Welcome to the e-commerce marketing podcast, everyone. I am your host Arlen Robinson and today we have a very special guest Will Nitze, who is the founder of IQBAR, maker of plant-based protein bars. The company was started as a crowdfunding campaign, raising $70,000. Just 2.5 years later, the product is sold at 4,000 CVS stores and recently won a listing with American retail giant Kroger, which will jump its distribution to around 1800 outlets nationwide. Will founded IQ BAR in early 2017 after discovering the powerful impact diet had on his cognition. He currently focuses on operations, finance, and brick-and-mortar sales & marketing. His diverse and eclectic interests include psychology and neuroscience, food, business, soccer, skiing, and online chess. Will is a graduate of Harvard College and lives in South Boston (AKA “Southie”), MA. 

Welcome to the podcast.

Well, thanks for having me. Yeah, not a problem and I’m super excited to get into it. We’re going to be talking about something a little bit different. A lot of times the core of our marketing strategies that I discuss in that our guests discuss are based on businesses that are already in existence, have kind of gotten some traction and are looking for some strategies to help grow their business.

But we’re going to take it all the way back at the very beginning. And can we first start off a business to come up with a concept? What are some ways in which you can grow and scale your successful brand and you have a specific philosophy that you live by when it comes to picking things and pursuing them into full mastery. And so we’re going to be digging deep about that. But before we get into all of that, well, and you tell us a little bit about your background, a little bit more about your background and specifically how you got into what you’re doing today.

Yeah, so I have no background and persay and what I’m doing right now, I don’t have a food background. No one in my family has a food background. But I’ll start in college. In college, I got really interested in psychology and neuroscience and just the brain in general, and I wasn’t really interested in anything else. And so I figured, well, why don’t I try and work in this space in some capacity? But I struggled to figure out a way to do that.

So I knew I didn’t want to be a psychologist or psychiatrist or an academic or a researcher that didn’t really leave a clear path that, say, an engineer might have. So by default, I just took a job in software selling and marketing. A fairly arcane type of software is supply chain and operations software for energy companies. And I was predominantly working in oil and gas company. So I was flying to Houston every week and pitching three hundred thousand dollar software packages to Exxon Mobil, which was an interesting experience, an interesting first job.

I quickly learned it was something I was not super passionate about, but I got really good at a few key skills. I learned how a startup operates. I learned how to sell things. I learned how to pitch a room. I learned how to make a good deck. I learned Excel, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So it was an invaluable experience. But I knew early on it was not going to be my long term journey.

And the way I got into food was during my stint at that first company, I started feeling physically bad. I was a Tajik. Headaches daily. I just felt bad and I quickly learned that was due to my diet, so I became obsessive over diet and I started reading everything I could on it. And this was at the height of the paleo whole 30 sort of dietary trends taking off. And I don’t remember exactly how this happened, but I became obsessed with this concept of brain food.

Then why doesn’t brain food exist? I think it was probably I read a book called Brain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter, and it fascinated me that you could the what you put in your stomach affected how your brain works, because it’s not a topic that’s often discussed. Most people think about what is this hot dog doing for my waistline? They don’t really think about, is this going to help me think as efficiently as it can or stave off dementia or whatever?

And so I became obsessed with this concept and I had an entrepreneurial bent. So I was interested in potentially starting a business. And so it was just kind of an excuse to try something out. It was something I could do. And so I started tinkering around in my kitchen creating prototypes, and I called 30 different food startup founders in the Boston area. I sat them down. I asked them one hundred questions each, and I developed an initial roadmap for how this could turn into a business.

Yeah, that’s quite a story. It’s really interesting how you said that you kind of went from software sales, specifically the enterprise software sales. I mean, that’s a whole nother level. But a lot of what you said are things and skills that you can really take anywhere, any time you’re selling anything. You talked about doing presentations, making slide decks, pitching a particular product or service. Really these days, it just seems like no matter what it is that you’re selling, you’ve got to have those fundamentals down.

And it sounds like you really got a kind of a boot camp, I guess, if you will, during your time with those with that company. That’s awesome. And you’re not the only person that’s been on here that’s birthed a product out of a need. You know, you mentioned that you came to the point where you weren’t feeling great, you were lethargic, headaches all the time, and you like what’s going on with my diet. And then that’s kind of what spawned your idea.

And that’s awesome, because that’s where a lot of the really successful companies and products really explode because their birth date of true need that the founder has and just the passion behind it was glad to hear that, that it really was kind of birth out of a simple need that you had. Not necessarily simple, but definitely it is to improve your diet and kind of fix what was going on with that. Now, you talked about getting started with it and it seemed like you definitely you know, you really did the due diligence.

And that’s really what I want to focus on today for any of the listeners out there that are toying around with the idea of launching a brand, launching e-commerce brand, whether it is totally direct to consumer or whether it’s a mix of both direct to consumer online as well as through retailers, a lot of people toy around with it, especially these days. And this kind of whole age of this covid-19 there’s a lot of people that have had ideas kind of brewing in the back of their heads, but are now probably a little bit more motivated to jump forward with it, to increase their income and even come up with second incomes.

And so what I want to ask you really initially is really what are the initial steps that someone really should take with regards to picking the right niche industry or category for their e-commerce brand?

I would say the most important thing is are you interested in it? And some people might disagree. They might say you can sell anything and you can, but you’re signing yourself up for difficult, long, hard road. If it’s not something you’re really interested in, then it’s just not going to be nearly as fun. And you’re going to devote, in my experience, basically devote your existence for a chunk of five to seven years to solely focusing on this thing or at least majorly focusing on this thing.

So you’ve got to like what you’re doing. And in my experience, you can succeed selling anything. So I think people sometimes make the mistake of looking towards where people are on the highest salaries or what’s the highest margin product or whatever. And that’s good and well. And people can succeed that way. But my advice would be, what do you actually care about? Where do you think you can create the best product and focus all your energy on that?

Because, again, you can be successful selling tissues or a protein bar. There’s money to be made everywhere. But what I will say is once you determine that thing or that category, it has to be ten times more differentiated than everything else out there. It just has to be. I mean, my advice would be to look at figure out something you like. And the first question is, is there a market and how big is the market?

The answer is there is a market. It’s pretty big then the question is, is what I want to do. Truly, meaningfully different within that market, is it a truly unique spin on that market, but still similar enough to what people are already buying in that market, that I can scale it to a really big business and that’s kind of what we’ve done and what we’ll do. We’ll move into new categories and form factors. But look at what are we interested in doing?

Is it a big market? And can we meet consumers where they are, meet their needs, what they want, but also have a really unique spin. And if the answer is yes to all those things and we’ll pursue it. So an example would be like our bar is like we’re still delivering a chocolate bar, right? People just want a chocolate bar with X amount of protein and Y amount of sugar. And but our unique spin is the brain food element.

So the mass market category, there’s a zillion consumers, but there’s that truly differentiated spin on it. And without that, I just think your life is going to be too difficult if you don’t have that unique spin.

That is so true. And you know, what you said is a lot of times it is going against what a lot of founders are going to go through, or even specifically e-commerce founders. A lot of the motivation for people these days is just the bottom line and money and the revenue, the profits that they can make. And they may have a fair amount of interest behind the particular product or brand or service, but oftentimes they don’t have that passion behind their behind it.

They’re not that interested is where it can go. And they’re just thinking about what they can make. And then I think what you said is so true. You can, of course, do that. People do it all the time to make a buck, but it’s not going to be fulfilling. And then you’re only setting yourself up to really the events at some point be miserable. If you’re not that passionate about it, then it’s going to reflect, I think, on the business itself.

And ultimately, I think is how far you can grow as well. Because to you, the founder, with this type of mindset, you really just only thinking about one thing and you’re not really that concerned about really just this kind of child that you’ve birthed, so to speak. That is definitely so true. Now, as far as deciding the niche, going after something that you’re really interested in, you’re passionate about doing the initial due diligence. I see what you guys have done by setting yourself apart, by coming under the category of brain food.

Like you said, there’s a lot of protein bars out there, but you’ve found that one piece that really kind of set yourself apart. And a lot of times that’s difficult to do because in a lot of categories, even yours, as you know, there’s a ton of competition and it’s really hard to find that one thing that sets you apart. What are some other steps you had mentioned? There’s a lot of due diligence that you did to kind of pursue since you said, you know, nothing really about the whole food space, about cooking things and things like that.

You were kind of a newbie to all of it. What are some of the things that you did in your journey that you can recommend others do as far as pursuing mastery in a particular subject?

Again, I can’t harp on that enough that you have to really care about it, because if you really care about it, you will become a master in it. I just don’t think you can get there if you don’t care. So if you’re interested, yeah, everyone has to start somewhere. So a really good place to start is what exists today, what’s already out there. Unless you’re inventing something totally novel, which basically no one is, it’s been done before in some tangentially similar way.

So start there. Right. Because ten other people have tried to solve the same problem you have and they put something out into the market. So what exists now? That thing that exists is not perfect, right? You probably believe it could be better in X, Y, Z, but it’s a starting point. And honestly, it’s as I think of things in terms of like food. And so, for an example for me would be, OK, what’s up?

Let’s say low carb, low sugar protein bar that exist today. And one of the cool things about food is that people have to tell you what’s in the products and then ingredient label. Now they can sort of mask a bunch of things and put things in buckets, but gives you a really good starting point. The second thing I would do is find people who have done it before and just absorb as much knowledge as possible from them. Just ask them questions.

How did you make this taste? Sweet, even though there’s no sugar. How did you mask this off note? How did you do? Baba lost. So find someone who already is a master and just sort of try to get them to be your mentor. Ask them advice. But here’s a really critical side note there. Don’t take anyone’s word as gospel. So I think one of the mistakes I’ve made and I see other people make all the time is they talk to someone who’s a.

Quote unquote, expert, and they just take everything that person says is gospel, when in reality probably 80 percent of what they’re saying is true, but 20 percent might have worked for them and it won’t work for you or it’s outdated knowledge or it’s not bringing to bear the most recent ingredient, technological innovations or whatever, but have the spot check everything you learn. So try to find five masters and compare notes. What you’ll find is the city’s five successful people.

They got there in different ways. And so you, at the end of the day, have to be objectively evaluate some things that all agree on and for the things they don’t. What do you believe? And then the third sort of leg of the stool is you just have to become your own mess. If you’re trying to do something new, you just have to iterate. I don’t know any other way other than rapid iteration and trial and error.

And oftentimes you can really the best way to do that, sometimes the most painful, but the best way to get something out into the market and start getting feedback. Don’t just evaluate something yourself or with your internal team, put something out into the market. You’ll get feedback, iterate, you get less negative feedback, iterate less negative feedback, iterate people of it. That’s kind of a framework. That’s awesome.

And thank you for sharing that. And that that whole iteration piece, I think these days is a lot easier to do the days of the past because of the Internet and because of all of these online marketing channels that are available for you to just try things out and reach literally almost any demographic that you want through Facebook ads, through Google ads, LinkedIn, whatever you’re always and pick your poison, you can really get out a message in a short amount of time and get that feedback.

And then, like you said, do that constant iteration based on what you’re seeing, the results, how receptive are people to your messaging and just really go from there. So I think we’re at a bit an awesome time where that rapid iteration can be done. That really accelerated pace for almost anyone. You know, you don’t even have to have a lot of money to test some messaging out there with most of these pay per click or pay for performance types of ads.

So, yeah, that’s a great piece of advice. What I want to ask you now is I’m curious because your model, as I mentioned in your intro, a large part of your distribution is, of course, through the CVS stores and now through Kroger. So and of course, a large part of your revenues is coming from the brick and mortar stores. But when you first started things back in twenty seventeen, were you guys just straight direct to consumer online and then did you pivot to the retail and how was that process and what were some things that you did to grow your online presence?

One thing I’m really glad about is that we were born online. I think a lot of food companies are staffed by selling to bodegas or shops around. You kind of grow a concentric circle of geographical serve on Heselton. You know, more and more stores. We really were born online via Kickstarter and Indiegogo, so crowdfunding platforms. And we rolled that into a website and then we rolled that website into an Amazon presence and we really cut our teeth online. So that was it.

Still today, we were a digital first brand, there’s no question about it. But along the way, we’ve had conversations with retailers were identified really good fits, and then pursued those brick and mortar opportunities. But candidly, I view brick and mortar shells as like a Facebook ad. I view it as a method to acquire more customers who will then buy us online. Sort of a means to an end because ultimately you want digital is better in every way.

You know who bought you, you know, their name, their address. You can retarget them, you can have conversations with them if they’re unhappy. And it’s just a better model. So we can think about brick and mortar as a means to an end of acquiring more digital customers. It’s also just a billboard. If you’re sitting on a shelf, let’s say, on CBS or Kroger or whatever, hundreds of people are walking by you every day and seeing it right.

So that has huge value and it’s free. Those are free impressions. So we’ve tried to be very targeted with where we roll out. Now, you don’t those impressions could be seen as negative, too, right? If you go into the wrong change, people could associate your brand with that change. And if you don’t feel your brand is really premium brand, but you’re selling in general, say, or your super low cost brand and you’re selling and Whole Foods, you have to think about coherence ness across your brand and where you’re selling.

But so long. The economics work out, sullenness, everything’s coherent and makes sense, and so long as you can turn a profit or break even, it’s very valuable to get a brick and mortar presence. Now, all that has changed, of course, with covid. Right? Spotnitz No one wants to be the 10th person reaching into a box of artists in a global pandemic right around the germophobia. Everyone is sponsored by Big Ten packs of whatever.

So you have to adapt and digital is now more important than ever. We were always digital first, but it’s now like just an imperative. It’s we’ve seen huge growth in digital this year and some growth in brick and mortar, but it’s pales in comparison and we’re in it for another year. So it’s only I mean, this is all going to be super relevant for twenty twenty one as well.

Yeah, definitely. And for your will you guys are doing now, like you said, you’re not the only ones on brands right now are relying a large part of their focus. They’re relying a lot of the on the digital efforts and the direct to consumer online. Are there certain things that you guys are doing right now that you see you’re getting kind of a more bang for your buck as far as your digital marketing efforts? Are certain channels that are work best for you?

Or what are some of the things that you’ve done to really stand out in some of these platforms?

Well, yeah, there are. So I would say we sell a food item, a consumer packaged good item. And in my experience, the single best way to drive down your operating, just like any business off of customer acquisition cost and customer lifetime value of your customer lifetime value is greater than your acquisition cost. You can be successful. So the goal, of course, is how do you have the lowest customer acquisition cost possible? In my experience, the first critical thing that you can do to drive down cash is have a low entry price sort of trial like item.

So again, for US foods, kind of a funky category where you’re not going to buy it. Twenty four bars if you haven’t tried one bar. So how do you try a trial? People need to taste something to buy a lot of it. So we will create, for example, a seven bar sampler which will have one of each bar and it’ll be a low price point. So let’s say 10 to 15 bucks. It’s not nothing, but it’s a small enough number where people are willing to give it a try, much more so than, let’s say, twenty five dollars, a twenty five dollar item.

So you’re just going to convert better on everything in your price. But we even offered something that was a three Bartra three ninety five and the conversion was like insane. We were acquiring customers for like a dollar 12 per customer, four through Facebook ads. But there’s a balance there because there’s a quality of customer because you want high quality conversions. It’s not just about total conversions. Are these people going to buy again? Are they just kind of taking a flier on you because it was so cheap that they’re not really invested?

And so there’s a balance there. But generally speaking, Facebook ads for our website are big. And then Amazon is really where we spend most of our ad dollars, both on certain search terms as well as programmatic ads. So, yeah, those are our main channels. That’s awesome.

Yeah, thanks for sharing that. Yeah. One of the things that unfortunately, because I deal with a lot of e-commerce businesses that are using our platform and I you name it, I’ve seen it of people selling some of the strangest items, just some everyday things. But one of the things that I see that I think you really echoed is what you guys decided to do with trying to get people in the door just with a low price point item. Kind of like you said, what you guys did is a sampler.

And not only is that getting people in because it’s a low barrier to entry, it doesn’t cost them a lot to try it out. They’re not taking a big risk. They’re checking it out and they get to see you kind of whole product line. That’s awesome. And then I guess the whole other ancillary benefit to that is you get these people’s information and you get them in your pipeline. And as you guys are growing coming up with other product lines and and things like that, you have this base of people that have at least tried it out and you can bounce things off of them, do surveys, you name it, test marketing messages.

And so that’s a great way to do it. But unfortunately, a lot of times these days, I don’t see a lot of that as a lot of times, especially with some of the higher priced items, I don’t see brands really trying to do that to give people in the door and are a lot of times brands are expecting people to just trust them immediately and fork over for the high price point. I’m several hundred dollars I’m thinking of. I’ve seen some different e-commerce brands that are selling unique camping items.

I’m thinking of a few companies that I’ve dealt with in the past that have unique tents. And although I’m a camping type person, I’ve been camping. I’ve seen a lot of different types of tents and I’ve seen some interesting things. But when you’re looking at a price point of several thousand dollars and. Things like that, it’s a bit of a commitment, especially for a brand that’s just kind of nobody has heard of that just kind of coming out of nowhere.

You’ve got to think about some way to get people in the into your ecosystem, into your funnel, where they can first trust you before they decide to pull the trigger and spend several hundred or thousands of dollars on your brand. So that’s a great piece of advice. And like I said, of course, I don’t see a lot of brands doing that, but I think there would be more successful if they did go down that particular route. Now, as we get ready to wrap things up, what I want to do is just kind of pick your brain a little bit about some examples of because you mentioned, of course, you guys have looked out there and can’t cover the gamut of different things that are being sold online in your space.

But does this really have to be in your space? But what are some examples in your in your opinion of different brands that you’ve seen that really been successful with growing a successful e-commerce brand from start to really kind of where they are today and have really kind of done all those right things?

That’s a good question. Well, Movement Watches is a kind of a classic cliché one. And there are also another on because I don’t think they raised money ever. I think they bootstrap everything, but they really invested heavily in. Gorgeous organic content, like if you look at their social media content, it’s their watches and really cool locations with professional photographers and so that their base was really just excellent content, create organic content creation and then working with the right influencers for their particular space.

And then the phase two is getting really, really good at paid acquisition and being really diligent about only investing where you get ample return. Again, they’re working with watches, which is a high margin product. Right. So they can acquire a customer for 50 bucks. And that’s OK because they have seventy dollars of margin. So their one brand that stands out is someone who did it really well, really well. Again, I think they’re helped a lot by being a really high margin product.

But in our space, the classic example is Quest Nutrition Quest. Fast food grew from zero to one to, say, seven hundred million in revenue and they eat all of that initial growth was online. And again, they developed our expertize. Another one, they really folks who can develop a cult for lack of a better term, like a cult, like following of people who are like minded, are those that I think of when I think of people who have generated a lot of growth quickly and cost effectively, because once you develop that status within a group of people, you can acquire incremental people in that group quite cost effectively.

Whereas if I have to go convince 70 year old man in Ohio one day to buy that product and then a twenty five year old woman in Manhattan the next day, and they’re totally different people, that’s a more expensive way to try to grow. So phase one has, to me, is best executed when by brands you start out of a cult, could be bodybuilder’s, could be vegan. People who love juice cleanses could be whatever.

I hear what you’re saying. There’s so many brands that have, like you said, have kind of have that cult like following. And that starts off initially almost as like an immediate group of just kind of loyal fans that are really that really just starts to just really go viral because those fans and those customers really just identify with everything that the brand is doing. And maybe the brand has a specific mission. Maybe they have a charitable aspect to whatever it is.

Then that cult like following can hugely translates to not only the brand awareness, but overall sales as well. And you have seen a lot of brands these days that have started off like that, and it’s really just exploded just in a short amount of time. We have. Well, thank you for sharing those couple of examples. I appreciate that. It always helps to see and hear from some real world, get some real world examples that people can check out.

And I always recommend people, the brands that you mentioned, check them out online, see what type of messaging that they’re using across the different channels. You mentioned Quest Bar. You mentioned movement watches. Take a look at how they’re positioning themselves. And, you know, you can learn sign up for the mailing list, you name it, even if you want to order their product, see how everything goes from order to the fulfillment process of it.

So that’s awesome.

Well, and I appreciate you coming on to the e-commerce marketing podcast today. I’ve learned a lot and I know our listeners have as well. I always like to switch things up on my last question, just to switch gears a little bit so our audience can get to know you a little bit better. And what is one closing fun fact that you can let our audience know about you, that you think they may be interested to hear about you? Because the New Jersey state chess champion as a middle schooler, OK, that the New Jersey state chess champion in middle school.

Wow, that’s a big deal.

I was obsessed with chess for about ten years there. Yeah.

I’m just in the middle of watching the series on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit. I don’t know if you check that out. Yeah, it’s a get on. That is, I think, episode three now.

So a very ironic because I just finished watching that third episode. So, yeah, that’s good stuff, man. I’m in the process of learning chess. I had some basic lessons watching some YouTube channels and myself and my business partner is starting to get more into it. Now, do you keep it up these days? You still play? I play a little bit online here and there, but I’m definitely rusty. There’s no question about that. It’s one of the things you’ve got to be doing all the time to stay at a high level.

Yeah, you do.

You do. It’s just like so many things, if you like, just constantly practicing and doing things, you kind of lose it a little bit. But you know how that goes. I see you got your hands full so it’s hard to get a game in. I know where you’re sitting. Well, that’s great. Well, thank you for sharing that. I appreciate that. And lastly, if any of our listeners want to get a hold of you to pick your brain any more about your journey and the lessons that you’ve learned and the things that you’ve used.

To help grow your brand, what is the best way for them to get in contact with you? Our website is ITW, IQ, Broadcom, Heti IQ, Viacom and our social handles are all each IQ bar. And that’s the best way to get a hold of me. Won’t give any personal handles or anything, but EQR is where you can learn more about us. All right.

That sounds great. Well, thanks for sharing that, Will, and thank you again for joining us today on the e-commerce marketing podcast.

All right. Thanks so much. Thank you for listening to the E Commerce Marketing podcast. 

Podcast Guest Info

Will Nitze
Founder of IQBAR