Kristen Bell and Her Cofounders Built a Company to Save Lives. But Growing It Wasn't So Simple.
Four Hollywood actors had a big idea: Launch a snack bar and use the sales to help feed malnourished kids around the world. They had a big name, This Bar Saves Lives, for their company. And as they sat around their office -- which was really just one of their condos -- in the early days of the business, they dreamed up their biggest possible goals and wrote them on a chalkboard.
“We brainstormed what success, on the business side, would look like. I’m not talking about growth trajectory or EBITDA here -- I’m talking about wild indicators that would mean we’d made it,” says Ryan Devlin, one of the company’s cofounders. They wrote down three things: (1) Bars in the White House; (2) Bars in space; (3) Bars in Starbucks.
They’re still working on the first two. But with a little gumption, the third proved attainable -- and would force the company to rethink exactly what it is and who should even lead it.
This is often how it goes with mission-driven businesses. Their founders start with full hearts and eager plans, but not necessarily a full grasp on what it takes to scale their ambitions. Devlin admits it himself, and even sees it as a good thing. “We are a mission with a company, not a company with a mission,” he says. But regardless of whether a socially minded company is run by famous actors or obscure do-gooders, the reality of running a business will eventually take hold. And it would for This Bar Saves Lives, too.
But first: goal #3. Bars in Starbucks.
This Bar Saves Lives’ most famous cofounder is Kristen Bell, and as it turns out, she’s good at digging up email addresses. “You make weird contacts in this business,” she says. She found the email of Starbucks’ then-CEO, Howard Schultz, lurking in her inbox and wrote him: “I have a project you might be interested in, because I know [Starbucks’] values.” Schultz replied. A meeting was set up, and Bell and Devlin hopped on a plane to Seattle…though they weren’t entirely sure what they’d do when they arrived. Neither of them had pitched a product like this before.
But they did have one experience to fall back on. “We’re both actors,” she says. “We just acted like we had this job our whole lives. We’re really good in a room. And some of our charm comes from saying, ‘Feel free to give us advice.’ We went in with an open mind and open ears.”
Does it help having the likes of Kristen Bell on your team? Surely. But still, Starbucks gave the fledgling company the smallest of tests; it put the bars in its stores in two cities to see how they’d perform. Sales were promising. So Starbucks expanded the test, and expanded again until This Bar Saves Lives products were in every Starbucks in America.
“We were making incredible strides, but it was so messy,” Devlin says. “We were just growing. There wasn’t a focused strategy.”
And there it is: The do-good initiative had reached a wall. Now it was time to really build a business.
This Bar Saves Lives has an origin story straight out of Hollywood: A plucky private investigator and a loathsome criminal team up to end world hunger…
The plucky PI is, of course, Kristen Bell -- the titular gumshoe on the cult-loved drama Veronica Mars. Back in 2006, as she was filming the show, Devlin was cast to play her character’s college classmate (and would-be attacker) Mercer Hayes. “We were enemies on the show and became friends in real life,” she says over the phone from the Warner Bros. Studio lot in Burbank (where she and Devlin are in the middle of filming a Veronica Mars revival that will air later this year on Hulu).
A year later, Devlin took a humanitarian trip to Liberia with fellow actor Todd Grinnell. (You may know him from Netflix’s One Day at a Time reboot.) While there, they witnessed firsthand the effects of severe acute malnutrition on the country’s children. But they also learned of an antidote that aid organizations are constantly fund-raising for: a packet of peanut paste called Plumpy’Nut, also known as a Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), which the United Nations has recognized as a useful source of nutrition for severely malnourished people.
Devlin came away wondering how he could fund the distribution of Plumpy’Nut and settled on a buy-one-give-one kind of organization -- a model popularized by brands like Toms and Warby Parker, where for every unit of a product sold, a donation is made to people in need. He thought about it for years. “One late night, Ryan was just rambling about how there were no sustainable for-profit business models working to end malnutrition,” Bell says. She eagerly offered her help. “Managing a family and anticipating everyone’s needs somewhat sparked this entrepreneurial spirit that I feel I now possess. I lean in quite a bit, and I’ve made a lot of contacts and have a lot of knowledge I don’t want to go to waste.”
Devlin and Grinnell also recruited Ravi Patel, the star and director of Meet the Patels -- and the only This Bar Saves Lives cofounder with actual business experience, having worked as an investment banker and cofounder of a poker-focused media company. The foursome started sketching out the way to build the company Devlin had long envisioned.
Their mission was clear. “We are first and foremost driven by eradicating child malnutrition,” Devlin says. But they needed a product that matched that mission. “We didn’t want to sell a necklace, because maybe you only buy one necklace in your lifetime. We wanted something that can continually connect people with the good that they’re able to do around the world.”
That’s what led them to the idea of granola-style snack bars -- something people buy regularly anyway. They decided that one bar purchased would equal one packet of a locally sourced RUTF donated to partners like Action Against Hunger and Second Mile Haiti.
Responsibilities were divided naturally. Devlin handled sales and served as CEO. Patel handled finances and marketing. Grinnell oversaw product and design. And Bell, who could garner the most press attention, would represent the company in public.
Patel offered up his condo as temporary headquarters for the bootstrapped company, creating makeshift workstations out of pushed-together nightstands and end tables. With no culinary experience to speak of, they embarked upon a yearlong prototyping phase, creating homemade bars in their own kitchens.
“We made bars that were ridiculous,” Grinnell recalls. Some iterations used such high-quality ingredients that the founders realized it would cost $40 a bar to produce at scale; others just tasted awful. “One day we made a whole cookie sheet of granola and it was like a rock.”
Slowly, they got closer. They nearly perfected a wild-blueberry pistachio bar (which would go on to become one of their best-selling flavors). Then they discovered there was an easier way. “A friend who worked in the food business mentioned the term food scientist,” Grinnell says. “We said, ‘What the heck is a food scientist?’ ” A referral led them to JPG Resources, a food-and-beverage consultancy that connected them with, yes, a food scientist, in addition to a chef who whipped up a fully baked end product that was approved by the team’s most discerning taste tester.
“We’ve done two rounds of flavors, and I was pregnant during both,” Bell says. “When you are pregnant, your taste buds actually physically grow. I had, like, little tiger stripes on my tongue. I said to Ryan, ‘This is perfect. I have superhuman testing abilities right now!’ ”
Soon they had their product down. Next, it was time to build a company.
With a product they were proud of, the entrepreneurs launched a friends-and-family seed round to raise money as the launch drew near. Now, can four Hollywood actors raise the money they need to start a company? Yes. Easily. Their vast network included such heavy hitters as Jimmy Kimmel and Don Cheadle. But the cofounders worried that their strength here could work against them.
A mission-driven company, they realized, shouldn’t be grown among a small, private group. It should be inclusive from the start -- gaining as many stakeholders as possible. So they limited investments to just $8,000 each. “In capping the investment, we were able to bring in a lot of people who effectively now have a vested interest in the success of the company,” Devlin explains. “It was the right way to launch a company that was designed to become a social impact platform. You do that in a democratic way, if you will, rather than get one big check.”
This Bar Saves Lives launched in 2013 with four flavors as a direct-to-consumer brand. Traction came quickly. After striking up a retail deal with L.A. coffee shop Intelligentsia, the product was spotted by a Google chef who ordered bars for the tech giant’s campuses. And just two weeks after launch, Bell appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and talked up the brand; retailers started calling almost immediately.
Soon they were seeing a ton of consumer reaction, and learning from it as quickly as possible. “We tweaked our recipes. We tweaked our packaging. We tweaked our messaging,” Devlin says. But with revenue increasing 100 percent every year since launch, the founders realized they had to tweak something else: how the company was run.
“In terms of operating the company, we’d taken it probably past the point at which it was beneficial,” Devlin says. So in 2017, Devlin stepped down as CEO and turned over day-to-day responsibilities to newly hired chief executive Paul Yoo, a former McKinsey & Company consultant and former head of business development at The Honest Company.
The move allowed Devlin and his cofounders to return their attention to big-picture strategy, which would lead to another big change. Their name, This Bar Saves Lives, was undeniably eye-catching -- but it was also limiting. It meant, well, they could make only bars.
So this March, they rebranded and became simply This Saves Lives.
Now liberated from a narrow name, they’re exploring other categories. First they’re moving into a kids’ line of food bars inspired by Bell’s struggle to find a school-safe (read: nut-free) bar for her children. “When the child looks at the box, we want them to know that they’re feeding another child, that they’re making a good, healthy, ethical choice,” she says. (Bell will continue to mine her experiences as a mom with another new venture, Hello Bello, a line of premium baby products she launched in February with her husband, actor Dax Shepard.)
The second is a product called collagen bites. The protein has long been prized for its skin-plumping abilities, and it’s a fast-developing trend among health-conscious consumers. According to Nutrition Business Journal, sales of collagen supplements increased 30 percent in 2017.
Collagen is largely sold in powder form; the TSL team saw an opportunity to create a snack bar to reach a broader audience. “It’s not being done well [elsewhere],” Patel says. “Our bars actually taste good, and you will not find another collagen snack that does. That’s a big deal.” They developed three collagen-based, flavor-forward options: defense (strawberry, turmeric, ginger, honey), radiance (matcha, rosewater), and detox (dark chocolate, bentonite clay spirulina, chlorella, peppermint).
A new name and a new slate of products is a big deal for the six-year-old company. But when asked what the long-term future looks like for This Saves Lives, Devlin focuses on the biggest goals he can envision. “End severe acute malnutrition and…sell [the company] for a billion dollars,” he says, only half joking.
“They’re one and the same, right? We spend a lot of time looking at our margins and our growth and our top and bottom lines across structures,” he says. “But we measure our success by the children we’re serving. To date, we’ve sent more than 11 million packets of lifesaving food to children in need -- enough to help save more than 70,000 lives. We never thought when we started this company that we would be talking about statistics like that.”