system on it and a stick figure of Chris waiting for the truck after entering his order.

Now it was time to present our ideas. Each person in our group had a similar construction using the materials at hand.  Sadly I could not think up how to use the Dukes of Hazzard cards but others did.  We each presented our idea and then the group voted.  My idea got the top vote but the votes were very close and the second place idea was Rebecca Roose’s.  She had a similar idea (although without the delivery truck).  Her front end application was better thought out though.  That made sense because she works for My Web Grocer.  Our group was pragmatic and suggested that we mash both ideas together.  We broke for lunch and then after lunch we got back together with the entire group and began hashing out more details of the idea.  A winning name, “BeetRoute” emerged.  The front end got more elegant and complicated.  The group imagined a sliding scale where on one end there was a recipe so basic the ingredients would be delivered off the truck chopped, washed and in the right quantities so that all that was required was assembly and a bit of cooking.  On the other end of the sliding scale would be a complicated recipe requiring the cook to do a tremendous amount of preparation.  If the consumer was in a hurry on a weeknight they might opt for “assembly” and if they had time to spare (perhaps on a weekend) they might opt for “epicurean” and try out a more complicated option.

The back end got more complicated too.  I imagined a way to construct a series of recipes based on what would be in season locally and then based on a front end consumer subscription model where subscribers would sign up for a minimum number of nights per week of food, BeetRoute could  forecast demand from growers and contract with them as necessary to ensure that they could “focus on growing” rather than on marketing and selling.  Of course we’d have to have contingent plans for seasonal weather shifts and crop failures which would add complexity.  We’d need a warehousing and processing facility of and rolling stock and a pretty complicated logistics system with real time communication to keep track of who was ordering and where they wanted to pick things up. Geo-locational devices would be needed to keep track of where the truck was.

Before long the afternoon had slipped away and it was time to present our idea to the entire 75 person Social Hack group.   Miraculously every group had a unique idea.  Beetroute squeaked out the largest number of votes as the best idea of the day.  Our model would create jobs, improve the accessibility and access to local foods and would help farmers grow their businesses profitably. So what did I learn out of all of this?  First, assembling a smart group of people to focus on a problem for a concentrated period of time can indeed produce a number of possible elegant solutions.  Second, experienced facilitators can keep things moving towards an end goal with a minimum amount of disruption.  Third, it’s important to keep in mind the business model when you are brainstorming ideas.

*Thank you to Stephen Mease of Champlain College for all of the images used in this blog post. *