'If You Created it, You Should Be the Best at Everything in Your Company,' Says the Co-Founder of Lenny & Larry's Complete Cookies Barry Turner, who along with his co-founder created the protein category, has evolved from hustler to creative 'mad scientist.'
Not many entrepreneurs can boast of not only staying with their company for 25 years, but creating an entire product category. Barry Turner has done both.
Turner is the co-founder of Lenny & Larry's, which introduced the protein-packed cookie in 1993, years before eating protein-packed anything was mainstream. He and his co-founder, Benny Graham (they thought their names with L's would be funnier on the label), hustled to convince stores to carry their nutritional treats for years, until they sold the brand in 2001. But Turner never left his brand fully behind, buying half of it back in 2007. He and his new partner, Don Crouch, then sold majority control of the brand to investors in 2017 "to reward ourselves for a job well done," said Turner, who remains at the company as a shareholder and to focus on new products, PR and marketing.
Lenny & Larry's continues to innovate; its latest product is Complete Crunchy Cookies -- protein-packed vegan treats that come in chocolate chip, double chocolate and cinnamon sugar flavors. Their impressive retail door count is approximately 50,000 to 75,000 doors, per latest company figures.
Entrepreneur spoke with Turner about his more than two decades in business, what he thinks of the current startup landscape and the strategy that almost never works.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
An entrepreneurial run with a company for 25 years is by any stretch an incredible accomplishment. How do you find ways to keep yourself excited and challenge yourself with this brand?
It's a great question. The genesis of the brand was about fun. You can tell by the logo. I still attack this every day as if I'm just having fun and not working. It's fun because of the category that we created, being protein fortified, fiber fortified baked nutrition. It's easy just to be more of a mad scientist now and try to think of different ways to innovate.
You mentioned that Lenny & Larry's created the category of protein packaged foods 25 years ago, and obviously now that's a full-blown part of the food landscape. How does the company compete nowadays with all these upstarts?
It's easy for us now because we did create the category, so we're looked at as the leader. It's OK that the upstarts come, but if they're not different, if they're only saying, "Hey, we're better than Lenny & Larry's because of this," they don't stay on shelves that long. I always live by this credo: you don't make yourself look good by trying to make others look bad. Companies don't last by employing that marketing strategy. Negativity is not a way to launch a brand or a product.
Are there any innovations that you see other brands doing that you say, OK that's a great idea, here's how we can absorb it into Lenny & Larry's?
There's some great innovation going on. I don't know that the majority of it fits with how I see this brand, but I don't feel like we've missed anything. The biggest reason we haven't innovated even more is because when we got our hockey stick growth around 2014-15, our biggest issue was supply and demand. Everyone wanted our product and we could only sell about 70 percent of our demand. That really hurt us. You can't be innovative when you're just trying to keep up with demand.
How would you approach today's market as a startup?
The main thing is just trying to be different. Don't be a me-too product because they don't last. Be innovative. I will admit it is harder because there is so much competition out there. You also have the advantage of what you have at your fingertips: access to capital if you need, all these amazing minds and groups out there and research. When we started in 1993, there was no internet or cell phones, we were doing it the old fashioned way of actually knocking on doors and talking to people.
Do you no longer see the approach of going into each store, trying to sell very slowly and then building up the brand as an effective strategy?
It is in the beginning, because you have to own your backyard. You can't have national distribution until you actually have regional distribution. Retailers want you to prove yourself. So knocking on doors is a great way to get started, but you have to sprint these days because there will be people coming to knock you off and copy your success -- even if it's local success -- if they've got the resources to take it to a whole different level.
So during your long career in entrepreneurship, have there been any challenges that vexed you that you're still looking to solve today?
The biggest challenge was to educate the consumer on protein and the importance of protein. Now because it's so mainstream people are putting protein in everything, even in water. I mean my gosh, it's just crazy to think about that. But as a former bodybuilder and an athlete, we knew the importance of protein. The genesis of our brand was to educate people on protein -- we didn't know it would take two decades to do it. Fast forward to today, I don't think we really have challenges today that we can't meet, outside of the supply and demand issue in 2017.
What has been the most effective marketing tactic that you've employed?
For Lenny & Larry's it was just organic or guerilla marketing. Our strategy back then was to get on shelf, but be on sale for a long time. What draws people to our product if they haven't ever tried it is that the product is on sale. Plus we have the greatest logo in the history of logos so it made people want to try it.
What's your goal for the business for the next three years?
To continue to build what I call a legacy brand. I always dreamed when I started this that it will be sitting between Oreo and Chips Ahoy, and that's going to be taking place this year at a major retailer. We're just going to be innovative and continue to be a legacy brand that people look to as a leader in a category that we created. We don't have a dollar figure on where we want to hit sales wise. We want to continue to grow every year but we don't have a clock ticking for us now because we have been successful over the past two decades.
How does that affect your thinking now that you're not in hustle mode?
What's happened now that we have a good team in place, we have doubled our staff. When we did take on an equity partner we had less than 20 people and we were approaching $100 million in sales. We also had no investors and we had no debt. But what you had was entrepreneurial founders, my partner and I were actually the best salespeople. We did everything. We were very hands on. And a lot of times now brands say they're going to hire people to do sales, etc.
If you can't do it, no one can. If you created it, you should be the best at everything in your company. When you have a certain level of success, that's when your team can start growing and you can start adding more proper pieces to it. We were in hustle mode for 20-plus years doing this. My hustle now is to try to come up with more and more products for our lineup and continue what we've built all those years ago.