In Conversation with Erica Liu Williams of gr8nola
Describe gr8nola in a few words?
Delicious, low-sugar superfood granola.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I was working in the tech industry for about four years when I started to get the itch to do my own thing. Two things triggered this desire: 1) working in tech and being part of start-ups that were successfully acquired and 2) seeing many college classmates start their own successful companies — many of whom I never would have thought were the “entrepreneurial” type. This challenged me to look at my career path differently and less linearly. Doing the 9-5 and climbing the corporate ladder is a choice, but not the only option.
I had this “itch” to start my own business for about six months without a clue of what to do. Then one day, it dawned on me — I was already making super delicious, clean-ingredient granola at home, which was born from a dietary cleanse my husband and I do every year after The Super Bowl. So I thought, “What if THIS is my business idea?” I leaned in, and took my first step by selling it at the local farmers market and slowly built the business on the side of my tech career for ~5 years until I took the plunge to pursue gr8nola full-time.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I was working in the tech industry working for various companies from four-person, stealth startups to large corporations like Yahoo and Intuit. Throughout my career, I wore different hats and had various roles in product, marketing, sales and ops.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Not at all. In fact, I used to self-proclaim that I wasn’t the “entrepreneurial type” and thought I was going to climb the corporate ladder.
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?
I first launched in the farmers market, with the goal of getting in-person customer feedback as quickly as possible to validate if I had a good product that people would repeatedly buy. From the first market, I knew right away that I had a great product, as people would react saying it’s the best granola they’ve ever had, and by the second week I had them coming back for more.
From there, I started to get gr8nola into the micro kitchens of large tech offices like Google, Twitter and Facebook (to name a few), and I also started selling online on my website and Amazon. Getting into the big tech offices took years to build since it’s all about relationships and unlocking distribution; then figuring out how to digitally market the business to drive D2C and Amazon sales was definitely new territory since I had no background in performance marketing or social media. So, it took a lot of learning, patience and persistence; hence why I hung onto my job for so long before making the full-time leap.
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?
The new COVID era has definitely been the most challenging time in my business to date. Because so much of my business was supplying corporate offices like Google, I lost a huge channel that took years to build and was the lion-share of my revenue — virtually overnight. That said, it’s forced me to 1) pivot and lean into other channels like D2C and retail (brick & mortar) and 2) most importantly, it’s given me renewed perspective on life as a whole and to never take basic things like health, family and basic civil rights for granted.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
I think the first thing I’m proud of is that I’ve been able to grow my business completely bootstrapped and operating from its existing cashflow up to this point. Coming from tech, it’s easy to get caught up in the endless cycle of raising money and solely focus on crazy fast (yet unprofitable) growth. Not to say I’ll never raise money, but I’m proud that I’ve gotten this far with such lean operating expenses.
Secondly, despite the challenges of 2020, I’m proud to have launched my newest flavor, Peanut Butter, in partnership with UN Foundation Girl Up x Nigel Barker — where I mentored five global teen leaders from the Girl Up community who worked behind-the-scenes with me to develop it, all the way from concept to launch. It’s been incredibly rewarding to show these girls what entrepreneurship is all about, while creating a delicious flavor that also raises money towards a cause I’m passionate about: global gender equality. To learn more about this collaboration, visit gr8nola.com/girlup (8% of all PB sales will be donated to Girl Up).
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
My team is super lean as it’s just me with the help of contractors. Because I’m such a small, scrappy business, I need people who can get their hands dirty and tackle many things vs. a singular role. That said, I always like to make sure there is hunger to constantly learn and develop; but first and foremost I want to know – why my company? I want to know what attracted them to my brand, what they’re passionate about and what impact they hope to make.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
I mentioned earlier how COVID-19 completely wiped out my corporate channel of supplying gr8nola to large tech offices. But fortunately, grocery and online shopping is on a rise, which is an opportunity to lean into these channels more, especially D2C.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
My long term goal is to innovate beyond the granola category and become a nationally-recognized snack brand. Hopefully more and more US households and consumers will be enjoying our delicious, superfood products in their everyday routines as I build brand recognition.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
2020 was truly a year of perspective as it really made me realize how privileged I am. Yes, it was the first year my business top line revenue didn’t grow, but I’m so lucky to have my health and family, and also have a business in an essential industry. Others aren’t so lucky, and I’ve learned to be more grateful for what I have, vs. what I don’t have (yet).
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
I wish I researched more into the category and space I was entering. When I decided to launch gr8nola, it was to validate a product I was already home-baking and just a fun “side project”. I didn’t do any market research or competitive analysis, I didn’t think about my product positioning, and I didn’t look at macro industry trends — I simply launched what I had, off a hunch! While naiveté served me well in many ways (it allowed me to take that first step without overthinking and getting analysis paralysis), had I had my knowledge today, I probably would have gone into a different category because granola is super crowded.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Reflecting more, having perspective and practicing gratitude. It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s not going well — but there are a lot of people who are a lot worse off and I remind myself how lucky I am to be in my shoes: I am able-bodied, have a supportive family, a roof over my head and I get to do what I love!
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Yes, but I think it’s relative to each person’s subjective definition of balance. For me, it comes down to two things 1) what fulfills me 2) how or from where I draw energy. I love what I do so I have no problem working 24/7 since I constantly feel fulfilled by my work — therefore I feel balanced in this department. In order for me to stay sane and energized, I require good sleep, staying active and healthy relationships. As long as I’m checking these three boxes, while feeling fulfilled by my work, then I feel balanced.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I competed at the US Olympics Swimming Trials when I was 13 years old and was the second youngest competitor there :).
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
- Find structure and align work to when you’re most productive. For example, I prefer to do remedial tasks (like bookkeeping) during off-hours, so I save those things for the weekend or evenings. I’m usually most productive in the morning so I reserve more critical and important tasks for then.
- Prioritize your work according to “Urgency” and “Importance”. Things that are rated high on both these dimensions, tackle and do first. If you catch yourself working on things that are low on both – cross them off your list. And if you find yourself constantly blocking and tackling urgent things, take a step back and see if there are some preventative measures that can help this (such as more thoughtful planning, better processes, outsourcing, a system, etc. Most of these things usually sit in the Important but Not Urgent category.)
- Walking and talking (weather permitting) – I like taking calls (the non-serious ones that don’t require screen-share or note-taking) on walks. It makes me feel like I’m tackling two really important things at once: networking and getting in steps!
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
An Entreprenista defines success on HER terms, and owns her outcome.