This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”
This interview publishes just days after the announced acquisition of RXBAR by Kellogg’s for $600 million. It’s illustrative of the awesome potential created when good products, good people and unmet demand collide.
Peter Rahal, co-founder and CEO, started RXBAR with his friend Jared Smith. Together, they wanted to bring a clean protein bar to CrossFit athletes. With that simple and narrow focus, selling gym to gym, they built a business and a brand.
In my opinion, RXBAR did something else to disrupt the industry. They veered from the norm on their approach to packaging. Their packaging hero wasn’t a logo or a product shot. It was, in very simple terms, what the product delivered: protein in the form of three egg whites, six almonds, two dates, and no B.S. I have a feeling that more brands will be following in their footsteps.
I spent time talking with Peter about leadership, entrepreneurship, company culture, and lessons learned. I found him to be passionate and insightful. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Why do this crazy thing?
“I had a job, and it was with a startup, and I was totally miserable. I realized this is miserable. That misery really was the stimulus for, I’ve got to get a new job.”
He explained that he and Smith were childhood friends and different in a complementary way.
“We’re total opposites. He’s pragmatic, cautious, needs stability, takes time. I’m reckless and aggressive. The opposite, right?”
“I had two failures. Two ideas then tried to begin to execute them, and … One thing I learned from both of those was your partner, who you get in bed with, is everything.”
“We were both 26, no family, so we had nothing to lose. We’re both athletes, and bars save time.”
Rahal said that they kept being told that “the world doesn’t need another protein bar.”
“We went to my father, who’s very traditional, an immigrant, old school. Straight business fundamentals and he’s an entrepreneur himself. ‘Dad, we need to raise money. We need packaging. We need a designer. Do you know anyone?’”
“He says, ‘Peter, you need to shut the &$#$& up and go sell a thousand bars.’ … We were making excuses to go have coffee and talk about the business when all we needed to do was design it, make it, and sell it. Take action rather than just talk.”
“The idea of buying a mixer, of manufacturing, design, the unknown, is scary. It’s much easier to get money and hire people who have the experience to do it.”
“We took my father’s advice, and we started, literally, making bars in the kitchen, and then bought packaging from China and printed labels at FedEx.”
What have been some of your toughest challenges?
“Tactically, taking a product from your kitchen and commercializing it. Then finding the right partners in the supply chain, doing business with the right people. We basically interview every supplier, every vendor, everyone we touch. The same principle of who you get in bed with in business, it’s the same thing with who you sell to and who you buy from. All that stuff matters.”
“On the emotional side; starting a business with your best friend, managing that relationship, and growing and adapting.”
What have you learned about leadership?
“Simon Sinek talked about this, and I think it’s so true, between health and leadership. So, for example, Elliot, if you want to be healthy, you sleep well one night, and then you eat an egg white omelet, and have an avocado, and go for a run. So, you do that Monday. You’re not suddenly healthy, right? You must do it every single day, it’s healthy habits. It’s the habits you create and do every single day.”
“Leadership’s the same way. It’s habits that you form, and do every single day, and you’re consistent. To be a great leader, you can’t just go speak in front of the company, and communicate where we’re going, and be a great leader. You got to do it every day. It’s helping people. It’s asking what their problems are. It’s being present. It’s having a vision, being decisive, too.”
“Organizations won’t perform well without great leadership. It’s not just the top. It’s all throughout.”
“I always tell people this. Jared and I totally underestimated entrepreneurship and even business. I remember thinking to myself, if I start a bar company and start selling it to gyms, I can go to the gyms and work out, and sell bars. I thought I could just do whatever. Flexible schedule. No clue. Totally underestimated leadership. It didn’t trigger for us until we went from like seven people to like 12 people.”
“In the beginning, you’re in the bar business. You make bars, and you sell them. Soon as you get beyond the survival mode, and your company’s healthy, the business literally changes, and I don’t care what business you’re in. When you get beyond the survival phase, literally, you’re in the people business.”
What would your current self tell your former self?
“Two things: [First,] be proactive and not overly reactive.”
Rahal explained, “Follow your plan. Actually plan. We talk a lot about strategy. Strategy is a word that’s really thrown around. It’s hilarious. Strategy just means … planning. Planning’s super important. So, plan and stick to it.”
I asked about the other thing he’d tell himself.
“It would be to align with values. I don’t really care what those values are.”
“Align the organization on those values and make sure your actions reflect those values.”
What would you tell aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders?
“Don’t start a business because you like the idea of it. Don’t try to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. I see that a lot. People like the idea, they want the outcome of being an entrepreneur. It’s miserable, I would say. It’s terrible. I bet if you look at Elon Musk, and he’s this icon, I guarantee he has a miserable life by normal people’s standards. You must be super-passionate and have total conviction around the purpose in what you’re doing. Because it’s too brutal. Take a step back and audit it. Be super self-aware, and make sure that you’re solving a problem that exists, and that you’re totally aligned on the real purpose of what you’re doing.”
Would you do this again?
“Yeah, for sure. I would do it differently, but I would do it. This is a DNA thing.”
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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution, build velocity, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.
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