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Bear Naked Entrepreneurship

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of hearing Kelly Flatley, CEO of Bear Naked Granola, speak at an event for the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) of Stamford, CT. I serve on the board of WBDC, which provides education and support for people (mostly, but not entirely women) who want to start and grow businesses. It’s a great organization with a mission I’m passionate about, so I always feel especially proud when we’re able to secure a great speaker and entrepreneur of the caliber of Ms. Flatley.

Mind you, Flatley started this company in 2002 at the tender age of 23 in her kitchen and grew it in 5 short years to a multi-million dollar enterprise with national distribution in thousands of stores coast-to-coast. As she told her story – which is the Bear Naked story – she shared a number of entrepreneurial tidbits that I found very inspirational.

1. Believe. Granola was certainly nothing new and oats are not sexy. Still, Kelly and partner Brendan Synott thought she made a better granola and that they could make it fly.

2. Work really hard. In the early days, 100-hour weeks were the norm. They worked day and night – mostly night when the bakeries whose ovens they leased were available.

3. Take risks. No one would give them start-up money, of course, so they maxed out Kelly’s credit cards (Brendan couldn’t get any) and kept working.

4. Learn constantly and from everyone. Neither Kelly nor Brendan knew anything about the food business. They were given a lot of advice from parents, relatives, friends and customers. Some was not so good, but a lot was great. They took the good advice and ran with it.

5. Go with your gut. Bear Naked comes in cellophane, resealable bags with a transparent window. One time, the owner of a major supermarket took them to the cereal aisle to show them the sea of boxes. He told them that unless they packaged their granola in a box, it wouldn’t sell. They felt strongly that part of what they were selling was transparency — they wanted customers to see and even be able to feel their product. They didn’t take his advice.

6. Stick with what you love. Brendan loves marketing. Kelly loves making granola. They’ve stuck with what they each are good at and grow and grow and grow.

7. Be bold. One time, when playing an endless game of phone tag with a major buyer, Kelly and Brendan decided to show up with breakfast in “bed.” The buyer wasn’t in, but the owner just happened to stroll by. They flagged him down, he invited them into his office for a 2-hour meeting and ordered 50 cases of the granola for the following day.

8. Don’t listen to the naysayers. There were plenty of tough times and times when people – even people close to Kelly and Brendan – told them that the company probably wasn’t going to make it. They ignored them.

9. Connect your work with your passions. Kelly is an avid outdoorswoman and sports enthusiast and looks it. She also a supporter of environmental causes. Today, Bear Naked supports a number of events and organizations that are close to her heart such as cycling and the environment.

By the way, Kelly was dressed beautifully. She may be in her 20s and she may wear jeans and Bear Naked T-shirts when she bakes granola but when she’s the featured guest speaker, she dresses up as the true leader she is.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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