Founded by Eric Bonin – who had his Eureka moment while attempting to eat a cup of yogurt in the car on the way to a meeting and spilling it all over himself – Pillars drinkable Greek yogurt is the only drinkable option with no added sugar, claims Bonin, who sweetens his products with organic natural flavor extracts and organic stevia.
“When I first looked at the Greek market I could see that price was already trending down, with all these 10 for 10 deals, and there wasn’t much differentiation, so I started thinking about how to make a product that’s more convenient, lower in sugar, and higher in protein,” added Bonin, who managed strategic initiatives at dairy company Commonwealth Dairy before taking the plunge and starting his own business.
I did the deliveries myself until I got to about 20 or 25 stores
The go-to-market strategy began with cold-calling stores in the Boston area one by one, with Bonin delivering his wares personally in a rented van from upstate New York.
His first customers were two Whole Foods stores in the Boston area in late September 2016, which were a great proving ground for his target audience: “Within a couple of days they had sold out, and each store they added, it was the same. I carried on doing the deliveries myself until I got to about 20 or 25 stores, and then I did a deal with UNFI.”
Today, Pillars [each 12oz bottle contains 18g protein, 5g sugar, and 3g fiber] is available at around 500+ stores up and down the East Coast at chains including Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Hannaford and Market Basket, and is gearing up for a national expansion in 2019.
Yogurt for kids!
The new whole milk 3.5oz Greek yogurt kids’ pouches, launching next year, contain 10g protein and 3g sugar (all naturally occurring), and contain pre- and probiotics, said Bonin. “We’ll have double the protein and 75% less sugar vs the leading brand.”
The branding is kid-focused and distinct from the drinkable line, he said. “It’s fun, playful and kid-focused, and it tastes delicious. We’ve found that kids have loved our original product, but a 12oz bottle wasn’t idea for a four-year old’s lunchbox, so we looked at a different format.”
Dairy: It’s a real dogfight
So what’s it like being a minnow swimming in a sea of sharks?
There’s no doubt there a big barriers of entry to new brands in the dairy aisles, said Bonin, and that you have to speculate – in a big way – before you can accumulate, which can be scary when you’re starting out.
“It’s an uphill battle, a real dogfight in the yogurt category. 80-90% of the space is controlled by a handful of companies [Danone, General Mills, Lactalis, Chobani].
“But we believe our products are differentiated and cater to the fast growing segment of consumers looking for cleaner ingredients and better-for-you functional nutrition’. Pillars is a top performing item in the drinkable category in all our accounts and more importantly, we have amazing customers who are incredibly loyal and supportive of our brand and our mission."
As for financing, Bonin has bootstrapped the business from the beginning using earnings he made from his day job as a consultant at Archway Group.
"I've spent the last five years growing both businesses side by side, but to take Pillars to the next steps of scale, the need for outside funding has become evident. We just recently started the fundraising process, meeting first with investors who have shown interest in the past."
Talk to as many people as possible
In dairy in particular, finding the right co-packer can be challenging, he added. “A lot of them have very prohibitive minimums, especially in dairy, there are probably more barriers to entry than any other category."
More generally, he said, "If I knew back then what I know now, there are certainly things I would have done differently, but I've tried to learn and learn fast from my many mistakes along the way... My approach is always to talk to as many people as possible that have done this before, both successfully and unsuccessfully, because there are lessons in both."
As for developing the elusive work-life balance, running two businesses at the same time has been "all-consuming," concedes Bonin, who observes that "I always joke that my kids right now are my six yogurt bottles... but it's been super fun and super rewarding."