There are two recurrent motifs in Daniel Lubetzky's remarkable career: human connections and healthy noshes. The son of a Holocaust survivor and a Mexican Jew, Lubetzky launched PeaceWorks in 1994 as a way to forge bonds between Arabs and Israelis through commerce. The company's sundried tomato spread and other products are manufactured jointly by Israelis and Palestinians; Lubetzky has since extended that model to other neighbors-in-conflict. In 2004 he founded Kind Healthy Snacks, a purveyor of snack bars made from fruit, nuts, and other ingredients proudly shown off through a transparent wrapper. Like PeaceWorks, Kind promotes human connection--specifically, by encouraging people to perform kind acts for one another. In his new book, Do the Kind Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately (excerpted here), Lubetzky describes what he's learned from building two such distinctive companies. We spoke recently about his book and his business. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Your book talks about the importance of being ambitious but not overreaching. How did you learn that lesson?
When I started PeaceWorks more than 20 years ago, I was so excited, and I had this burning ambition that my products should be everywhere. I tried to sell to mass retailers and groceries and natural-foods stores and convenience stores--all at the same time. I remember one day I spent two hours following around Mr. Kim, the owner of a small convenience store in New York City, trying to sell him on our sundried tomato spread. He kept explaining that people came into his store to buy essentials like bread and milk. But finally he bought a case just to get rid of me. The products sat on his shelves, gathering dust. It was unfair to the brand and unfair to Mr. Kim.
Are you better at keeping yourself in check today?
I think the belief that we can do everything is an Achilles' heel for entrepreneurs. Our mentors and board members tell us, focus, focus, focus. But we still convince ourselves we can get away with what others can't. At Kind we've had to be super-disciplined because we have so many great ideas for product lines. Without exaggeration, we have over 100 killer ideas. But if we start launching too many we are going to dilute our energies and overextend. It's like the game of Risk, where if you leave your borders vulnerable, rival armies invade. So before we start expanding we double-down to defend the core
You say companies can't compete on mission: they must compete on quality. What, then, is the role of mission in a business?
The reason to pursue a mission is the mission itself. It gives what you do meaning; and that sense of purpose has a positive impact on the business. If you have a mission it is much less likely you will give up. You can attract and motivate formidable team members who might not normally join a company in the early stages. Mission sustains team spirit and creates a culture of loyalty because everyone is working toward a larger goal. And your retailers and partners will be behind you because they like what you are doing and want you to win.
You personally have an awful lot of ideas. How can you tell which are good?
I need to constantly remind myself that I don't always have the best ideas and to have smart people who can help me filter them. That includes my team, my mentors, and my friends. My wife shuts down more of my ideas than anybody. I also keep on my office bookshelf, right where I can see it, a display of products that failed, including a PeaceWorks sweet and spicy Asian teriyaki spread that didn't make sense for a Mediterranean brand and also didn't taste too good. John Leahy, our president, hangs on his wall reminders of the things he got wrong instead of the things he got right. We need to remember our failures to keep our humility. And we need to let the marketplace of ideas thrive by encouraging hearty debate.
One time I thought we should start a PeaceWorks CafÃ© in New York City. A customer would pay for two lunches--one for himself and one for a homeless person--and then have lunch with that homeless person. I thought this would be a great, innovative way to connect people and help them discover each other's humanity. I was absolutely serious. My team pointed out all the reasons it wouldn't work, and I realized it was not achievable.
What are the conversations like when you weigh decisions that risk compromising one of your values while promising very substantial business upsides?
I can't imagine a team member ever suggesting anything that would lack integrity. Because they know I would be like, what are you saying? But as one example: In 2011 a new competitor entered the market claiming that its flagship product had zero sugar and was all natural. Well, that's not possible because nuts and fruit naturally have some sugar in them. To get to zero sugar they needed to use artificial compounds. So we had to decide whether to introduce our own line with "natural sugar alcohols" so we could make similar claims to our competitors. We talked about it, but we knew it would not be true to the brand to substitute artificial ingredients. But we still wanted to address consumers' valid concerns about reducing sugar. So we developed a line of Nuts and Spices bars that cut down on sugar by eliminating fruit and boosting the flavor with spices instead.
One unusual practice at Kind is asking employees to let managers know they are on the job market and then letting them pursue their searches publicly. Why do you do that?
The first thing we do is encourage people to let us know if they are unhappy, to see what we can do. We don't want to lose a member of the family. Even if they want to go back to school or their husband or wife is relocating, maybe we can find a way to make it work. But if it doesn't work, we want them to know there is no reason to hide it from us. The only reason to hide it is if they think we are going to do something bad with that information. In corporate America they might threaten to let you go or start keeping you out of the loop or stop fostering your professional growth. But if you are open and we have a relationship built on complete trust and the best intentions, then we can help each other. I can be a reference for you and help you land the best job. You can help me find the best person to replace you and train them. There is so much value created working together. But there has to be absolute trust.
What is the last kind thing you did personally?
I try to be nice to everybody, but I don't count that as something special to report. The last time I recognized a kind act was yesterday on the subway when a lady got up from her seat and helped an older woman who was a little frail sit down. I gave her a KINDAwesome card and explained how she could go use it to get a couple of Kind bars and some cards to recognize acts of kindness herself. The subway was pretty crowded, and we were talking. She was a very positive person. She said, "Shouldn't everyone be doing these things?" And the people around us nodded.