Home Lead Your Passion Is Your Fuel--and Your Flaw. To Strike a Balance, Listen

Your Passion Is Your Fuel--and Your Flaw. To Strike a Balance, Listen

to Your TeamFast growth requires strong drive. When this entrepreneur's drive became problematic, it was his team who held the answer.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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  • It was around 2012, when Kind Snacks made the Inc. 5000, that our business seemed to take off. We were doubling sales every year while remaining cash-flow positive and profitable.

It is exhilarating for an entrepreneur when your brand breaks through--when suddenly the ­person sitting next to you on an airplane is eating your product. But that newfound notoriety also brought fresh challenges. For Kind, as it is for any brand at a similar stage of growth, one of those challenges was the emergence of copycats. Some of our team members jokingly refer to this part of our journey as the Age of Imitation. It seemed like everywhere we looked, fruit-and-nut bars that weren't Kind bars were now popping up on shelves, attempting to grab market share with products that mimicked our own.

Making a Kind bar may seem simple--presumably, anyone in their home can combine a few "ingredients you can see and pronounce" (as our legal trademark holds), pop them into the oven, and create a fruit-and-nut bar. But the magic of Kind has always come from preserving the integrity of what nature gave us without sacrificing taste and texture. Our actual recipe was hard for competitors to replicate.

I came to expect imitators, but what I didn't foresee was a copycat from one of my own retail partners. We founders view our ventures as our babies, and forge relationships as if we were raising those babies in our communities. So, when this partner introduced a product that imitated Kind, and discontinued Kind in its stores, I was not just upset about the business implications. I was also personally hurt.

Overwhelmed by emotion, my first thought was to launch an ad campaign that would call out the impostor products and educate consumers on how Kind was different. I wrote an 11-page letter to my retail counterparts, which I fortunately never sent.

I recall vividly the exchange that unfolded in my office as two of my most valued teammates and mentors talked me off the ledge. Elle Lanning, who now leads our Camino Partners business-building and investment platform for entrepreneurs, urged me to channel my emotions constructively. "I understand that you take this personally," she empathized, "but it's not worth it for you to burn this bridge. Play the long game."

"How can I do that?" I asked. "They are literally copying our hard work and trying to appropriate it."

"For starters," Elle said, "go for a run."

Fred Schaufeld, a mentor and board member, told me to "look my former retail partner's representative directly in the eye and yell every insult and indignity" at him, at the top of my lungs at close range. He told me to do that first thing in the morning, into a pillow, with my eyes closed, imagining the representative.

I took both Elle's and Fred's advice: I screamed into my pillow. I went for the run. By the time I'd come back, my head felt clearer. I could see it now; they'd been right. As the founder, I had stood too close to the decision to view it rationally. My teammates, on the other hand, had the emotional distance to recognize what I could not.

I wound up letting our retail partner know that, while we were disappointed, we wished the com­pany the best. I also said that if it ever changed its mind, we would be here, ready and waiting for it to call when it made sense. Sometime between six and 12 months later, that retail partner did call. Shortly after that, we were on its shelves again. In the end, our partner even chose to discontinue its competitive line. Over the following years, more imitation brands emerged, but I had learned my lesson. Invari­a­bly, the retailers that tried to replace us wound up bringing Kind back, most often discontinuing their own imitation items.

The passion that had won me these valued ­partnerships could have been the same force that destroyed those relationships had I not surrounded myself with a team empowered to keep me in check. As a founder with so much at stake, you need to have the conviction in your vision to persevere when times inevitably get tough. But the same quality that makes for a great entrepreneur can, at times, make for a poor business leader. This is why it's so critical to build a team of people around you who are not clones, but complementary partners. You must give those people the agency to push back and tell you no, or not now. And when they do, you must practice the humility to listen to them.

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