In 2013 I was in the peak shape of my young professional triathlete life. I’d had some breakout finishes, a big win, and was ready to storm the world. Then… I broke my foot. It was mentally and physically devastating, cost me all my fitness and momentum, and took longer to recover from than I ever expected.
My employees know that I love me a good sports analogy, and I see Picky Bars 2018 a lot like that year. We had some wins, were poised for a big breakthrough, and suffered a huge freaking injury that took us out for the peak of the season. But we stayed positive, worked through the BS, reset our plan, and reset new goals - stronger and (maybe a little bit wiser) as a result of the setbacks. Here’s what played out and what I learned in 2018 (littered with lots of good sports analogies).
I spent most of the entire first half of 2018 making a huge shift to a new bar manufacturer that would give us better long term scaling ability. It was a TON of work, but knew it was gonna be awesome. Right before we made the change, we did one last big production run at the old manufacturer to use up the rest of our ingredients and have plenty of finished product to last us through what I knew would be a longer than expected transition to the new place. And I was right (shocking) - it did take longer than expected. And if that last big run of product had been normal, we would have just made it! Except it wasn’t, it was bad.
Because of a supply issue, we were forced to switch rice protein suppliers (literally, same ingredient, just from a different place), and even though we tested repeatedly prior to the change, the finished product tasted “funky.” There were no health risks (we always test our finished bars), but taste was not up to par. As we discovered the problem, we had to quickly decide what to do. We couldn’t just remake product because we were out of ingredients at the old place, had already “given notice,” and were waiting to start with the new place.
Our choices were to 1) keep selling product and hope most people didn’t notice - “ship and duck,” as some called it - or 2) stop selling product and be out of stock during the peak of the summer. Both brutal options. Some flavors were less affected than others and some people didn’t notice the “off” as much as others, so option “1” didn’t seem totally unreasonable. But long story short, we decided not to sell that product. In fact, most of it is still sitting here, 20 feet from where I’m typing right now, a physical reminder of our massive airball from the summer.
It was, obviously, the right call - you don’t want product out there that you aren’t proud of. But the mistake hurt, a lot. We essentially threw away $100k worth of product, AND missed our peak summer sales season. Looking back, I think the mistake cost us ~$200k to the bottom line, a huge amount for a business of our size, particularly one owned and financed solely by Lauren and I, who don’t exactly have lotsa dolla dolla bills, yo.
The good news is that our team did an excellent job managing the S show - meaning that, at least from what I can tell, we lost very few customers. Mel and our summer intern Julia were tireless on customer service, swapping product for thousands of Picky Clubbers. Nadine, Sarah, and Kelli on the marketing team and Ben, Liz, and Jac on sales team did the same thing. The Work, Play, Love Podcast also helped, where Lauren and I honestly told the story honestly as it unfolded. It was a tough go though, in addition to the money it took from the business, it also zapped morale out of the office. As one employee said, “I spent two months saying ‘no’ and ‘sorry.’” Ugh.
But like any injury, we eventually healed. And while it dominated the year from a financial and storytelling standpoint, the switch to a new co packer did allow us to make all the the major changes I wanted to make in 2018 - some HUGE wins for our team.
In addition to the wins above, the other things I’m most proud of this year are:
I Love Carbs T-shirt [$25]
So there’s certainly a lot to celebrate, but I’m not going to lie, we’re still feeling the scars of the summer injury (I’m really milking this analogy for all it’s worth). Financially, we’re in a tight spot right now, if I’m honest, the toughest spot we’ve ever been in. We’re backed against the limit of our current bank line and what Lauren and I can loan to the business. Until we find some other financing (which I’m working on), and because of what happened this summer, we kinda really need to be profitable. There isn’t a ton of room for error. And while that’s scary, and like an injury it feels like mostly bad luck and totally our our fault - it’s also an opportunity. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” as someone said, and not surprisingly has been on repeat in my mind during my long rides and runs the last few months. The lack of resources has forced me as an owner to narrow the focus of the business, clearly identify our top priorities, and eliminate the waste that comes with trying to keep up with growth. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little scared, but I am also really, really excited about what lies ahead for us this year. And I guess that’s the entrepreneurial/athletic journey in a nutshell.
It’s been almost six months since I took a break from racing to focus on getting us through this rough patch. I can see the difference it’s made for me and the team. If I can extend my analogy into coaching (oh god will he stop already?) - when I’m training and racing full time, it’s like I’m a coach on the sideline for about half of each quarter, trying to coach remotely the rest of the game. Well, I’ve spent the second half of THIS year ENTIRELY eagle eyes on the sideline (nice!), and I can see the team improving significantly. I can also feel myself improving as a leader/coach. I have a deeper understanding of our strengths and our weaknesses than I ever have. I have more confidence in what it will take for us to be successful, and our plan for the next 12 months is a reflection of that understanding.
When I broke my foot in 2013, it took me longer to come back than I thought it would. Even after I was healed, it was a windy, difficult road back to gaining the fitness I had prior to the injury. It was a struggle mentally and physically. But ultimately, the best parts of my career, my biggest wins, and most successful years came in the years following that setback. I really do believe that Picky Bars is poised for its best year yet in 2019. We got knocked down, but we’re back up and at ‘em, and it might not all play out as we have planned, but I’m excited to keep writing the story.
Massive thanks to our customers, followers, and supporters for sticking with us through this year. Huge thanks to my employees as well for the work and belief and help in turning things around. Also, our partners, suppliers, and advisors for all the support. As always, I’d love your feedback on what you liked and didn’t like from us this year and what we could do to make your experience with us better. Here’s to 2019!
The Picky HQ Crew (and all their favorite toys)
(L:R) Roadie Nadine, Skier Sarah, Yogi Kelli, Tri Kaitlin, Swimmer Bernadette, Trackster Mel, Trail Runner Collier, Riversports Jesse, Mountainbiker Erik + -in-training Jude, Runner Lauren (+ Zadie), Nordic Matt, and Alpinist Ben!
Refreshed from family vacation, Jesse and Lauren talk about athletes making political statements, high mileage for young runners, and how to battle injuries as an aging athlete.
L & J answer listener questions about faith and belief, training for the marathon as a triathlete, finding balance and passion in a career, and coaching a partner. Plus USATF Champs!