The celebrity-backed brand – which is built around a social mission: You buy our product, we’ll donate a live-saving pack of food to a child in need – is now in 16,000 stores from Starbucks to Target, and has expanded beyond nut and seed bars into kids’ snacks and collagen bites.
And its clear message was precisely what enabled it to punch above its weight in the early days, Devlin told FoodNavigator-USA at the Expo West show last week.
“How can we compete with the likes of KIND Bar or Clif Bar or Kellogg as a tiny little company? We compete because we’re saving lives.
“[Social impact] is like a product attribute… People aren’t just looking at what’s in this thing. This thing is just a widget, it could be a snack bar, it could be a drink, a car, a computer or anything; they are asking how was it manufactured, does it use Fairtrade ingredients, what’s the social impact, is it sustainable, and as a startup, you can use that to break through the noise.”
'We’re growing really fast, we’re now in over 16,000 retail locations'
He added: “Can other startups do this? They can and I say they should. This isn’t a trend or a fad. Having a strong social and vocal social impact, not only does it do good... it’s also good for business. We’re growing really fast, we’re now in over 16,000 retail locations, doubling and tripling year over year in terms of sales growth.
“We’ve got our classic line of bars, where we continue to add new flavors; we’ve just rolled out our new school safe kids bars that are low sugar and taste phenomenal; and we’ve got our new collagen bites that take us out of the bar segment and into ingestible beauty, which is obviously a really hot trend, but not something we see as a fad.
“We see people looking at wellness in a holistic way, ingesting ingredients to help improve skin, hair and nails with not just the collagen but superfoods in there and low sugar, low calorie, it’s really an opportunity to grow impact and reach consumers in new ways with really exciting functional products.”
“The way people are thinking about consumption has fundamentally changed. People want to reflect their values in everything they do.
"What we say to our consumers is that you’re not just a consumer, you’re a change agent. By spending your money on this rather than that, you can improve society.”
Paul Yoo, CEO, This Saves Lives
The big takeaway? Hire people who know what they’re doing
While the celebrity factor (Devlin and co-founders Kristen Bell, Ravi Patel and Todd Grinnell are all actors) has generated PR opportunities and opened doors most start-ups can only dream of, the doors will close in your face pretty quickly if your products don't deliver, pointed out Devlin, who was also acutely aware that appearing on Grey’s Anatomy was not great preparation for running a food company.
“Because we didn’t [have a background in the food industry], we were very open and honest with ourselves, and we asked a lot of questions… We had the vision and the dream, but we brought a great team in to help us execute it. We didn’t have any ego going into it.”
‘It was madness: shoeboxes and excel spreadsheets’
“The big takeaway?” he told Expo West delegates during an onstage chat at the show last Friday. “Hire people who know what they’re doing... We didn’t have a CFO or anyone with a strong finance background for the first year, it was madness: shoeboxes and excel spreadsheets.
“I remember Kristen [Bell] went on the Tonight Show and talked about the brand for a second, and it was like, boom! with all the calls and emails this [generated]… and we didn’t have the processes in place to keep up with the growth.”
‘We’re talking to parents whose kids are dying because they don’t have food’
Bringing in Paul Yoo as CEO in January 2017 was also one of the smartest moves the founders made, added Grinnell: “Paul came in as an advisor, and we just slowly sucked him in and now he runs the company.
“We were probably delusional in that we thought that we could do this, but malnutrition is 100% treatable, and we saw these kids dying.”
He added: “I have a new baby, he’s nine months old and when he get’s a cold, the world stops, he’s suffering and I have to fix it, yet we’re talking to parents whose kids are dying because they don’t have food.”
Social impact: When you claim you’re saving lives, you damn well better save lives
Devlin added: “We knew right from the start that the thing we needed to do was make sure that our social impact was transparent, accountable, and incredibly efficient, so rather than become our own charity we needed to partner with the best charities.
“One of our main partners, Action against Hunger, is operating in over 100 countries and they are a leading force behind eradicating childhood malnutrition, so we know that when someone buys one of our products, the food that’s being donated is going exactly where it needs to go… because when you claim you’re saving lives, you damn well better save lives…”
Each time you buy a This Saves Lives product, the company donates a packet of PlumpyNut (a paste made from peanuts, milk powder, sugar, vegetable oils, vitamins and minerals) to a child in need via non-profit partners, said co-founder Ravi Patel (speaking to us last year).
"Social enterprise, I think, when run well, can serve as a marketing line item. But in order to get to a reasonable ROI on that expense, you have to have a certain scale to your business, and getting to that point is extremely difficult, especially when the things you are donating are really expensive.
“But we’ve created an ecosystem of like-minded people who know that it feels good to do good, but that it can also be really good business, because consumers today more than ever before wear food brands like they do clothing brands, it’s part of their identity, it’s about voting with your wallet.”
This Saves Lives (originally This Bar Saves Lives) was born after actors Ryan Devlin and Todd Grinnell met children suffering from acute malnutrition during a visit to Liberia in 2009 and witnessed first-hand how effective PlumpyNut emergency food packets could be in tackling the problem.
The concept was simple (buy a bar, feed a child), said Devlin, who – along with Grinnell - spent the better part of a year wrestling with granola, fruit, binders and nut butters before teaming up consultancy JPG Resources (run by former Kashi exec Jeff Grogg) to work out how to turn their idea into a commercially viable business.
Launched in 2013 via a direct to consumer website, This Saves Lives ... has since picked up business in 16,000 locations including Starbucks, Whole Foods, Amazon, Thrive Market, Target, Jewel, HyVee, and Delta Airlines, among others. It also has a growing ecommerce operation.