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CEO Blog: Lessons From Pirate's Booty

With so much attention on health and fitness trends, plenty of companies are eager to just jump aboard and make the easy profits. However, if you really want to make it, in my experience, success boils down to two main concepts: creating great brands and hiring great people.

I’ve used this philosophy in both the success of vitaminwater and Pirate’s Booty. As the President and Co-Founder of Glaceau, I co-created the vitaminwater brand and, as a team, we took it from one bottle to $1 billion in sales, ultimately selling the company for $4.1 billion to the Coca-Cola Company . As Chairman of the Board and the largest shareholder of Pirate Brands (makers of Pirate’s Booty all-natural snacks including Potato Flyers, Smart Puffs, and Tings), we’ve been able to accelerate sales from $50 million to $100 million in 18 months with the five-year goal of $500 million. With consumers more focused than ever on healthy snacking, a great brand and people on board, the company’s potential is limitless.

Pirates Booty
Matthew Simmons | WireImage | Getty Images
Pirates Booty

Great brands aren’t “me toos”

Success relies on building a brand that is a trendstarter, not a follower.

Forget about the research reports that large corporations pore over.

Everyone reads the same things, does the same things and, not surprisingly, gets the same results. The best and most innovative brands don’t react to research reports or jump on existing trends; they create trends and make others react.

To get meaningful insights you need to be curious and watch and talk with real consumers.

I’ve never held or attended a focus group, nor will I ever. I walk into convenience, grocery and mass-market stores as an everyday customer to watch and talk with consumers one-on-one. This taught me that consumers felt there were only two types of snacks on the market: high fat, high calorie that tasted good and low fat, low calorie that didn’t taste great. The market was clearly poised for Pirate’s Booty, started two decades ago by Robert Ehrlich, a true pioneer in the health and wellness movement, to make enormous gains with a third category that broke this mold and everyone in the family could agree on. Kids ask for it and Moms feel good about buying it for the family.

But, even if you have an innovative product and limitless brand potential, you can’t maximize that potential without great people.

Wanted: passionate people and sore losers

To be successful, you need to be passionate about your beliefs. The most important thing you bring to the business is yourself, and the same holds true for all employees. People at large companies constantly hear “we can’t do that” or “no,” and that kind of environment deflates people’s passion. Everyone at Pirate’s Booty has a voice, but more importantly, a voice that is heard. I’m a true believer in healthy debate. Everyone’s opinion is valuable and no one’s opinion is valued over the rest.

"I seek out sore losers, because people who hate to lose are always going to find a way to win." -Co-Founder, vitaminwater & Chairman Pirate Brands, Mike Repole

When opinions of great people are heard and contribute to the decision-making process, it’s only then that a brand can reach its full potential. That’s why we don’t look at our people as employees, but as owners in the company. To make that a reality, everyone has stock options so that everyone truly shares in the company’s successes, from the shipping clerk to the CEO.

In addition to passion and a feeling of ownership, one final element that defines great people is the drive to win. I seek out sore losers, because people who hate to lose are always going to find a way to win. I’ve never run into anyone who hates to lose more than myself. It’s important to hire highly competitive people who are willing to do what it takes to win, especially when the odds are against them. All 50 people at Pirate’s Booty possess the energy, passion, commitment and dedication that it takes to build a great brand and be a winner.

For many people, being small means you’re the underdog.

Success isn’t about size. When you have a great brand and passionate people behind it, you’re never really the underdog. But take advantage of others’ perception of you as the underdog, because it’s one of your greatest weapons in battling the perceived giants. As I see it, the pressure is always on the big guys, because everyone always expects them to win. As underdogs, we can make unexpected, quick, and nimble moves, which give us a major advantage over large corporations. While it takes six months to a year to get a project off the ground at a big corporation, the so-called underdog has already jumped on the latest health and fitness trend and has moved on to the next big idea.

Anytime there are risks involved there are plenty of reasons to stay out of the game, but being an entrepreneur isn’t about excuses, it’s about results. So if you’re committed to your beliefs, build a brand by listening to potential customers, and find people who can share in your passion, because that’s what it takes to create the next big health and fitness trend that everyone else will be chasing after.

Mike Repole is Co-Founder of vitaminwater and Chairman of the Board at Pirate Brands