Whenever I get an opportunity to reflect back on all that’s happened in a year, I always need to remind myself of why the hell I (and we, collectively as Picky Bars) are here. There’s a lot of fun, but also a ton of work, sacrifice, and stress involved with the sometimes crazy good but sometimes crazy bad of the unpredictable rollercoaster ride of small business. So why do we do it?
And, as corny as it sounds, my answer always come back to our mission. We genuinely want to “Fuel Great Experiences,” literally through high quality, real food products, and generally by supporting people who aspire to do great things. We hope doing this allows us to build a successful business in Bend, provide great jobs people love, and products and services that are well respected across the country and the globe. That’s why we take this ride. That’s our dream.
2016 saw Picky Bars take some of the biggest, and most difficult, steps toward fulfilling that dream. I come away from all that happened enormously proud of what our team did to follow that dream, overcome incredible challenges when it didn’t go all as planned, and put the pieces in place to do better next time. As our customers, fans, followers, and supporters, I hope you are too.
As always, much more happened than I could possibly recap in a single blog, but I tried to put my CEO cap on to highlight what I consider the biggest highs, the one real-low low, and of course, the excitement and plans we have for going forward. Here they are:
2016 started with an incoming email from a buyer at Trader Joe’s interested in carrying our products nationally. “Holy Crap” was our (appropriate) collective response. While this is the dream email you get as a small biz owner, it’s also an incredibly difficult one to act on. For us to deliver would require a HUMONGOUS step forward in supply chain, staffing, financing, marketing, and all the other important business words that end in “ing.” We started 2016 asking the question “How in the hell are we going to do this?
With TONS of work and a little luck, we pulled it off! In late March we delivered, a day early, by far the largest order in our history, and successfully launched to much fanfare. I was and am immensely proud of my team for delivering on that challenge and it was one of the coolest moments of my professional life when I first saw our bars on the shelves at Trader Joe’s.
With more distribution and resources than ever to act upon our mission we did some of the best “good” we’ve ever done as a company, things that made us feel, as we said in the office, “all warm and fuzzy inside.” The programs I’m most proud of are:
Even outside of TJ’s, we grew in all of our retail channels across the board, thanks in large part to our new Field Pro and Rep teams who’ve given great support to these partners. This includes year over year growth with our best long time customers like REI, Sports Basement, and hundreds of great run, bike, and outdoor shops across the country. We also added some awesome new retailers I’m stoked about (and I think you will be too), including Whole Foods Pacific Northwest, Performance Bike, and our first international distribution to Canada through Ryeka Sport. Finally… CANADA! [You can shop in-store and online at MEC, and coming soon at JHM Fuels]
We started 2016 with six employees, and ended it with eleven – eight of them new! One of the biggest challenges small, growing companies face is reforming their team to meet new demands and responsibilities. It requires you to not only find new employees, but reshape and professionally develop current employees. My team did an awesome job adapting to the many changes we saw this year, and this is maybe the thing I’m most stoked about going into 2017.
After our launch, Trader Joe’s told us the product was doing better than expected and placed their second order two weeks early (which we amazingly also delivered on time)! But after a couple of months of little news, we were told it was moving slower than they originally thought. Then just about 8 weeks later we got an email saying they wouldn’t be ordering any more.
Of course, this was a bummer, but luckily for us, I had a suspicion TJ’s would be a short lived opportunity. The research I did with other brands our size showed me that was the typical case. And when our original buyer (the one who “discovered” us) left just as we launched, I knew our space was at risk. Trader Joe’s is one of the most competitive grocery environments out there, and it’s no secret that the energy bar category is about as competitive as it gets. I suspected our lack of national brand awareness and the loss of our “internal champion” could eventually catch up to us, and it did.
Anticipating that “short-term-ness” maybe saved Picky Bars from taking the path most companies our size take when they have a huge surge and then drop in supply chain due to a massive customer… bankruptcy. We avoided a lot of the over-scaling mistakes that many small, quickly growing companies make – we didn’t give ourselves massive raises, over hire, get a new office, buy a bunch of expensive equipment or a company jet or gold plated computer monitors (I still use my Picky Bar cardboard box stand up desk). We were left with a surplus of extra inventory, but not disastrously so.
Maybe it’s the sports side of my brain, always looking for the silver lining in an unexpected setback, but the net effect of our entire Trader Joe’s experience was very positive. Like I said above, we used almost all of our new resources on customers and fans, doing a ton of good and “Fueling Great Experiences” for more people than ever. We increased our supply chain and financing capacity, hired a couple of great new employees, and remained profitable. We also LEARNED. We’ve got a great product and brand, but we now know there are some things we need to sharpen on the awareness and support side before our next national grocery launch. And because of that, just like after every setback on the proverbial “field,” we’re fired up and ready to take another crack at it with new passion, experience, capacity, and resources.
If 2016 was the “How the hell are we going to do this” year, 2017 is the “We know how to do this, let’s go do it” year! I can say with confidence that we have the best team we’ve ever had in this office, and they just finished the most detailed, complete, and straight up best planning process we’ve ever had. The main priorities of our 2017 will be:
I think maybe like a lot of us, I feel a little bit lucky to have “survived” 2016. A lot of great things happened, but man, it was a crazy one too. Maybe surprisingly considering the rough patches, I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of our business. I’m excited for, and just the right amount intimidated by, our challenges. While success obviously isn’t guaranteed, it is possible. And it’s walking that line between fear of failure and possibility of success that makes this journey, or any journey worth it, regardless of outcome.
As always – let me know any and all of your thoughts by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much everyone for the SIX (incredible!) years of support!
No matter the sport, the best way to set yourself up for success is to have a plan. Putting some time into planning it all out will save you from bonehead moves on the big day. ...
Nick Troutman is a whitewater kayaker on the Picky Bars team, but more importantly he's a kickass dad showing his two kids what life on and off the river is all about. He and Tucker...