Former Clif Bar CEO Sheryl O’Loughlin Talks REBBL and How to Kill It as an Entrepreneur
Want to kill it as an entrepreneur? Protect your self-worth.
Sheryl O’Loughlin will be one of the first to tell you that this is a valuable secret to being a successful entrepreneur. And she would know.
Before she stepped into her current role as CEO of REBBL — an innovative beverage brand that makes super herb elixirs with coconut milk — she was the CEO of Clif Bar, launched and sold Plum Organics, and served as the Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford. She even authored a book, “Killing It! An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart,” that captures why it’s important to nourish your well-being and your passion for your work in order to thrive in it.
We caught up with O’Loughlin to learn more about her story and about the nutritional drink startup that’s at the tipping point of major growth.
ForceBrands: You have a very impressive (and entrepreneurial) background. Tell us about your journey to becoming the CEO of REBBL.
Sheryl O’Loughlin: Thank you. In 1998, I went to work for this small, funky company called Clif Bar and Company. I wanted to help build a company dedicated to sports and the outdoors, and although I loved Clif Bars as fuel for hardcore workouts, I craved something that had fewer calories and was more decadent for my day-to-day snacking. So, in 1999, we introduced Luna Bar, which took off like a rocket ship. My life was changed when, in 2000, the co-founder and owner, Gary Erickson, decided to use the power of Clif Bar’s business to improve the world. Seeing the possibilities of that vision blew my mind. I had the honor of operationalizing that philosophy and we grew the company from $100M in revenue to $200M in my three years as CEO, which, I believe, is because of that focus.
In 2007, I realized that the nutritious food I was putting in my kids’ lunchboxes was coming home at the end of the day as untouched mush, while any junky treat always disappeared. My friend Neil Grimmer felt the same pain, and we realized there was a huge gap in the market for food that was yummy, nourishing, organic, and beautifully designed to appeal to kids and busy parents. So, we started Plum Inc., with the core mission of helping little ones develop a lifetime love of healthy eating through great food.
I then became the Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I met and advised hundreds of enthusiastic potential entrepreneurs. The students had stars and dollar signs in their eyes, because all anyone talks about is the huge financial successes, without recognizing just how hard it is to start a business, and the fact that most businesses fail. I wanted to change the conversation and so wrote “Killing It! An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart.”
In 2015, I joined REBBL because the company has the kind of magic I love — the passionate team, the purpose, and a healthy, organic, decadent, and beautiful brand. Not only that but we have leveraged my book to create our company culture, in which each of us can be vulnerable and is dedicated to building our business with bold humility.
FB: What do you find most rewarding about your current role?
SO: I have the most wonderful, loving, intelligent, courageously creative team, investors, and board. Everyone in the REBBL tribe feels deeply connected to the brand, whose mission is to have a delicious, healthy product that helps people live healthier lives.
From day one, REBBL has been a cause looking for a company, versus a company looking for a cause.
We were started by Not for Sale, a non-profit whose vision is to create a future without trafficking. To this day, we donate 2.5 percent of every bottle’s net sales to support their innovative work around the world. We work with our growers to help them to thrive, so that they are not vulnerable to trafficking. As a team, we are all so inspired and ready to move mountains knowing that what we do every day helps to fight human trafficking.
FB: It’s no secret that the natural beverage space is highly competitive. What have been some of the biggest challenges REBBL has had when it comes to standing out in this category?
SO: At REBBL, we are dedicated to using ingredients that are real — that come from real foods. It can be a challenge to innovate, but we refuse to use any of the thickeners or flavorings found in most plant-based drinks. We are committed to using pure ingredients only from the Plant Queendom™, plus super herbs like ashwaganda, reishi mushroom, and maca. Chocolate, too, of course. And our drinks really do taste unbelievably good. To us, food must taste good, no matter how healthy. If we understand the beauty of the ingredients we’re working with, the alchemy of what comes together is incredible. REBBL’s co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Palo Hawken is a true artist and gets that on a deeply intuitive level.
FB: Here at ForceBrands, we build the teams that build the brands. Describe the team culture at REBBL and how you sustain it during periods of fast growth.
SO: I’ve seen how fast growth can be challenging for a company, and how culture can take the back burner when you’re trying to hit big targets. To stay ahead of this problem, Palo and I created and are always a part of REBBL’s Culture Committee. This group includes a representative from each department and is dedicated to making sure REBBL is always a place where each team member finds deep meaning in their work and feels truly enriched, valued, and supported. My philosophy is that our lives are an ecosystem, and every part needs to be nurtured to keep our whole being healthy. That includes our work, relationships, hobbies, and health. I don’t believe in gunning it 24/7, and I don’t expect REBBL employees to either. We all need nurturing, compassion, support, and gratitude to have the energy to keep a company growing. For that reason, employees get great paid leave and parental leave for adoptions and births, and our Health Reimbursement Arrangement gives employees access to acupuncture, dietary supplements, and other alternative healing treatments, plus memberships to mindfulness apps and monthly massages.
FB: Let’s chat hiring. What qualities do you look for in successful hires? Do you have any best practices when it comes to team building?
SO: For successful hires, we look for skills and experience, of course, but also what we call “REBBL heartedness,” meaning people who get our purpose and brand and feel connected to it. Back in my Clif Bar and Plum days, there weren’t as many people who had experience growing both companies to scale and purpose-driven companies. Now, we meet amazing people with a ton of experience, as well as people who have the desire to stretch, learn, and grow. But hiring is only a small part of it — we work really hard to make sure people want to stick around. The whole company gets together once per quarter to bond and get to know each other as people, not just as teammates. The folks from Not for Sale come in, too. After discussing the topic of the day, we do things like make pizza, play in the park, and go for a hike. It’s really important that we all keep learning, feeling connected, and being fully immersed in who we are and what we stand for. To that end, we have monthly video calls and annual all-company planning sessions.
For our end-of-the-year party, each of us can bring a loved one so people who are part of our lives feel like a part of REBBL, too, and our REBBL team feels like they have a 360-degree view of one another.
FB: You mentioned earlier that you authored “Killing It: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart” (2016). What’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone looking to start their own natural product brand?
SO: Your self-worth is not the same as your company’s net worth. I had to learn this the hard way when a company I was involved in went under. When it did, I did too. I stopped eating, stopped sleeping, couldn’t be there for my family and friends. It’s easy to take a company’s failure really personally, particularly when you so deeply believe in its value and mission, and it feels like part of your identity. Through that experience, I learned that we can’t judge ourselves based on the business’s financial trends. At our core, we need to know that we are much more than numbers in a P&L and cash flow statement. We are humans with a whole ecosystem made up of what’s important to us. We have to be vigilant about maintaining a healthy life ecosystem so that when one part is struggling, the other parts can take up the slack.
FB: What’s ahead for REBBL in terms of product innovation? And where do you see the brand in 10 years?
SO: There are just so many avenues we could take, and it’s easy for a fast-growing company to get sidetracked, lose focus, and implode. Given that, for the short-term, we’re going to keep our focus on making delicious organic beverages based on the best of the Plant Queendom™. Long-term, we see REBBL as a platform brand that could move into many categories using the REBBL Righteous Plant Alchemy and promoting A Botanical Revolution for Good and everything it stands for: organic, functional innovative, and with exquisite taste.
FB: And lastly, just for fun, what’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
SO: Given my 23-year stint in healthy food and beverages, most people would not guess that my first job out of college was at General Foods, working on consumer promotions for Kool-Aid. It was a great training ground, although my nutrition habits have improved since then! I was responsible for managing a loyalty program for kids called the Kool-Aid Wacky Warehouse. To get kids excited about our warehouse goodies, I’d write little poems to describe each. To this day, I love writing goofy poems to my husband, friends, kids, and teammates.
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