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Interview with MetaBrand’s Eric Schnell

This is the first of several interviews of top beverage industry executives.  The overall concept is outselling the competition and standing out in a crowded marketplace.  The main topics: Selling, Leading and Achieving and these interviews are meant to shine a light on the “people” side of the equation.  Enjoy!

schnell_ericLast Friday I had the privilege to interview Eric Schnell, Chief Service Officer of MetaBrand Corporation.  Eric has over 20 years of experience in sales, marketing and operations in the Natural Product, Supplement and Beverage industries, with diverse experience managing upstart as well as turnaround companies and launching new brands and products.  Eric is the recipient of the Natural Product Industry’s 2007 “Socially Responsible Business Award,” as well as 3 time annual winner of the “Best Product of the Year Award”

Darryl:            How are you today?

Eric:                 Cool. Very good, thank you.

Darryl:            I saw your videos from BevNet. You’re a very talented speaker.

Eric:                 It comes from the heart, but thank you.

Darryl:            Yeah. It looks like you were going without notes and everything. Pretty impressed. The purpose of this interview series, Eric, is to speak to industry leaders about the people side of the equation. Selling, leading and achieving. I’d love to ask you a few questions along those lines.

Eric:                Okay. Cool.

Darryl:           The one thing that I always wonder about is the role of innovation versus sales. I know that in the food, beverage and supplement industries, there’s all these upstart brands and you’ve managed the growth in a lot of those brands. What do you think the breakdown is, the percentage in terms of importance between the innovation of a brand and the sales force, the sales organization charged with making that brand a success?

Eric:                 You won’t see anything without innovation happening first and (a cool) product being created.

Darryl:            Right so that’s critical. Let’s say somebody brings you an idea and it’s innovative. You’re like, ‘wow, maybe we’re on to something here.’ I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of innovative brands that have come down the pipeline and then after that they’ve been mismanaged or just ruined. I would imagine that you’ve seen a lot of good stuff that never turned out because of the way it went to market. Would that be a decent statement.

Eric:                  Yeah. The greatest idea in the world is going to have zero ability to be successful if it does not have an equally strong or decent enough sales force team management strategy put in place to execute that very innovative idea. Just for MetaBrand alone – in our short existence, we see a lot, quite a few at least, once a month or twice a month a unique, disruptive, game-changing potential idea that an entrepreneur has, but getting it to market is a big hurdle. Getting it to the market with a great sales team that can sustain it and build it is so much of the ultimate challenge that has to be worked out and figured out. That’s where it becomes like a science. Even if the brand raises the money or the brand has the money to put the product on the market, who is going to be ultimately the sales force.

I actually started out myself in sales, when I got into the industry, the supplemental part of the business in the ’90’s. I was actually a sales manager for New York City and I quickly learned that, it’s actually what I tell all my sales people now and the people that we work with, that at the end of the day I believe that the most success a brand can have in its first couple years is when the sales manager, or the sales force, or the sales team or the broker group is that good when they walk into the store the buyer says, ‘well, what do you have for me today John, or Sally, because I’m buying what you’re selling because I like you that much that I trust you and believe in you. That you’re bringing me the right kind of products for my store and I want to support you.’

Darryl:            Is it harder now to sell yourself and be taken seriously than it was ten years ago?

Eric:                  The beverage category continues to get more and more competitive, but if you can say in one sense, ‘God, it’s much harder now than ten years ago when there weren’t as many products on the shelves as now.’ The truth is there’s always going to be a street fight on the shelf. I think what you’ve got now versus ten years ago, is you’ve got so many game-changing categories that just seemed to pop up. You wouldn’t have even predicted five years ago.

Look at HPP juice, for example, and everything going functional in sports right now. I don’t think there’s ever … It still comes to the saturation point now that a really good sales team or sales manager with a really good innovation can not go in and claim out shelf space. You’d say right now, ‘oh my God’ if you walk into the stores, at least in the natural channel, ‘there’s no more room for another HPP juice product.’ But, I guarantee you in two or three years there’s going to be something else that’s game-changing that will eat up the shelf space once again, like Suja, Odwalla, Naked Juice and there shelf space two or three years ago. Now, they basically dominate it. You don’t even see Odwalla and Naked Juice in Whole Foods and natural channels anymore. They completely got dominated and they’re billion dollar brands.

Darryl:            Right. Right.

Eric:                 By the way, that speaks to one thing, though. In that instance, Odwalla and Naked Juice had the very best sales teams there are, and broker groups there are, but there’s a point where innovation was so darn strong that it shrunk the effect of the sales teams. You could almost argue that there would be no way to get Odwalla and Naked Juice off of Whole Foods shelves. Well, Suja is doing a great job of it right now.

Darryl:            Where do entrepreneurs go wrong when they have a decent idea?

Eric:                  I launched what’s now a $20 million brand called Steaz out of my townhouse closet in 2001 in Pennsylvania and built a national organic soft drink brand successfully for the ten years that I ran it and built it before I sold the majority of it to Nestle worldwide. The mistakes that I made are some of the same exact mistakes that we still see being made every day by entrepreneurs. What we see is the most critical mistake early on is thinking that you can go on to the Internet or go in some book and take a boiler plate business plan and suddenly turn that into a document that’s your real life thesis for the first three years of your business.

They actually go out and sell that to investors and often time the assumption, the margins, the growth, the projections, the store-by-store … They are just completely worthless and baseless, yet these young entrepreneurs find themselves in a whole heap of trouble with number one, missing their goals. Number two, not having enough products behind them. What we see is, what happens is in the second year, most of those brands are out of business, eight out of ten of them because they didn’t project the proper finances to stay in the beverage game long enough. Proper business planning. You can’t stress enough. By a vetted team of whether it’s a consultant or a company like us that has a team approach to building a business plan, that is the biggest mistake. Number one, if it’s not done properly or vetted properly by someone that knows the beverage business that can give you real feedback. I almost wouldn’t even go into business in this day and age.

Darryl:            Having a reasonable outlook is a plus?

Eric:                  A reasonable outlook, yeah. A reasonable approach. It doesn’t mean you can’t go National. An example of who did it right, and that’s what I meant in my speech, is Suja. Suja is just out of California, small little juicery, that got the right funding, the right introduction to Whole Foods, at the right time, everything went right and viola, one year later they are national in Whole Foods, eating away at Naked Juice’s shelf space. Three years later, they are a 50-plus million dollar brand with a 100 million valuation, literally the number one cold-pressed juice brand in a channel. There’s a great example. Who would have thought four years ago, these people who had no clue what they were doing in beverage would be the hottest, national HPP juice brand in the country right now.

Darryl:            They’re the ones down in the San Diego area?

Eric:                  Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great story. They didn’t even have experience in the industry, but right product, right time. They got the right funding behind them and they got the right sales force behind them. They had the second largest broker group in America, took a liking to the product. Right place, right time. They co-invested in the brand. They all of a sudden found themselves as a 300 person broker sales group at the end of their first year in business that invested in them.

Darryl:            Wow.

Eric:                  They did it right. There’s an example. Anyone can do it still.

Darryl:            Right. When you walk into a Whole Foods and the shelves are packed. Say I’m a young sales guy and I want to break in to a Whole Foods, but shelves are packed. How would you advise me, what kind of plan would you advise me to put together to scale that mountain?

Eric:                  Don’t even bother launching your business in approaching Whole Foods (or similar) if you’re already going to be fourth in whatever category you can see eking out part of the shelf space. Of course, they’ve got teas, they’ve got iced coffees, they’ve got cold-pressed juices, they’ve got functional, they’ve got the different types of fortified dairy products and non-dairy products. There are seven or eight sub-categories that make up their beverage cooler. That’s the same for the whole national channel in general. If you are not one of the top three, don’t even bother because there’s just no room for you, unless you’ve got a game-changing approach that’s different, that’s unique. The reason why I say it so firmly, is I’ve seen so many brands go out of business thinking they are the sixth or seventh category, but why not? I’ll put up a production run. I’ll go to Whole Foods and we’ll see. These brands aren’t in business in a year. Whole Foods has just gotten very discerning now, and they’ve got criteria that they post. Right now they are posting criteria publicly that if you’re another cold-pressed juice brand that has no point of difference from the ones you see on our shelves, we will not give you a meeting. That’s a public posting right now. How do you approach that? If you are dead-set on being an HPP juice brand, what can you do to approach them. Like they said, you’ve got to be different. How about put pro- biotics in your product? Put fortified herbs, aromatic herbal blends in your product. You’ve got to have something different or just don’t even bother.

Darryl:            Tell me about the 7 Keys To Manifesting Your Dream.

Eric:                 They work. They work, I can promise you that.

Darryl:            Yeah. I’m a big proponent in the belief side of it. I think that at least on the sale side, I believe that a lot of sales pros that are out selling brands are defeated before they even walk into an account. I think that when that occurs, it’s a big problem. I think that’s a big problem in sales.

Eric:                 I agree. Yeah. If your internal belief system isn’t already there that if you do your pre-call analysis and you walk into that account and you don’t already see walking out with everything that you dream and more, you might as well forget it. Going in with that energy and being a defeatist is contagious in the store field as well. The clerks and the buyers try to avoid you. If you’re not going in every call, you see that gun and all that you dream, committed to, and everything going perfectly the way you envision, might as well wait ’til you’re all pepped up and ready to roll and then go back.

Darryl:            Right. It’s an outward thing but it’s an internal thing also.

Eric:                 It’s internal. If we build up enough energy internally, it becomes the outward. Visually, if they look at you, they will notice that excitement. I’ve broken every sales record ever in history for any company I’ve worked for ’cause I’ve used these principles. It’s internal. It starts internal. It’s your internal fortitude, your internal conviction. Do you believe in yourself?

Darryl             When you look for an executive, that you think has the ability to manage a sales process, and a good brand, what’s one quality you would look for in that person?

Eric:                 The first thing I read, and you might as well throw out all the books on how you’re supposed to interview people, ’cause I go against every one of ’em. The first thing that I read is their energy. The first thing I sense is their energy. Are they weak? Are they strong? Do they have conviction? Are they a person that has passion? If I don’t sense those qualities in the person, I don’t care what company they came from or what his background is. If I don’t feel it and I don’t feel that they TRULY will love or embrace the job ahead, that’s it for me, there’s no more interview. That energy’s the most important first quality, reading their energy.

Darryl:             What’s one action in your career that you’d take back, that could be a lesson for young people? Eric:                 There was a point where my last company was growing strongly and we were up to thirty-eight people and I’m the

founder and CEO and we’re doing very well. This is 2008-2009, and I think that I probably at one point in time suffered from excessive hubris and felt that the company could not live if I wasn’t the co-founder, President, CEO running the company anymore. It wouldn’t survive without me. There was a time that I went through that period through a few board meetings and I probably was more argumentative than I should have been with my partners and my board, thinking that I held all the cards. I can tell you that did not play out in my favor.

I quickly realized afterwards, “Wow, I shouldn’t have done that, and I probably shouldn’t have done that, and that probably made that person feel bad, and that made that person feel bad.” There was a good year that I had to reflect back on my behavior as president of a company I wish I acted differently. I could tell you, I’ve learned from that and in my company now at MetaBrand, I call myself, even though I’m the CEO and founder, I’m really the Chief Service Officer. I tell all the employees in the company, all of the people that come in to see us to hire, I say, I serve them; I serve our employees; I serve our clients; and my entire job is built on service. I’m not the most important person in the company, I’m part of a greater machine. My job as the visionary founder is to keep the machine running with the best energy and the best team possible. Ultimately, it’s not me, it’s the team. It’s the company that survives based on the group coming together as a family and as a team, not just one person.

Darryl:            If I was a young gun and you identified me as somebody that had some skills, with the hand on the shoulder, conversation be? “You’re really good at what you do. Never forget that you’re part of a bigger picture, you’re part of a team.” Would that be a message that you would give to a young gun?

Eric:                 One hundred percent, hundred percent. There’s no ‘I’ in the word ‘company’. You’re not building a product, you’re creating a brand, but the truth is, your brand will have a legacy if it’s a great company. To build a great company, surround yourself with great people and, as the founder or the president, serve those people with a principle that’s basically based on a bit of eastern philosophy, the ‘namaste’ principle, ‘serve others the way you wish to be served yourself’. ‘Cause that’s the way I serve all my employees and all of our clients that walk in. We serve and honor them. I think ‘if that goes around, it comes around’.

That’s the first law of our company is, ‘what you put out is what you get back’. If you’re putting out that sort of support and that kind of passion to take care of people and help them, it’ll come back to you as the founder and the president, the visionary. Ultimately, you’ll have a lot more success and that’s what I’m seeing with MetaBrand. We’ve gone from one to twenty one employees in under twenty-four months and we continue to grow unbelievably with people coming to us to hire us ’cause we’re doing the right thing. None of us are too big in the room that we won’t do anything that it takes to serve the client and build the business and help some with their businesses.

Darryl:            Last question, I’ll let you go. I really appreciate this. What’s one thing you wish the individuals at your company would do more of?

Eric:                 Putting their egos aside. That’s not just in my company, but also in my past company and companies I’ve worked for. Ego seems to be the thing that ultimately destroys a company from the inside, ultimately causes negativity, and ultimately creates cancer in certain parts of a company, people’s egos. I have a rule in our company that may sound kind of non-HR friendly, but there can’t ever be politics in MetaBrand. I say to people, “There’s no such thing as politics here.” Your guys politicking around something to try to then sway a vote or an opinion to selfishly serve you because of your ego will never work. We’re all, a team, we’re all a family, we all have to support each other. Now certainly, if someone’s doing something wrong, if someone needs help, that’s what our job is, to give it to them. If it’s about an ego and that’s what drives you and you can’t work with other people which we’ve had two of those type of personalities the past year and a half, those people found themselves ultimately out of a job. Because egos are not sustainable in the kind of company I’m creating. They’re not sustainable in anyone else’s company I see anymore.

Nobody wants people with maniacal egos anymore on their sales team. They’re not fun to work with. Ten, twenty years ago, yeah, back in the stockbroker days in the nineties with all these people trying to make millions of dollars and outdo each other, and out show each other with fancy cars, I don’t think that’s the future. I think that’s the past. I think the future is about being more humble and being more supportive. It’s about the team, not about the individual. Of course, we all want to win contests, we all want to get the prize. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s how you act when you do achieve that success that ultimately gains the respect from your peers and not having others looking at you like you’re some kind of egomaniac that they’re not happy for.

Darryl:            I appreciate you taking the time.

Eric:                 Yeah, happy to help you and I look forward to connecting again.

Darryl:            Okay, great. Thanks a lot, Eric.

You can reach Darryl Rosen by clicking here.

You can reach Eric Schnell by clicking here

Categories: Selling more

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