When Dr. John Kellogg built the Battle Creek Sanitarium, his brother Will helped run operations. (And was forced to perform a number of humiliating tasks -- like taking dictation while John used the toilet. So: Yeah.)

Dr. Kellogg introduced a number of innovations in an attempt to help patients who suffered from stomach complaints. Among them were breakfast cereals like granola and corn flakes. The cereals were a hit with patients: Tasty. Easy on the stomach. Quick and easy to prepare.

Will immediately saw a broader opportunity. At the time, there were no "breakfast foods," so breakfast took time (and money) to prepare. Packaged cereal could solve a genuine need for millions of people. 

But despite Will's constant pleas, Dr. Kellogg refused to distribute their products outside the sanitarium.

So Will borrowed money from investors, convinced John to sell him the rights to the cereal business... and Kellogg's was born.

That's just one of the stories in History's new non-fiction mini-series, The Food That Built America. (The series airs for three consecutive nights starting Sunday, August 11 at 9 p.m. eastern.)

Other stories of visionary food entrepreneurs include Henry Heinz (ketchup), Milton Hershey, C.W. Post (the cereal magnate who spent time at the sanitarium and basically stole the idea for his company from Kellogg), the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc... 

And my favorite, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who after her father died, took over his cereal company and transformed it into the multi-national conglomerate General Foods. (As Post once said, "I'm not the richest woman in the world. There are others better off than I am. The only difference is that I do more with mine. I put it to work.")

The series provides a great reminder that today's startup founders -- like you -- form links in an incredibly long entrepreneurial chain. Even if you don't particularly like history... you'll definitely recognize yourself in the stories told.

"When you look at contemporary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos," says Isaac Holub, an executive producer of The Food That Built America and co-founder of Lucky 8 (production company behind the series), "they revolutionized our everyday lives. The same is true for these titans of the food business: They made genius product decisions and genius business decisions that led to their companies becoming household names." 

Like C.W. Heinz, who after going bankrupt developed a tomato-based form of catsup -- and then bet his company to build a modern factory that could produce at scale. (Heinz's assembly line innovations predate Henry Ford's by decades.)

"That tinkering spirit we think of with today's tech moguls?" Holub says. "These were the original tinkerers in the food space."

Like Kellogg, who stumbled on a way to create cereal flakes when he was trying to salvage moldy dough. Or John Pemberton, whose effort to create a medicine to help relieve pain turned into (after several twists in the story) Coca-Cola. 

"If there's one theme that ties these people together," Holub says, "it's that American spirit of ambition and will to succeed. Getting knocked down, getting back up and brushing off your clothes and trying again... they were relentless. They never gave up. Their drive helped them not only build lasting companies, but also to change the lives of millions of people for the better."

Which sounds like the perfect definition of "entrepreneur" to me.

Published on: Aug 9, 2019
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