Clif Bar Started With A Hungry Cyclist And A Mom Who Liked To Bake
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For a few weeks now, we've been asking this question on this program - where do good ideas come from, and what does it take to turn those ideas into money, a successful business? Here with some answers is my colleague, Guy Raz, who is host of the TED Radio Hour and a new podcast called How I Built This. Morning.
GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Remind us - your new podcast, it's all about entrepreneurs.
RAZ: That's right, Renee. And the show focuses on the earliest and usually the toughest years of building a business. And, you know, as you might expect, a lot of these origin stories began with a moment of frustration. You know, like, a person says, this product is really horrible, and I think I can make a better one.
MONTAGNE: And does today's story begin that way as well?
RAZ: Yes, it begins with a moment of frustration that led to the invention of Clif Bar, which is one of the best-selling energy bars in the country. But, Renee, if you go back about 25 years, there weren't, like, you know, 50 or 100 different energy bars to pick from. You only had, like, one or two. And at that time, there was a guy named Gary Erickson.
He was working at a bike seat factory in Berkeley. And on the weekends, he would take these really long bike rides through the Bay Area. And on one of those weekends, he and a friend took a bunch of energy bars with them - the ones that were available at the time. And over the course of the ride, Gary goes through about five of these bars.
GARY ERICKSON: And I looked at the sixth one, and I just said, no way. I can't do one more. I would rather starve than eat another one of these. And I turn to my friend, Jay (ph), and I said, you know what? I can make a better energy bar than that.
MONTAGNE: Right. And as you said, Guy, many of us have those moments where we say, I could do this better. But then we move on and do not do anything about it.
RAZ: Right, but Gary Erickson was in kind of a unique situation because he was already running a small side business. He was selling homemade Greek pastries that he learned to bake from his mother. So anyway, as Gary tells the story, the day after that long bike ride, he calls his mom up and he says, hey, can we try making an energy bar?
ERICKSON: And she's like, what's an energy bar? And I said, it's kind of like that great oatmeal-chocolate-chip-raisin cookie that you make, but we can't use butter, we can't use sugar, and we can't use oil. She goes, well, that's impossible.
MONTAGNE: Well, it does actually sound kind of impossible.
RAZ: Yeah, it does. But Gary, he can't let this idea go, so he and his mom start to experiment. They use oats and dried fruit and a sweetener made from rice. And the bar is actually horrible at first - I mean, just awful. But after about six months, they hit on a recipe that works. And Gary starts to sell these bars at bike shops all over the Bay Area. And he names them Clif, which is after his dad, who was named Clifford.
MONTAGNE: So for most of us, that's - that's a little bit scary - to see if people will buy this thing that you have, in his case, cooked up, quite literally, with his mom.
MONTAGNE: Is it that entrepreneurs can tolerate more risk than the rest of us?
RAZ: You know, Renee, the way I'd put it is that a lot of them are very good at managing risk. You know, like during the period where Gary is trying to get the company off the ground, he doesn't quit his day job. He's still working as a manager at that bicycle seat factory, really until the company starts to take off.
MONTAGNE: Which is interesting, Guy, because you always hear that an entrepreneur has this total commitment, even an obsession with whatever it is that person is building.
RAZ: Yeah. But, you know, I would say that that was absolutely true for Gary Erickson as well. I mean, he was very emotionally involved. In fact, he told me this incredible story about how he almost decided to sell the company. His business partner at the time convinced him to sell the company. He was on the way to the lawyer's office to sign the papers. And in the last second, he decided not to do it.
ERICKSON: I had put everything into this. This is my - this is my life, and these are our employees, and this is my family, and it's named after my dad. I'm shaking right now just thinking of it.
MONTAGNE: Yes, well, clearly he was very emotionally involved.
RAZ: Yeah and, as I say, still is. And not to give too much of the story away, but Clif Bar is still largely owned by Gary and his wife, Kit, and has estimated revenue of around a quarter of a billion dollars a year.
MONTAGNE: That, of course, is Guy Raz, host of the new podcast HOW I BUILT THIS, all about entrepreneurs like Gary Erickson. And to hear guy's entire interview, go to guy.npr.org.
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