Our culture has become immune to certain accolades. Achievements like "Over 1 Million downloads" or "Top Ten", or even "World's Best Coffee" are read over without any consideration for just how significant that accomplishment is. Well, our guest today created a brand that holds the title of "Top Granola" in the natural category, and "Top Ten Granola" in all other categories. That achievement is one that was years in the making and we unpack exactly how Elizabeth Stein, founder of Purely Elizabeth founded one of the most significant natural food brands in the country.
My guest this week is Elizabeth Stein, founder of Purely Elizabeth. Purely Elizabeth is one of the top natural food brands in the United States. In fact, they are the Premier granola brand in the Natural Foods Category and Top 10 Granola in all categories. Purely Elizabeth is a really big deal and aside from the brand's significance, Elizabeth's entrepreneurial journey is significant because it's so relatable to every single one of us. Elizabeth never thought her side hustle would turn into her full time job, let alone become a multi-million dollar company.
That said, within this episode, Elizabeth shares with me four really important considerations that we all need to be aware of when launching a CPG brand. But let me be clear, these are not about product packaging design, or logistics, or even how to reach out to buyers. You can find that info all over the internet and even in some of my past videos and podcast episodes. No, the things Elizabeth shares in this video are considerations that I have never heard before as it relates to launching a CPG brand.
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Elizabeth Stein: Hi, this is Elizabeth Stein, founder and CEO of Purely Elizabeth, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Hello, everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. You know, for the past couple weeks I've been playing catch up on reading listener to reviews at the top of the show, but I didn't realize until recently that I've been neglecting showing some love to our Grindology member reviews. And with that said, this review comes from Julie Stevens with RMS Tech Spa, and she rated the Grindology box five stars and wrote: "The mug this month was awesome and I love seeing the new message each time I enjoy my coffee. You know, I love this magazine even more than the first issue. The content was top notch, easy to understand and super relatable. It was fun to see several businesses tackle a similar subject in totally different ways." Well, thank you, Julie. And I'm so glad to hear you're finding real value in being a Grindology member. So for all those listening, show Julie some love and visit RMStechspa.com to learn more about her business. And you know what, we'll even throw a link to Julie's business in our show notes so you have easy access for it.
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My guest this week is Elizabeth Stein, the founder and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. For those who might not be aware of Purely Elizabeth, they are one of the top natural food brands in the United States. In fact, they're the premier granola brand in the natural foods category and top 10 granola in all categories. Purely Elizabeth is a really big deal. And aside from the brand significance, Elizabeth Stein's entrepreneurial journey is significant because it's so relatable to every single one of us. Now, I'm not going to unpack it for you, because the beauty of The Startup Story that you get to hear directly from those who are further down the road than we are right now, and we get to learn from them directly. So with that said, let's start with Elizabeth's very, very early years.
Elizabeth Stein: You know, I came from a family where my father and my grandfather were definitely entrepreneurs. They had their own businesses. And I think I always saw that as something aspirational. You know, my mom, for that matter, later in life did as well. She had a store and I always thought it was fun going there, and helping her out and trying to organize the systems that she had in place. So it was definitely multiple people in my life who had their own thing that they could make decisions on and own and really see that vision come to life.
James McKinney: But one of the things about entrepreneurship, especially if it's a retail business, you know, again, I don't know what your grandfather and your father had, but to get the full cycle of entrepreneurship you means you see downsides too. Like you see some hardships, whether it be financial or physical, whatever the case may be. Despite the hardships did you think you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Elizabeth Stein: You know, I always from a young age knew that I wanted to have my own business. I did. From you know, it was either that or honestly I wanted to be Michael Eisner, then CEO of Disney, so whatever it was, it wasn't necessarily my own business, but it was definitely being in charge. And having a grand vision come to life was definitely something I identified with at a young age.
James McKinney: Then when you think back to your childhood, were there any side hustles, any early entrepreneurial endeavors that you can now look back on say, Okay, that was that was my version 1.0 of being an entrepreneur. Is there any of those stories?
Elizabeth Stein: So I definitely wasn't slinging granola in elementary school. But I would say probably the two biggest fundamental things for my entrepreneurial future was one, just my determination. So my parents always described me as someone who was super determined. And as a young kid that very much showed up in, I would say, more of my athletics or math, like just sitting there and hitting a tennis ball against our garage for hours upon hours, and just wanting to do better and keep that hustle up. So I think, you know, there was that side of my entrepreneurial spirit.
And then the other thing when I talk back to Michael Eisner, at a young age, I definitely had a lot of business sense and interest. So I remember going to Disney World as a kid. And this was probably around 11 or 12 years of age, and we would go and rather than just being excited to be at Disney World, I walked into the park, really with this hat on as a business person. And I would say, like, "Wow, they have… they're pumping out the smell of popcorn, because it's trying to entice people to buy popcorn," and really recognizing all of these small, amazing things that Disney did so well. And recognizing like, okay, let's do that. So as I talked about my mom having a store, it was a learning from Disney, where you would walk into the park and there will be music on. And so I went back after being at Disney World and say like, "Mom, we need to put some kind of soothing music in the store so that you're creating this experience when customers come in." And so I definitely had, I think a different view of most kids going to Disney.
And when I was I think it was about 13, I wrote a letter to Michael Eisner with this great business concept that I have for Disney, which was taking the concept of kind of Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, which were very big at the time, meets breakfast with the characters, and really the idea to bring Disney to life in other cities around the country for those kids who weren't able to go to Disney World. So I thought it was a great idea, I still think it's a good idea. Unfortunately, I got a letter back from Disney saying that they could not read my letter for legal reasons in case they were ever to do something similar. And I have that letter, both the letter to Disney and the letter back from them to this day.
James McKinney: That's awesome. I love that. Disney is a benchmark for many of us when it comes to customer experience for sure. And I'm sure that there are elements to your story as we get to the Purely Elizabeth brand down the road, that there'll be elements that play into that. But for right now we're coming to the end of your high school years, right? It's a natural chapter where we close one door and are jumping into a new chapter and what was that for you? Was it college? Was it entrepreneurship? Was it internships? What was the next step for you?
Elizabeth Stein: Yeah, so after graduating from high school, I grew up outside of Philadelphia. And I knew I wanted to be in a city. So I ended up going to Boston University, and I studied in their School of Management in their marketing program. So it was very much you know, I knew going to college I wanted that business career and I always felt that the marketing side of business was far more interesting and exciting to me than finance.
James McKinney: Do you have siblings?
Elizabeth Stein: I do I have an older sister.
James McKinney: An older sister, and I'm asking this question because I think there is there's a nuance to the birth order. Like we're doing something, as the younger ones were trying to keep up and, and keep pace. Was there any of that within yourself and your story as to wanting to keep pace with your older sister? Was she on a similar track? Was she doing something very academic? Like, what how does that play in, if at all, to your journey?
Elizabeth Stein: I would say she was not. I will say, I grew up with an older sister who was three years older than me, and then two older cousins, who were five and nine years older than me. We grew up right across the street from one another. So I was the youngest really of four girls. And the benefit really that that did have for me was really being kind of the baby in the family where I definitely was given a ton of confidence. And I think that that's something that has truly helped on the entrepreneurial journey, that you can't really start a business not coming from that place of confidence. And so growing up really feeling that support in order to go after whatever it was that I wanted to do.
James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. So what years were you at Boston?
Elizabeth Stein: I was there… I graduated high school in 99. And then I graduated from BU in 2003.
James McKinney: 2003. So during your time at Boston, again there are so many stories of aspiring entrepreneurs creating something in their university years, like whatever it may be, whether it's software, which, of course, is the cliche startup, it's always software. But there's lots of CPG brands that have started in college. There are lots of professional services that have started in college. Were you developing or building anything during your college years? Or was it all just paper and pen right now? So when you do get out, you're ready to start something? What was that journey like for you in college?
Elizabeth Stein: Yeah, so I would say I didn't have something written down that I wanted to do in college. But that said, I definitely in the program at BU in the management school, you did various case studies and came up with various products and services and creating business plans around. So what I think it was my senior year, we did a program or a business plan that was based on a healthy, fast food restaurant concept. And so I had definitely identified this interest. In my later years of college after I'd gone out and done all those things that you do, right when you get to college, especially in a city. But in those later years, really identifying that health and wellness was something that was really important to me. And already realizing in 2003 that there was really a lack of healthy products or healthy places to eat. So that was something that I definitely was exploring, and really was starting to, I think, initially pique my interest in that part of the market and what the possibilities might look like.
James McKinney: So when you get your degree, and you're finished with BU, what was the next step for you?
Elizabeth Stein: So the day that I graduated, I moved to New York City, because Boston was too small of a city at that point, and I was ready for the big city. And I went to New York, and I did not have a job initially. So I had spent that summer sending out a bunch of resumes. And I'll never forget, that was the summer of the blackout in New York. And I remember sitting at my desk in my apartment searching for, reaching out for jobs, and all of a sudden, all the lights went out and everything went out and I could not... I was so stressed that I couldn't send out another resume and then only to realize about an hour later that the entire city's power grid had gone down. And the problem was a lot bigger than then my search for a job that day. But it was a really stressful summer, I think initially trying to figure out what I was going to do and find a job. And eventually, my first job out of college was doing sales and marketing for a holding company that had skincare and fragrance products.
James McKinney: Okay. So again-
Elizabeth Stein: So entering the CPG space.
James McKinney: Yeah, you start seeing those breadcrumbs start taking place.
James McKinney: Okay, you should be able to get a sense that this episode is going to be absolutely incredible. But before we continue on, I need to ask you a question as it relates to your business or startup: when I say the phrase content marketing what comes to mind? Do your palms start to sweat because you fear needing some type of clever TikTok video? Or maybe you hunch your shoulders forward a little bit out of frustration because it feels like a constant chore that never delivers results? Either way, I'm fairly confident that the thought of content marketing is viewed with more disdain than with excitement. So with that in mind, wouldn't it be helpful to learn proven tactics directly from founders that have executed well in this area? That is the experience and knowledge sharing that is delivered to you each quarter when you become a Grindology member.
Grindology is an entrepreneurial subscription box that ships every quarter full of resources to help fuel your grind and your hustle. Now you might be asking what's included in your Grindology shipment. Well first and foremost, every single Grindology shipment will include a copy of the Grindology tactical manual. Every single issue of Grindology is chock full of real tactics from real business builders, not journalists. Within the pages of the Grindology tactical manual we will be delivering to you tactics and strategies you can integrate into your business immediately. Our current issue that is available right now as we speak is focused on content. In this issue you will receive proven tactics on how to leverage existing content that you've created to drive new business and deliver new revenue. You'll also hear about operational tactics that were used by a founder that saw nearly 400% growth in one year, and he attributes that growth to the tactics he shares in this issue. Tell me those founder direct tactics wouldn't be helpful? Well those are the exact types of tactics that will be found in this issue and every issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders.
Our Q2 issue is now available and you can access it at grindology.com. Everything about Grindology is about helping to fuel your grind and your entrepreneurial journey. So visit gridnology.com to learn more. And of course we'll include a link to grindology.com within our show notes for easy access. Now let's jump back into our episode with Elizabeth Stein as she continues to unpack how she created one of the most valuable natural food companies in the United States.
James McKinney: So were you thinking oh, this is interesting, I'm going to get lots of experience when it comes to retail, I wonder if this will help me with this healthy nutrition concept that I'm have percolating in the back of my head.
Elizabeth Stein: I don't think I had connected it, I think that I knew that there was this kind of health thing on one side, but I also was really into, you know, product, whether it be food, or in this instance, fragrance and makeup, and skincare. So any of those kind of touch points were interesting to me at the time. And really just, I mean my first step, I was just happy to have a job out of college.
James McKinney: So how long were you there for?
Elizabeth Stein: So I was there, I want to say for probably about two years.
James McKinney: Two years. If you were to think back to those two years, and again two years not a long time but still it you know, is your first job out of college, so there are probably some critical markers inside of that. But when you think that those two years, for those who might be considering a CPG brand or are in college right now, and just want to just get out there and go, what were some key learnings you remember and reflect back on those during those two years?
Elizabeth Stein: I think the biggest thing is probably just being able to be exposed to so many parts of the business, it was a pretty small company. And so, you know, over time, I was able to sit in meetings and really hear about product development and other areas that I think it's really important to be a well rounded person coming into the industry to put all the pieces together of how they work.
James McKinney: When you think about those pieces, considering where you are now, what was some of the most surprising element, challenge, hardship, whatever category will make it like a mad libs you fill in the blank, what was the most surprising area to you because of its challenge, or its hardship or, or its ease? What was the most interesting element during those two years?
Elizabeth Stein: That's a great question. I would say, you know, the reality is I was probably exposed to a lot of it, but at a 10,000 foot view. So my hands weren't really enough into the details, which is, in the long run, probably a super positive thing, because had I known more, I would have said, I'm not going to start my own business, this is crazy. So it gave me just enough touch to understand but not enough depth of information to really give those warning signs of like this is how hard it is to get a product to market and how to scale it and all of those things in between.
James McKinney: Yeah, and manufacturing and packaging, there's so many different elements and we'll definitely get to that when we talk about Purely Elizabeth. So when you leave that holding company, what was your next step?
Elizabeth Stein: I actually then went and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. And I have this big creative side on me. So I actually went and I never talked about this but I did a quick stint at FIT where I took a class in design and handbag design.
James McKinney: So is FIT fashion institute-
Elizabeth Stein: Fashion Institute of Technology.
James McKinney: Okay. That is in New York, right?
Elizabeth Stein: It is.
James McKinney: I've heard of that because one of our previous founders, Danielle Salinas with Maison de Papillion, she came through that. That's why I knew it sounded familiar.
Elizabeth Stein: So it was kind of just a summer program. I wasn't enrolling in the school, but I thought, you know what, it's the summer and this might just be an interesting kind of side hustle. And so sure enough, I took this class and I really love the creativity side of it. And I ended up making several bags and shoes. And I was wearing one of the bags that I had created out to a restaurant in Soho, and a woman came up to me and said, "Oh my god, I love this bag of yours. Where did you get it?" And I said, "Actually, I designed it and I made it." And she worked for a handbag company at the time and she said, "We're looking to bring in entry level people. Are you looking for a job?" And sure enough, I had just left the other place, and so that was ended up to be my next path in my career.
James McKinney: So was that brand ecommerce? Was that retail? What was the business model of that brand? And did you see yourself, having after that encouragement that moment, did you see yourself like, you know, maybe fashion is where I'm supposed to be long term?
Elizabeth Stein: Yeah, so they were both. They were both their own e-comm site as well as they were in wholesale. And they were a pretty big brand at the time. And I would say that I probably had identified still not like this is 100% where I want to be in the future. But again, it was that consumer product that I liked, that was really of interest. I was doing some sales and marketing for them as well. And thought, you know, this might be a better route than getting back to my sewing machine.
James McKinney: So right now we have two product jobs that you've had in retail and wholesale. And how many years ago was this? Let's give it a time marker. What year are we in right now?
Elizabeth Stein: This was probably say 2006.
James McKinney: 2006. So we're looking at quick math, small numbers are hard for me, 15 years, so 15 years ago. And when is the beginning of Purely Elizabeth, when you think of your go to market date, whether it be your incorporation date, whatever the case may be, when do you consider the beginning of purely Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Stein: So 2007 is when I kind of started conceptualizing.
James McKinney: So then you're at this handbag brand, when you really start formulating what Purely Elizabeth is going to be.
Elizabeth Stein: Well, I guess, technically 2008. But so I'm at the handbag company, and I start to do a ton of marathons and triathlons and I meet my boyfriend at the time, who's into all of this. I was never a big… I was always athletic, but not an endurance athlete. And so a lot of what he taught me was that, no, it was not just the physical, but the mental part of it played such a big role. And there was something in that negative information that just really triggered something for me. And I just totally fell in love with this new kind of renewed sense of goal setting, and going after something that was big. I ended up doing a half Ironman was the longest distance I'd ever done. But anyway, so I ended up doing all of this stuff on the side and felt like I really want to find something in my career that was more aligned with this new passion that I felt for health and wellness.
And so I started to go back to school to study holistic nutrition in 2007. And it was in that program where I learned about food is medicine, and the idea that what you eat affects how you feel. And I became completely enthralled with that. Along the way, I learned about all these ingredients that weren't being used at the time. So things like quinoa and chia seeds and coconut oil. And so at the beginning of that program in 2007 is really where things started to percolate of, wow, there's all these amazing ingredients that are not being used in products. And I started to see clients one on one and started teaching cooking classes. And many of these clients were, you know, struggling with what they were eating, they were on a gluten free diet, everything in the marketplace at the time was super unhealthy loaded with refined flours and sugars. And so there was somewhere in the back of my mind where I thought there has to be a better solution that not only delivers better nutrition, but delivers culinary tastes like there shouldn't be this trade off. And so that was just lingering for a while.
James McKinney: So I mean, let's think about the market at the time. And in fact, I'm going to ask you to help remind us of where the space is at that time because I think, you know, in 2007 and 2008, Whole Foods was around, and you're in New York, which I have to believe there were lots of different opportunities to buy really wholesome food and healthy food. And even to your point the less desired foods, the kales and the chia seeds and all the other things that most people don't think of when they think of wholesome nutrition. You know there were things out there, right? There were solutions out there. And I'm framing it up this way because for one person to have an idea for something and then to truly move on building a product to solve something there's either a singular moment that just drives them to pursue that. There's either a massive gap in the market that says, "This is my opportunity, this is my place." But there's usually something that is pushing us to say we are the ones that are going to solve this problem. So I guess my question to you is what was the gap? What was the big opportunity? And why did you think you were the one at that moment in time to solve it?
Elizabeth Stein: Yeah, so I think there are a couple of things that came into place. I would say, one, certainly, there was a gap in the marketplace. Raw foods at the time were the trend, and I would say that that was like the healthiest solution in the space. I loved having a raw food diet at the time. I would go in and out of it, but it wasn't to me like a long lasting solution. And so it didn't feel A. like something that was accessible and B. something that I could really tell my clients to go down that path of eating.
The big part for me came from being at the right place at the right time. And as I mentioned, I was doing a lot of triathlons. I had gone to the West Chester triathlon, which is right outside of New York, in the fall of 2008. I went there to promote my nutrition practice at the expo the day before the race, so everyone's there picking up their numbers walking around, and I thought, Oh, this will be a great place to get clients. And the night before the race, I decided that it was still only 2008 and it wasn't too sexy to be talking about health and wellness and holistic nutrition. So I needed something to entice people to come and chat with me. I ended up making a batch of blueberry muffins that incorporated all of these ingredients I'd learned about in school. And really, the intention was just that. However, that night, I was baking them with my mom, and I was going to hand out the recipe at the race. But I said to her that night, I was like, "Do you think I should hand out the recipe for this? Or for kale salad?" And we both were like, you know what, these are really good. Like, maybe this is going lead to something. Really without intention, but we did say that that night.
And anyway, went to the race the next day, and as it turned out, I didn't get anybody to be too interested in my nutrition practice, maybe one or two people. The vast majority were interested in where they could buy these delicious muffins that they were sampling. And so that really became the turning point, the a-ha moment. And you know, at the beginning of the day, I just told people, "They're not for sale, enjoy them, but here's my nutrition services." The end of the day, I was telling them to sign up for my newsletter, and I would let them know when the products would be available and where so really turning it on the spot and left that race trying to figure out okay let's see what I should do with this concept.
James McKinney: That's amazing that within that 10 hours of the expo is open if you will, that show time if you will, that you saw people asking the same question over and you just pivoted right away like okay, no one wants nutrition stuff so they want the product Oh yeah, I'm a product company sign up for to be notified when we launch. I love that and that's why I framed the question the way I did because there's always that type of moment I may not be as dramatic as that, as concise as that within just a few hours notice but there's always that thing that says wait a second, this is what I should be doing because of market demand, opportunity whatever case may be. So now you leave the expo and again, maybe now's a good time to frame up for my audience what Purely Elizabeth is for those who may not be aware of the brand.
Elizabeth Stein: So Purely Elizabeth is today a food company creating products using the most innovative nutrient rich ingredients while making tastes number one and are really our mission is to help you thrive on your wellness journey. So we do that today through food with granola, oatmeal and pancakes.
James McKinney: You had me at pancakes. So let's keep continuing on this journey as blueberry muffins are the reason we're talking about Purely Elizabeth today because of that expo. So you leave the expo with a with a list of people interested in this product. Were you thinking to yourself, okay, now I need to make blueberry muffins and figure out how to way to ship them so they're still safe? Or are you like I'm just going sell the recipe. What were you thinking leaving the expo?
Elizabeth Stein: So I left the Expo and I would say I was trying to think of my mind for a while of how do you have a fresh baked good and the logistics of distributing it. And so there was definitely a time where that was the forefront, and then it seemed very complex. And so I put it on the back burner for a little bit. And then came back to it and said you know what, it doesn't have to be a finished muffin, we could just sell a mix. Like let's not make it so complicated. So I ended up deciding that's go forward with a mix. And so I had gone to Fancy Food Show that year, and really walked the show and figured out what I wanted my packaging to look like. And I would say I still, when I went to launch which was about a year later, it was still very much like this is just going to be a side project and I will sell it to clients and friends and family and create this website. And we'll see where this goes. But I would say I did not have the business plan to start. And really just was trying to get my feet wet slightly with it. But not… I wasn't all in right away.
And so I ended up going back to that triathlon, so it was October of 2009. And still for my nutrition practice, so I still have pictures today. My nutrition practice was called Appetite For Healthy Living, and so I had a big banner sign of that at my booth. But I did have Purely Elizabeth muffin and pancake mix. We had three muffins and a pancake to sell at the race. And so we sold out and by we it was myself and my mom was who was helping. Sold out at the race and had great feedback. And then about three days later was contacted by Daily Candy, who I don't know if you remember them from back in the day, but they were the website and email newsletter that always had the latest products, restaurants, trends-
James McKinney: Yes, yes, yes. Okay.
Elizabeth Stein: They were huge. And so somehow they had found me. A friend of a friend had posted my website on Facebook and someone, you know, discovered it. And they featured me in their Everywhere newsletter blast, which in about three hours of the email blast going out, I had about $10,000 of orders.
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Elizabeth Stein: Probably had enough product to supply about $200 worth of orders.
James McKinney: But I mean, again, you had, to your credit, like you had an e commerce sites set up, right? You still were trying to push your nutrition practice. But you had the wherewithal to understand you know what I'm going to at least allow people to buy these things. Because when you start telling that Daily Candy story, I thought, Oh, she probably didn't have an e commerce site set up, so this is all traffic that wasn't going to benefit her. But you did. That's incredible, you know, because again, you were still trying to push your nutrition practice at this time.
Elizabeth Stein: Definitely. I had my nutrition practice website, and then I had figured out how to set up my own e commerce site. So I definitely, you know, like I said, I didn't have the business plan, but there was definitely a lot of intention behind it. And a lot that I was trying to put out there in what I thought was just going to be a side hustle.
James McKinney: When the Daily Candy email came out, and you had those $10,000 in orders. Were you still thinking side hustle?
Elizabeth Stein: No, I was not. I remember vividly being on the subway. I lived on the Upper West Side and I was taking the subway down to see my sister on this incredibly exciting day. And I just remember getting on the subway and seeing order after order coming through with my email notifications and just hysterical crying that I just felt so deeply in my gut that my life was about to change. And I knew it. I just like I get chills even thinking about it right now just knowing that this was about to start a long time long term business.
James McKinney: You know I want to talk about that subway ride, the moment you talk about getting chills. Was it that feeling you had in your gut that this was all going to change for you and things were become very different? If you were to try to identify what it was that impacted you so deeply what do you think it was?
Elizabeth Stein: I mean, I think that it was it was knowing that I had always dreamt of having my own business. And that at the same time, as I had finished this program, I was working with clients trying to help their overall health and wellness, it was the intersection of this dream of having my own business, along with this capability to affect so many people's health and wellness beyond my 20 clients that I had. It was like, take this vision and mission that I had of helping people, and now we could do this on a way grander scale, and certainly wasn't going to be one on one coaching. But it was going to start with food. And that's how we think about it today is helping our consumers on their wellness journey, starting with that foundation of what you're putting in your body, but then helping them in so many other areas of their life as well.
James McKinney: I asked that question because there are, I mean of the 125 founder stories, each one of them has a chills moment, if you will, like a part where the hair on their back of the neck stands up a bit, and they just, they get weepy eyed thinking about that moment. And when I when I ask similar questions like that, like what was it about that moment, similar to what you said is like that intersection, right? I look at that moment as like validation. You know, I look at it from the standpoint of you are so passionate about helping people's health. And again, this is for any founder that I've interviewed, they're so passionate about whatever it was, but for you, you were so passionate about helping people's health and providing for them, and then inadvertently, you come across this product idea. And people are desiring this product idea. And now you start to see all the things that you're so passionate about, and how you're able to help the masses. And it just validates all the hours of sleeplessness, all the hours of hardship, and work and effort, all the hours you've poured into it in this moment.
And like those are the things that I love about entrepreneurship is when the founder, when the entrepreneur has that moment where there's a validation moment, too. Because there's lots of hardship moments, there are lots of painful moments. And it's like hearing that validation moment is so powerful for all of those people listening, because it's not just a… and I want people to hear this like, right, yeah, it's amazing to have 10,000 orders on a Shopify account or whatever ecommerce platform was, like to have all these orders of $10,000 in orders come in. That is amazing because we look at it like, wow, look, I have a lot of orders. But it's so much more than that, depending upon the stage that you're in. And for you on that subway, going to meet your sister, like you were getting just every notification, every email was a validation point, like you have something that people are wanting. And now you have a solution and a way to get it to more people than you ever possibly could before with your nutrition practice. And I absolutely love I love that story. And now, you know, again, it all started with blueberries. But blueberry muffins, I should say. And yet that's not in your product line right now. Correct?
Elizabeth Stein: Correct.
James McKinney: So when you start refining what Purely Elizabeth is from a nutrition and health product, what was your first… it sounded like the pancake mix might have been your first real Purely Elizabeth product? Is that correct?
Elizabeth Stein: So the muffin and pancake mix is what I initially launched with. And then the granola is really then what took off. But I will say the muffin and pancake mix is what I went to Expo East with for the first time. So about a year after selling solely online and a couple of local natural food stores, I decided to go to Expo East. And it was a very, I would say early on decision to go but I felt like you know I'd rather spend the money upfront to decide if this is really something beyond e commerce Daily Candy because certainly e commerce in 2009 was very different than today's. It's certainly not something I would have held my hat on. So went to that Expo East in 2010 with the muffin and pancake mixes and just had phenomenal feedback really on the product, the packaging the brand. And that gave me again, that validation point to say, Okay, now I've not only had interest from consumers, but now buyers are giving validation to the product.
And I think to your earlier point, you know, there was just such a hole in the category. And so I think we got that initial recognition from Daily Candy in the first place because it was so unique. No one was using these ingredients. I mean, I remember being at Expo that first year explaining what coconut sugar was, explaining what chia seeds were. So we were really standing out for what was different and unique. And the next product was the granola. And that actually was an accident, also. So I've had so many parts of this business that has just been kind of the right time and right moments.
James McKinney: How was the granola an accident?
Elizabeth Stein: So I truth be told was never granola eater. I had never made granola in my life. And I was living in New York, it was the winter time. It was a cold Sunday afternoon and something, I don't know to this day what it was because at the time it didn't seem significant that morning, but something had piqued my interest. Maybe I was on Pinterest to make a batch of granola. And so I got off the couch after being on Pinterest, and I made this batch of granola. My mom was in town visiting and she was a huge granola connoisseur, like knew every product on the market. And so she tasted this fresh batch of granola that came out of the oven. And she said to me, "This needs to be your next product. I have never tasted a granola that tastes like this. This is phenomenal." And as it turns out, that was our original granola, which is our number one SKU. And I did not change the recipe from that first day that I made it in my apartment.
James McKinney: How many years has it been now?
Elizabeth Stein: That was probably 2011, so 10 years.
James McKinney: 10 years ago. You know, you can start to hear the building story of Purely Elizabeth. You talked about the wholesale, you talked about an additional SKU with granola. And at the time, you're right D to C was not nearly as big as it is now. Now D to C is huge. Amazon was definitely super relevant at the time. I don't know if you were on Amazon in the early days, or if you even consider Amazon in the early days. Actually, did you?
Elizabeth Stein: No. It's funny you say that because I would love to jog my memory back to the beginning of even like had I tried to get on Amazon. But it definitely was a little bit of time until we got on Amazon.
James McKinney: So you hear the building of it and up until this point we haven't talked about the financing of all of it. Are you bootstrapped the whole way?
Elizabeth Stein: We pretty much were. I was really fortunate to have family helped to invest the little bit of money that we did put into the business. And really, I remember my mom, as I said in the beginning, she was a huge helper for me and supporter. And she had said to my dad early on, like, "I'm telling you this business is going somewhere. Whatever we can do to support this vision let's do this because I believe in it." And my dad was a little bit reluctant at first, but she definitely convinced him that, you know, this was going somewhere.
James McKinney: Did that add any pressure or burden to you knowing that family was so… they believed in you so deeply, and we're putting their own money into it that now it's like, this can't fail, like this has to… Like not only your own internal pressure, but now you kind of got the, again not intentionally, right, the family loves you, they support you, they want to be a part of it. But there is some pressure that comes with that. Did you feel any of that?
Elizabeth Stein: I think I did. But at the same time, I'm a super competitive person. So it also kind of fueled me to do that much better. And to make this you know, my parents were believing in me and I was going make that come true. So it definitely fueled the desire to propel the business. And while stressful, I think it worked in a more positive way for me.
James McKinney: And was that the only investment capital you've ever taken?
Elizabeth Stein: No. So a couple of years after that, I did take outside investment from 301 Inc, the General Mills.
James McKinney: What was happening in the business at that time where you knew I'm going need more money in order to scale this? Where was the business at, what was it doing?
Elizabeth Stein: So we had really come to this inflection point in the business that the previous year, I had moved the business out from New York to Boulder. And we were at the point where we were just starting to really see success in the marketplace across the board. So we had just gotten, we were regional in Whole Foods and had just gotten a national plus out into every store. We had started to get into Wegmans and to Fresh Market and then Target was interested. So it was kind of this snowball of recognition. And through that year had really identified that, you know, we now had somewhat of the next level foundation and in order to really build and scale on that needed not only the financial resources, but I think really the strategic resources to say I need some other people who are experts to really help take the business to the next level.
James McKinney: Were you concerned as you grew it? And again, thinking back to your early days on how you actually manufactured everything, were you concerned that because of the space you play in all the, you know, again the chia seeds, the coconut sugar? I mean, we're not talking things that are manufactured in mass volume, you're talking very healthy, wholesome real food products. Were you concerned that there was going to reach a point where you just couldn't meet demand, because of the ingredients that you were leveraging?
Elizabeth Stein: You know, when we started out, I guess it was a double edge, because when we started out those ingredients were, like I said, not being used in products. So there were very few importers who were bringing them in to the country. But at the same time, that said, I was using such a small quantity, that initially that wasn't a scare. I would say as time went on, it definitely was an area of concern of what that would look like. However, as we grew, so did the rest of the market. So know, that interest for chia seeds, the interest for organic gluten free oats, you know, I think back to when we first started. And interestingly, organic, gluten free oats did not exist. Or perhaps there was one farm who was supplying them. And so initially, our organic search, we didn't have an organic certification, because we could not get organic gluten free oats. And a couple of years into making granola, the market caught up with the amount of interest and demand that there was and so organic, gluten free oats became available. So it's definitely been a scaling that as our demand has increased, so has the market I think.
James McKinney: Now again I ask this question from obviously not knowing all the data and all the statistics, but when you when you think of the space you play in, are you top five in that space? Are you top 10? Like top 20? I mean, where do you rank in that market?
Elizabeth Stein: So in granola, we're the number one brand in the natural channel. And we're aiming to be number one in conventional. We're not quite there yet. But definitely, you know, in that top 10 for sure.
James McKinney: Number one in granola. And it's all because you were not a granola eater, and you had a Sunday rainy afternoon on Pinterest. These are the stories that I love. These stories, I love all of them. The someone had kind of dubbed the term the happy accidents-
Elizabeth Stein: Absolutely.
James McKinney: And I absolutely love that. But also in addition to the ingredients, part of one of the challenges or concerns, again, because your mission is to provide people with healthy alternatives and for a healthy lifestyle. But also one of the things you've emphasized is that it tastes really good as well. Right? Well, again, as you scale, there becomes a challenge with keeping the flavor and the manufacturing process consistent. And as you solve that within your manufacturing world, were there moments where things were slipping a little bit and you had to come in and tighten the reins on a manufacturing because now you're scaling, let's say your granola, and the flavor was slipping a bit because of quality?
Elizabeth Stein: Definitely. I mean that's one of the areas that keeps me up at night still is at the end of the day, we have an incredible product and incredibly delicious product with amazing ingredients that cost a lot. And it therefore costs the consumer a lot and so to have that trust with a consumer that they are going to get an incredible bag of granola every time is still a stress because you know, we're still using small batch production. And you never … if takes their eye off it, you'd be surprised how finicky. It's really an artisan made product. And so over the years you know we've definitely had our challenges in that, and that's been a really big learning. I think a place when we took that initial investment too was at a stage of from a quality standpoint where I felt like, Hey, we needed to have experts in our camp when it came to ensuring that quality and specs and all of those things. We're super excited though moving forward, that we have some new processes in place that are actually going to make even though you would think that now we're getting bigger, it would go the other way. But we're actually getting new processes in place that are going to make the quality even more consistent. So hopefully not having as many sleepless nights from that perspective.
James McKinney: That's awesome. You know, I had a conversation with Gabby, and his last name slips me, but he was co founder of Magic Spoon, and he made the comment in the health space, that there's quality, price, and flavor. And you're never going to get 100% of all three, there's going to be some give or take in some area. As you as you nod with affirmation of that truth, when it comes to Purely Elizabeth, which of those three pillars do you lean heaviest in? Quality, flavor or price? Which one do you focus on a lot?
Elizabeth Stein: It's such a hard debate. And we're going through that right now, as we're looking at some new product categories to go into. And unfortunately, you can't today make a product with all of these amazing ingredient attributes and sometimes that hit a price point that you want. And so that's a really tough thing. But ultimately, I would say at the foundation of it is taste for us. Like if we can't make a great tasting product, it doesn't matter what ingredients are in it, what the cost is, if it tastes terrible, but is $1 that's not going to serve too many people.
James McKinney: That's true. That's true, especially given your mission. I keep going back to the fact that you want to provide healthy solutions for people to live a healthy life.
Elizabeth Stein: Yeah, we want to make it easy and effortless.
James McKinney: Yeah. You know, if you were in the front of let's say a Boston University class on launching a CPG product and you only had, let's say, five minutes to kind of give someone an overview of the key things that they need to know when launching a CPG product. For someone who has done it well as scaled well, and has stayed true to the mission of what is Purely Elizabeth about, if you were in this moment, what would be your I don't know top three, top five key things that all those in attendance would need to know and always keep in the forefront of their mind when it comes to building a CPG brand?
Elizabeth Stein: I think that a couple of things are really important when launching into CPG. For me, not knowing a lot of things, I think was one of my biggest areas of success. And I say that because so many entrepreneurs, whether in CPG, or any other industry get so tied up in making everything perfect, like you don't launch the product, you don't move forward, because not everything is exactly lined up. Or you don't have the business plan completely together so you're not ready to go out and talk to that investor or talk to that resource who might be helpful. And so for me, when I launched I didn't have a business plan. And therefore I wasn't having to sit around making everything perfect. And I think that really worked to my advantage just to be able to go into it headfirst and naive. And had I known I think a little bit more about the industry, there would have been a lot of questions and a lot of things that probably would have held me back, would have said, You know what, I might need this answer before I take this next step. And instead, I was really just able to dive in headfirst and really ready just to figure out, hey, how do I figure out all these next things on the list that need to happen in order to move the business forward?
I think another key thing in starting a CPG business is also understanding it's going to cost a lot more money than you think. So I remember early on, I had met with a broker. I didn't even know what a broker was. I didn't even know what a distributor was. But I met with a broker who said sign up with me, and it's going to cost you know, a million dollars. But you I will get you into Whole Foods nationally, and this is how much it's going to likely end up costing. And that wasn't certainly the fees to get into Whole Foods. But you know, getting to that scale as the business. And so I think that's a great lesson. Again, whether it's CPG Elsewhere, but it's always going to cost more money and take longer to come to profitability than you would think. And so a good part to remember.
I think another big tip that I always like to say is surrounding yourself with supportive people. You know, one of the biggest things for me in the beginning was that I not only had a family who was super supportive of my mission, and my vision and dream for the business, but I was also coming out of nutrition school, where much of their program was about fundamentally going after your dream and supporting people to do that, whatever that might be. And so in the beginning stages of starting a business, I think it can be really discouraging to have friends or family who might be questioning what is it that that you're doing, and is this really possible, and that can be a really difficult thing to go through. And so making sure that you're surrounded by individuals who are supportive and there to be there as a sounding board.
I think a really important thing is being able to be with that consumer, hear what the feedback is that they have, and then pivot the business. So, you know, early on, it was there that I was trying to sell my nutrition practice, and then heard that people were far more interested in blueberry muffins than nutrition. And so that was an immediate a-ha, and really a pivot for me. And later on, as we kind of got out of the baking mix category into granola it was also that I was demoing in a lot of natural food stores every single weekend, and hearing that consumer feedback where I was in New York City, and a lot of people said, I don't use my oven, I store my shoes in my oven. And so there was an early learning of you know what, the likelihood of people going through muffin max regularly is going to be a challenge. And so when granola came to be it quickly also pivoted the brand, because here was a solution that people were buying and eating every day. And so really, that consumer insight was invaluable throughout the journey.
James McKinney: One of the things that you did so well, and maybe it's because of your experience that you had with the holding company, or the handbag company as well, is you talk about the expos. You went to where some buyers were. And for a lot of people, they may not even know about these things. And of course, COVID might have changed a few things where maybe there aren't going to be as many expos. At some point we're going to get back to normal and I think the expos are going to pick back up again, because buyers need to find new products? I mean that's just a part of the how the market works. If you were to think of just, I don't know, maybe your top five favorite expos or food conventions, or wherever buyers are, for those who aren't aware of this, where are some places that they should be going? Where are the buyers for them to bring their products to?
Elizabeth Stein: So I am a big fan of trade shows. I know, a lot of people weren't even pre COVID who would get sick of them. But for me, trade shows are the best and it no matter what the show is there's always some nugget and that's how still to this day how I go in. It's like you necessarily aren't going to go in and say okay, we're going to get Walmart, but you never know that one conversation that's going to happen, that's going to lead to the next phase of the business. So we always attend both Natural Products Expo East and Expo West, which happen in March and September. And then both of the Fancy Food shows that happen in New York in the summer and January in San Francisco.
James McKinney: So those are your those are your go to trade shows that you're always a part of?
Elizabeth Stein: Those are and then we also do all the distributor shows as well. But at that point, you would have to be a product within distribution to be able to go to the shows. So anybody can attend those four major food shows.
James McKinney: That's awesome. That was awesome. Do you do you see as you attend now being Purely Elizabeth a brand that all those people are wanting to emulate at some point. When you think, that you are the brand that they have on their shelves saying, this is where we want to be this is how we this is we want our roadmap to be like who are those brands that you look to and to say this is who we want to be? Now whether it be from a brand and food perspective or whether it be from a leadership perspective, who are the people and the brands that you look to saying this is who I want us to be?
Elizabeth Stein: I mean, there's so many brands I would say and I love taking little bits of nugget from different brands, and I would say even some of our competitors like Nature's Path, for example. I think they're a family run business and have a lot of really admirable notes about the business that I truly admire. I think someone like a Primal Kitchen, I look to just from a founder story where Mark Sisson came into the business, really from his own health journey, and again, wanting to spread that health and wellness message and just how well that brand has done over its time and, and growth phase as well. Or a Perfect Bar CFA, some of my favorite brands.
James McKinney: Is the health space hyper competitive, or is it more collaborative and competitive?
Elizabeth Stein: It's so much more collaborative. So that was something really, in the beginning, having come from the handbag industry, I remember going to my trade shows for that, and it felt very much like you would think it would be. It was very Devil Wears Prada. It was not warm and fuzzy vibes. And you could feel that energy. And then I remember walking my first Fancy Food Show, not as Purely Elizabeth, just as I was doing research and was like, God, this is such a different feel. And I actually met Justin from Justin's at that show. And he could not have been nicer. He gave me his cell phone number and said, like, call me if you have questions. I was later on looking for a co Packer, and that was actually what initially brought me out to Boulder was from that. And so really, from day one felt that this industry was so collaborative, and at the end of the day, most brands are all on that same mission. Everyone is trying to provide better food and really move the natural food movement forward.
James McKinney: I love that. And I love that you said Justin gave you his cell phone, because I say it all the time entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So many people are so hung up on the idea that so-and-so is not reachable. Like there's no way I can get a few minutes with so-and-so's time to ask a question. It's like, you know again, most people who reach out to me on LinkedIn, I'm going to give them a few minutes. Like, it's just the reality of it. Every founder I've ever reached out to it has given me at least a few minutes, if not a full episode. We want to see other brands succeed because we know, we above all, anybody else know how hard this is. And so if we can somehow provide some encouragement, or some tactics and strategies, to move them to the next level, it'd be great to be a part of that story.
And you've been so remarkable when it comes to giving your time to this show, and I want to honor your time and at the same time want to honor my listeners time. And there's three questions that they always look forward to, and I know they do, because I hear about it all the time in the DMs afterward. And the first one is about entrepreneurship at a 30,000 foot view. You know, there is this idea out there because of everything that's accessible. Anyone can set up a Shopify store. Anyone can be a seller on Amazon, or Etsy or anywhere else. And so there's this idea that anybody can be an entrepreneur. But I don't think entrepreneur is really defined well by the media, if you will. So for you, do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur?
Elizabeth Stein: I do not think that. I think that you have to have a certain personality inside you to be able to be an entrepreneur. And part of that is someone who I think is definitely willing to take a lot of risks. That's a huge piece of it, and have that determination, but that risk taking, I don't think that's something you can be taught. I don't think that's something that you can change. It's really such a big piece of taking the leap to get to that next phase.
James McKinney: I love it. I love it. I absolutely agree. I mean, again, we're not all Blue Angels pilots because some of us are going to throw up in the cockpit. Like, that's just the reality of it. Right? Not everyone's got the stomach for it, so I absolutely agree. You know, the second question is about perspective. And you've spoken a little bit to it. So I'm excited to hear your response to it. But again, there is this narrative out there that entrepreneurship is a Lone Ranger story. It's just you and a couch and it's all on your effort. There is it's either you or it's not going to happen. And I just don't find that to be a complete 360 degree view of it. There are stories like that out there. I mean there are the, I don't want to say overnight successes because there's always years in the making, but there are those who are just do it by themselves. You know, again, Facebook is one of them, Mark Zuckerberg's story he's Lone Ranger, you know Renegade if you will. But, you know, I find those to be the anomaly and unfortunately media loves the anomaly, not the norm. And so when you think back to your entire entrepreneurial journey, who are all the people that you point to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to where you today?
Elizabeth Stein: Yeah, I think it definitely could not have been done alone. I think certainly recognizing yourself for what you have done and that initial day one leap. But of course, you wouldn't have had that day one leap without the people in your camp who were rooting for you. So certainly, as I've talked about my parents being such an anchor, and you know, my mom, and then eventually my dad, after she told him this is going to be real. But my mom was really a huge part of the business at the beginning. So not only giving that emotional support, but my mom was calling Whole Foods, every single location saying, "Do you want to bring in this product?" She's still doing some sales for us today, actually. She came to all the trade shows with me at the beginning, and she was coming to the co-packer, so she was a huge part of my support system. And I could not have been where I am today without her. And then actually, a couple of my initial employees who are still with me now today have been so impactful. And you know, I thank them for day one, taking the risk that I was working out of my apartment, and they put trust in me to believe in this mission and being along for the ride and then move from New York to Colorado, and be part of that journey. And so I think a lot of those early on employees who really believed it, sell it, and who are today thriving.
James McKinney: I love that I absolutely love it. Again, I love it because I want people to hear that even some of the most successful founders brands out there, they had people in their corner. They had people they leaned in on that they went to. Again we didn't get a chance to cover many of the hardship stories and those times where you had to lean in on someone else for guidance and help because you couldn't solve a specific problem. But I know you have those stories, I know you have those reference points. And so because that's just part of what the journey is. And those are the things that I love putting out there.
But our time does come to an end, this is not a… I'm not Joe Rogan, we're not going to go for four hours in an episode. And so for our final question, I would love to provide a chance for all my listeners to have a one on one moment with you, to ask their specific founder questions to you when it comes to whatever it is that they're building. But it's an unreasonable ask due to scale. And so in this moment, right now, what would you like to say to the listening audience, when it comes to the idea that maybe some of these people had something that they're losing because of COVID? It just destroyed their business, they couldn't recover and pivot. Or maybe it's the founder who has had a business for 10 years but cash flow is always a challenge and a problem. And payroll is always that big obstacle, they just aren't sure they'd be able to solve for. But it's just constantly a bane of their existence. Or maybe it's the founder who has a nine to five and a book full of dreams and ideas and something they want to move on, but there's something in the back of their mind, just telling them you can't do this, whether because of age. Maybe because of the narrative entrepreneurship is that it's a young person's game. Maybe it's because they're in their 50s, thinking I can't do this, I'm not young and my ship has sailed, or they have too many financial responsibilities. Whatever it is, whatever persona you would like to speak to, what would you say to them as we close out your episode?
Elizabeth Stein: I would say, well, maybe two things. I would say that really getting to your core of understanding what's important to you. And then knowing that it is a journey, and it is going to be a roller coaster. And someone at the beginning said that to me, it was actually Justin. And it stuck with me so much because the entrepreneurial journey is a roller coaster. There's going to be absolute highs and absolute lows, and really learning to not take those highs and lows too seriously. But finding that even keel and know that you know in times where we've had a really horrible year this past year, but sticking with it knowing in your gut that that's what you want, and that you're going to be able to get out on the other side.
James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value Elizabeth Stein brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And in fact, if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So for that reason, I hope every single one of you will visit purelyelizabeth.com and give a product or two a chance to earn a spot within your daily routine. Like I said at the top of the show their granola is top 10 in all categories. So regardless of what your dietary preference is, you're probably going to love it. So maybe you start there of all the products. All I'm saying is that because she delivered so much value to us today, visit purelyelizabeth.com and show her some love and appreciation for what she delivered to us. And of course, we're going to include a link in our show notes, you have easy access. And now for my personal ask.
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