Bear Naked Success
Sure, Bear Naked all-natural granola was a great concept—as long as it fit in a standard box.
Product co-founder Brendan Synnott, BA’00, disagreed and had a different idea. With passion, determination and “a whole lot of stars coming into alignment,” the then-23-year-old entrepreneur helped create a new brand that has personally netted him tens of millions of dollars. And as for the granola packaging? In a very literal sense, the confining box suggested by industry traditionalists was scrapped for a bag with a see-through window that clearly showed the natural purity of what was inside.
“From the very beginning, we had a passion for the brand, and we wanted to do the right thing by it,” Synnott says. “And when you have those two things, people want to help you succeed.”
A living case study
Synnott’s story is of youthful exuberance; of putting heart, soul and life savings into something you believe in; and of taking a hearty stab at the status quo. Like many just-out-of-college young adults, Synnott and his business partner, Kelly Flatley, unabashedly moved back into their parents’ homes while they worked on a plan and their product. The difference here, however, is that eventually, the plan paid off. In late 2007, the Kellogg Company bought Bear Naked Granola for an undisclosed amount estimated at approximately $60 million.
Not yet 30, Synnott recently returned to his alma mater to share with students and professors what the last handful of years had brought.
“You always have to be willing to blow yourself up every few months, and shed your skin.”
“He will be a living case study,” says Cherrie C. Clark, associate professor of the practice of managerial studies. “His visit was a great way to bring some reality into the classroom, and to remove a level of excuses. It’s the difference between, ‘Yeah, when I’m 50 I’ll do that, too,’ versus ‘When I’m 29…’ It gives the students the ability to see that it’s possible to get from where they are now to where he is. He’s such a role model that they’re still talking about it.”
Senior Kristen Hendricks from Conway, Ark., bears that out. “He put the concept of entrepreneurship a little more within my grasp,” she says. “All you really need is energy, a goal and something you really care about.”
Defining a Lifestyle
Synnott did more than care about Bear Naked, started in 2002 with personal savings and Flatley’s recipe for homemade granola. He believed in it and in creating a lifestyle brand–not simply a product–that would embody the values and aspirations of active, healthy consumers. That, he says, is exactly what made Bear Naked work. As successful models, he points to companies like Virgin Records, which gave up-and-coming artists an opportunity to define his generation’s music; Burton, which not only created snowboards but also the culture that went along with them; and Napster, which totally transformed the music industry by putting power into the hands of consumers.
“To me, Bear Naked was the perfect platform for selling a natural, organic product to the mainstream consumer,” he says. “I saw everybody wanting to live healthier lives, and that was the consumer trend we built the product around. My perspective on business is that when the only thing a company cares about is making the customer happy, then the focus is entirely different. It’s a different structure all together.”
That, in turn, begets a different corporate culture.
“I wanted a culture where people could say it was the best job of their lives,” Synnott says. “That meant hiring the right people and treating them right, and holding on to the idea that Bear Naked was about eating well so you could live your life to the fullest.”
At first, Synnott and Flatley, who grew up together in Darien, Conn., filled their staff with peers from high school and college–including Synnott’s Vanderbilt roommate, Thomas Spier, BA’00, who later became the company’s chief operating officer. It was a lot like “a bunch of friends just hanging out, a big road trip,” Synnott says. At that point, Synnott and Flatley were making Flatley’s recipe all night and trying to sell it all day. Before long, they realized there really could be too many cooks in the kitchen; roles had to be more clearly defined. So the partners decided Flatley would focus on the product, and Synnott would pursue his passion, marketing and sales. By the time the company was sold, there were 55 people making the expanded product line and 40 in the corporate environment.
“The culture was still to give a lot of young people a lot of responsibility in the organization,” Synnott, a former economics major, says. “We had a natural enthusiasm, and that’s infectious in business. When we had meetings, they were always vivacious. We were alive. And because of that, whenever we ran into problems, we would solve them creatively. In addition, every three months, we would do this planning, and start from scratch if we needed to. You always have to be willing to blow yourself up every few months, and shed your skin to find new ways of doing things.”
Go Big or Go Home
Synnott admits he’s on the hunt for his new thing, the next big venture, but not without hesitation. After finishing a commitment to Kellogg to help with the transition, he spent his winter in Colorado, taking a break and hitting the slopes.
“The field is different now,” he says. “There are different expectations. But I don’t want to do the next thing unless it’s going to be bigger than Bear Naked. You know, go big or go home. I want to build something else that makes people go, ‘Bear Naked? Oh, that was so a couple of years ago.’”
Until he finds it, Synnott will be looking for opportunities to give back through philanthropic efforts, as well as sharing his story with impressionable minds like those he found at Vanderbilt on recent days.
“I love to talk to students about business, because I was in that chair not too long ago,” he says. “I want to infect them, and make them understand that you can’t ever be passive about your work. This is not just about learning a special skill set. This is about making your own. And we’ve all been given great tools to do just that.”
Photos by Daniel Dubois and Steve Green.