It's surprising to hear that Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest, the married founders of Epic Provisions, a company that sells energy bars and snacks made from meat, were not always passionate carnivores. In fact, when they started the Austin-based business, the pair, who both grew up in the city and became close while attending Texas State, were endurance athletes with strict vegan diets.
On Friday, the couple recounted the unlikely story of their company--and the unfortunate missteps they made on the way--with Inc. editor-at-large Tom Foster at the Inc. Founders House in Austin. The Founders House is the inaugural event of the Founders Project, an initiative pairing prominent mentors with early-stage entrepreneurs.
Epic Provisions, which was the subject of an Inc. cover story last year, sold to General Mills in 2016 for a reported $100 million. The company is successful now, but it took years before the founders finally hit their stride. Here are a few of the disasters Forrest and Collins recounted in the lively session, along with the lessons they learned.
Misstep No. 1: Blow all your money on your first product
What eventually became Epic Provisions started with "a joke product," Forrest said--one that was about as far away from Epic's meat snack business as could be. Called Thunderbird, it was a raw vegan energy bar that the founders (both vegans at the time) made to power themselves through triathlons and hundred-mile bike rides. At first, they thought of Thunderbird as a creative distraction from their left-brain studies in science-related graduate degrees, and developed it to both feed and amuse themselves.
"Except then Taylor ended up spending his entire life savings on the packaging for the joke product. So we had to turn it into a real product," Forrest told the crowd. With their savings invested, the two went to work to find distribution for the bar--and luckily managed to get it on the shelves of Whole Foods in Austin.
Misstep No. 2: Launch new products that are amusing but useless
In the company's earliest days, the founders added new flavors and products that were far more whimsical than useful. "We had an aphrodisiac bar where all the ingredients were sourced for their romantic properties. That's pretty creative, right?" Collins said. But the product flopped. "Back then, we thought that was brilliant. Nowadays, we realize that's the worst idea ever, [because] it's never going to fill a real market need." Ultimately, the experience taught the founders to think about consumers' preferences and focus on figuring out clear reasons why their product should exist.
Misstep No. 3: Pick a unique selling point no one cares about
Collins and Forrest initially made their bars at home, from scratch. "Somewhere along the line, we thought that consumers cared that it was handmade by the founders of the brand," Collins said. "But we sucked together in the kitchen. We can dominate at everything at life, but not cooking. We got in major fights about it, really major fights. It was a disaster."
The two realized that not only was their homespun manufacturing process destroying their relationship, customers weren't buying their products because of it anyway. "The whole branding story was really esoteric and weird," Collins said. "We weren't effective at communicating why our products existed, and what they could do."
Misstep No. 4: Ignore all red flags
During the early days of their company, Forrest continually experienced health problems, including stomach issues, knee trouble, and inflammation all over her body. "We kept thinking, well, we're just not eating vegan enough," she said. "So we went from being vegetarian to vegan to raw vegan to juice-based vegan," a diet composed primarily of juice. "It was the worst idea ever." Finally, Forrest met with a specialist who told her it was likely her diet was indeed the problem--but that she should try meat.
The founders, who don't do anything in half measures, threw themselves into eating meat. They began bringing baggies of bacon to snack on during long bike rides. Eventually, they decided to make grassfed meat bars instead, which they developed into a highly successful product line. The irony? "Some of our early vegan investors got a rocket ship ride in something they totally didn't believe in," Collins joked.