Investing in the Future of Food: Lily’s CEO shares strategies to ‘run your own race’

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Investing in the Future of Food Entrepreneurship startups

As more entrepreneurs adopt an iterative, fail-fast approach to innovation it is increasingly tempting to compare businesses and products as a way to measure success, but according to Jane Miller, the CEO of Lily’s Sweets, a better strategy to remain on track is to focus inwardly on achieving key goals.

“I have kind of adopted the phrase ‘to run your own race,’ and I got that from Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild, but she also has a book called Tiny Beautiful Things and in her book … the piece of advice she has for someone is don’t compare yourself to others. Really, if you are running a race, don’t look at the time of the person next to you. Look at your own time and what was the goal you set for yourself,”​ Miller advises.

She explains that in the natural products industry it is hard not to look at breakout brands that have been snapped up by established companies for millions of dollars or to see the success of the latest, greatest plant-based company and want to emulate their strategies. However, she stressed, what works for one company might not work for another depending on their long-term goals, their office cultures and values and, of course, differences between categories.

“Instead, say, what are the goals that I have for myself? What is really important to me as an entrepreneur? Am I trying to change the world by changing their eating habits? Am I trying to just make a profitable business? Am I trying to create a living for myself and my family where I can be the leader?”​ she said.

Entrepreneurs with clear priorities will more easily stay grounded and be able to focus on achieving their goals, she added.

This is one way Miller said she has helped Lily’s, which makes sugar-free confections, quadruple its business and grow from a family-run three person team to a 30-member company in the past year and half.

Create a dream board

Miller acknowledges the idea of running your own race may be easier said than done, which is why each year she sharpens her colored pencils and creates a dream board to help her prioritize – and remember – her goals throughout the coming 12 months.

“I draw pictures of what I want to have happen and what is important to me,”​ said Miller, who added she then hangs it in her home office where she sees it every day.

Miller says her dream board includes personal pictures, such as a drawing of her dogs and horses with hearts around them, as well as professional ones, such as a picture of Lily’s. By including images of both work and life goals, she explains that she is more likely to find balance and ensure she has the energy to tackle what comes her way.

Set clear professional goals

In the coming years, Miller said she hopes that Lily’s will continue to expand distribution and ultimately make the company’s better-for-you confections, which are made with stevia, more mainstream.

“One of my big passion areas is how do we get natural and organic foods to be affordable and accessible, and I think Lily’s is one of those products that really has the opportunity to span a number of demographic groups,”​ said Miller, pointing to the recent launch of the company’s baking chips into Walmart as an example.

She adds that she hopes this strategy will help drive top line growth, create strong gross margins and secure double-digit EBITDA.

Miller’s second professional goal is to ensure that as Lily’s continues to grow that each employee that joins the team considers it their best job.

“We have a really young team, and for many people it is their first or second job, and I would like this job, when everybody moves on to their next opportunity, that they say this was the best experience. That this was a well-run business. It was a business where people cared. It was doing something that really helped people’s diets by being able to cut back on sugar, and it makes a little bit of difference in the world,”​ she said.

Keep your bucket full to avoid becoming drained

Miller also recommends entrepreneurs who are trying to run their own race surround themselves with people who are supportive and to make time for personal restoration so that when their companies or employees are in need, they have something to give.

“I kind of think of it like a bucket that the water gets pulled out of, and the best way to be able to keep the bucket full is to be doing things that you love and that make you feel good about yourself, and surrounding yourself with people that feel good about you,​” she explained.

For example, she noted that when her mother was sick with cancer she was able to offer care and support by simultaneously caring for herself by spending time with her horses, which she found restorative.

Ultimately, she said, long-term success comes not from pivoting based on competitors’ successes and failures, but by making changes – or staying the course – based on your performance and goals.

“If you are having trouble running your own race, if you are comparing yourself to too many people, take the time to sit down and say, why is that and what can I do to change this situation,”​ including knowing “what are your hot buttons, what your panic buttons are and what your success buttons are,”​ she said.


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