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Sustainable seafood entrepreneurs share their tips for success

When Norah Eddy and Laura Johnson received their master’s degrees from the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), in June 2014, the celebration was especially meaningful. Their fledgling company, Salty Girl Seafood, Inc., which they co-founded that same month to provide reliably sourced seafood from sustainably managed fisheries, sold their first order to the caterer. “Our classmates went directly from the commencement to the celebration and ate Salty Girl Seafood,” Eddy says.          

Eddy and Johnson had spent the previous 2 years studying coastal marine resources management, with a specialization in eco-entrepreneurship through a joint initiative between the Bren School and the College of Engineering’s Technology Management Program. In the program, which is the only one of its kind in the United States, students devise business plans for solving environmental problems. Both Eddy and Johnson were interested in interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial approaches to solving scientific and environmental problems. “I liked fieldwork and I knew I wanted to do applied science,” Eddy says, “and I had a goal that I would start a business after my master’s. But I didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

Finding direction

She also didn’t know exactly what it would be. But during fieldwork in the Galapagos Islands, Eddy says, she and Johnson had “their light-bulb moment” about the challenge they wanted to address and how they might be able to do it. They were studying the management of an overharvested spiny red lobster fishery when they sat down with a conservationist who mentioned an idea he’d been mulling over. What if, he asked, you could design a financial incentive for good management practices, with conservation-minded tourists paying higher prices for local lobsters in exchange for harvesting practices that would ensure the fishery’s sustainability? Local fishermen could profit while also lowering harvesting pressure.

Laura Johnson (left) and Norah Eddy (right) on a crabber in New Bedford, Massachusetts in March 2015

Laura Johnson (left) and Norah Eddy (right) on a crabber in New Bedford, Massachusetts in March 2015

Credit: Salty Girl Seafood

“That’s when the light went on in our heads,” Johnson says. “We saw that there could be an opportunity for a market-based incentive to fix a problem. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to fix a missing link on the path toward sustainability for fisheries.”   

Their eco-entrepreneurship program was designed to give them the business acumen for addressing environmental problems in just that way, says Steven Gaines, a marine ecologist and dean of the Bren School. “There may be opportunities for a business to come in and solve an environmental problem and tap some profit potential as a way of driving a change, as opposed to having all the solutions funded by philanthropies or forced by government regulations,” Gaines says. “There are many different approaches to solving fisheries problems,” Eddy adds, “but there are more and more market-based solutions, which is really exciting.”

Network, network, network

“If you want to be engaged in driving solutions, you need to have good ideas and also be able to sell them,” Gaines continues. “That’s what Norah and Laura do so well.”   

Eddy and Johnson credit their success in part to tireless networking as graduate students. In their program, they learned a methodology named “customer discovery,” in which entrepreneurs interview potential customers, industry experts, and even possible competitors before fleshing out a business model. Eddy, Johnson, and their team called on scores of fishery managers, wholesalers, fishermen, and many others. They routinely made cold calls, asking for guidance or information. “Sometimes I refer to it as stalking,” Johnson says with a laugh. “You have to be completely unashamed.” “We would approach any and all who were willing to talk to us and listen to us,” Eddy adds, “anyone who might have useful information about the seafood industry. … You’d be surprised by how many people are interested in what you do.”

You have to be completely unashamed.

–Laura Johnson

Eddy advises that students who might be interested in starting a business should try to make as many contacts as possible while they are still in school. “That’s when almost anyone is willing to talk to you,” she says. “Now that we are a growing company, it’s unlikely that we’d have much success getting our competitors on the phone.”

One person they connected with was Craig R. Cummings, an entrepreneur-in-residence at UCSB who encourages students to call him informally to talk over ideas for starting businesses. “Very few take me up on that,” he says, “but Norah and Laura called every week, and we met for coffee and talked.” Cummings became their mentor and later their founding CEO, investing in the company and raising money from his business contacts. (Friends and family also pitched in some seed money.)

Students and young scientists must communicate the passion behind their academic specialties, and that will lead to opportunities, Eddy advises. “People want to know why you do what you do. Why is the interesting part,” she continues. “When someone is interested in hiring you, or when you’re trying to make a great connection, you need to make people understand why you’ve chosen this path. That prepares you to go the next level.”

For Eddy and Johnson, that “why” is to support and promote sustainable fishery practices—which can mean spending weeks evaluating a fishery or a single fishing boat. “We spend lots of boots-on-the-dock time with the fishermen we source from,” Eddy says, “making sure we trust them and feel comfortable working with them. It’s a lot of fun for us. Face-to-face is really important.” 

They also consult with their network of advisers to help them make the call about whether a fishery meets their standards for sustainability and whether they want to work with them. “We have maintained very close contact with our school advisers,” Johnson says. “They help us ensure that we are making the most informed decision possible. We work together to review all relevant data and make informed decisions, and we are folding in new partners with strong backgrounds in fisheries science.” 

Adapt for success

Salty Girl Seafood was launched as a wholesale operation, selling sourced seafood to restaurants. It soon became clear, however, that the business model was flawed. Salty Girl could not be scaled up because the customer base—conservation-minded chefs in high-volume restaurants on the West Coast who are willing to pay premium prices for seafood—was too small.

At seafood-tasting events, though, many people would ask why they couldn’t buy Salty Girl fish directly. So, in July 2015, about a year after starting the company, the co-founders decided on a new course. While maintaining their rigorous sourcing standards, they moved to a retail business model, selling directly to consumers.

In comparison to the chef market, potential retail and online markets for sourced seafood are larger and can grow more rapidly, allowing Salty Girl to gain increased economies of scale. Moreover, their research showed that many U.S. consumers lack confidence in preparing seafood, which they have addressed by selling their fish pre-marinated in three recipes. Salty Girl now sells their frozen filets in select California retail stores and online from the company’s website—a model that has been very successful, Cummings says. Each piece is labeled to tell consumers where and how the seafood was caught.

“We approach our business with scientific thinking,” Eddy says. “It’s all about experimenting: running a test, obtaining results, and using that data to inform decision making. But you need to be flexible and keep talking to lots of customers,” she continues. “For us, this meant pivoting completely to a different business model. You can’t remain tied to one idea.”

As the company continues to grow, the co-founders’ scientific background will remain essential to its success. “We are always seeking to identify fisheries where Salty Girl can act as a market-based incentive,” Eddy says, “where we would actually be the missing link on the path towards sustainability.”

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