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Tips From The Top: One On One With Adnan Durrani

I spoke to Adnan Durrani, founder and CEO of Saffron Road, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Adnan: That I am a Rock’ n Roller and former drummer in a previous life (think Clash: Rock the Kasbah!).  I am also passionate about nature and the outdoors, especially fishing. I’ve competed in regional fishing tournaments and travel to Alaska for the salmon runs. Lastly, for seven years I coached a high school robotics team that went to the World’s three times and even won the World Championship – it was quite exhilarating. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 


Adnan: I came from the Dark Side! I was a very successful Wall Streeter, making more money than I could have ever dreamed of. But then, during the Go-Go 80’s and when the original 1987 crash occurred, I wiped out financially, spiritually and emotionally.  Unfortunately, I had a bird’s eye view of some pretty horrible maleficence and greed on Wall St. But it’s what led me to my epiphany: I wanted to get out of the immediate gratification business and build something that could bring people together and make a positive impact. I was introduced to SVN (now SVC) almost 30 years ago by Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms. It was three decades ago that he and my peers at SVN taught me the tenants of building triple bottom line enterprises. Ever since, it has become my passion and mission to build, nurture and lead ventures that can both yield profits as well as deliver on higher social and environmental values.  

Adam: What have been the keys to selling to large retailers? What advice do you have to other entrepreneurial companies interested in selling to bigger entities more general and to brand name retailers like Walmart and groceries like Whole Foods?

Adnan: Don’t rush in. Take your time—start small and prove yourself in a region or with a sample set of stores where your gut tells you can do well initially. Try to find a huge white space or the “low hanging fruit” in which your product or idea can innovatively carve out share or success. Success can be incremental initially, but show the major retailer how this could scale nationally into a much bigger opportunity. That’s what they will be assessing. For example, you may have just launched a product with two SKUs(products) in 100 stores, so the total sales in dollars may be small. But if you can show that the Unit Sales Per Store Per Week (USPSW—a metric buyers live & die by) crushes all other brands in that retailer, then that buyer may agree to scale you out to 2,000 stores. That’s what we did very successfully at Saffron Road. 

Do your research as intensely as you can–Come prepared with bullet-proof facts on your side. Buyers are too busy sometimes to see the forest or big picture –get them out of the trees and give them a strong objective, fact-based case as to why. As Víctor Hugo would say, ‘No army can stop an idea whose time has come.’ 

Be as specific as you can with each retailer! Get the data on what’s working on the shelf and what isn’t. There is always dead space in every supermarket that the buyer knows about and you can be the white night that comes in and rescues him/her, makes the buyer win—so that it’s a win-win strategy. Lead with smart category management.  

Exercise discipline and channel integrity–Our team at Saffron Road is huge on this point—regardless of the temptation to enter the big box retailers from the early days and score a hail mary, we instead made sure to first honor and build our brand in the retailers that brought us to the alter. Once we had built a successful win-win partnership with them, only then did we scale out to the rest of the retailer channels and that has over the long term really benefited us in deepening our relationships, integrity and reputation with our retail and club buyers. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs on building, growing and scaling a business? 

Adnan:

  1. Don’t chase the shiny object or trend. Look out 10 years and build your product or line your sights on what you feel will be forward looking—not through the rear-view mirror at what’s hot now.  
  2. Avoid conventional thinking. Be a rebel and don’t accept conventional wisdom. If somebody tells you it’s impossible, it’s most likely possible. And push the envelope. Go to trade shows and learn! Think critically but do your homework. “If it is too good to be true, it probably is.” And assemble a group of likeminded experts (or Board members) whose brains you can pick to test your assumptions 
  3. Caveat Emptor when it comes to funding—Pick your investors very carefully and make sure they are long-term partners–that they add value and key skill sets, not just VC’s looking for a 3-5-year exit. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Adnan: As an entrepreneur, to be effective you have to defy gravity. By that I mean you have the hutzpah to fight for what you truly believe in against all odds! Be dedicated with a 24/7 work ethic, hire passionate teams that share your values and vision, and have the discipline to be accountable to your team and investors for executing on clear set goals and strategies.One must also learn the art of confronting problems, not just people. And the path to success always is littered first with many failures along the way. I never take these setbacks personally and while I don’t welcome them, a key strength is being able to turn weaknesses into strengths. Entrepreneurial Ju-Jitsu!  

And finally, humor–not taking oneself too seriously—is also paramount to successful leadership.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to executives and leaders? 

Adnan: 

  1. Never give up—follow your passion
  2. Empower passionate teams and create a meritocracy
  3. Be intelligently disruptive and innovative –don’t follow the herd. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Adnan: Never stop believing in yourself, especially your gut instincts. When you start a new venture, there are going to be plenty of naysayers and skeptics—from industry experts, investors, even friends & family that may be very negatively shoot down the idea. Be true to yourself and drown out the negative voices, stay positive in the thousand points of light that drive you to success.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Adnan: We are in the most innovative era ever for start-ups and entrepreneurs. There is record funding, mentors, partners, and most of all open-minded modern consumers that are yearning for new brands to appeal to their values, clean-label food/beverage choices, and speak to their “food tribes”—digitally and in stores. Boston Consulting Group and ACNielsen last year did a study that concluded that 43% of the growth of the $800 Billion US Food& Beverage industry is coming from smaller companies. Wow!! That has never happened in my lifetime—maybe not in several generation’s past. This is an opportune time in American history for young entrepreneurs to dive in and go for it. Carpe Diem!

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Adnan: I mentioned fishing and I also co-pilot a friend’s plane a couple of times a year to various adventurous destinations. I am an avid world traveler as well. Being outdoors in some of the most pristine streams and forms of untouched nature you can imagine, I have always had a cosmically intrinsic and heart-felt connection to the natural beauty our creator has blessed us with on this Earth and beyond. Its something I dearly want to make sure my offspring and future generations also have the blessing and grace to enjoy. It’s the reason I do what I do – dedicating my life to a socially responsible enterprise like Saffron Road that is on a Journey To Better:  better for the environment, better for the food system, and most of all better for humanity.

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