Emerging Entrepreneurs

Needed, savvy mentors who can help start-ups step on it

Amrita Nair-Ghaswalla | Updated on August 06, 2019 Published on August 06, 2019

Mithun Appaiah, CEO of Innovative Foods Ltd

Mithun Appaiah dons the ‘relevant mentor’ hat for start-ups

Entrepreneurs need to face the hard truth: they don’t have all the answers. There are bound to be times when they need help and advice, and countless other times when they hesitate, second guess, or question themselves.

Normally, entrepreneurs tend to spend hundreds of hours attempting to raise funds from angel and venture capital investors. Though these activities are clearly important, start-ups and founders also need to dedicate time to something that is regularly overlooked: mentorship.

It is a simple strategy that can increase a company’s odds of success. That is why Mithun Appaiah, CEO of Innovative Foods Ltd, maker of frozen food brand Sumeru, has donned the hat of a mentor.

Magnifying the creative power of entrepreneurs through relationships and resources is at the core of what Mithun does. A mentor to budding business management professionals as well as start-ups in the consumer space, Mithun has had his fair share of crazy.

A mentor will tell you some hard truths that your peers cannot, because he knows the consequences of your actions before you take them. More importantly, a mentor wants to help you succeed.

Mithun has been in the FMCG and food and beverage industry and has expertise across sales, brand and customer marketing, logistics, business development, P&L management and developing new business channels.

A mentor genuinely cares about you and your future. So much so they are willing to step in and even try your product.

A start-up dealing with personal care products approached Mithun. “They were a bunch of young entrepreneurs who wanted me to sample their products and give a frank feedback. I tried their shower gel the next day, made out of natural neem extracts. The whole bathroom smelled of neem and I started smelling like a neem tree myself,” he chuckles.

How does one deal with a crazy idea? “Every start-up is crazy and that is what I love about them,” says Mithun, who has noticed a clear trend. He says a lot of people are getting into the food category, either on the tech side or on the product side. Mostly, people tend to leave their jobs and get into the F&B space given their own love for food and beverages. Many are also into frozen foods.

It is Mithun’s passion to mentor young business graduates or budding professionals who want to start their own business.

“Today there is a pressing need for ‘ear-on-the-ground mentors’, a critical need for any start-up to succeed. The dynamics of retail business has changed drastically and due to this, the outlook of consumers has also evolved,” says Mithun.

Identifying a gap in the industry, where there was an urgent need for more relevant mentors rather than mentors who have great experience but are low on relevance, Mithun decided to step right in.

“Given the real-time need for ear-on-the-ground listening, the requirement for mentors who are in the thick of things is critical. Most times these mentors are not available for start-ups,” he adds.

Learning from start-ups

Mithun also tends to learn a lot from start-ups. “There are times when I am amazed by the ideas and passion that some of them bring to the table,” he says.

Recently, he interacted with a Chile-based firm which is into plant-based nutritional food. Pointing out that most of the start-ups have great potential, he adds, “There is one doing differentiated sauces and then there is another doing biker gears. All of them need to define their brand core, why they are here, what’s their purpose, do’s and don’ts, route to market. With so many questions to answer, it is crucial start-ups get the ‘right’ mentor.”

But there are problems galore. Mithun notes most start-ups in India face an identity crisis as they are not sure what their purpose is and what’s the problem that they are actually solving.

Most also have an issue on channel selection and activation. Start-ups also find it difficult to define their core and identify values that would take them for the long haul. Most of them are interested in pushing for a fund-raising rather than wanting to create a business model with a strong moat. Many don’t seem to even have got their business right and tested in the market.

The biggest challenge

He adds that one of the biggest challenges start-ups face is in getting the right set of people and structure to manage the business. “Most also don’t know where to stop. It’s imperative to know what not to do first,” he adds.

Mithun was pivotal in building ID Fresh foods, a food products company based in Bengaluru, to 3x revenue within 24 months. He also doubled its distribution footprint during this period.

Born in Coorg, Mithun spent his early years in Mangaluru. After passing out from IFIM Business School, Mithun joined Nestle India when he was 22, handling both urban and rural markets and building the rural market footprint into feeder towns.

He was credited with building the on-trade business of United Spirits, UB Group, during his 6-year stint. He also played cricket for the RCB owners team against KKR and CSK.

Post that with Britannia he handled various roles and was instrumental in building the alternative trade business to ₹400 crore.

It was then he shifted his focus to accelerating start-ups that would typically need this kind of expertise. Some of the start-ups he has assisted are Habanero Sauces, Jade Hospitainment, Custom Element and Samaara jewellery.

Published on August 06, 2019
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