How I Did It: Lara Merriken, Founder of LÄRABAR
I'd love to tell you that the story of LÄRABAR was the grand outcome of a master plan, executed with perfect timing and precision.
In all honesty, it was like that one day and gone the next in a wild, unpredictable ride of runaway success—and a few failures, too—that, in the end, confirmed what I've always believed: anything is possible.
How did I do it? Geez, how, in fact, did I do it? Well, here's the story behind the story.
Many times in print and in public I've recounted the fine spring day in the year 2000, a decade after graduating from USC with a psychology degree—not an MBA, mind you—when inspiration for LÄRABAR struck.
Looking back, psychology was helpful, given the fact that I must have been crazy to think that little 'ol me could conquer the energy-bar aisle in grocery stores nationwide.
But there I was, eating a handful of trail mix on top of a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, longing for a snack that didn't exist and wondering if I could make it myself. At times of extraordinary intuition, it's often best not to consider reality.
In my case, it was the reality of a saturated natural-foods market. The reality of immense start-up expenses. The reality of competing for shelf space against behemoth companies.
All I knew at that auspicious pre-LÄRABAR moment was that I had to run down the mountain, eager to collect ideas and begin the process of developing a simple, delicious food bar, made only of fruits, nuts and spices.
For inspiration—and, admittedly, paying homage to my junk-food-junkie past—I studied the indulgent offerings in supermarkets, mostly cookies, pies and cakes.
This fact always surprises fans of LÄRABAR. The original strategy was to deliver indulgence that, in turn, improves health. Not the other way around.
So many competitors were trying to take stuff out of products: calories, sugar, fat. Of course, I didn't want an excess of that stuff, either, but I strived to be abundant, infusing LÄRABAR with life, flavor and fun. It would turn out to be a magic formula.
A Support Network
But first things first. I had to make some bars. I fired up my Cuisinart and rolling pin, lovingly working on flavors and soliciting feedback from friends as well as employees at the Whole Foods where I worked. I knew I was zeroing in on something special when people started to ask: “Can I buy these?”
And just like that, I learned more entrepreneurial wisdom: Surround yourself with people who support you and your dreams. It adds value to shared opinions and helps to keep your spirits high, especially when the going gets tough, as it always does when you're building something complex from scratch.
In the beginning, not everybody believed in LÄRABAR. Here I was, 30 years old, earning $10 an hour to stock shelves in a grocery store while launching a company in what appeared to be my spare time.
The way I saw it, I was working in the health and nutrition department, learning the business from the inside out and getting paid for a valuable education—an education, in retrospect, that would pay huge dividends when it came time to market my own product.
On days off, I made a point to talk to anyone that would further my understanding of the business. The more I discovered, the more I realized just how many more questions I had about shelf-life testing, buying commodities, manufacturing, packaging, and so on. Often the answers were elusive, but I loved the challenge and made steady progress.
One morning at Whole Foods, while I was taking out some trash, I ran into the regional buyer who casually asked: “What's new?” After months of product research and development, I thought to myself: “Here's my chance.”
Moment of Truth
So often in life the potential for opportunity is lost because we don't see it or, worse, we're afraid to act. Thankfully, I dug deep and went for it. I told the buyer about what I had been creating, and he asked if I had any samples. “I’m here for only a few hours,” he said.
I immediately took a break, drove home, and beelined it back to the store with samples inside Ziploc bags, which I jazzed up by placing them in—of all things—a Chinese takeout box.
After a few bites, the buyer felt that my product was one of the most innovative he had tasted in a long time. Once I was ready, he would give me a chance in Colorado stores.
Getting the green light from Whole Foods seemed like the hard part, but even more daunting was the task of securing a place to set up manufacturing. I drove all over the state with a borrowed, 400-pound mixer in the back of an old Land Cruiser, trying to find somewhere to land.
All of which took longer than anticipated and, as a result, many of the initial investors in LÄRABAR got cold feet and backed out. It would be yet another important lesson: Even in the face of adversity, stay true to your vision of what's possible.
With a new set of investors in place, I launched LÄRABAR in April 2003—three years after I had planned. The night before the debut, I gathered family and friends to help with the first batch. We made all 500 bars by hand, rolling them out on sheets and using pizza cutters to form every single one. It took 15 hours.
The next morning, as I was stocking LÄRABAR next to the other products on the shelves, I wondered if people would even like them. So many emotions: excitement, anxiety, anticipation, and relief that I had finally reached this milestone.
The response was amazing. Within a week, LÄRABAR was a best-selling item. The press began to call, as did stores across the United States and abroad. We were onto something big. Very big. LÄRABAR quickly became one of the leading brands in the category and, by year five in existence, we had millions of customers.
In 2008 General Mills expressed interest in our company, now fortified by an experienced team of employees, managers and executives, which, incidentally, included my own father. We were tentative yet open to the idea of selling LÄRABAR. After all, with our own sales nearing $30 million, serious growth challenges lay ahead.
General Mills, of course, is profusely equipped to handle any challenge, but, more important, its quality of people and sensitive plans for LÄRABAR's future spoke comfortingly to my intuition. I knew it would be a perfect fit.
So, in June 2008, a day before my 40th birthday, I sold LÄRABAR. Today, I serve as Creative Director and continue to work with most of the team I originally assembled as well as my adopted General Mills family.
In many ways, I remain in awe of what has transpired. Early on, it never occurred to me that I would build something that competed against multimillion-dollar businesses, let alone that it would be bought by one.
I did, however, stick to ideals that I continue to cherish to this day:
- Discover and cultivate passion.
- Listen to your intuition.
- Don’t be afraid to take risks and fail.
And, above all, savor the journey of your life.
Lara Merriken, founder of LÄRABAR, grew up in Denver, Colorado, where entrepreneurial interests took hold at an early age—16—when she ran a successful lawn-mowing business with a close friend. Embracing the unpredictability of life, Lara turned her attention to social work, graduating from the University of Southern California with an opportunity to help disadvantaged kids. Subsequent career changes included preparation to become a naturopath before settling into the nutrition department of a major grocery store, where Lara learned the business from the inside out and laid the groundwork for the launch of a delicious food bar she was developing. Five years after its creation, LÄRABAR was a top-selling brand and eventually sold to General Mills, where Lara serves today as Creative Director.