Kind has had a unique business journey.
Daniel Lubetzky started Kind in 2004. Its whole ingredient, clean label bars in clear wrappers became ubiquitous on convenience store and grocery shelves. The company aligned itself with its philanthropic-sounding name, spearheading projects and foundations to work with people in need and promote education, peace and understanding. Kind has always strived to stay close to its values in all things, remaining true to the core principles of the food as a health and wellness solution, and as a corporate citizen that strives to do good.
This strategy paid off, ending with a $5 billion acquisition by Mars, Incorporated in 2020. Although it’s now a part of Big Food, Kind is still known as a brand with strong values and principles.
While the company’s trajectory from an idea to a successful international brand that stands for health, wellness and kindness is unconventional, Lubetzky and many of Kind’s former executives want to help young brands find their own similar path. They’re using Camino Partners, named after the Spanish word for journey, as a business building and investment platform to do that.
Elle Lanning, a managing partner at Camino and former Kind executive, said that at its core, Camino Partners is an incubation and investment platform. It takes Kind’s experience in building and scaling, and helps other values-aligned businesses that are early in their journey.
“For us, that means value in what’s delivered to the consumer,” she said. “We want to back products and services that we think deliver an actual benefit. And then value creation at the organization or individual level in terms of the values we imbue; the how. …How do you use an organization such that you’re putting a stronger set of values out into the world?
“And then ultimately, value creation in the economic sense,” she continued. “We are operators turned investors, but we are still investors. Ensuring that our capital is backing things that we believe in, with people that share beliefs, [and] that then turns it into more capital, that’s like the holy grail.”
A deep portfolio of values-aligned brands
Camino Partners is a new name and a newer mission for Equilibra Partners Management, the venture capital firm run by Lubetzky and other Kind alumni.
Lanning said that Camino Partners will focus on incubating and hands-on work with newer companies. Camino Partners will also team up with like-minded entrepreneurs, helping them start and build new ventures.
Camino Partners’ portfolio includes several companies in food and beverage, as well as other spaces. As Equilibra, it invested in Greek yogurt brand Ellenos, breakfast and baked snack maker Belgian Boys, organic seaweed brand gimMe Snacks, and insect protein maker Chapul. Egg white chip brand Quevos is part of the portfolio, winning an investment from Lubetzky on “Shark Tank,” as is Lubetzky’s own newest launch, plant-based Mexican food brand Somos, which he started with former Kind colleagues Miguel Leal and Rodrigo Zuloaga.
Lanning said the team at Equilibra had spent about a year looking at how they could best target their efforts.
“We’re now prepared to commit the capital to, commit the time to, build the capabilities and [get a] deeper bench of team and partner companies,” Lanning said.
Much like Equilibra before it, Camino Partners is looking at the core leadership of companies to work with, as well as their values, Lanning said. After all, she said, the one thing guaranteed for any sort of business is that things are not going to go as planned.
“The most important thing is that we are values-aligned because, I think, value-aligned people can get through anything together,” Lanning said.
They are looking for consumer businesses — though not just those in the food and beverage space, Lanning said. It’s important that these businesses are born out of passions from the founding team, and are different from other offerings in their space, she said. They’re also looking for authenticity from both the company and its products, as well as a category and culture-shifting edge that can give the brand a boost in marketing and positioning.
Helping others be Kind
As an entity that can provide both funds and incubation, Lanning said Camino Partners will be able to better help companies follow their own path.
Kind didn’t act in accordance with any known strategy for building a business, Lanning said. Instead, the company’s values were at its heart, and its core staff, Lanning included, were all owners of the company. The ownership mentality resonated throughout the company, Lanning said, and it led the company to have frank and open discussions about several big business moves. Lanning said they all pushed on each other to really deeply discuss what the best decisions would be.
The strategy helped the company find its way forward.
Lubetzky’s passion for making a difference helped steer Kind, Lanning said. She remembered first meeting him when she was a marketer working with the food business. At the time, she said, Kind was maybe a $10 million business, and he was trying to build a bigger team. She recalled trying to get a handle on what Kind was all about, and hearing Lubetzky sharing his vision of breaking down barriers between people and getting them to see their shared humanity. He didn’t talk a lot about food and products, she said. It was more about the deeper role that the company could play.
Camino Partners seeks to help founders get some clarity on what their bigger mission is, and how they will use their company to get there. The mission doesn’t need to be beautifully articulated, Lanning said, but that vision needs to be known and at the company’s heart.
Lanning said they’re also looking for products and propositions that are unique enough to disrupt the category. For years, there was nothing else on store shelves that looked like Kind Bars, she said. There’s also a lot of thought that goes into maintaining unique and distinctive products, Lanning said, and Camino Partners is prepared to help companies figure out what they need to execute on starting now.
The other piece that Camino Partners plans to work with companies on is one that they may need the most help with now, Lanning said: finances. While Camino Partners is an investor, they’re also striving to help companies learn how to best manage their money. With the more recent free flow of capital in the food CPG space, some companies may have used more-easily-gotten funds to try to buy growth, Lanning said. Maintaining that growth without continued investment could prove challenging.
The perspective of decision-makers thinking like owners helped Kind keep its finances in line, Lanning said. Instead of thinking in terms of budgets, Lanning said at Kind they tried to push ownership-based thinking. And that’s an approach Camino Partners hopes to bring to the startups it is working with. Lanning remembered the way financial decisions were discussed at Kind.
“Why are you advocating for this investment or initiative?” she said. “And if you ever heard, ‘Because we have a budget for it,’ that doesn’t go over well. Would you spend your dollar that way?”
Although it’s a difficult economic climate, Lanning said that now is really a time of opportunity for the food industry. And Camino Partners knows that from experience. Kind was getting on its feet during the Great Recession and took on its first outside funding in 2008, Lanning said.
“The opportunity is really still there,” Lanning said. “It is ensuring that you’re smart about how you put that capital you bring into use. I think it’s just as exciting a time, if you can shut out some of that doom and gloom noise.