Building an Effective Information Framework

Eric Schnell, CEO, MetaBrand
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Eric Schnell, CEO, MetaBrand

The mission of MetaBrand is to serve natural, organic, nutritional and healthy products entrepreneurs, manufacturers and marketers in developing new food and beverage products targeted to healthy lifestyles. That includes everything from concept to shelf, including product formulations, packaging, branding, and assisting with business development and capitalization. We offer a growing number of client companies "six pillars" of service: Advisory, Capital, Formulation, Ingredients, Marketing and Operations. Also, as a certified B Corp, the company is guided by its commitment to the quadruple bottom line - people, planet, profit and purpose.

In building an information technology framework, the challenge for our business is how does an early stage company with a distributed work force and diverse expertise connect with multiple ingredient suppliers and co-packers to effectively manage many projects at all stages of development, and distill it all down to a single point of interaction with each supplier, manufacturer, distributor and customer?

In responding to this challenge, we have focused our IT investments on how we are going to build a next generation consulting company that goes beyond just giving advice into being involved with our client companies with their products on the shelf and in influencing people where they live - and keep it affordable and profitable.

Granted, massive, well-known Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) software solutions offered by such companies as Oracle, SAP and others can solve these problems every day. However, as an early stage company, we currently don't have the ability to implement such large-scale solutions. Also, in working with diverse manufacturers, we often have to work with closed systems, and some of our clients are more technologically savvy than others. A number of our customers still don't have electronic data interchange, or EDI, systems in place.

As a result, our information environment has to work for everybody all the time with all the end points we touch without causing integration challenges on our clients' end. Additionally, we need to take into account that we do not operate in a single facility, so we need to coordinate different types of ingredients, products, plants and entrepreneurs across the country on a daily basis.

Our solution has been first to draw on understanding our customers' needs and what is important to them. We've begun implementation of combining the best of several off-the-shelf technology solutions and are weaving them together into a portal environment combined with a social media component so that we can stay in real time communications with each respective client and service and material providers.

Basically, as necessity is the mother of invention, our approach has been to make use of what is widely available and best apply it to our particular situation.

In assembling our information technology framework, we examined all the bits and pieces of things we needed in the marketplace - including Software as a Service (SaaS), internal client/server database, hosted database, a corporate real time social media network, project management software, customer relationship management (CRM) software, etc. Then we spun this all into a process where information is accessible in real time to project managers and clients, including documents, files, orders, shipping requests, etc. - all stored in client workspace. This provides the tools for one project manager to have multiple interactions taking place with customers, consultants and suppliers all at a time - and everyone can track what is gong on. In addition to posting online messages on client portal pages, we also notify them via text or email of activity that needs their attention in their respective portals.

We also try to be mindful that there is no one "hero" component - we are building a framework from a combination of software solutions in order to make our products and services outstanding. We are constantly working and refining our information technology toward the best combination to serve our diverse clientele. So far, our system is working well in Alpha-testing, but we need to be mindful of proprietary formulas, encryption, storage, etc. This is not an "online-storage" solution; we are making sure we have a much more robust system to serve our clients' proprietary needs, and as entrepreneurs, we are striving to do this as cost efficiently as possible.

From what we've learned so far, our advice to other early stage companies is to look at software and systems with a blended eye. Try not to think this one thing solves all my needs or this other doesn't serve my needs at all. Find the 75% or 80% solution and get real resourceful on how to bridge the gap with an 18-month internal solution. Last is data security.  Resist the thinking of "doing it ourselves internally." Put that piece of your business with a trusted, well-vetted, outsourced partner. Doing so has allowed us to focus what we are good at, which is helping entrepreneurs turn their ideas and dreams into reality.

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