Flipping the Script on Investor Pitches with Kadeya Founder Manuela Zoninsein
About once or twice a month, HubSpot for Startups Principal Content Strategist Ron Dawson, and Otto Awards founder Otto Pohl, have a frank and informative conversation with founders who have inspiring stories to tell. From these conversations you'll glean valuable tips and insights to help your founders' journey.
In April 2023, they chatted with Manuela Zoninsein, CEO and founder of sustainable solutions startup Kadeya. Kadeya Founder. They asked Manuela how her career path led to founding a startup, the key to navigating investor pitches, and what it’s like being a woman in venture capital.
Reimagining supply chains and starting a chain reaction for good is Manuela's ultimate goal. She is building a network of bottling plants the size of a vending machine to eliminate the need for single-use beverage containers. These vending stations will allow users to conveniently obtain a beverage and then return the container to any station in the network. The stations will wash, sanitize, inspect, and refill the bottles inside of themselves—something that’s never been done before.
Kadeya means “chain” in Portuguese, and how fitting that Manuela proudly wore a 3D-printed chain around her neck featuring the company name when we spoke with her.
The origin of Kadeya
Manuela’s career started in journalism, where she worked for Newsweek covering the Olympics in Beijing, China. She had a front-row seat to the clean tech revolution at the time and created the first climate-related blogs for Newsweek in 2007. She also wrote for Engineering News-Record, a large business publication.
She was awarded a fellowship and spent eight years in China, but ultimately, found that the industry wasn’t moving fast enough for her. So, she started a newsletter from her dorm room focused on agricultural technology (the stories Newsweek didn’t want to cover).
Manuela built up a following and started a full-time business with her newsletter. She partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture and started selling data to John Deere and other foreign ad tech suppliers. She eventually sold that business and started a second ad tech business in her home country of Brazil.
Zoneinsen later joined Palantir Technologies in New York, where she worked on international business development and honed her understanding of operational data. At the time, she hated the waste that was being generated on-site, so she started working with the kitchen staff to launch a reusable water bottle program. In just three years, they were able to reduce single-consumption by 30%, and hence the idea for Kadeya and imitating single-use was formed, and the rest is history!
“It was a series of sideways steps of looking for the newest opportunity to use data and information to drive improvements in how we live our lives for a climate world.”
The Kadeya model
There are many interdependencies when it comes to bottling and physical properties. Kadeya’s stations will be able to support a fixed number of individuals once they are in the field—the goal is to support the hydration needs of up to 100 people at any given time. The stations are on track to deliver 100 bottles per hour; however, large manufacturing plants must be able to accept and vend more bottles, so the size and number of stations matters. The team is currently testing the process so that in extreme cases, they can always have a bottle ready to vend and a bottle ready to accept back.
Manuela also aims to digitize hydration, so they can attribute to the consumer how much water or other beverage they are consuming. Since water is not currently digitized, we don’t have data on how it affects people’s health. She plans to integrate this digitization into health tracker tools and referred to the concept as “Fit Bit for water.”
An impact on the supply chain
The greatest impact will be from the supply chain and its carbon footprint—a container must be produced for every consumable package good, then transported across the globe multiple times before it gets into your hands. So, when you throw away or recycle a container, it will be transported once again before its life ends. Kadeya’s stations will separate what’s inside the container (Coke, Pepsi, etc.), and focus on packaging and building a decentralized distribution network.
Kadeya’s first impact assessment showed that they were ⅔ less carbon-intensive compared to single-use beverage vending. They are continuing to make improvements to the stations and their goal is to be 85% less carbon-intensive by 2024.
“We can still deliver the beverages you know and love and we are saying to the industry, ‘You are delivering value to the market, consumers love your product, and we want to work with you and support you in continuing to deliver those products. We can do that in a way that’s better for the environment and save you money.”
Navigating investor pitches
As an entrepreneur, and especially a woman, navigating investor pitches can be a huge undertaking. When it comes to fundraising, Manuela tries to schedule up to 10 pitches per day—each of which is a 30-minute session.
For Zoninsein, these meetings are about learning whether or not the investor is a fit, as well as gathering data on current industry trends. Asking leading questions such as, “Have you invested in any companies like mine and what do you look for in criteria for startups?” allows Manuela to gauge how the investors are interpreting her business. That gives her the feedback needed to ensure she’s telling her story effectively; that way if their investment patterns don’t match up with her business, she can push them on that. This is what she refers to as “flipping the script.” For Manuela, it’s all about starting with “small talk” and learning about the investor first.
When she knows what the investor is looking for and they say “no” to her pitch, it’s important for her to understand the reasons why they chose not to invest. That’s why knowing what’s on their “checklist” in advance is so important.
“I always assume that the investor has good intentions and I give them the chance to discuss their decision and the reasons behind it, be it metrics, strengths, or weaknesses.”
The pros and cons of being a female in VC
For Manuela, being both a woman and an immigrant has made entrepreneurship somewhat of a challenge. In her experience, she’s found that “bias is really toxic” and oftentimes it requires “sifting through potential excuses and knowing when to extract value.” For example, she often hears “there’s not enough traction,” which is not helpful feedback.
“Women are not getting more access to capital, and you have to have 50 times more conversations with investors as a woman in order to get funded.”
The statistics speak for themselves: In 2021 only 2.4% of VC funds went to women-owned companies and in 2022, that percentage dropped to 1.9%.
For Zoninsein, the key is “getting data early and being laser-focused on who the investors are and what they're looking for.” She wants to find out if they fund women, women in hardware, or women in climate, for example. Often there’s not time to educate the investor and if they don’t have a pattern or history of funding female businesses, then the chances are they are going to be biased.
On the flip side, Manuela said that the advantage of being a female entrepreneur and founder is that “people love to feature her in the press, especially during International Women’s Month, for example.” She admitted that females in VC do tend to get a great deal of PR, and there are many awards, competitions, and opportunities for women to share their stories in the media.
Building a business during Covid-19
While in Covid lockdown, Manuela used that time to research economics and talk to potential customers. She held upwards of 1000 customer discovery conversations, fundraised, and practiced pitch sessions.
While white-collar environments such as offices, schools, airports, and hotel industries flattened out during Covid, Zoninsein found the industrial environment to be a huge opportunity.
Additionally, she was able to match the feedback she received with the current market trends. She learned that sustainability doesn’t get you in the door with B2B conversations, as cost, convenience, and quality take the forefront.
Manuela discovered that the key focus needed to be on sanitation and safety, as that was the number one question. According to her, Kadeya’s sanitation process “outperforms existing regulations of commercially available dishwashers”. Thanks to Covid, cleanliness, and safety remain front and center for the company.
For Kadeya, Covid-19 was a very eye-opening and constructive time for business development, and as Manuela put it, “They were riding lucky waves… it was a combination of luck plus preparation.”
Kadeya’s biggest win
Kadeya applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, and although they were turned down in phase one, they were offered a grant in phase two.
That’s when Manuela learned about Dual Use Ventures (DUV), a startup that has both government and commercial customers. They found there was a use case for the military to keep soldiers hydrated—the federal funding was used for customer discovery and they ultimately signed the US Air Force as a customer.
They have now received requests from seven Air Force bases in the US that all want Kadeya to be their sole hydration solution. The next step will be to go in for SBIR phase two to access an additional $1.25 million.
“If we continue to scale, this will be massive. Being able to tell people that the US Air Force is a customer, provides huge validation to what we’re doing.”
Advice for making pitches
Manuela’s advice to other aspiring founders is: “When making pitches, get very specific and be sure to ask the right questions. I like to ask them to first talk about themselves, the size of their fund, how much of their fund they put aside for reserves, what size checks they write, how many investments they’ve made to date, and how much of their fund is deployed,” she said.
This way, she knows how many funding spots remain; thus, she can determine whether or not the pitch is time well-spent. She also asks about the number of investments they are making in that given year so that she can find out the rate of investment.
It’s all about asking the right set of questions and being straightforward. Time is money, and Zoninsein plans to initiate an onboarding form before meeting an investor. That way, she can determine if it makes sense to keep the appointment.
Manuela’s analogy of the pitch process is very fitting…
“The founders making the pitch are often considered the minnows when in actuality, they are the sharks—going after their prey”.
For more information on Kadeya or to express interest in a bottling station for 2024, visit Kadeya.info.