Student Starts Totally Frut
Wouldn’t it be great if you could get a smoothie from a vending machine? And not some bottled concoction or a syrupy sweet mess, but the real thing, made from actual fruit. It sounds nice, but is it realistic?
Marc Zemel ‘07 thinks so. The recent Yale Management graduate was part of a five-member group that came up with the idea as a way to get into a business plan developing class. Now, he’s spending the summer trying to develop a prototype and launch a real business. While the other members graduated and moved into the workplace, Zemel’s not entirely out on his own. He was chosen to be in the first class of fellows for the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and the idea won two business plan competitions, the Yale Entrepreneurial Society’s Y50k and the Connecticut Venture group’s annual contest, earning $10,000 and $1,000 respectively.
“I really wanted to start my own business when I came to SOM,” he said. “But I didn’t have an idea. When the five of us got together, we brainstormed some ideas. There was the idea for frozen baby food, which has been done. And then one idea was for a device you popped in your mouth that automatically brushes your teeth. And there was a dishwasher that would automatically unload itself and put everything back in the cabinets. These were dreaming types of things. But then we came up with the idea for a smoothie machine. And the more we came back to it, the more it seemed like it could work.”
Totally Easy Food, LLC, as they've named the company (they plan to market the product under the name Totally Früt), was just an idea, a way to get into David Cromwell’s Entrepreneurial Business Planning course, where students learn how to refine a concept, conduct market research, and begin locating capital. But the Y50k win and Zemel’s acceptance as a YEI fellow presents an opportunity for Totally Easy Food to become a reality.
There are obvious barriers to making Totally Easy Food a success. The biggest is the machine, which must be able to mix the components of a smoothie and do so repeatedly and hygienically. The group ruled-out using any dairy in the product, since it could spoil, especially if there is a power outage. Fresh fruit is also problematic. Any machine would need to use frozen fruit. But how to keep the machine clean? Zemel said he has a few ideas in mind, but doesn’t want to talk about them so early in the process.
Before SOM, Zemel worked as a mechanical engineer, earning 13 patents for his work designing laser-driven lithography machines. He holds a Masters from MIT. For the summer he is tinkering with what he hopes will be a working prototype of a machine to deliver freshly blended smoothies to customers. If all goes well, it could debut in Food for Thought, the student-run SOM café, sometime in the fall.
“I have drawings and sketches,” he said. “The way I see it, there are two aspects to the machine. There's the money and flavor handling part, and then there's this blending part. In terms of what breaks down, typically, in the machine, you think of the one that ate your coins or ate your dollar and didn't give you the product. I'm not going to handle that. I'm going to go with the guys that build these things and do the best job at building the guts of the machine. I'm not going to invent a new refrigerator, either. I'm going to work with the best supplier I can find. On the blending thing, there it's a matter of a lot of testing. Building it. Really analyzing what could happen. The key is to get something up so I can let it run and learn from it.”
Before deciding to go forward with a prototype, Zemel had to be convinced there was a market for smoothies from a vending machine. The group surveyed white-collars workers and students at private high schools in Connecticut. Jennie Vry ’07 said they spoke to about 100 people and nearly all of them expressed real interest in the idea. “We spoke to about 30 students in all,” she said, “and each one – 100 percent – said they would pay $3.00 or more for a smoothie from a vending machine. This was a really positive sign that there is a demand for this, especially when you considered what the options are for people looking to get a quick, nutritious drink.”
Maureen Burke '97, a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies who co-taught the business plan course, said it’s not the technical side that will likely determine whether Zemel succeeds. “In my mind, what will determine if he is successful is the time he spends understanding how the vending machine business works,” she said. “Success depends in part on being able to admit what you don’t know, as well as selling what you do know. So hopefully Marc will find people with the skills to complement his outstanding skills, interest, and background on the technical side.”
Zemel is very aware of this need. He’s found some teammates among the other YEI fellows, including Omar Christidis ’07, and even tapped another recent SOM grad Heather Stone for help over the summer.
“You know, it’s a lonely thing to start your own company,” he said. “It can be very daunting. It’s one of the reasons I came here. I needed a supportive community and to learn how to build an effective team. I won’t say I’m perfect at it, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about myself and about working with other people through the two years that I had here. When you look at what you want to do in business, that's the number one thing. You can't do it all yourself.”