In Conversation with Ashley Nickelsen of B.T.R. Bar

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Describe your business in a few words?

B.T.R. Bar is on a mission to end mindless snacking by giving new meaning to snack time. That’s why we make the first protein bar with a purpose. Each bar is boosted with 7+ purpose-driven superfoods & adaptogens to satisfy every snacking occasion from A.M. to P.M.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

B.T.R. stands for “be BOLD, TENACIOUS & RESILIENT,” which was my parents’ personal mantra. I started the company as a tribute to them. Over 5 years ago, my parents were both diagnosed with rare forms of cancer, and it changed our lives forever. As their primary caretaker, working full-time, I was always on-the-go inhaling sugar-laden protein bars and bites from a hospital vending machine. My energy levels were shot, my brain fog was constant, and my stress levels were through the roof. I craved a truly BTR-for-you snack low in sugar, powered by plants, and that served a functional purpose. That’s how B.T.R. Bar was born – as a simple idea in a hospital cafeteria.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

My background is a bit all over the place, but one thing I’ve always believed in is making the most of every experience and learning through everything. I studied biochemistry and public health nutrition when I was in college at NYU, but I was also a super over-involved college student. I was a Resident Assistant, Tour Guide, Orientation Leader (I would have been the school mascot if given the chance!) So my next logical step was to go to Graduate School for Higher Education and Counseling. 

During my time in Graduate School, I learned so much about how to lead, manage a team, build a community, all transferable skills for starting my own business. I worked in Higher Education for several years as a Residence Hall Director, building community amongst first-year and upper class students in the residence halls. At the same time, I was pursuing a second Master’s in Food Studies (because I was obsessed with food, our food system, nutrition), and I became a Personal Trainer with a specialty in customized nutrition plans. I was always baking, making healthier energy balls & bites, in the kitchen tweaking recipes. Right around this time, I was given the opportunity to build a supplement start-up from the ground up as the second hire. For 4 years, I worked at this company and wore all the hats from marketing to sales to operations. When the pandemic hit, I started to grow restless. I wanted more from life; I wanted an opportunity to fulfill my parents’ legacy, and that’s when I decided it was time to kickstart B.T.R. Bar. We soft-launched at the end of September 2020.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I think so. From childhood, I always dreamed of starting my own company. As an only child, I remember pretending I owned my own restaurant. I “designed” my own menus, served the pretend food, etc. Since as early as I can remember, I’ve always loved building something from the ground up. When I got older, I always managed to be involved in something that had to do with building, whether that be relationship-building or community-building or building strategies. I’ve always been one to work 80-90 hour weeks, so I knew I had the grit to make it happen. But it wasn’t until several years after my parents passed, that I realized how precious life really is, and I no longer wanted to be working 80-90 hours/week for someone else. I wanted to be doing it for myself, I wanted to build a team around a mission and a story that meant something.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

Great question! Since we’re still so young, this feels like yesterday, literally. When we first launched at the end of September, my goal was to go as organic as possible. Create content, generate buzz, send samples. And it worked pretty well. But the world of marketing changes every day. And as a brand starting out in the middle of a pandemic in one of the most saturated spaces in grocery, I knew I had to go hard fast. It took me about a month and a half before I realized that I shouldn’t rely too much on word of mouth marketing in the beginning. Since starting digital advertising, our growth has doubled. I think it’s important to constantly reflect on what you’re doing, what you’re missing out on, and testing everything so you can double down on what really works.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

As a solopreneur, I feel like I learn something new every day, and I try to learn the most from my mistakes. One mistake I made early on was inventory forecasting. The great thing about this mistake is that I knew I would make it, so I was ready for it. Without any concrete data, I knew it was going to be tough for me to forecast which functional flavors would perform the best. I started out by ordering the same amount of inventory across all 3 SKUs. In retrospect, I should have used my gut and intuition a bit more here and ordered more of the flavors that we’re currently selling out of and less of the flavor that’s a bit more niche. Next time!

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Customer feedback is the most important thing to me. So when I see customers order 8 and 9 times in less than 3 months in business, that makes me so proud. Or when I hear customers share their experiences with the bars and how they’ve changed the way they snack, how they trust the ingredients, how they feel a part of the B.T.R. family. I know we’re building something WAY bigger than a protein bar.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

Great question! As a solopreneur, I can’t wait to make my first hire (anticipating mid/late 2021) However, I’ve been involved in the hiring process from my days in education managing a team of 30, so my two favorite questions are:

  • Tell me about a time where you created something from inception to final product. What was your strategy to do so and how did it make you feel?
  • What are you doing when you feel your best? Or what did you do in your last role that made you feel like you were doing your best work?

I love getting to know more about what makes people tick. A happy team member, an invested team member is not only going to help the business thrive, but it’s going to make your company a place where employees want to stay and help grow. So I like to know what about a job makes people most excited and most successful. You can’t always do what you love, but when you find the right hire, you want to make sure they’re doing more than just what you need them to do; they should feel valued and excited when they come to work.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Fortunately, we launched the business D2C first, so we were able to make customer connections virtually. But it’s definitely impacted opportunity in the retail space. Since people aren’t in-store discovering new products as much, and since in-store demos have been cancelled, it’s tough to meet our consumers in person. We’re doing everything we can to make up for that online via our social media presence and emails. We’re doing everything we can to be as innovative with our marketing as possible!

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

Such a great question! We’re excited to be launching at least one new functional flavor in 2021. We’re always innovating and developing flavors that our customers want to see with ingredients we know will help fuel their days. We can’t wait to pursue more partnerships with people and brands and further build out the B.T.R. Collective composed of doctors and nutritionists who give their stamp of approval on each B.T.R. Bar recipe. And we’re excited to start a partnership with key retailers to make B.T.R. Bars more accessible all over the country.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Keep going. Keep doing. Keep making it happen.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I think when you start a business, you always hope that people will love the packaging or the mission and values and they’ll just come to your website in droves. Although I knew this wouldn’t be the case when launching my business, I had this tiny thought in the back of my mind, that maybe it will be different! But it’s not! And that’s ok. You have to work for your traffic. You have to work for your customers. You have to put yourself out there. Brand awareness is not easy when consumers are constantly being flooded with new beverages, new snacks, new mattresses, new, new, new. Starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s important to reassure yourself of that every day.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

My husband and my puppy. When I’m worried about something or overthinking or over analyzing, my husband likes to bring me back to earth by reminding me of all the things that are going right, that are going well. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, so it’s important to have someone who is not close to the business pull you out of them.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I’d like to say I do, but I think work is a big part of my life right now, and I think that’s ok. Do I work on weekends? Yes, absolutely. But it doesn’t really feel like work. It feels fun to me. And my husband is super supportive of that. However, I also know when to draw the line, sit back and relax. Two of my favorite tips to balance or harmony are:

  • Go for a daily walk. Not only does it force you to leave your computer, but it also sparks more creativity. 
  • Carve out relaxation time on the calendar. I like to work at night because it’s when I’m the most creative. But when I want to take a break and watch Food Network or Schitt’s Creek, I do it, uninterrupted.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I met my husband at the gym (pre-COVID) while I was deadlifting. He was in my spot, and I asked him to politely move. That was over 6 years ago!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Make a list of 3 to-dos that are non-negotiable to get done each day. And try to get them done first. They shouldn’t be large projects. They should be more tasky, so if you have a large project, break that down into 3 digestible tasks that need to get done to further the project along.
  • Something new I’m trying right now is setting a 25 minute alarm and working as hard as I can for 25 minutes on a particular task (no interruptions, unless you have a meeting or call of course!) After the 25 minutes, I’ll take a quick 3-5 minute break, and then set another 25 minute alarm. This has REALLY been helping me to stay focused and productive. As an entrepreneur, you’re pulled in a million ways, and one of those ways is on to my phone. Although social media is extremely beneficial for the business, it can also cause me to go down a rabbit hole that’s not helpful in the moment. 
  • Plan early meetings. Since I’m based on the West Coast, I like to plan meetings at 7 or 7:30 AM to get me up and going for the day, since that’s already 10 AM on the east coast. That way, I can get all my emails checked, campaigns optimized, and little things that I need to do every day by 9:30.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being an Entreprenista means so much to me! But I think more than anything being an Entreprenista means being yourself, owning your strengths, and making things happen while being rooted in your values and your purpose.

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