Recognize your mistakes and apologize. I publicly apologized after the above-mentioned event to my team member. We respected each other and thankfully he knew this was not my normal behavior. He knew the pressure I was dealing with and never held the event against me.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Milovic, founder of Better Than Coffee. Valerie is an entrepreneur with a passion to help others stay energized in a healthy way. Through adversity and life experiences, like losing her parents at a relatively young age and moving to the US to pursue her dreams, she has found joy in making a difference in others’ lives. Better Than Coffee was born out of Valerie’s desire to find a healthier alternative to the daily energy drinks she consumed to get going during her management years in corporate IT sales.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Years ago, when I was in IT sales*, if you had told me I would be the Founder and General Manager of an energy bar company, I probably would have laughed. While becoming an entrepreneur was not really a goal of mine, it didn’t just ‘happen’ either. It took years of cumulative events for me to decide to move from Paris to San Francisco (where the company started) and give it a go. From the outside, what may have seem like a crazy move was, actually, a calculated risk.
I remember the day in 2008 when it suddenly struck me. I was standing up looking out at the open space where my team was, and I realized that I had enough of this 8–8 schedule. I knew that leading sales teams was not going to give me back control of my time. I felt deep within me that I needed to do something different. Corporate life was hard to leave: responsibilities, challenge, money. Leading up to this decision, I had become more and more specialized in the international inside sales space. I was dealing with tens of millions of dollars, earning even more money and working even longer hours. As much as I loved my job, I was not happy. I didn’t feel fulfilled and it didn’t meet my needs. It felt that at work I was not the person I wanted to be.
As I began navigating the transition from the corporate world to a new, healthier version of myself, I began experimenting with different protein bar recipes. I was making bars at home and started by playing with ingredients to make a “better for me” protein bar. I did this both for fun and because, at the time, none of the bars on the market were corresponding to what I was looking for (clean ingredients, low sugar). I decided to give it a real go and my protein bar became an energy bar to replace the daily Redbull I was drinking when working long hours.
My original goal was to open a little shop in Paris until a friend of mine said “And then what? You will be bored after few months, you have way more ambition than this.” Turns out, he was right.
After this conversation, I spent some time with another dear friend of mine in San Francisco. While there, I conducted market research, trying 70–80 bars on the market for taste, consistency, ingredients and macros. Following this research, I spent the summer of 2014 in Paris debating. In September, I booked a flight back to the U.S. to begin production of a better-for-you bar. Just like that. Well, from the outside it was ‘just like that’ but it took years to get there.
*Valerie working for IBM early on in her career and moved to Veritas Software, Symantec and McAfee
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we produced our first bars in September 2015, I was super excited to see the product come to life after over a year of many sleepless nights putting the project in place. Only three weeks after the bars got out of production, I received a Cease and Desist letter from Unilever’s attorneys. From their point of view, our brand name was too close to one of their brand trademarks. When I opened the letter, the world seemed to collapse. Many thoughts crossed my mind. All this time, all this energy, all my savings would be vanished in no time. Going to court against Unilever was not a financially viable option. We did manage to settle (thanks to the most amazing attorney) but it was a stressful 6-month process and I learned so much from it. Being forced to stand up for myself and fight for my dream so early into getting started helped me solidify my passion for what I do.
Looking back, this was the best thing that could have happened to us. First, this is when we started selling on Amazon instead of selling to offices as we had originally planned. This was because we needed to sell the inventory without confusing users and damaging the new brand. Second, thanks to this event, we were forced to rebrand, which ended up being a great opportunity. Things happen for a reason and when they happen, you are not always fully aware of the ‘why’. This event could have been the end of the project. Instead, it helped form the brand name and the sales channel we have now.
Later, one of my partners told me that people were betting I would give up before I even started and that he had made a terrible investment! Lucky for him, giving up is not something I do easily. I am, in some twisted way, very grateful to have received the Cease and Desist.
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?
The biggest mistake was certainly our choice of name for the original brand. While the mistake was not funny in itself, the way we ended up solving it makes me smile. We had to find a new name, so we launched an international contest online and reviewed over 5,000 names. Very few of the submissions resonated with us and when they did, the trademark was already registered.
After three months of research, we were ready to produce again and pressed for time. I called for a partner meeting to make a final decision. The four of us had to select five names out of the long list we created. The process was to review those 20 names one by one under specific criteria (originality, understanding, readability, trademark risk level, cultural meaning, brand message and semantic) giving each points/weight. The best would be chosen as the new brand name.
The day before the meeting, I was on my bike for an eight mile ride, crossing San Francisco from my home to our warehouse when one of my partners called to review the selection criteria. We kept our minds open, brainstorming without limitations, adding new names to the list. He suddenly said, joking, ‘but it is just better than coffee’ and I was like ‘add it to the list’. The day after, both other partners, our Brand Director and Design Director were super enthusiastic about the name, “Better Than Coffee”. When we matched the selecting criteria points it was the best out of all names, by far. This is when the brand name was found, on a bike while going up and down the San Francisco hills!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are many awesome companies that are working hard to bring a healthier food product on the market while striving to connect with their consumers. I like to take that a step further and I really enjoy getting first hand feedback on whether or not my bars are making a difference in our customers’ lives. Over the past years, I’ve attended many events where we are sampling in-person. I even stood at a busy intersection on a local college campus in L.A. for weeks passing out samples and asking for feedback from students. People usually like to hear about how the bars where created and, as a European, I am so grateful for Americans and the support they have for small businesses. Through American buyer’s support, encouragement and constructive feedback, the U.S. was really the best country to start such a company. Even years after the start, I very much enjoy connecting with our customers. It makes us stand out from the crowd. I strive to have a quality product and first-hand feedback helps us grow.
We also stand out because of our unique blend of energizing plants and distinctive ingredients. When you are unique, you are different, and different is not always well understood. Our bars are not candy and sometimes require quite a bit of education. We need to explain how to use the product for it to be efficient. We do not aim to have a product that fits everyone’s taste buds, but we keep working on improving for our core target.
If you want to learn more about what Better Than Coffee is currently working on, follow us on Instagram @btcbars.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Nothing that can be disclosed at this point in time.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My best piece of advice is one that I have not always followed: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. I can be seen as tough, with a very hard outside shell and not showing my feelings. I am still work in progress. On the inside, I have a very soft side and have a lot of empathy.
Being vulnerable opens a lot of doors and often opens the “right” doors. Please keep in mind that I’m not saying you should be vulnerable all the time, but in most situations, it is more helpful than not.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
My best advice on how to manage a large team would be to treat men and women equally, both in praise and course-correction. That said also be sure to:
1. Get to know your team members strengths
2. Delegate as much as you can
3. Facilitate team decisions.
You cannot do everything. Your team members can be of amazing help. Knowing them will help you understand what they do best, and delegating will empower them.
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 about that?
I had several mentors over the years but the person I am most grateful for is my best friend, Nicolas. We’ve been friends for 23 years after meeting in college.
When I started in San Fransico, with no incoming revenue and very little cash flow Nicolas. would regularly make sure I wasn’t suffering in isolation, which can be common for entrepreneurs. He forced me to have a social life and a more well-rounded approach to growing my business and it wasn’t convenient for him (we were living in different cities). For that I will be forever grateful.
Nicolas is the one I turn to first when I need to be challenged or for an honest opinion. He is smart, fast to react and he sees what I do not see. Without him, I may have broken down more than once!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Simply bringing what I believe is a better-for-you product to the market is a great way to bring goodness to this world. As mentioned above, I truly believe that sugar is the enemy, and this is why the bars have so little sugar. The bars would certainly be more appealing to the masses if we added few grams of sugar, but this would go against my beliefs. I believe that companies offering products with little to no sugar are really ahead of their time and are trying to do better. Yes, a lot of taste buds are not used to it, but habits are changing and people are reading ingredients and understanding that making a little taste sacrifice can go a long way for their health. Health first, always.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
● Embrace Change. Humans are mostly afraid of change and as a leader, you have to make it happen. From early on in my life I made choices that some of my relatives saw as extreme. I have a tendency to follow what feels right and not what everyone else is saying I should do. My parents passed away when I was relatively young, (my dad when I was 16, my mom when I was 19), which were huge changes and taught me to manage by myself. The first thing I did was change my entire life by moving to Ireland to start my adult life there.
● Communicate. Let your team know what you are doing for them. When I was in corporate, my team once reproached me for not defending them with upper management and that it was the reason why they had such a high sales quota. This was a surprise to me as I had spent lengthy hours negotiating and arguing with the upper team assigning quotas. Unfortunately, I hadn’t shared my actions with them, thinking that defending them was my normal manager duty and that surely my team members would trust that I would do so. This was not the case and really backfired on me. Lesson learned. Explain what you do. You gain trust not only by actions by also by communicating your actions.
● Practice self-care to control your emotions. While holding a director position, due to lack of sleep and upper management pressure, I ended up shouting at one of my team members in a team meeting. Not appropriate. The deep lesson learned is about listening to myself (body, mind and emotions) and practicing self-care (nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress management, etc.). This can help avoid getting in such a high stress mentality in the first place.
● Recognize your mistakes and apologize. I publicly apologized after the above-mentioned event to my team member. We respected each other and thankfully he knew this was not my normal behavior. He knew the pressure I was dealing with and never held the event against me.
● Seek advice. There are plenty of people ready to help. You are not alone. When I started in the food industry, my most useful resource was Score, which links entrepreneurs up with experts in the industry. I also learned a lot from my mentor, Mike. He helped me avoid many mistakes.
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. 🙂
While I wish I was the origin of the movement ‘sugar is the enemy’, I still believe this will be one of the most impactful movements on people’s health. I fully embrace it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two favorites quotes in which I lead my life: ‘Plans are made to be changed’ and ‘If you do not ask, it is always no’.
Both have a huge influence in my daily behavior. As an entrepreneur, you need to adapt, pivot and look at things differently, sometimes from one day to another. We make plans but when something better comes up, we need to change them.
I used to be afraid to ask, afraid to get a no… rejection is scary and often stops progression. Thanks to personal development courses, I have learned to ask (still fighting it some days) but I am always surprised by the amount of ‘yes’ I get.
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sir Richard Branson. I am fascinated by his life which I only know a little about. This amazing man has done so much and is a great inspiration for so many people. He has never been scared to take some very risky decisions. He comes across as a huge risk taker but, at the same time, he is humble and respectful of others. I have been told more than once that I am difficult to impress. If I ever meet him, I may just freeze on the spot! And I am not usually last to talk ☺
Thank you for joining us!