Turning A Passion Project Full-Time With Granola
Today, we learn about how a passion project turned into a full scale business. Erica from Gr8nola takes us on her journey from a full-time W2 employee with a granola hobby to a full scale entrepreneur who supplies top tech companies with delicious Gr8nola in just over 5 years (and pulls in over $500k annual revenue!)
Brief intro to Erica and Gr8nola
Erica Liu Williams is a former Olympic Trials swimmer and Silicon Valley techie-turned-food-entrepreneur. She came up with the idea for gr8nola by accident when she was searching for a delicious, yet healthy snack for a post-Super Bowl “cleanse” she and her NFL hubby do each year. Stuck with few options, she created her own granola recipe featuring clean ingredients like organic coconut oil and nutrient-dense superfoods.
Her granola was such a hit that she created a side business out of it in 2013 while working full-time at Intuit. As of Oct 2017, Erica officially left her corporate tech career to pursue gr8nola full-time and has hustled her way into becoming Silicon Valley’s favorite granola, supplying gr8nola at some of the biggest tech companies like Google, Twitter, Dropbox, Microsoft, Slack, YouTube and more. Gr8nola is fueling thousands of hungry tech employees and is sold on gr8nola.com and Amazon Prime.
Gr8nola’s mission is to fuel gr8ness by being the granola brand you eat, crave and love every single day.
Okay, now on to the interview!
Did your passion for selling granola start as a side hustle?
100%. When I launched gr8nola at a local farmers market in 2013, I never thought my fun little passion project would become what it is today — fuel for thousands of hungry tech employees and a top selling granola on Amazon.
At the time, I was a Marketing Manager at Intuit (the makers of QuickBooks, TurboTax and Mint) and experienced first-hand how vital small businesses are to the economy. When I got the entrepreneurial itch, I leveraged my resources and network there to figure out the first steps to starting a business—everything from packaging to pricing to initial flavors. In the beginning, gr8nola was very scrappy. I’d bake a batch of granola every night at home after work, hand label and pack my bags and then sell them on Saturdays at the farmers market.
Initially, I had no strategy for scaling gr8nola. By chance (and good timing), I was connected to the food team at Google through my network and sent them a gr8nola sample. The team liked it so much that they invited me to their annual Snack Fair, where Googlers vote for products they want stocked in their kitchens. I won my category and Google placed their first order for 1400 lbs in 2014. I had to figure out how to scale my production, fast.
Slowly (and I’m talking years), I grew the business by hustling to get gr8nola into more tech companies (Dropbox, Twitter, Slack, Square and Uber, to name a few). At the same time, I was building up my brand online via Instagram and selling gr8nola through my website and Amazon. I did all this while maintaining a full-time job.
As my corporate and online sales started to grow, so did my confidence. For the first time, I really believed that gr8nola could become something bigger. It was a long process of building up my courage to take the leap and become fully self-employed, but I finally did it 4.5 years later, and with no regrets!
How does one start a granola company?
Step one: Nail the product. First, I had to make sure the recipe I used for my bigger batches matched the taste and quality of the granola I made in smaller batches at home. I also knew I needed to have more than one flavor at launch in order to maximize my customers’ purchase value. I got back in the kitchen, did R&D and formulated new flavors. It took about 4-6 weeks and lots of taste testing to nail them down. FYI: I have no culinary background, and you don’t need to be a pro to create a great tasting product.
Step two: Name and incorporate your business. I used LegalZoom to file my LLC and register my trademark. Funny story: The first name for my business wasn’t actually “gr8nola”, it was something way more boring and uncreative. When I attempted to trademark what I thought would be my company’s name, I ran into conflicts because a similar mark already existed. Thankfully, this forced me to come up with a different, much more creative and distinct name.
Step three: Figure out where and how to sell. My immediate goal for selling gr8nola was to validate if others would like it as much as my husband, friends and family did. All I wanted was feedback, and I decided that selling at the farmers market was the fastest way to hear directly from consumers. Of course, figuring out which farmers market, along with its entry requirements (i.e. licenses, permits, insurance, etc.) felt like a giant task. It required lots of action and persistence on my part: picking up the phone and cold-calling organizations; visiting random farmers markets to learn their entry requirements; and networking to learn from others.
Step four: Define branding, packing and pricing. Since I didn’t invent a new product, figuring out how to physically package my granola wasn’t too complicated. I went to the farmers market and grocery stores to see how other brands were packaged and got an immediate sense for the right bag size, weight and pricing. I used Amazon, eBay and Uline to source food-grade packaging, and I asked a friend to design my bag labels, which I printed through a local vendor. My first gr8nola package was pretty scrappy—it was just a clear bag with a sticker on it. It looked very homemade, but it was good enough to launch.
Step five: Figure out basic operations and finances. When I first started selling at the farmers market, I tracked everything manually via Google sheets and all my expenses were on my personal credit card. As I grew my corporate channel, I recognized that this wasn’t scalable; I needed a business credit card and to find a better system for tracking POs, payments and expenses. Everyone I knew recommended QuickBooks Online, and it’s made everything from tracking customers to sending invoices to getting paid so much easier. Having the right tools and processes before scaling was so critical. Before I started using QuickBooks, I felt like I was running blind when it came to numbers. Now I feel empowered to make better decisions, faster.
Is Gr8nola is your full-time gig now?
Yes, but it took 4.5 years of side hustling. Starting gr8nola wasn’t the hard part for me; the biggest challenge was figuring out how to grow my business and build enough confidence—emotionally and financially—to leave the stability of my 9-5.
Fortunately, keeping my full-time tech job for so long gave me the runway (both time and salary) to figure out my channels while saving enough money to feel comfortable giving up my salary and benefits. I used free tools like Mint to create budgets and track my personal spending so I could save as much as possible in preparation for my entrepreneurial leap.
Looking back, I don’t wish I left my job any earlier since it kept me patient through a lot of dead ends and “no’s” in the beginning. Most importantly, I gained a strong network and invaluable experience through my tech career that has made me better prepared for entrepreneurship than I was five years ago. I honestly think I would have thrown in the towel if I did gr8nola full-time too soon.
Take us on a revenue journey from the beginning:
I launched gr8nola in June 2013 and sold at the weekly farmers market as a side project. My total sales that year were $10k.
2014 was my first full calendar year in business. I started to ramp up with Google as my first big break and major customer, growing my annual sales to ~$60k.
2015 through mid-2016 were tougher years for me mentally as an entrepreneur. My sales grew to ~$95k and ~$125k respectively, but it was mostly because of Google’s growth. I didn’t feel like I had a real business, since so much of my revenue was reliant on a single customer. Around this time, I also stopped doing the farmers market. It became too hard to manage with my full-time job, and I never saw that as a channel I could meaningfully scale long-term. Candidly, I was mentally half in, half out of the business and felt like gr8nola could disintegrate at any moment if Google stopped ordering.
Mid-2016, I experienced my second big break when I unlocked a key distributor that helped me sell to companies more easily. This changed my business trajectory and most importantly, my confidence. With new wind in my sails, I tapped into my tech network more aggressively to get gr8nola into every company I possibly could. By the end of 2017, my revenue grew to a quarter of a million dollars.
Concurrently, I became an Amazon seller and started beefing up my Instagram efforts by building relationships and collaborating with influencers and other like-minded brands. This directly correlated to my website and Amazon sales, which became meaningful revenue channels.
I didn’t quit my job to pursue gr8nola full-time until late 2017, and this completely changed the game. I could finally dedicate all my time and energy into a single focus. In 2018, I surpassed the half million dollar mark, a huge milestone for me given two years ago I didn’t know if, or when, I’d ever leave my corporate career. And Google is still my customer, 4+ years later!
Even though I’m 5+ years in business, it still feels like it’s just the beginning, and fortunately I’ve been able to fund all my growth through existing cash flow, since my corporate channel is profitable. I plan to bootstrap as long as I can.
Tell us more about all the granola products you sell:
I have five superfood-based flavors that are all delicious and unique: The Original, Golden Turmeric, Coco Cacao, Matcha Green Tea and Limited Edition Charcoal Chia. All are made with organic virgin coconut oil and free from GMOs, refined sugar, soy and dairy. In my opinion, gr8nola is the best granola you’ll ever taste, which is why our online and corporate channels have grown so rapidly. Our texture is light and crispy, not overly sugary or hard to chew, like others. A fun way to try all the flavors is with a mini sampler pack.
What is your favorite granola recipe?
In my opinion, gr8nola is best eaten simply—plain or with almond milk. If I’m feeling fancy then I’ll add it on top of chia seed pudding. I also love it as a midday or post-meal snack when I’m craving something sweet and crunchy.
Now, if we’re talking about favorite flavors, it’s a toss up between The Original (my “first-born”), Charcoal Chia (it’s like a healthy Oreo) or Matcha (I love anything green tea). It’s actually really fun—and delicious—when you mix flavors together!
What is the best way to scale your business?
On the corporate side, it’s critical for me to build relationships to pioneer new markets and open up new revenue channels. Being out in the field and having face-to-face interactions go a long way, but once I unlock distribution in a new region, I can hire a local broker to help me further penetrate that market. The corporate channel is very relationship driven and all about hiring the right people with the right connections. This is to my advantage since it gives me a competitive moat—you can’t just pay-to-play here.
For online, I haven’t done much outside of building my community via organic Instagram influencer efforts (sending free product to people who then post about it) and a little PR around product launches. Coming from tech and taking a page from Intuit’s customer-obsessed culture, I know how important it is for brands to build trust and direct relationships with their consumers digitally. Because e-commerce has leveled out the playing field, many larger CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies are struggling to keep up as they lose market share with millennial and gen Z consumers. However, when it comes to scaling, you do have to pay-to-play on channels like Facebook and Instagram, so that will definitely be a key lever for online growth.
Then there’s retail, aka grocery stores, which I haven’t actively pursued. I made a very deliberate decision to stay out of retail for as long as possible since it’s expensive for upstart brands to compete for shelf space against bigger brands. However, gr8nola is starting to get “pulled” into some grocery stores because of the demand I’ve built through my tech and online channels. I know grocery stores will be a key channel for long-term growth, but I’m taking it slow so I can collect data and create a success “playbook” before launching more aggressively into retail.
Any recommendations for aspiring side hustlers and entrepreneurs?
Network, network, network! When I started gr8nola, I had no experience or knowledge about
the food industry. You can Google a lot of things, but a lot of my initial questions and problems were very specific, and most of my solutions came from networking. For example, when I got my first order from Google for 1400 lbs, I had to figure out a way to produce all that granola with a full-time job. I knew I had to find a co-packer (someone else who manufactures your product for you), and it took a 7th degree connection to find the best match for gr8nola.
Most importantly, network proactively, not just reactively. I’ve learned time and again that networking often leads you to new opportunities, even when you’re not looking for them. One person will lead you to another person who might lead you to your next big business opportunity. So my biggest advice is to network all the time—even if you have no immediate need. Your journey will be a lot less lonely and you’ll make meaningful connections along the way.