Hindsight is always 20/20, they say.
But, I think it has a blind spot. When we look back on the journey of any great brand, it's easy to smooth over the bumps in the road. We often swoon over the success of others without considering the grueling struggle they had to get there.
That gives us unrealistic expectations, and it robs us of valuable insights and lessons we can learn from our own history and the history of others.
I'll be diving into the early days of Ben & Jerry's, Chipotle, Clif Bar, and Burt's Bees to dig up some of their stories of struggle, inspiration, hard decisions and success. My hope is that you can walk away with added perspective for your own journey as well as a few possible models for the moves you'll make as you build your own brand.
Let's jump in.
Note: The brands in the post are impressive to me because they've managed to maintain a consistent image over the years, and they all have a strong narrative attached to their brand that makes them personal and relatable.
Industry: Personal care
Year founded: 1984(ish)
Initial capital: Beeswax
Burt was the founder who never wanted to start a company. He just wanted to live in his turkey coop in Maine with his golden retrievers. And mostly, he got his wish, but he ended up starting a billion-dollar company along the way.
Well, technically, his co-founder is responsible for most of that billion-dollar stuff. But we'll get there.
The Burt's Bees story started in Manhattan in the 1960s when Burt Shavitz worked as a photographer capturing the Civil Rights Movement and the beat generation. Tired of city life, Burt loaded his motorcycle into a borrowed Volkswagen and headed north.
As Burt neared his destination in Maine, he found a swarm of bees gathered around a fencepost. He took it as a good omen and rounded up the hive.
Burt's bee collection grew, and he became a local icon by selling honey from the back of his truck. His legendary status was enhanced by an untamed beard that would later become a central image of the Burt's Bees brand.
The billion-dollar hitchhiker
Burt had just about all he wanted. But one fateful day in 1984 gave him more than he bargained for.
A young woman named Roxanne Quimby was hitchhiking home, and Burt stopped his old yellow truck to pick her up. It was a billion-dollar decision.
The two fell in love and became business partners. Roxanne began creating products from the beeswax left over from Burt's honey production. Some flopped while some did moderately well, but when she perfected her beeswax lip balm recipe, it was a huge hit.
As demand grew, Roxanne and Burt moved operations to North Carolina. But Burt never cared much for the corporate life, and he soon moved back to Maine.
Around this time, Roxanne and Burt had a falling out. Burt was bought out of the brand that bears his image and name for a $130,000 house in Maine. If he would have kept the stock he traded for the house, it would have been worth $59 million. Eventually, Clorox would purchase the Burt's Bees brand for almost $1 billion, rewarding Roxanne handsomely and Burt relatively modestly (but still making him a millionaire).
Though Burt had some bitter feelings toward Roxanne, he didn't seem to mind missing out on all that money. Even after he was given $4 million for the sale of Burt's Bees, he continued to live in his modified turkey coop (having sold the house Roxanne bought for him after only a few months).
Burt lived the rest of his life as he wanted: on a bit of land with his golden retrievers. He served as a somewhat-reluctant ambassador for Burt's Bees, sometimes traveling to promote the brand. But his legacy lives on at the company, and in an interesting turn, it's now influencing operations at Clorox as they adopt some of the sustainable policies of Burt's Bees.
Burt and his converted turkey coop.
Source: Robert F. Bukaty via Washington Post
Giving a face to your brand makes it relatable.
Ironically, Burt's reluctance to be a part of corporate culture was the perfect image to attract Burt's Bees' loyal customers. So the lesson is two-fold: first, giving a face to your brand makes its culture and values more tangible, and second, sticking with sincerely held values is always the best way to go.
Since Burt wasn't very interested in expanding the company, Roxanne's business-minded approach balanced out the pair and led to the company's success. Granted, all the details of the partnership aren't exemplary, but the core principle holds: collaboration often produces the best work.
Industry: Energy bars
Year founded: 1992
Initial capital: Mom's kitchen
For Clif Bar, it all started in 1990. (The 90s were a good time for brands. And so much else.) Gary Erickson was preparing to embark on a one-day, 175-mile bike ride with his buddy. For fuel, he stuffed six energy bars into his pack.
Well into the ride and five energy bars down, Gary was feeling hungry. But, he found that he couldn't bring himself to choke down another energy bar. The brand he brought was the only one on the market at the time, and frankly, it sucked.
At that moment, Gary had what he calls "the epiphany." He made it his personal quest to make a better energy bar. Teaming up with his mom in her kitchen, Gary baked batch after batch until he had perfected his energy bar recipe.
When the time came to find a name for the new company, Gary settled on Clif Bar, after his grandfather and mentor Clifford who took him on frequent outdoor adventures.
To go public or not? Is it even a question?
A few years into Clif Bar's brand journey, the opportunity came to go public. As the energy bar industry was growing, many of Clif Bar's competitors were being acquired by larger corporations. In the midst of all this, Gary and his wife Kit decided to keep their company private.
This was a potentially risky decision, but it allowed them to keep the Mom-and-Pop feel that started in Gary's mom's kitchen. It also gave them the freedom to run their company exactly how they wanted.
Gary and Kit have used that freedom to build a company culture that is closely linked to the reason they got into business in the first place: the great outdoors and an active lifestyle.
The company empowers their employees to be active, providing an in-house gym and 30 minutes of on-the-clock exercise time a day. And, in honor of the company's 20th anniversary, Clif Bar gave every employee a new bike. They also reimburse employees for the purchase of state and national park passes to encourage celebrating the outdoors.
Solve a clearly-defined problem.
Gary needed a better energy bar, so he made one. That's similar to the story behind our sister company, Lucidchart. Our founder Ben Dilts needed better diagramming software, so he built it.
As Clif Bar grew, Gary and Kit kept focus on the problem they were solving by prioritizing exercise and the outdoors, key components behind the need for energy bars.
Take risks to keep your brand pure.
Not going public could have caused financial troubles, but the risk was worth it to ensure that Clif Bar's brand integrity wasn't compromised. Your brand is the precious intangible aspect of your company that makes people like you. It's hard to build and easy to lose. So don't lose it.
Industry: Fast casual restaurants
Year founded: 1993
Initial capital: $85,000 loan
Steve Ells had a dream of starting his own gourmet restaurant. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked at one of his favorite restaurants in San Francisco, but he would need funding to build a restaurant from the ground up.
He devised a plan to open a little burrito shop to raise money. Even a burrito shop required funding, though. So Steve made the decision to go out on a limb and get an $85,000 loan from his father.
As he created his new burrito restaurant, Steve was inspired by the taquerias he frequented around San Francisco's Mission District and their delicious, humongous burritos wrapped in foil. He found a spot he could call his own in Denver, Colorado, and got to work.
Steve at his first Chipotle store, originally an ice cream shop.
Since funds were tight, the interior design budget was small, but Steve used his limitations to his advantage and creatively arranged cheap materials from the hardware store. This created the distinctive look that Chipotle restaurants still have today.
When Chipotle opened, Steve was $85,000 dollars in debt but hopeful that he could sell about a hundred burritos a day. Within a month, he was selling 1,000.
This led to another store and a decision: should he pursue this unexpected opportunity or go for his fine dining restaurant? Luckily for burrito fans, he stuck with Chipotle.
Looking out for the pigs
Something else happened that would have a drastic influence on Chipotle's future and the future of American fast food. Steve read an article about the farming practices of the Niman Ranch pork company, and he was intrigued enough to make a visit.
He was given a tour and observed how the pigs were cared for at these farms. He also learned that a majority of pigs are raised in confinement, and he decided he wasn't going to do business that way.
Here's what the Chipotle website has to say about the farming practices they've embraced as a result of that tour:
"We set minimum space requirements for the animals producing the meat and dairy products that end up in our restaurants. We work with our suppliers to ensure the highest possible animal welfare standards, and are always setting the bar higher."
"If, due to supply shortages, we have to serve conventionally raised meat, we clearly post signs in the affected restaurants."
Last year, these standards were put to the test, and Chipotle was faced with a difficult decision. One of their principal pork suppliers was found to be using practices below the standards for animal welfare Chipotle had set.
Without this supplier, there wouldn't be enough pork to meet demand.
But Chipotle stuck with their values and pulled pork (it's a great pun) from the menu at one-third of their locations. In the end, this move actually ended up strengthening their brand. People like to see brands put their money where their mouth is.
Do the best with what you have.
Be willing to go out on a limb to pursue your ambitions, and look for ways you can be efficient with the little you have when you're starting out. Sometimes, limitations can actually be your strength. For example, when filming Jaws, the mechanical shark kept breaking, so Spielberg and his team had to think of ways to create suspense without showing the shark. The result was a more scary and timeless film.
Have a value system for your brand and stick with it.
The added strength that comes from sticking to your guns is worth more than any temporary drop in profits.
Ben & Jerry's
Source: Toby Talbot via Washington Post
Industry: Ice cream
Year founded: 1978
Initial capital: $12,000 ($4,000 from the bank)
I saved my favorite for last. If you haven't had a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream in a while, go grab one right now before continuing.
It's easy to be a fan of Ben & Jerry's based on their ice cream alone, but it just gets better when you learn their story.
Ben and Jerry met back in junior high when Ben saw Jerry faint in gym class.
The two became quick friends, bonding over their mutual love of food. The two knew they wanted to open some kind of business around food, and they picked ice cream because it was the cheapest option. They managed to drum up $12,000 ($4,000 of which was a bank loan), and they found a run-down gas station in Burlington, Vermont, where they could set up shop. After a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream-making from Penn State, they were ready to scoop.
But first, they had to fix their roof. "You could see daylight coming in through the ceiling," Jerry said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Ben got some cheap tin sheets from a local printer and set to work repairing the roof. Tar and tin sheets worked for a while, but it began to leak. So they put some plastic up, but the plastic began to sag. Finally, they cut a hole in the plastic where it was sagging and ran a hose from the hole to the sink in the back.
They didn't wait for things to be perfect to start doing business. They knew that great ice cream was their first priority, so a leaky roof was temporarily acceptable while they focused on that.
From pint-sized to million-dollar company
Funding was still a problem, though, especially because an ice cream shop only gets seasonal business. It was in looking for ways to expand that Ben & Jerry's landed on what they're perhaps most famous for: their pints of ice cream.
Ben loaded up his old station wagon and began delivering pints to Mom-and-Pop shops. This gave them a source of revenue outside their summer sales, and it also spread the reach of their brand.
Ben and Jerry solidified this outreach by participating in making the world's largest ice cream sundae in 1984. This set a precedent for community involvement that Ben & Jerry's continues today.
"What's the Doughboy Afraid of?"
The goodwill among customers that Ben & Jerry's had worked hard to establish paid off when they were pitted against the corporate giant Pillsbury. Right around the time that Ben & Jerry's started selling packaged ice cream in little shops, Pillsbury acquired Haagen-Dazs, also selling packaged ice cream in these same shops. Pillsbury told the shops that they would stop selling them Haagen-Dazs, a major source of the shops' revenue, unless they pulled Ben & Jerry's from their lineup.
Ben & Jerry's knew they'd have no chance in a legal battle with a $4 billion corporation, so they called on their customers to be their advocates. They started a campaign called "What's the Doughboy Afraid of?" and mobilized customers with bumper stickers and t-shirts. The press picked up the story, and Pillsbury backed down.
Don't wait for the perfect situation to get started.
Jerry and Ben just started making ice cream in the best circumstances they could afford while being attentive to opportunities along the way. They recognized that ice cream, the core part of their brand, was what they needed to get right at first.
Get out in the community and tell people about what you're doing.