Bringing Home the Baking: How One Entrepreneur Set Out to Create a Cleanse-friendly Snack

gr8nola erica liu williams

What’s crunchy, tasty, and healthy? If you’re stumped, it’s probably because you haven’t yet tried gr8nola, a clean and delicious superfood granola brand.

But for founder Erica Liu Williams, perfecting her granola recipe was much simpler than figuring out the recipe for success in the world of entrepreneurship, especially when it meant giving up a lucrative full-time job in the tech industry.

I recently spoke to Erica about her journey building the gr8nola brand, from being a farmer’s market favorite to fulfilling Google’s snack supply and eventually establishing an online presence with a little help from some food bloggers and micro-influencers. Here’s what I learned.

 

Alex McPeak: Tell me about your background and what you were doing before starting gr8nola.

Erica Liu Williams: I graduated from Stanford University in 2008 and started my career in the tech industry as a product intern at Yahoo. After that, I worked at a few tech companies, large and small.

Living in the Bay Area, it was very natural to work in Silicon Valley, but tech wasn’t necessarily an industry that I was passionate about.

Around four or five years into my career, I got the itch to do my own thing. Being exposed to the tech industry and seeing all the innovation from people who had this startup mentality inspired me to want to start my own business.

"Around four or five years into my career, I got the itch to do my own thing. Being exposed to the tech industry and seeing all the innovation from people who had this startup mentality inspired me to want to start my own business."

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

Alex: So how did you come up with the idea for gr8nola and decide you wanted to turn it into a business?

Erica: At Stanford, I was a swimmer and my husband played in the NFL, so we both have very athletic, active backgrounds. But clean eating didn’t come naturally to us until we started doing a 30-day cleanse after the Super Bowl each year. 

We eliminated a lot of unhealthy foods from our diets like common allergens, soy, dairy, refined sugars, and processed foods, and we were frustrated when we couldn’t find healthy snacks that met these guidelines and still tasted good. 

Mid-hunger during the cleanse, I was watching the Food Network and I saw a celebrity chef make granola on TV. Most store-bought and homemade granola recipes are loaded with refined sugars and inflammatory oils, so I was inspired to make my own version. My granola recipe ended up being so good that, even when we were off the cleanse and could eat anything we wanted, my husband Tank wanted me to make it all the time, so it instantly became a household staple.

My granola wasn’t originally intended to become a business, and it took a while for me to have that lightbulb moment to try selling it. Initially, all the ideas I had for potential businesses were problems to solve through the lense of tech, since it was all I had exposure to.

Eventually I thought, “What if my idea isn’t a tech idea? What if it’s just as simple as this food product? I can’t find granola that has this clean ingredient profile and also tastes this good, so why not test this out?”

"Eventually I thought, “What if my idea isn't a tech idea? What if it's just as simple as this food product? I can’t find granola that has this clean ingredient profile and also tastes this good, so why not test this out?”"

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

So I launched the business in June of 2013, but when I say launched, it was super small and scrappy. On the side of my day job, I home baked granola to sell at the weekend farmer’s market. 

Upon showing up at the farmer’s market, I received immediate feedback that people thought it was the best granola they’ve ever had. People were coming back to restock week-to-week, and I instantly knew I had a good product and there was a market for it. 

 

Alex:  How did you continue to grow your customer base?

Erica: Given my background was in tech, I started by getting my granola into tech offices as a free snack companies offered to their employees. 

I basically mined my network to get intros to the decision makers, office managers, and employees at these companies to drum up demand. In fact, Google headquarters in Mountain View was actually my first customer outside of the farmers market customers, and they have tens of thousands of employees that would eat my granola everyday. 

It’s an interesting twist, since I was able to leverage the very industry that I built my career in, to eventually leave it and become a food entrepreneur full-time. 

 

Alex: How did you get your foot in the door at Google?

Erica: I think the biggest lesson in entrepreneurship and specifically to this story is that you need to always share what you’re doing, even if it’s just to your network. 

"I think the biggest lesson in entrepreneurship and specifically to this story is that you need to always share what you're doing, even if it’s just to your network. "

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

When I launched my business, I felt it was a social obligation to let people know I had a side business selling my homemade granola, so I shared it on Facebook.

My post caught the eye of an old friend who I hadn’t talked to in years, but she worked at Google and offered to connect me to the people who procure their in-office snacks. 

Initially, I didn’t expect selling my granola to these tech office offices would be my go-to-market strategy, but when I sent Google samples, they loved it so much that they invited me to an event where employees could vote for what snacks they wanted in the office. It was basically a mini trade show competition, and people voted for gr8nola!

Then the rest was history. Once I won Google’s bid, I started slowly but surely getting into all the big tech companies in Silicon Valley including Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, Slack, Microsoft, LinkedIn—you name it, gr8nola was likely there.

With the Google opportunity, it was good timing and I got connected to the right person, but you also have to have a good product. If I didn’t have a good product, they wouldn’t have given me the opportunity to get voted in.

 

Alex: At what point did you decide that gr8nola was no longer a side hustle and that you were going to pursue it full-time?

Erica: It took me forever because I had to build up my confidence around the idea of being a full-time entrepreneur. I was nearing 10 years of a tech career I built, and the idea of relinquishing benefits and a stable salary to pursue something that might not work out was intimidating.

I launched the business in June 2013, but I didn’t go full time until the end of 2017, so it took more than four years of side hustling. I had to play mind games to convince myself to jump off the ledge. I declared to my husband and former boss that, within 12 months, I would quit my job to work on the business full-time. I gave myself my own time clock to work against and held myself accountable by saying it out loud to others.

Over time it got to a point where it became really clear that it was the right move. The things I was doing for the business were actually working. My efforts and inputs were yielding results, meanwhile my biggest constraint was lack of time.

"Over time it got to a point where it became really clear that it was the right move. The things I was doing for the business were actually working. My efforts and inputs were yielding results, meanwhile my biggest constraint was lack of time."

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

I was spending most of my time on my day job, but I knew if I had extra time, I could grow my own business even more. It was clearly time to make gr8nola my main focus, but it was mentally difficult to finally quit my tech career out of fear of failure.

Today, we not only sell business-to-business (B2B) to major tech companies, but we also sell direct-to-consumer (DTC) on our website, on Amazon, and through select retailers across the country.

 

Alex: How did you start building your ecommerce presence?

Erica: In 2016, I migrated my website from Squarespace to Shopify. At the same time, I started to build out my social media presence, particularly on Instagram, in order to be more consistent with my content, build up the brand online, and establish relationships with influencers.

I really started building my ecommerce presence by reaching out to healthy food bloggers and micro-influencers—these were people who had a small enough following that they wouldn’t ask for payment, but they were the type of person who would find it very natural to include granola in their content.

I started to find these micro-influencers and send them products, and they would share the product on Instagram, which is how I started to get the word out about gr8nola online. 

I also learned how to build relationships I could leverage when it came time to launch a new flavor of gr8nola. I had my army of more than 50 influencers and, before the launch, I would send them the product and ask them to do a blitz by sharing it all on the same day.

Once you have a cohort of these influencers who are in the same niche, then people start to see your brand more. And then since it’s all online, it’s easy to just drive them to buy directly from your website.

Alex: What other marketing strategies are you using to grow your DTC business today?

Eria: I’m dabbling in Facebook and Instagram ads, but they’re pretty expensive. I’m wary of whether the unit economics will be healthy because my product is granola, so it’s not like people are buying hundreds of dollars worth like they would with an apparel or beauty brand. Since it’s a lower cart value item, I have a smaller cost per acquisition I can afford compared to some higher-priced items that I’m competing on bids for. 

That’s also the reason it’s so important to focus on your top customers. I have a lot of email automations and segments that I have set up, from my welcome series to abandoned cart, to post-purchase for new customers, to post-purchase for repeat customers.

You may have a campaign or a product launch, and that might get more people’s eyes on your brand, but you also need a strong email and mobile capture, and you need to create a funnel to convert people on that first purchase. And then from there, you convert people to make that second purchase, and then the subscription offering. 

Often, marketers focus so much on top-of-the-funnel acquisition, but they haven’t invested their time actually building customer relationships at the bottom of the funnel.

I’ve made sure that user experience around my pop-ups, my cart upsells, my automations, and all the touch points someone interacts with when they find the brand and land on my site are holistically complete. 

"I’ve made sure that user experience around my pop-ups, my cart upsells, my automations, and all the touch points someone interacts with when they find the brand and land on my site are holistically complete. "

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

Alex: What’s been the biggest challenge of starting and growing your own business?

Erica: The biggest challenge has been building my confidence. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. Then when I started my business, it was scary to leave behind a steady, stable, and growing career for something that was completely unknown. 

I’ve never worked in the food industry, and this is my first business. There were many times where I had a self-limiting, self-doubting mentality, which is hard because I don’t have a team, coach, or support group. It’s just me.

I’m driving my own success on my own terms, which is the ultimate dream. But you have to first build enough confidence in yourself that you can make the right decisions and the right bets.

"I’m driving my own success on my own terms, which is the ultimate dream. But you have to first build enough confidence in yourself that you can make the right decisions and the right bets."

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

Alex: What’s been the biggest reward?

Erica: The biggest reward is waking up and dedicating your time and mind share towards something you’re truly passionate about.

If you asked me 10 years ago what I’d be doing for my career, I would’ve never imagined I would be selling granola today. But it makes sense that my product intersects between food, wellness, and healthy living because I’m very passionate about those things. 

It’s amazing to do something where I’m creating this unique value for customers, which is delicious food you can feel good about eating, and I know that it’s giving people healthier options—that’s what keeps me going every day. 

"It’s amazing to do something where I’m creating this unique value for customers, which is delicious food you can feel good about eating, and I know that it's giving people healthier options—that’s what keeps me going every day. "

Erica Liu Williams, founder, gr8nola

Alex: What does the future look like for you and what’s next for gr8nola?

Erica: I’m working on building the brand online and getting gr8nola into more US households through ecommerce. 

Eventually, I’d love for gr8nola to become a national and mass better-for-you snack brand—which is a ways away, but that’s the vision. 

I don’t want to be a niche granola brand you can only buy online or in premium grocery stores. I want to create a platform brand that stands for delicious, superfood snacking that modern consumers eat, crave, and love, every single day.

Want more tips from entrepreneurs? Learn how other women like Erica are building and growing their businesses.

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