I first met Will Hartley, Founder, and CEO of Slingshot Foods, in the office of one of my clients. He was in the process of reviewing potential co-pack options. Immediately, I was struck by both his passion and his humility. He had a product that he believed in fully and was both fully aware of the enormity of his undertaking and the obstacles he was sure to face.
Since that time, Slingshot, which is a unique on-the-go breakfast drink that features a neck ring pouch containing a blend of finely ground granola, has grown rapidly. We’ve stayed in contact, seeing each other at shows as well as exchanging emails and articles. After a recent conversation, I asked Will if he would take part in this series. Although he does not yet have a large team, leadership does not require that you have one. What it does require is a vision, determination, and resilience. Will has all three in spades.
We had a great conversation and I hope that you enjoy what is shared below.
Why are you doing this?
“That's a great question. I have wanted to for a long time. I had, in my mind, that I wanted to run a food company way back in 2000. Ultimately, all the pieces came together in a way that it made it impossible for me to not do it. The reasons not to just fell away.”
Hartley said to himself, “Okay, there's no good reason not to do this at this point, so I guess I have to.”
“The other helpful thing was that my wife was super supportive. She knew me well enough to give me some good advice.”
His wife told him, “Hey, if you don't do this you're going to hate yourself forever, you're never going to forgive yourself for not taking a run at this.”
What is your vision for Slingshot?
“It’s hard to shift gears from thinking about this hour and this day, which I think in the world of startups that's just how you spend your time because there's so many pressing, immediate issues. It takes a little recalibrating to think out that far. There are two big ideas that really get me fired up, one, is that we're helping people perform better because they've had the good nutrition that lets them do that. Five years out, I think that our reach in terms of the number of people that we've helped has gotten sizable.”
With regards to the second big thing, Hartley added that “I'm really excited about creating this breakfast brand that accommodates the significant behavioral change that is out there and taking place right in front of our eyes.”
He went on a bit further to say, “that people's behaviors, in terms of eating in general, but specifically in the morning, are changing dramatically.”
We took a slight turn and Hartley explained how he decided on the name for the brand. “Sitting in my office at 10:00 one night I looked up at my bookcase and saw this slingshot up there and I pulled it down. There was a card on it, it had been a gift from my college roommate for my 40th birthday. The note on it said, ‘No matter how old you get, stay young.’ That in and of itself was interesting, but what really hit in that moment was, "Wait, that's actually what we're trying to do. We're creating a food brand that is all about performance." Without good nutrition, it's tough to start your day the right way, you just can't do as much.”
Hartley says we want people to use our nutrition to slingshot into their day.”
What’s the biggest obstacle you face?
“It feels to me like there's a continuous headwind. Just staying in one place, there's resistance to that. But, moving forward, there's friction pretty much all the way through the entire business. In part, that's because we're being scrappy and we haven't spent a ton on people, and partly because there's some innovation behind our product and that excites people, but it also can make people resistant.”
I asked him why some are resistant. He explained, “there aren't a whole lot of drinks that have a crunchy component that you add to it.” He went on to share that the crunch and the uniqueness make it a product without a clear category, which causes some confusion.
What has been your biggest lesson learned?
He started his answer with a quote from Voltaire, “Perfection is an enemy of the good.”
Hartley added, “if we had waited until literally all of the kinks were worked out of the system we still wouldn't have a product on the shelf. On the flip-side, it's an uncomfortable thing to launch something you know is not perfect. On top of that, all your friends, family, colleagues, and people around you have been advising you to be careful. Starting a business is hard, the odds are astronomically low that you will make it a year, much less become a real viable business. Everybody around you is scared for you. The fact that you know that it's not perfect, it's hard to pull the trigger and get it out in the store.”
This dovetailed nicely into my next question.
What would your current self, tell your former self?
"Don't sweat that, just get it on the shelf. You can try to theorize about how people feel about it until the end of time, but once you talk to people that have spent their hard-earned money purchasing the thing that you've been dreaming about, that's when the real learning starts."
We spent a bit more time exploring this and he shared, “Get it in front of people and sell it to them, actually make them spend their money. Because every other way of getting information about what you're doing is going to be off kilter. Friends and family, they'll try to give you good advice, but it's not real. Even if that means setting up shop at a farmer’s market. You can just hack together a prototype and get a product that resembles what you're trying to make. Probably the most valuable thing that you could do to expedite the launch of your business is to take that consumer feedback and use it to perfect your product.”