Set priorities and live with discipline. Good habits will help reinforce your self-esteem and sense of stability. Both are really important during a time of crisis. Also, ensure that you consistently attack your weaknesses through your habits. You will always sink to the level of your training. In the military, we consistently honed our craft in most adverse climates and conditions possible. This made us stronger and more capable.
Inthis interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing John Timar.
John serves as President & COO of Kill Cliff, America’s fastest-growing clean energy drink company. He engineered the brand’s breakout growth and led the launch of Kill Cliff CBD as the first and largest national brand to introduce a CBD beverage. A start-up executive at heart, John previously led sales at a software company called TerraGo, which pioneered the first B2B platform-as-a-service Smart Grid software application. He also built a 40m dollars subsidiary at Control Risks in 24 months. John served as a U.S. Navy SEAL and actively advises startup companies and mentors veterans. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughter and enjoys playing guitar and practicing jiu-jitsu.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Igrew up outside of Atlanta in a great family environment. My mother was a school teacher and my father was an intellectual property attorney, following a career flying A6 Intruders in the Navy. My mother worked in impoverished, inner-city schools and I really respect her selflessness and commitment to making a difference. She had options but selected to put herself in the most challenging, highest potential impact environment. Likewise, I looked up to my father and my grandfather for their military service and I really enjoyed watching spy movies with my father as a kid.
As a child, I was an action guy. I liked to play sports and had zero interest in school. I was really creative and excelled in the arts in high school but struggled to find my own identity. I did not have a strong sense of direction. I was pretty good at a lot of things but was not great at any one thing. There was not a single passion that defined me or an expectation from my family that guided my future.
Growing up, I was drawn to action sports, the electric guitar, and James Bond. So, guess what happened next? After three semesters in college, I dropped out to play guitar in a rock band. Then, I joined the Navy to become a SEAL. Now I run an energy drink company and jam whenever I can. It all makes sense, right?
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am president of Kill Cliff, America’s clean energy drink company. We are the fastest-growing clean energy drink in the country. We were the first brand of our size to embrace CBD and innovated the top-selling CBD beverage in America as well.
Founded by a Navy SEAL, Kill Cliff literally started out in the trunk of a car selling drinks door-to-door. It is a true American startup story. The company has now given over 1 million dollars to military-related charities, which is frankly uncommon for such a young company. Earlier this year, we were selected as one of the country’s 250 most disruptive brands by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and we’ve won 8 Telly Awards for our content.
I spend the majority of my time fostering a highly creative and entrepreneurial environment. I challenge employees to embrace an insurgent mentality and to move at lightning speed. Getting there fast and furious is way more important than curating perfection. The brand is so important, so I put a tremendous amount of effort into developing ours. We are fortunate to have an incredible creative team led by award-winning CMO, John Brenkus.
Most beverage companies buy distribution and lose obnoxious amounts of money. That is not us. We build strength through brand and give our proceeds to the families of the toughest warriors on the planet.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served as a Navy SEAL in my early 20s. It was an incredible and formative experience, to say the least. We operated at extremes and took great pride in being able to pull off amazing feats as a small team. So much of being a SEAL is about self-control. Harnessing your fear, controlling your emotion, and pushing through tough situations. Mental fortitude is the common denominator among SEALs. Most people saw me as a longshot going into the whole thing; I was an average athlete and a total slacker in school. I thrive as a longshot.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
The entire SEAL experience was life-changing. Accomplishing things I never thought possible helped me understand the power of a positive mindset. While in the Teams, so many crazy things happened for sure. There was a time when a pilot accidentally dropped a bomb on our position. Turns out he dropped the wrong bomb so we were extremely fortunate. There was another time when we got stranded at sea 50 nautical miles offshore in a Zodiac boat with no fuel, food or water in hypothermic conditions. We managed to connect to the fleet just before our radios died and were recovered. My stories pale in comparison to the post 9/11 generation, but I do think there’s a commonality in the entire SEAL experience. The margin between success and failure is so small. Life is random. Good and bad will happen. You must fully commit to win, so get out there and get after it.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
The military does a good job of reminding you of your heritage and those that have given everything for their brothers. Fields, ships, barracks are named after incredible people and their stories live on. If you pay attention, it is surrounding you in the military. We had the MOH citations primarily from Vietnam era recipients on the walls of the Teams during my era. We were so removed from conflict at that time that these emblems served as reminders to us all. That said, I visited the BUD/S compound a few years ago and was blown away by the memorials created for the many fallen SEALs since 9/11. The sacrifice and accomplishment of the Naval Special Warfare community is unbelievable. It was humbling to walk through those halls again and to be surrounded by the portraits of these incredible operators.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Heroes often serve to inspire and exemplify traits that a society or group seeks to embody. The idea tends to be rather subjective, but you can unpack some common attributes found in heroes. A hero is inextricably linked to suffering and perseverance. This is typical in popular culture. In the military context, a hero is one who acts without regard to personal consequences to accomplish a mission or to do what is right. Importantly, however, I believe there is the characteristic of bold action that is inseparable from heroism. In the SEAL Teams, we use the phrase “violence of action.” Being the first. Being the innovator. Being a leader. Being the originals. Putting everything on the line. They are our heroes.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
The military absolutely prepared me in so many ways — — discipline, accountability, confidence, etc… Most of all, I believe the military taught me how to effectively manage through uncertainty and how to work with a team to prevail in challenging circumstances. We were taught how to do things the right way, but then we were tested in situations entirely foreign from our initial learning environment. We had to improvise, be creative, and act decisively. This directly translates to success in business. Rarely do things go as planned. You have to be agile, adapt, and move fast. One important lesson from the military to convey is the importance of accountability in leadership. You cannot lead without it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Great question. I know you are looking for one story here, but my answer is about to feel like an award speech. Please bear with me for a second. Without a doubt my wife. She has been with me the whole way and is my enabler. She encourages me to pursue my dreams. For that, I am forever grateful.
There are a few other people that have absolutely made a big impact on me. They have changed the way I play the game. There’s Chris Broderick, the youngest person ever to lead the storage business for CA Technologies. He is a total gangster. We worked on a VC-backed tech company together. He taught me how to create a position of strength and build an insurgent brand. He is one of the smartest and least pretentious people I have ever met.
There’s also Josh Lieberman, an Atlanta tech leader and founder of QASymphony. I interviewed for a CEO position with him once. We had a great conversation. I did not get the job. However, the entire experience was cathartic. It was like therapy. It was a watershed moment for me. I realized through our time together and subsequent friendship that I had been wasting my talent and needed to take more risks. I needed to be true to myself.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not thank Todd Ehrlich. He is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Kill Cliff. We served together at SEAL Team 8 and he believed in my ability to lead Kill Cliff and take the company to new frontiers. I am very grateful for the opportunity.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
A crisis is a disruption with the potential for high consequence. The game is changing, whether temporarily or permanently, and you must react.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Culture. That is the most important thing for sure. It does not matter how much you plan or run scenarios. Without the right culture, you will struggle in crisis. The thing about a crisis is that so much of it is simply unpredictable. Planning is great, but your values and behavior as an organization primarily inform the outcomes for your business.
If you want to win, you will have accomplished a few things at a minimum. Your priorities and identity as a business are crystal clear. Performance and innovation are rewarded. Leadership is earned not assigned. Your employees are empowered to be creative and take smart risks. You are building a focused and resilient team able to adapt to a myriad of challenges and discover the pathway to success.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
For sure. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach once told me “with movement comes opportunity.” The worst thing you can do in a crisis is to remain still.
You need to understand the dynamics of the crisis, its potential impacts, and act. Your immediate focus should be on securing your core. Focus on what you can control, what you must win, and put your initial effort and resources into winning those battles. Then, go on the offensive. There will be blood in the water. Be an insurgent and attack. Crises will alter the status quo and can define a new generation of winners and losers.
Look at the consumer packaged goods industry right now. Those chest-thumping about historic sales due to pantry loading during a pandemic are the long-term losers. Those reinvesting their gains into direct-to-consumer business models are on the path to victory. Those who internalize the changing dynamic in consumer behavior and are getting out in front of it are the long-term winners.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Objectivity, mindset, and agility. You have to be able to take an honest assessment of a situation in order to make the hard choices that will help you prevail. You must have a strong mindset — focus, discipline, a desire to triumph. You must be agile. The game changes in a crisis. Winning may require you to live differently or adopt new business models.
In BUD/S training, you are often overwhelmed with chaos. You learn to persevere by focusing on your immediate challenge and stringing together a bunch of wins. Thriving in crisis is no different.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Elon Musk, or at least my perception of him. Most of his accomplishments today people said were impossible at the outset. He is building the future in the present. It is an incredible body of work. I do not believe you are putting rockets in space without objectivity, mindset, and agility. And, yes, I do intend to buy a Tesla Cybertruck. Elon is bucking convention and challenging our norms. I love it.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
The transition out of the military challenged me to the core. I struggled to find employment. The dreams I left the service to pursue did not manifest. I struggled financially. I struggled physically with service-related injuries. After being in the very elite of the military, this was a hard pill to swallow. My world was turned upside down.
Through this experience, I learned to separate my identity from things that can be taken from me — — job, social status, money and material possessions — — and reconstituted myself as a much healthier and stronger person. It was because of the rejection that I experienced early on that compelled me to follow my own path. It feels like I have ended up at a place that is right for me.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
1 — Live in the moment and make hard choices. Understand that good and bad things will happen. Do not waste energy on things beyond your control. If you do, you will feel vulnerable, helpless and weak. Put your focus on doing your very best in your immediate circumstance. As a SEAL, you learn that you cannot let the magnitude of the big picture stifle your ability to make progress in the here and now.
2 — Set priorities and live with discipline. Good habits will help reinforce your self-esteem and sense of stability. Both are really important during a time of crisis. Also, ensure that you consistently attack your weaknesses through your habits. You will always sink to the level of your training. In the military, we consistently honed our craft in most adverse climates and conditions possible. This made us stronger and more capable.
3 — Know and defend your values. This is important. The worst thing in a crisis is to lack an identity, a sense of home base and what matters most. This is critical to making good decisions and defining your priorities. Crises are rife with uncertainty. If you do not know who you are, you risk getting swept away and losing control.
4 — Live by the golden rule. Treat people how you want to be treated. Realize that stress and anxiety can spread like wildfire. There is a saying in the SEAL Teams “misery loves company.” Understand that everyone is in a struggle so do not project your anger, fear, or frustration onto others. That will be counterproductive and just create more problems. Be a good person and lift up those around you.
5 — Be accountable to yourself. Do not judge yourself based upon the perceived success or failure of other people. Judge yourself according to the standards that you have set and vow to live by.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I want to meet Ken Block. He is an incredible entrepreneur, having co-founded, built and sold DC Shoes. In my mind, he is the real deal. What did he do after selling his business in his late 30s? He became a professional rally car driver. He is getting after it, pushing the extremes and continuing to innovate! Not only do I love that he is in his 50s and still crushing it in action sports, but also I love that he is continuing to build more brands and is engrossed in creating incredible content. His Gymkhana series, a YouTube phenomenon, is now the subject of an amazing docuseries on Amazon.
How can our readers follow you online?
Easy. Follow @killcliff on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for 100% more winning. If you want to keep up with me, I am on LinkedIn under my name and on Instagram @jt.hammer.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.