Ep. 182 – Brendan Synnott, Cofounder of Bear Naked, Evol Foods, and Pact

Ep. 182 – Brendan Synnott, Cofounder of Bear Naked, Evol Foods, and Pact

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, Brian Ardinger, IO Founder, sat down with Brendan Synnott, a serial entrepreneur, having cofounded companies like Bear Naked, which he sold to Kellogg, Evol Foods, and now Pact, an e-commerce organic fashion brand.  In this interview we talked about Brendan’s opportunity to become an entrepreneur early on in his life, how he grew his company from zero to sell to a major corporation, and how he thinks about creating new innovations and new spaces.

Interview Transcript

Brendan Synnott, cofounder of Bear Naked, Evol Foods, and Pact

Brian Ardinger: On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sat down with Brendan Synnott. Brendan is a serial entrepreneur, having cofounded companies like Bear Naked, which he sold to Kellogg. He’s found companies like Evol Foods, and he’s now working at Pact, a brand-new e-commerce fashion brand.

In this interview we talked about Brendan’s opportunity to become an entrepreneur early on in his life.  How he grew his company from zero to sell it to a major corporation. And how he thinks about creating new innovations and new spaces.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.IO, a provider of research events and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest.  Today with me is Brendan Synnott. He is a serial entrepreneur having cofounded the companies like Bear Naked Granola, which he sold to Kellogg. He started companies with Evol Foods, pet companies, candy businesses, and now he’s in the fashion space with a company called Pact. Welcome to the show Brendan.

Brendan Synnott: Thanks so much for having me. Looking forward to talking about innovation. It’s my favorite subject in business.

Path of Entrepreneurship

Brian Ardinger: You have got a lot to talk about and you’ve had a very eclectic career over the course of the last decade or so, starting and forming businesses that have gone from nothing to something.  Have you always been an entrepreneur and what led you to the path of entrepreneurship?

Brendan Synnott: I think I’ve always had that spirit in me. I was blessed by having two grandfathers that both had started their own businesses. One was a printing brokerage and one was a engineering firm. Both small businesses, but I grew up with that culture within my family about saying, you can do what you want. You can see it go after it. And then that led me to always starting little businesses growing up.

I remember going to the Costco when I was a kid and buying 150 lemon heads or you know, for $8 and then go sell them on the street. Or go sell them in school or whatever it may be. And I had a number of businesses before I hit my first big one.  But it was something that I was always just like, ah, let’s go try it, let’s go get after it. let’s go see what happens.

Lessons of Entrepreneurship

Brian Ardinger: I think you got your big break when you’ve cofounded Bear Naked in the granola space and you eventually sold that to Kellogg. What were some of the early lessons of entrepreneurship that you can share with our audience?

Brendan Synnott: I started Bear Naked when I was 23 years old with a girl I went to high school with. We started with very small investment and I didn’t know what QuickBooks was. I didn’t know what accounting was and I just ended up believing in it and what the consumer wanted and that really guided me for my whole career. I was trying to build products and try to put myself in the place of  the consumer, understand what was important to them, and have them guide me along the way as I’ve made decisions around building the business.

So what I priced the product for, how I communicated it, how I chose ingredients, I just always assume there’s like a little customer sitting on my shoulder and I would say, what would they want if I was making the decision in front of them and they were fully transparent about what I was doing, what would they say. And how do I rationalize it to it? And that was a guiding thing that was inside of me, and that’s ultimately helps support all the consumer businesses I’ve been a part of.

I just always assume there’s a little customer sitting on my shoulder and I would say, what would they want if I was making the decision in front of them…

Sourcing Startup Ideas

Brian Ardinger: So how do you source those ideas? Is it talking to customers? Is it just observing them? What’s the secret sauce that you’ve seen to source the number and breadth and depth of startups that you’ve launched.

Brendan Synnott: I am obsessed with being in front of the customer and talking to them. We didn’t have customer research, we didn’t have market research. All we had is a great product that we believed in and then consumers that believed in it. And so when I started Bear Naked for the first two years of the business, the way we would watch the product as I walk into a grocery store and be like, listen, I’ll give you a couple of free cases, can I come in and sell it for you?

And then I would go in and meet the customers and spend two or three days basically doing 500 mini interviews, with customers. Where in the store do you want to see it? What price point do you like to pay? How do you eat it? What do you substitute it with? What are you looking for in a breakfast cereal? And just all these questions that you could have naturally with customers that if you take the time and you have enough of them, you just start to see the trends and see the things that are important and the things that are not so important.

Looking for Customer Problems

Brian Ardinger: It’s a series of discoveries around what are the core problems that customers are having and then stacking solutions around that to iteratively build the business around it.

Brendan Synnott: Exactly.

From Consumer Packaged Goods to eCommerce Company Pact

Brian Ardinger: After you sold to Kellogg’s, you started some other companies, Evol foods and the pet food company and a wild meat company, and that so you’ve always been in this consumer packaged goods, but now you’ve pivoted and transitioned to something a little bit different. Let’s talk about Pact. It’s a eCommerce company. Then how you pivoted into this new role.

Brendan Synnott: In all the businesses I’ve been a part of, so when I was looking at cereal, I was like in 5 or 10 years, Kellogg’s, General Mills is going to mean nothing to the next generation of consumers. The way they built their products is with no transparency. It’s not collaboratively with the consumer, and it doesn’t have millennial psychographic like mindsets around what’s important to brands and around sustainability, around, you know, where you make your product, how you make your product, what ingredients are they, where did they come from?

All of these things that we demand as customers today. And that’s really the technology is enabled for us to ask all those questions and get all those answers. That was the thesis. So for me it was like Kellogg’s not going to mean anything to the next generation of consumers. Stouffer’s is not going to mean anything in the next generation of consumers.  What is in their lasagna?  For our pet food business, it was, it was like Iams and brands like that. There’s nothing about those brands that I trust or I understand. And they weren’t built for our generation. They were built for another time when big brands controlled consumers through mass marketing and no choices.

The way they built their products is with no transparency. It’s not collaboratively with the consumer, and it doesn’t have millennial psychographic like mindsets around what’s important to brands.

And so that’s always been, for me, the big driver of these big categories that are really important in people’s lives and that we interact with on a daily basis and building a better solution. And then I had built a number of food businesses, started them, but then I love white space and I love new challenges. I love big markets that are really personal to people. And I looked ajacent to apparel. And what people don’t really realize about apparel and fashion is it’s grown in the same fields that your food is. Your clothes are grown out of the ground, most of them, unless you’re wearing plastic. I started to look at apparel generally, and it’s a huge market, and then most of apparel that people love is cotton and cotton is widely considered the world’s dirtiest crop.

It’s responsible for roughly 15, 20% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides and fashion overall is responsible for 20% of the world’s water pollution. So just terribly constructed products that we put on our body every day, and it says, Hey, this represents who I am. And so that was a big insight. And then I started looking at Hanes, Fruit-of-the-Loom, Jockey and these big companies like Gap and what are they going to mean to the next generation?

They built their products with ingredients that are destroying the planet in factories that hurt people. And that just felt like a big problem.  Building a direct to consumer concept and understanding where consumers are today would be what I was interested in supporting.

They built their products with ingredients that are destroying the planet in factories that hurt people. And that just felt like a big problem. Building a direct to consumer concept and understanding where consumers are today would be what I was interested in supporting.

Pact’s Organic Fair Trade Products

Brian Ardinger: How’s it going?

Brendan Synnott: Pact is great. We’re a direct to consumer business first. We offer all organic cotton, all fair trade products. We offer products for women, for men, for kids, and we also do home products like bed and bath. If you think about what you interact with every day, if you go into your closet, 70% of it’s cotton. What are you sleeping in? Cotton sheets. What are you drawing yourself off, cotton towels. It is really the fabric of our lives and using a direct to consumer model to get rid of some of the inefficiencies of traditional retail, and we can basically provide those products at the same price that you would buy your clothes from Gap or J. Crew.

Husch Blackwell – Get Started Omaha

Brian Ardinger: Hey listeners, I wanted to pause this episode for a brief word from our sponsor, Husch Blackwell. Get Started Omaha is the premier startup event for the Omaha startup community, providing an opportunity for startups, investors, the business community, and others in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to come together to celebrate Omaha’s startup scene. As a supportive member of the startup community. Husch Blackwell is proud to be this year’s presenting sponsor with prizes for each of our industry track winners and a final grand prize, over $75,000 in cash and in kind services will be awarded in support of the startup community. We’re looking for startups, sponsors, and everything in between to help make this event a success and we hope you’ll join us. Learn more at www,getstartedomaha.com now back to the show.

 

Technology of Entrepreneurship

Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about technology and how that has evolved to enable folks like yourself to create and compete against the biggest brands and biggest companies in the world. Talk a little bit about the technology aspect of entrepreneurship.

Brendan Synnott: It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to go build businesses. That’s the biggest thing. I started Bear Naked in 2002. We’re 15 years past that and just the cost of having even cell phones back then, or actually we had Blackberries, to today where you can stand up an e-commerce platform and stand up a major advertising platform with Facebook or Shopify or whatever it may be so quickly, so cheaply, and allow you to carve out whatever niche that you want to generate.

It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to go build businesses.

And it allows you to stand these businesses up. And because the cap backs associated with building the businesses is so much smaller than it used to be. You don’t have necessarily the demands of having huge scale in order to pay off from it, which is just creating so many opportunities for small people that want to build businesses they believe in and it enables it. It’s so awesome to watch, and I think ultimately so great as a consumer sitting on the other side of it because you get so many innovative people thinking about how to create innovative solutions for you and they can deliver them to you.

Corporate Innovation & Startups

Brian Ardinger: You mentioned corporate innovation with these bigger farms not being able to compete with the newer, more nimble startups out there. Why do you think that’s happening or what do you see as far as corporations either jumping into the space or trying to become more nimble?

Brendan Synnott: Corporations in the food space, if you look at Kellogg’s, their entire infrastructure is built around operating larger scale brands. They have these skills in order to really run those businesses well overall. But in terms of that fine motor skills of understanding how to manage growth in an entrepreneurial environment with limited resources, and less time to make decisions, that’s just a culture that they don’t have, which is why they ended up buying all these businesses.

We’ve sold four different food businesses to large companies over time, and they’ve tried to build them themselves. They set up incubator sometimes, now that a lot of them have venture funds, but ultimately I think they realized that the best thing they can do is partner with the brands, but get out of the way of the people that are running them.

Sourcing Innovation with Startups

Brian Ardinger: Right. Find the ones that are innovating faster and then somehow identify them and either partner and or acquire. Use that as their incubation lab.

Brendan Synnott: Exactly.

Good Entrepreneur Traits

Brian Ardinger: What are your thoughts on what makes a good entrepreneur?

Brendan Synnott: I’ve built seven different businesses from zero to over $25 million. Some of them much larger than that, but I’ve been through that growth curve five times and yes, there is a narrative that somewhat is consistent.  But in the end of the day every business has its own challenges, and more importantly, every business has its own team, which ultimately becomes the biggest challenge to work through.

It is like none of this stuff is hard from a strategy standpoint, none of it’s hard from a technical standpoint, but understanding how to get a team of people to rally around an idea and be comfortable with change and be comfortable with failure.  That’s, in the end of the day, that’s a dynamic thing that I think is very consistent is for me. That’s what’s been the most important thing to focus on.

Understanding how to get a team of people to rally around an idea and be comfortable with change and be comfortable with failure.  That’s, in the end of the day, that’s a dynamic thing that I think is very consistent for me. That’s what’s been the most important thing to focus on.

Getting Started

Brian Ardinger: Talk a little bit about if I’m an entrepreneur wanting to get started, what are some of the core learning lessons in that that you could impart?

Brendan Synnott: I think one of the first questions I asked when I’m talking to an entrepreneur is, let’s go play the game. Let’s go build the org chart, and 18 months after you’ve crushed it. What are you actually doing. For me, my skill set is I’m a very strong sales growth marketer person, so those parts of the business come very naturally to me.

They are what I enjoy and they are what I’m good at, but that means I need super strong finance person around me. I need a super strong operator around me. Then there’s certain types of. Employees or partners that I need in order to be successful, not only within the business, but then also like personally, because like the worst thing is you go to build a business and then you trap yourself in it. You’re doing something you don’t like with people you don’t love.

Looking into the Future

Brian Ardinger: That’s a great point. Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of entrepreneurs jump into the, whatever the latest, hottest fad is thinking, well, you know, I want to be an entrepreneur. They dive into that, not realizing it sometimes a 5, 10 year journey and if you’re not happy working with that type of customers or working in that particular industry, it’s going to be a long slug.

Brendan Synnott: The biggest investment you have as an entrepreneur is your time, right? It’s like what’s the opportunity costs of your time either into something that has higher financial returns? Higher personal returns or higher emotional returns. That’s the balance that you get into, and I know in my own career, I’ve made decisions and I found myself stuck. Sometimes you’re forced into decisions or you make the best decision with what information you have, but ultimately just having that idea of if this works, what’s my role in it? Who do I want around me? What do I want to be doing on a day to day basis?

Taking Risks

Brian Ardinger:  What are your thoughts on taking risk as an entrepreneur? I mean, you’ve done a lot of different things and know you were on Survivor. That’s obviously a different risk from being an entrepreneur in that. So talk a little bit about how you perceive risk as an entrepreneur and what are some things that people should be thinking about when it comes to risk?

Brendan Synnott: Take as much risk as you can as early in your career as possible. Is my biggest advice. I think risk, it gets infinitely more costly as you age, as you get older and for anybody thinking about starting a business, start it early because you can take greater risks, which allows you to fail more, which is going to allow you to learn more about what you don’t like. I mean, ultimately help frame what you do like.

Take as much risk as you can as early in your career as possible.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: Well, Brendan, thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation and really appreciate you coming on board to talk about your journey. If people want to find out about yourself or about Pact, what’s the best way to do that?

Brendan Synnott: You can go to the website wearpact.com and we’ve got a great intro offer. You can get 40% off your first order to clean out your closet with the code. IO – two letters – IO.

Brian Ardinger: Thanks Brendan for coming on the show. Thanks for the offer for our audience and thanks for innovating.

Brendan Synnott: Awesome. Thanks so much. Great to connect.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content or services, check out Inside Outside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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Episode 182

Ep. 182 – Brendan Synnot...