A Product-First Mentality. Nothing else matters if your product is not excellent. And, on the flip side, everything gets easier when your product is excellent. Never, ever cut corners on quality, and never stop improving your offerings.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Nitze.
Will Nitze is the Founder & CEO of IQBAR, a Boston-based brain and body nutrition company. After studying psychology as an undergrad at Harvard, Will became fascinated with the human brain and how it functions. Then, in his mid-20’s he experienced chronic failings with his own brain — including daily headaches — that he traced back to his high-carb diet. By eliminating staples like bread and pasta from his regimen, he staged an astounding cognitive recovery!
In 2017, after failing to identify ready-to-eat products that matched his new regimen, Will begin tinkering in his apartment kitchen on a protein bar optimized for brain and body nutrition. After countless iterations, he launched a successful crowdfunding campaign and incorporated IQBAR. While the product line has evolved over the years, Will’s mission of empowering “doers” through better nutrition has never wavered. IQBARs are now sold in 7,000 US locations and on all major e-commerce platforms.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
My pleasure! My childhood backstory — much like my experience in adulthood — is largely defined by my proclivity for obsession. For most of my middle school years, I was obsessed with soccer. Then, for a few years it was chess. For a period it was ping pong. Whatever was the subject of my interest at any given time was my only interest. For better or worse, that’s my personality, and luckily I have parents that supported and encouraged me throughout each of these phases.
It’s important to note that I was not the prototypical born-entrepreneur who sold lemonade and Beanie Babies. That said, I think my personality has always mapped well to entrepreneurship — it just took me until my mid-20’s to turn my obsessive nature to the wild world of startups.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Honestly, I don’t really believe in “ah ha” moments from the get-go, unless your’e inventing something totally novel that unequivocally solves a problem no one else is solving. For me, my experience has been more of developing an exciting hypothesis, pursuing it, and constantly collecting data to determine if the hypothesis is valid. Your first hypothesis is rarely 100% valid — it’s likely only partially valid. Then, you constantly pivot until you (hopefully) achieve some sort of product-market fit.
It has only been after that ultimate fit becomes apparent (from sales and customer feedback) that you truly can let yourself experience an “ah ha” moment. Because it’s at that point that your journey as an entrepreneur really begins.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure how funny this mistake was, but it was certainly dramatic. Roughly 6 months into our company’s existence, we cut a deal with CVS through which they bought several hundred thousand bars from us. We said “yes” without knowing how we would actually handle the production run. In the span of less than two months, we transitioned from our first contract manufacturer to a much larger one and lined up all the supply chain elements necessary to make the bars on time.
Our entire team drove out to the manufacturer for the first day of production. Everything from the mixing to the wrapping of our bars appeared to be going perfectly, until the production manager tapped me on the should and said, “we have a problem.” Our wrappers were not sealing properly, and, as we would soon learn, there was nothing we could do to make them seal properly. Without functioning wrappers, we had to halt production entirely. My heart completely sank.
After 15 minutes of feeling sorry for ourselves, my team and I sprang into action, calling every wrapper company in America to get new wrappers turned around ASAP. Miraculously, one vendor was able to make it happen, and a week later we were producing properly sealed bars to send to CVS. The (expensive) lesson? Stress-test every component of your supply chain and manufacturing process before making anything!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
There are three mistakes I see the most often. First is a lack of focus on unit economics; you just plain have to hit a certain gross margin and on-shelf price to survive and scale in this industry. Second is a lack of focus on the product; a “good enough” product can sell well for a time, but only truly great, high-repeat-purchase products will have lasting power. Third is profligate spending; it’s so easy to spend on trade shows, expensive PR firms, and other costs that often have a dubious return on investment in this business.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
- Do some very basic market research on the form factor and value proposition of your potential product. If you want to build and scale a food brand, there has to be a market on the other end.
- Find 5 people who have built very similar businesses to the one you want to build. Call them and beg them to have a call with you. If they’re local, even better — offer to buy them coffee. Then, pepper them with questions on how they started (everything from fundraising to manufacturing). This will give you an initial roadmap.
- Map out how much cash you’ll need to get started, and call every rich person you know to ask them to invest. You should only need 25–50 dollars to get off the ground. A really good, well-thoughtout deck you can share is helpful here. If you don’t know any rich people, find some and be relentless.
- Consider using that initial capital to run a crowdfunding campaign. The campaign will not only confirm or deny that you have a good idea, but it will generate real sales. If successful, you can then raise more money on the back end of the campaign, buecause you’ve validated your idea and derisked the venture for potential investors.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Just start. It’s never going to be the right time, you’ll never have enough money, and you’ll never feel you have enough expertise. Start anyway. And by the way, “starting” doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job and investing your life savings into some new idea. It doesn’t have to be as high-stakes as that. It could instead mean, for example, keeping your day job but blocking off your nights and weekends to work on a prototype until it’s market-ready.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
If invention development consultants were so good, they would be inventors — not consultants. Strike out on your own, while consulting subject matter experts along the way. And don’t take any one piece of advice as gospel. Do your own extensive research, and validate everything.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It depends on how much cash you need to get started. Food businesses are expensive, but not tech-startup-expensive. You can absolutely make it to several million dollars in revenue via angel invement or bootstrapping if you have the available cash. In some cases, you can make it all the way to exit without dealing with financial institutions (e.g., venture firms) — that should be your goal, whether or not it’s feasible to make it happen.
The problem with venture firms is two-fold. First, in my experience, they will give you terms that are drastically worse than angel investors will. Second, they will impose expectations on you and your business that you may not want to take on. When they invest in you, their timeline to receive a return on that investment kicks off, which means they’ll be pushing for relentless growth at all costs which is very often not in your best interest.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
My advice on all of these items is to call as many people who have “done it before” as you can, while in parallel doing a ton of good-old-fashioned Googling. Whatever ingredient sourcing challenge you’re striving to solve, someone else has solved it before, and there are likely solutions written about online (ingredient company press releases are a good place to start). The same goes for finding co-packers and for identifying and pitching retailers and distributors.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
You just plain need money to start, run, and grow a food business. My advice here would be to seek out the “cheapest” (i.e., least-diluting) money possible. Start with family, friends, and friends-of-friends and stay in the angel investing territory as long as you can. Crowdfunding is a great additional way to secure “cheap” money early on.
2. A Truly Differentiated Product
Don’t go into business just to sell a great-tasting, yet uninteresting product. The road will just be too difficult. Only start a food brand if your value proposition is drastically different from what else is out there. The road will still be extremely tough, but you’ll be able to acquire interest, attention, and sales at a sustainable cost-effectiveness.
3. A Product-First Mentality
Nothing else matters if your product is not excellent. And, on the flip side, everything gets easier when your product is excellent. Never, ever cut corners on quality, and never stop improving your offerings.
4. Critical Personality Traits Within Company Management
Resilience, a total lack of ego, comfortability with the unknown and constant micro-pivots, and the ability to act quickly and decisively are all absolute “musts”. Having smart people running and advising the company is a major plus, but not as important as these traits in my opinion. I’ve always thought the Mia Hamm quote “A winner is that person who gets up one more time than she is knocked down,” is an excellent commentary on CPG startups.
5. An Excellent Team
You can’t do it alone. In the early days, you need excellent generalists. After you grow into the millions in revenue, you need excellent role players. Delegating responsibility is both the most difficult and the most important thing for a founder to do as his or her company scales in order to achieve ultimate success.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Start with either a need or a pain point. It’s a plus if this is a need or pain point you personally experience, but that’s not necessary. Then, ascertain why this need or pain point isn’t being solved by the market — there could be a good reason why no solution exists (a solution could be impossible, for instance). Look for opportunities where there isn’t a good reason why it hasn’t been solved other than the fact that a solution would be extremely difficult to devise. Then, isolate an opportunity of this type you’re willing to devote years of your life solving!
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe making the world a better place has to be inherent to the product or service you sell. Volunteering, giving to charity, and other corporate-social responsibility initiatives are all great, but the pale in comparison to the impact you can have if what you sell is in and of itself “good”. I have centered my company — IQBAR — on creating and selling nutrient dense foods to aid tens of thousands of Americans in achieving their health goals. In the same vein, we exist to do our part in displacing the Standard American Diet that has made us one of the sickest populations in the world.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.
I would love to do everything I can to make healthy food as accessible as possible. Food is the ultimate equalizer; we all consume it multiple times a day. Furthermore, the food we eat has a massive impact on all aspects of our wellbeing, including energy, mood, and propensity for ailment. And yet, most Americans don’t consume the diets they should.
Cost, geography (e.g., “food deserts”), culture, and lack of nutritional education are all to blame. Thus, a long-term solution — which I hope to be a part of — necessarily needs to be multi-pronged and gigantic in scale. This is a problem we cannot afford not to solve. Our lives quite literally depend on it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have a meal with Daniel Lubetzky, the founder of KIND. He’s essentially done everything I hope to do, but on a truly massive scale!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.