It’s no easy feat starting a business. Are entrepreneurs born fearless or can this mindset be tapped into and developed through life experiences?
Today’s guest, Erica Liu Williams, founder of Gr8nola, is a driven founder, yet it took her a few steps to get there from A to B.
Erica attended Stanford on a swimming scholarship and, upon graduation, wasn’t particularly career-driven. Instead, her ambition was to be a homemaker. However, after her parents divorced, she decided that she wanted to be financially independent. She watched others build their passions and decided, “if they can do this, why not me?”
Erica and I dig into the mindset of an entrepreneur, her intense (and frankly grueling!) schedule as an elite swimmer from the age of 13 onward, how she thinks about work-life balance, her work cadence on a given day on the weekends – something that all founders struggle with – along with other personal daily rituals.
On the biz front, we cover Erica’s thoughts around growth and raising outside capital vs. growing your business from customer revenue. We also discuss an epiphany that she’s had this year, managing challenges (and why they should be meaningful challenges…).
And, finally, we cover her personal and business metrics for success, the importance of mentorship, and tools and platforms that she uses on a daily basis.
Erica Liu Williams is a former Olympic Trials swimmer and Silicon Valley techie-turned-food-entrepreneur. She came up with the idea for gr8nola by accident when she was searching for a delicious, yet healthy snack for a post-Super Bowl "cleanse" she and her NFL hubby do each year. Stuck with few options, she created her own low-sugar granola recipe using clean ingredients and unique and functional superfoods.
Her granola was such a hit that she created a side business out of it in 2013, selling it at the farmers market while working full-time. 4+ years later, Erica officially left her 10-year tech career to pursue gr8nola full-time and has hustled her way into becoming Silicon Valley's favorite granola, supplying gr8nola at some of the biggest tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Linkedin and more.
The gr8nola line features seven superfood flavors (The Original, Cacao Crisp, Cinnamon Chai, Black Coco Chia, Matcha Vibes, Golden Spice and Peanut Butter) that are free of soy, dairy and refined sugars and have only 5g sugar per serving. You can find gr8nola on Amazon Prime, gr8nola.com and 100+ grocery stores.
4:45 Why did she start this business?
She never felt career driven
She started as a swimmer on a scholarship at Stanford
Aspired to be a homemaker, due to upbringing
After her parents divorced, she decided as a woman she wanted to be financially independent
This led to her drive to focus on her career
Started in the tech industry where she wanted to climb the corporate ladder
She didn’t see herself as the entrepreneurial type
After about 4-5 years- she watched others build their passions and had experience working with startups
This prompted her to start a business
8:16 The divorce prompted a sense of “risk aversion”
She wanted to make sure she wasn’t reliant on anyone else financially
Building her resume was a linear path to achieve this
It wasn’t an entrepreneurial path until she saw others and thought, “if they can do this, why not me?”
She wasn’t trying to build some unicorn billion dollar tech business
It was about having the confidence to do something that brings fulfillment to her and does a greater good in the world
You get freedom and flexibility - career woman in a corporate world vs. being able to start a family
11:05 Nature vs. Nurture in a developing entrepreneur
2-3 years into the tech career, she had a new boss, he sat them all down
He wanted to get to know them all better - she said she didn’t want to be an entrepreneur
Small children often say they want to be one career, when really they haven’t been exposed to much in life yet
She found herself in experiencing life, her path has changed, adapting and having opportunities
She tries to never say never
13:00 How does being an athletic swimmer relate to entrepreneurship?
The grit and hard work
The confidence knowing that you can endure pain, grunt work and discipline required
Blood, sweat and tears put into something to achieve a goal
13-14 years of age was most grueling schedule - requiring immense discipline
Business is working harder, but working smarter too
Huge believer in work-life balance, athletes need recovery days and rest days
Most days are grunt work - bringing you to the milestones
If you don’t appreciate the process, you won’t appreciate the success
Didn’t have to work really hard to be a good swimmer - she hated training
With her business, she loves the day-to-day and appreciates the opportunities to learn and grow
17:30 What are her work patterns?
Has a cadence with weekends - might sleep in, might break earlier
Treats weekends different than Monday through Friday
Starts to burn out around 3pm - breaks for work out, or a walk, or dinner
Goes back to the computer until bed
Has to have a flow, can’t go infinitely at the same pace
21:17 What’s her workout routine?
She doesn’t swim any more - she really doesn’t like it
Goes on walks
23:20 How is she going to grow her business?
Started business in 2013 as a side hustle in the farmer’s market
She didn’t have a strategy on how to scale the brand
Got her granola into some big tech offices - employees could eat for free
Not a grocery brand or direct-to-consumer
Wholesale channel, business development driven, high volume
COVID flipped this upside-down
Qualified for an SBA-EIDL loan, trying to decide how to kick this off
Need money to grow - need resources to build a brand
Focused on the next 18 months
29:09 Her epiphany this year
As a founder, whether you’re small or large - you’re always going to have problems
Money can’t fix all problems
As a small business owner you’re dealing with stresses and issues all the time - might as well be the meaningful challenges
31:11 The silver lining to COVID
She has pursued grocery and retail and how to drive direct to consumer along with other channels
The rise of online shopping
Her Amazon business has maintained 5x
33:55 Breakfast is making a comeback
Granola is simple
More people eating at home
Taking a familiar product made in bold new flavors with nutrition benefits
36:05 Beyond a granola brand
Originally brought a great product to market that was healthy, clean and delicious
Certain suppliers over time have proven to have great ingredients
Innovation and future flavors - what’s the most awesome thing that I can include
Then business practicality and unit economics
What is something consumers need, want, or could benefit from?
Developing flavors with mass appeal and then superfood functional benefit
39:42 Tools and platforms
Knowing who your customer is
42:40 What does she think about mentors?
No idea what she was doing
Networking can help guide you in the right direction
One of the biggest assets
Gives not only support and knowledge but opportunities
Biggest advice to new entrepreneurs - Network, network, network!
49:00 Metrics to measure success
Has a sense around the big picture
Can tell if she’s doing well since she’s doing the hard work
If she’s feeling guilty for taking time off, it’s a signal that she’s putting in the time
Documents each notable item
Pulls metrics - revenue, website traffic
Notables next to performance show progress
More on a monthly/quarterly basis
52:02 What is her contrarian view?
100% reliability but 100% inaccuracy with directions
She always turns the wrong way
In her gut, she can’t go the right direction
53:10 What’s on your browser?
Newsletters - Food Business News, Food Dive
Google News/Apple News apps
Doesn’t use Twitter