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By Daniel Kirk
Martin Reed is the Founder and CEO of Blue Sea Labs, a San Francisco based company devoted to bringing high quality products to market so as to make better goods accessible to everyone and to improve the lives of producers. He sat down to talk with Fuller professor and fellow San Franciscan Daniel Kirk about his work.
How did Blue Sea Labs get started?
I love seafood! When I was younger my dad was a pacifist and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, so when he was drafted he ended up in Japan. He came back with a love of sushi that he instilled in me. I grew up surfing and fishing.
When I went away to business college in Arizona, I realized that many people don’t have access to good seafood. I also started to see that the entire onus for sustainable seafood was on the customer, who had to know the species, where it’s from, and where it’s caught.
I wanted to take on the onus for sustainable seafood so everyone doesn’t have to.
Sustainable seafood is an issue that addresses both environmental and social atrocities. 90% of our seafood is imported, and much of it comes from Southeast Asia where there is slave labor on fishing boats, and where there are few standards in place to help ensure sustainability.
What was your initial business model?
I was fascinated by the seafood supply chain. It’s long and obfuscated. There are often a dozen middlemen. Why? I wanted to take out the middle men who were not adding value to the product to create a way to get better, more transparent product to the consumers, with better return for the fishermen.
Historically, seafood has been a secretive profession. Fishermen don’t want to tell people where they’re catching their fish. Couple this with the fact that most fishermen are at the mercy of one buyer who is setting the price based on a commodity market, and you have a recipe for massive production, with low return to the fisherman, and little to no incentive to bring high quality product to market.
We launched a site, ilovebluesea.com, three and a half years ago, working with a distributor, curating orders and overseeing distribution. From the beginning I have been committed to never have inventory. Seafood is too perishable and it’s too stressful. So we sold to consumers and restaurants, but without taking possession of the food ourselves. This involved testing numerous models of distribution logistics.
How has the company evolved?
Last year we realized we were doing too many elements of the supply chain: supplying, packaging, shipping, distributing. This is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned: be good at one thing. At least as a start-up. Being good at one thing is hard enough.
And we realized that we had one particular competency that was emerging that we wanted to focus on: distribution logistics.
Right. Think Amazon.
Yes. What we saw in seafood is that there are mom and pop fishers, and there are fulfillment companies. When it comes to getting goods to market, businesses have a hard time competing with Amazon, because Amazon is distributing millions of orders. They can take a whole freight load of goods and distribute it in one place.
We are still involved in seafood, but seafood is now the case study for us: it is the perfect supply chain problem, because it is so perishable and has to be moved to market so quickly.
We are creating a dashboard where there are options for businesses, a logistical ecosystem in the cloud. This is the way that we can put together enough volume for small businesses to route packages with multiple carriers, getting their product to market in the most efficient ways, and being able to avoid costly delays. Amazon can do this because it ships with so much volume that it can contract with multiple carriers. We want to bring that to small businesses, and to farmers and fishers in particular.
Do you feel like you’ve lost your first love?
We are still very much involved with seafood. We applied for a grant with Cisco Systems to help us use our technology to get seafood from boats to underserved populations. The main goal is to enable small fishermen to sell as easily to anyone as he sells to the one large buyer who says what he will pay.
Ideally, we will use this technology to help fishermen catch less and sell more. The fisherman goes out, and the software tracks what he catches in real time. Ideally, it’s all sold before he docks.
Why do you characterize your work as “social entrepreneurship”?
If Google’s motto was “Don’t be evil,” ours is “Do good.” Over the past year I have reframed the narrative of the company. It’s no longer about how I can make it successful so that then I can go and do the “kingdom minded” things I’m interested in. Now it’s, “How can I use this company for those things I’m passionate about?”
How can people get involved?
Grass roots changes are important. Knowing your farmer or your fisher is important. Demanding better food, so that companies recognize that there is money to be made in sustainable foods, is important. The big picture changes to support more local, artisanal food, which our distribution logistics help to make feasible, needs people to help tell a different story: the cost in human capital for eating slave-ship fish is too high; the environmental costs for using GMO foods is too high.
It takes all of us to create the incentives for our producers to care about quality and not just quantity.
Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.
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