In an AMA on reddit, Tom Bilyeu, President and Co-Founder of Quest Nutrition (the 2nd Fastest Growing Private Company in America in the 2014 Inc 500), answered questions on how he started and build his billion dollar company.
These are responses to questions that related to how he and his co-founders build one of the fastest growing private companies in America.
Quest Nutrition develops, markets and distributes health-conscious snacks featuring flavors on par with more indulgent options.
How much capital did you start the company with? How much of your own assets were on the line?
At the very beginning (when we were making the bars by hand) we had only a tiny bit of money invested. Roughly $10k. There are three co-founders and we put the money in from our own pockets.
As we grew, however, and realized that the bar couldn’t be contract manufactured (I went into detail about why in another answer), we had to put in a little over $100k. By the time we really got going all three of us had everything on the line.
At one point we had to personally guarantee everything. So had it failed we all would have lost everything. Every. Single. Thing.
What was your marketing blueprint for barging onto the protein scene and becoming one of the more prominent players?
We used an influencer strategy. We went after people we knew cared DEEPLY about what they ate and would understand that we had done something different from a metabolic standpoint. Then we wrote a highly customized and sincere letter explaining why we thought they would like the product and sent them some for free.
Then we asked them to be honest. If they hated it, we wanted them to tell people that they hated it. And if they loved it we wanted them to tell people that they loved it. We also knew that customer service is a marketing vehicle in today’s hyper connected world.
So we set out to have the most absurdly supportive support staff ever. We also built a social community that was supportive instead of competitive.
As a startup, how did you go about your hiring process
Our hiring processes are hilarious. People actually used to request to just sit in on our interviews because they were so unconventional. The truth is that the most important things you need to know about a potential hire are never going to show up on a resume.
Our goal in the interview process is to reveal our authentic selves to the applicant and to get them to reveal their authentic self to us as quickly as possible. That way we can both figure out whether Quest could be the most beautiful thing that’s every happened to them.
And that really is the goal. My advice: Don’t fall prey to the tyranny of being chosen. You should be interviewing the company you’re considering working for as much as they’re interviewing you. It’s like a marriage. 90% of success is in the selection.
How has your branding strategy evolved over time?
We were a little clumsy about it in the beginning. We knew we didn’t want to be a typical fitness company, but we didn’t yet have clarity about what that meant. Over time we have realized that we’re a food company that is focused on empowering people in all aspects of their lives.
My goal in the beginning was simply to help my family be happy. Helping them get healthy was simply one way to do that. But ultimately, I was after their minds much more so than their bodies. It just so happens that the body is a reflection of the mind.
The two are inextricably linked. But that’s why some of the content that we create is focused solely on personal empowerment rather than selling product. The ultimate product that we want to push is a life well lived.
Now, I’m not doing that to be altruistic. That is the most selfish thing I could do. Elon Musk’s dreams of Mars make my life better. He’s not doing it for me, but none-the-less his relentless pursuit of the Red Planet brings joy to my life.
I want to live in a world where more people are chasing their deepest passions ALL OUT. If we can help with that in some small way I will consider my life well lived. (OK, that’s a lie, if I don’t help with that in some HUGE, MASSIVE way I will consider myself a total failure – but that sounds so harsh. ;-))
What are some of the most noteworthy plateaus or hurdles you hit in the growth of Quest, and how did you get past them?
Plateau number one was that I was doing all of the marketing and support by myself while trying to also manufacture the product. My partners finally had to remind me I can’t do everything by myself. So I hired our CMO. That kid is a genius and has helped us really blow this thing up.
Plateau number two was manufacturing. We got to the point where the dragon was eating its own tail. We were growing so fast and I was so bad at manufacturing that we had to replace me there as well.
The team that we’ve assembled there takes my breath away. There are some seriously driven, and brilliant people. We are solving problems people swore couldn’t be solved. They certainly told us as much. But as I’ve learned there is a solution to every problem.
Most every problem we’ve faced has come down to needing to attract people better than us at given tasks and provide them with a safe environment in which they can make mistakes and grow.
As founders, our job is to create an environment where people can love what they do every day and learn from their mistakes – and have fun doing it.
What were your top 2 challenges in scaling your company? How did you solve them?
1. Manufacturing – We hired people with what we call the Quest Spirit (you can short hand that to grit) and a lot of experience in building things in the food industry.
2. Keeping our entrepreneurial spirit alive as we grow. This is an ongoing endeavor that includes the following solutions:
3. Hire people that naturally fit our culture. We look for three things: 1) Ambition (must want something big from your life) 2) Drive (must have the perseverance to diligently acquire the skills needed to fulfill your ambition) 3) Compassion (you’ve got to want good things for your teammates). Compassion to me is so critical. We are a company focused on transformation. You’ve got to love helping other people succeed to thrive at Quest.
4. Improve internal communications
5. Train and empower internal leaders to help spread the Quest Belief System – you can see a copy of this here
6. Make business choices that are consistent with the belief system so people know it’s real and not just rhetoric.
What is the best advice you could offer for working out what it is you want to do?
The easiest way to get to the core of this is to ask and answer the question, what would you do if you woke up tomorrow with $7.4 billion dollars. (Nice and specific, right?). After you gave money to your family and traveled around, what would you do? Build a company around that.
There are people making a living playing video games, selling worms, selling weed (in WA and CO of course ;-)), juggling, sailing, tech, etc. You can make a living doing pretty much anything. I once saw a guy who had a company organizing cuddle parties. Yes, you read that right. Cuddle parties. So… whatever you love, do that.
If you care about wealth creation, then you need to add one element to the equation – solve a big problem. The bigger the problem for the larger number of people you solve the bigger the financial opportunity. I doubt the cuddle party guy got rich. But he may not care about that.
The thing that holds people back is that either they don’t think they can do it, or they refuse to admit to themselves what they really want. People don’t procrastinate when the incentive is right. I work a ridiculous number of hours. But I don’t need to. I want to. I LOVE what I do.
To be clear though, getting out of the Matrix is not about starting a company. It’s about cultivating a mindset. I know many business owners who are still coppertops.
How do we prevent our comfortable life style from getting in the way of finding work that we are extremely passionate about?
I live in terror of wasting my time on this planet. Comfort is the enemy. At least if you have my value system. As Michael Jordan said, I’m not afraid of failing, I’m afraid of never trying.
Human potential is nearly limitless. Do you really want to give that power to someone else in pursuit of their dreams? I’m constantly encouraging my employees to quit. I only want them here at Quest for the exact number of days that it’s the most selfish thing that they could do. You get one shot at life. This is it. This is not a dress rehearsal, and there are no do overs.
Today is the day to act. You CAN do whatever you set your mind to. I’ve been BROKE before. It sucks, but whatever. Nothing was worse than making money and still being miserable. And I’ve been there too. I’d rather be poor and going hard for something that I’d be willing to die for than be rich and feel like I was wasting my life.
I think for me, I’m just so hyper aware of the passage of time. I so believe that I’m capable of learning anything I set my mind to. And that I can accomplish anything I’m willing to bleed for that pushing myself forward. And most importantly that when today is gone, it is gone forever.
I want to make the most of every day. When that thought occupies your brain, you’ll demand of yourself that you only do things that make you feel truly alive. Because is there anything better than that feeling? Not for me.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs that want to start a bootstrapped business?
If you’re going to bootstrap a business, you really need to believe in the company’s mission. You are going to have to learn a ton about your product and your market and fight when things get hard.
To be truly world class at doing so, you’re going to need to rely on massive reserves of will and resilience. You’ll find those reserves are much deeper when you’re pursuing something that you’re passionate about.
I can’t say that enough. It’s advice that is largely ignored, and/or misunderstood. It’s not about the feel good nature of passion, it’s about neurochemistry and will power. I’ve written about this topic briefly on my IG account for anyone interested on hearing more.
Read his answers to a lot of other questions on reddit here.