The health food industry is exploding at the seams. From acai to coconut and kale, everyone wants to know what the next new "ingredient" will be to help us in our quest for good health.
Shane Emmett, CEO and Co-founder of Health Warrior Chia Bars believes that the new buzzword ingredient now is chia seeds. He shares his start up story:
Why did you start Health Warrior Chia Bars?
To change the way Americans eat and move. We read about chia seeds in the best-selling book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. As three former college athletes (quite far former -- we were all NCAA D1 athletes in a time known as the '1990's'), it spoke to us. We started to eat lots of chia, felt great and decided we would sell it online to endurance athletes, cross-fitters and adventure racers. Our backgrounds outside of athletics were in law and finance, so we had a lot to learn about the food industry. The more we learned, the more cognizant we became that the modern western diet is completely broken. The Omnivore's Dilemma remains and the real food revolution is real, but so are the challenges of modernity (we're busy as hell in modernity). So we started a company based on a best-selling non-fiction book -- a company to make radically convenient real food and to go to war against all the junk out there. Historical consciousness is extremely important to the future of food. We want the story to transcend the grocery store shelf, and we're working hard to make sure it does so.
How did you get started once you realized you had a great product idea?
First, we admitted our ignorance. While we each were successful in other professions, we were food industry neophytes. Thus, we hunted down wisdom wherever we could find it. We reached out to smart people who had been successful in this notoriously difficult space, most notably Kelly Flatly, the co-founder of Bear Naked Granola. Kelly was an enormous help as we got off the ground. It took us months to find the best chia on earth and to name this company that we wanted to help re-shape -- to help evolve -- the food industry. Second, we took Seth Godin's advice and just started selling the second we had the product ready. It's highly amusing as a high growth food startup to read all the tech-company articles about 'lean startups' and constant iteration. Change in food is like redirecting an aircraft carrier, but we're still trying to incorporate those best practices wherever and whenever possible, to really listen, surprise and delight our customers. So we started selling as soon as we had high quality chia in simple, stickered pouches. My brother Casey took NYC, I was in Virginia, and we begged top retailers to put our product on the shelves on consignment. Then we did demos (story + sampling) and, incredibly, the product sold well! Third, as discussed below, we got some big breaks. Hard work brings luck, but it's surprising how much luck you need in the food industry to achieve lift off.
What was your background before becoming an entrepreneur?
I was an archaeologist before making the mistake of going to law school! (Kidding, kind of.) The study and practice of law is a great discipline for doing almost anything and, just prior to starting Health Warrior, I had one of the best attorney positions in the world. I was serving in the Counselor's Office for Governor (now Senator) Tim Kaine in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was challenging and very serious work -- from the Virginia Tech shooting to clemency petitions and capital punishment matters, every day was an adventure and everything we worked on was of enormous consequence. It was a real honor to serve in the Kaine administration. Health Warrior's team has Warriors from a host of awesome backgrounds: Ivy league football players with nutrition degrees, Australian lawyers, a Berkeley graduate who worked at a high level in international relations, a NOLs (National Outdoor Leader School) instructor fresh off a six months journey on a boat in Patagonia, highly successful (now reformed!) investment bankers who are best in class athletes (Crossfit and endurance races, respectively), natural food industry veterans -- the list goes on! It's been awesome finding people committed to our mission and excited to join the team.
What were your biggest challenges in getting up and running?
Health Warrior was offered an incredible opportunity by Whole Foods Market. In April of 2012 we heard that this premier natural grocer wanted to launch our Chia Bars globally, beginning in August. We had exactly one full-time employee at the time(!). Like all good entrepreneurs, we are crazy, so we said 'onward!' This was an undertaking. We had to help Whole Foods sell these crazy new bars with Chia Seeds as the main ingredient at more than 300 stores across the country. I never realized just how big the country is; it's enormous. It was also expensive. We are lucky to have many great investors, our investor tribe. The sad truth of the food industry is that it's incredibly difficult (and probably impossible) to invent an awesome product and brand and be profitable off the bat. Most high growth food brands lose money for years out of the gate. We knew this going in and it is one reason we hesitated about 'going big' in retail until we felt sure our product would sell through. It's why we shipped an early product and made sure customers really would come back week after week to get more.
What have you learned along the way that helps you to keep going during difficult times?
I have learned so much about the industry it's amazing to look back three years to our kickoff. Who let that guy steer the ship?! We were not sure what we were doing most days, we just tried to do the right thing over and over. The most poignant lesson is something I discuss below: You have to just keep going. Perseverance. Even if you are lucky enough to have a highly viable product, which I would define simply as (i) having good margins, (ii) being on trend (iii) and -- most important -- having customers come back week after week. You're going to get beat up. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to get knocked down. And then get knocked down again. You just have to keep getting up, keep moving forward and -- most important -- keep doing the right thing by your partners, employees, investors and customers every single day. Respect and honor your tribe. As I once heard a federal judge in North Carolina give a great talk on his long and dignified career. Someone who was on the right side of the battle throughout the civil rights era. He said it's important to 'do right' in life. And decisions are usually that simple if you allow yourself to be objective.
What advice do you have for other people who feel passion for an idea and want to start a biz?
1. Study the industry business models so you understand cash needs. Cash is king in the food industry, and it can disappear quickly.
2. Find a mentor. Don't pretend you know everything. Find someone with deep knowledge and experience, but brave enough to keep saying "why not" with regard to conventional industry wisdom. That is to say someone to help you know the rules -- so you can break them.
3. Ship early, the best test is real consumers.
4. Do something different. Being just a bit different, producing (A+) product is boring. Shake things up.
6. Do right.
How do you make your product unique enough to stand out in a crowded marketplace:
Our 100-calorie bars feature chia seeds as the number one ingredient. Chia seeds are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth and they have an epic, Indiana Jones-esque adventure story behind them. Most energy bars have sugar as the main ingredient. They're candy bars. Chia kicks sugar's ass. They're truly innovative. It was a bit audacious to release something so different in such a competitive category. Luckily, the people are into it.
What do you consider was a big break or tipping point for the business?
The trick with growing a national brand is that you have to have big breaks at least once a quarter. Whole Foods Market global launch was an enormous opportunity for which we are forever grateful. I consider it a huge break that I have the business partners I do and that we have been able to recruit such awesome employees. Those are probably the two most important breaks for Health Warrior. We are also fortuitous to have some other great companies in the chia category, each of them out in stores most days, telling customers about this nutrient-dense superfood. This momentum has allowed us chia tailwinds; the chia category has grown twice as fast as the coconut water category ever grew. All boats rise with the tide and we have a very blue ocean outlook towards competition at Health Warrior, Inc. We have had press breaks (The Wall Street Journal ran a full page article entitled "The NFL's Top Secret Seed', about pro athletes using our chia seeds); retail breaks (Whole Foods' global launch); and even investor breaks (Arian Foster, one of the best and most interesting players in the NFL, recently invested in Health Warrior).
Finally, we had the break enabling us to sell a genuinely healthy product that makes people better, not worse -- stronger, not weaker. Helps them grow, not decay. And our great customers have come back for more. The stories we receive from members of our tribe are what keep us going on the longest days; Crossfit personal bests, first marathons, lost 10 lbs., inspiration to get over a life-curveball (because life will always throw you curveballs), this is the stuff that builds a brand.
The original Health Warrior, our co-founder Nick Morris, gets up at 4 a.m. every day and takes a 4:30 a.m. train an hour to work in New York City. He goes to the gym every morning (I think he's missed three mornings in three years -- seriously). A father of three, Nick sends our entire team a note each morning around 4:40 a.m. from the train, hours before most people are awake. That's what it's all about, be it getting up from bed or getting up after getting knocked down. Winning.
Shane Emmett and his team of warriors truly believe in the big benefits of the tiny chia seed. Being successful and profitable in this industry is definitely more marathon than sprint but chia seeds are leading them toward the finish line.