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?”
I met Sean Fay of Truth Bar at Expo West in 2017. Somehow, amid all the chaos, we had a meaningful 15-minute conversation about their brand and their journey. It left me wanting to learn more. He connected me with his co-founder, Diana Stobo, and their recently hired CEO, Marilynn Martin.
The bars were great, but that’s not what drew me to their story. Rather, what I found interesting was as passionate as Stobo and Fay where about their product and brand, they recognized that alone, they weren’t likely to achieve the level of success they envisioned. Very early in their journey, they identified a need to bring in a CEO.
A part of leading a brand and company is recognizing when you need to turn over the reins of leadership to someone who has the experience and skillset needed to take the company to the next level. I found it fascinating that Stobo and Fay saw this so early and acted. I also found it very interesting to learn how the marriage of the two co-founders and their new CEO has been so effective.
I sat down with Stobo and Martin to discuss their journey. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Why are you doing this crazy thing?
Stobo: “There’s a calling, there’s an intention, and then of course there’s business. I think the truth came out of love, the truth came out of a lot of history of building something spectacular and really caring about people’s health. I wanted to create a bar that was soothing for the stomach, helped people lose weight and helped them be their best physically.”
How did you decide that you needed a CEO?
Stobo: “We ran the bars, one flavor only, and people loved them and they loved the concept. We just didn’t have the know-how or ingenuity to push it along.”
“At Expo West, Marilynn came to our table and she said, ‘I love it. I love the name, I love the taste, I love the enthusiasm. I love what you guys have going on here, the whole look and feel. If you want any help, let me know.’ We kept pushing along on our own for four or five months and it became very clear that we had other things going on, and everything was working against us to get it together and give it our all. We had other companies, we had to make money.
“I said, ‘Let me call Marilynn.’ And of course, here she was sitting with a Truth Bar on her table and she said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to call.’ It was almost a magical thing, it was all meant to be. Here we are now with Marilynn and the crew that she’s put together for operations, financing and marketing, and she’s our new CEO.”
What was it about Truth Bar that made you so interested?
Martin: “I have been looking for the last 15 years. When we did Zone Perfect nutrition bars [Martin was heavily involved in the development of the Zone Perfect bar that was eventually sold to Abbot Labs], I felt like we had a disruptive formulation, because we used the rice and it was a different texture from the extruded bars that were out there.”
“Everybody knows that taste is paramount when it comes to snacking. It must taste good for people to come back to it. So, I had been looking for a great tasting bar that also did more, and had the opportunity to be functional and disruptive. I felt like they had that with Truth Bar, being the first prebiotic and probiotic bar that also tastes heavenly. They just needed structure, organization and money. So, that’s what I could help bring to the table.”
What keeps you up at night?
Martin: “Structure, making sure that operationally, we get all our ducks in a row so that we’re ready to scale up. Because, I see us scaling up quickly with the right retailers, and I just want to make sure that we’re forward thinking and not reactive but proactive. That’s what keeps me up at night. Shipping product in the summer with cold packs for the [direct-store delivery] retailers, finding a solution with temperature-controlled trucks and warehouses — these are things I’ve worked on since day one. I know operationally and structurally, if you don’t have it put together, you can fall quickly.”
Stobo: “For me, it’s expanding the line and keeping the integrity and keeping the products high-quality. I call it a designer bar because it is so good. Making sure that the quality is affordable, because the ingredients we use are so high-end, yet we must keep our pricing down. So, there are a lot of moving parts needed to keep it an intelligent, premium bar with high quality ingredients, and still have it viable in the marketplace.”
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
Stobo: “I would have, out of the gate, partnered with somebody who knew how to launch it, so that we wouldn’t have made so many expensive mistakes getting to where we are right now.”
What advice would you give future entrepreneurs?
Stobo: “Oh, Lord.”
Martin: “I would make sure that they do their research and understand how difficult it is to go to market and successfully bring a product over the finish line. So many people have great ideas and great products. They get funding and then feel they must go after distribution, which might not necessarily be the right distribution for their type of product. But they do so, just to get the doors because they’ve got investors to satisfy.”
Stobo: “I second that, the one thing I absolutely love about Marilynn is she had a plan. She saw it, she really embodies what the Truth is about. And I think there’s an elegance to what she’s saying. We did have the opportunity to go to large retailers right out of the gate, just throw it into the marketplace without any strategy. And it wasn’t going to work for our product. We weren’t ready to scale up to every retailer. Truth Bar is a luxury product with a higher retail and along with that comes education regarding its functionality and great taste. It’s a beautiful bar that we’re keeping priced low enough so people can really experience something that matters.”
Interestingly, neither of them referenced the success they found by bringing on an experienced leader early in the process. I wonder if doing so just seemed obvious to them both given the outcome.
Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.
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