THE BOB JOHNSTON PODCAST
By Bob Johnston
April 16, 2021
SEASON
1
EPISODE
38
Startup Stories – Gr8nola CEO, Erica Liu Williams

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’s Bio

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.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Castbox, or your preferred podcast platform.

SELECTED QUOTES
I try to never say never
Her view on being flexible no matter what life changes may happen
I had no idea what I was doing
Erica's thoughts when she first started her business and the importance of networking
EPISODE MARKERS

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

Lifts weights

Cycling


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 

Google Analytics 

Klaviyo

Shopify

SMS Marketing

Hotjar


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

GUEST FOOTNOTES
SPONSOR:
RECENT EPISODES: