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Tom Bilyeu, Co-Founder of Quest Nutrition, Dishes on How to Grow a Unicorn

Quest Nutrition is the fastest growing food company…ever. Known for their low carb protein bars, Quest took only 5 years to get $400m+ in annual revenue.

Quest Nutrition’s early growth rate is almost incomprehensible. In its first three years, the low-carb specializing nutrition company grew at 57,000%.

And yet founder Tom Bilyeu recalls feeling terrible at that time. “I was miserable making the money that I was making,” he said. “I thought there’s just got to be a better way.”

Bilyeu left Quest to create a content company called Impact Theory. Impact Theory’s shows, podcasts, and other offerings focus on empowerment.

At Hustle Con 2017, he talked about how he turned Quest into a unicorn and how he’s trying to share that model with others. Below is an edited version of the speech.

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All right. What is up everybody? Man, come on. We got to do better than that. I want to know how many born entrepreneurs do we have in the crowd. All right, nice. Well, I am very much not a born entrepreneur and that’s very important to know about me. I know a lot of you out there were selling flowers that you plucked out of somebody’s yard selling them right back to them, or you were trading baseball cards or selling candy, lemonade stands, all of that. I was not, I was raised to be a good employee, which meant keep your head down, do as little work as possible, and avoid punishment at all costs. And that literally is what my parents taught me to do. And that’s what I thought that a good employee did. And that was really how I started. I’m really a bad track for somebody that wants to ultimately become an entrepreneur.

But to be honest, I didn’t start out wanting to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to film school, that was my background. I was obsessed with human psychology. That was really the big driver for me. And I learned a lesson along the way, which was if you really want to control the art, you have to control the resources. And so that began my entrepreneurial journey of really wanting to be able to make the things that I wanted to make. But to do that, you have to really be in control. So I met these two guys, incredible human beings, because there were two things about myself that I said. So I grew up in a morbidly obese family in Tacoma, Washington, in a family that teetered between blue collar and white collar. And I said to myself, there are two things about me that I know somehow in the future I’m going to make come true.

One, someday I’m going to have six pack abs and someday I’m going to be rich. Give it up. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to make either of those two things come true. But I really did believe to the core of my being that I would someday figure it out. So when these two buff bodybuilder guys who are very successful entrepreneurs came across my path and they said, “Tom, you’re coming to the world with your handout and if you want to control the resources, you’ve got to learn business. You’ve got to get rich. So come with us. We’re building this technology company. We need somebody to be a copywriter.” And this was back when I was a good employee, keeping my head down, doing as little work as possible and avoiding punishment at all costs.

They brought me in to their world and they said, “No, don’t think of yourself as a copywriter. You need to understand that this is a startup so you can have any job that you want in the company. You just have to become the right person for the job.” And that was the first time I really started to think about skill acquisition and the notion of, “Do you need to be born with a certain set of skills? Or are skills something that you can acquire?” And that question has come to really dominate my life because so much of my journey has really been predicated on my ability to actually acquire skills. I believe as a very foundational belief that the reason that any of us are here is for one simple reason, to find out how many skills you can acquire that have utility, and then put that utility to the test. Now, if you’re getting good at something, building something that exists in service of other people, you’re going to have the energy and the passion and the conviction that you’re going to need to actually see it through.

But it all comes down to whether or not you actually get really good at that thing. And if you guys take nothing else away from what I say today, that is the core thesis that sits at the absolute center of my universe. I believe humans can get good at whatever they set their mind to. And if you’re willing to break yourself in half, you can become extraordinary. My thing is if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you need to be prepared to become capable of the extraordinary. So Quest Nutrition was a reaction. I knew that I was going to have six pack abs and that I was going to get rich. I got into this technology company as a copywriter and I worked my way up very rapidly.

I began to believe and see the truth of the fact that a human can learn anything that they set their mind to. As long as you’re willing to completely pour yourself into that. And that’s something I cannot stress enough. So many people. In fact, somebody just today in this room came up to me and said, “I feel like I’m doing too much, Tom. I want to enjoy my twenties, what’s your advice to me?”

My advice is sell your 20s. I literally lost my twenties they were completely gone. I didn’t do anything with them other than work. All I did because understand growing up I did not view myself as very smart and in fact, from a pure IQ standpoint, I’m not that smart. And I’ll say that IQ is really the ability to process data rapidly and I know that we all want to push it off and say, well, EQs equally important and all that, and it is, it’s great, but having the raw horsepower if you have it, leverage it and if you don’t address it. I had to accept that I wasn’t one of those people that learn things really fast. So I had to go head down and do a lot of work and that was how I moved through the company. So very rapidly I took myself from being hired as a copywriter to becoming an owner in the company through pure sweat equity.

I never put a diamond to the company, but my performance was so dominant and my desire to succeed so freakish, that the level of value that I was delivering to the company was extreme enough that they were willing to give me a piece of the company so that they wouldn’t lose me. Okay. We’ll call that being a linchpin employee. I don’t think everybody needs to want to run their own company. Running your own company takes a certain thing inside. Derek talked about it in his talk. I think you’ve got to be driven by something. There’s got to be something that’s propelling you forward. Some sickness. And if you know Batman, and if you know me, you know my obsession with Batman, Batman is driven by a sickness. There’s this dark thing inside him that propels forward. If you have that, if there’s something that you need to build and bring to the world that you just can’t shake, you can’t get rid of whether you’re a born entrepreneur or not.

Because to me they are very separate. Whether you’re a born entrepreneur or not is irrelevant. And I put that to the test and I worked my way up through the company. I got ownership in the company, I became the chief marketing officer. I was making more money than I’d ever made in my life and I have six pack abs. And it was horrific and I fucking hated my life. And I thought, there’s no way. It’s not possible that I’m living the cliche of, money can’t buy happiness. Like this is a joke. It’s something that you see coming 10,000 miles off. So how is it humanly possible when I understand the power of money? You guys know people are going to chase money forever, right? You get that. When people tell you bullshit stuff about money not mattering, let me tell you right now, it matters and it matters a lot.

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Money is, I promise, more powerful than you think, not less. But it isn’t at all what you’ve been told. Once you understand the difference between what you’re expecting it to be and what it actually is, then it can become a useful driver in your life. But when you’re just chasing money, it does nothing. Money is a facilitator. Money allows you to make your dream into a reality, but that’s it. If you don’t know what you’re trying to build, if you don’t know what you’re willing to die for, money has nothing to offer you.

It really became figuring out why I felt the way that I did. And the reason was I did not know what my why, was. So yes, we end up building quest 57,000% growth in the first three years. But to understand that you need to understand why we did it. I was miserable making the money that I was making. I thought there’s just got to be a better way. I actually went to my partners and I quit. I gave them their equity back. I said, thank you very much, but I’m not willing to live this life. I’m not willing to feel miserable inside that holds absolutely no interest for me. I was going to go do what made me feel most alive. And as I was driving home, I called my wife, I did it. I quit. That’s it. We’re never going to be in that situation again. I’m never going to be depressed. We’re going to do something beautiful.

I’m literally pulling into the driveway at my house and my phone rings and it’s my two business partners. And they say the now famous words. We could do this without you, but we don’t want to. That allowed me to reconnect to something other than the money. And for the first time I felt so at rock bottom that I wasn’t afraid to tell them the truth. I said, “Here’s the truth. Money isn’t my highest value. Camaraderie is my highest value.” In business what I actually care about is that feeling of brotherhood. What I actually care about is feeling connected to the customer. What I actually care about is tapping into my passion and building something that makes me feel alive. That’s a real reflection of my actual personality. Those things I care about. I don’t actually care about money that much.

That was sacrilege at that point in our relationship because we had all taken a pack that we would always do whatever was most profitable. If that meant giving up a family vacation, if that meant going out to meet as a business trio at 2:00 AM on a Saturday, these are all real things that we did. Then we did it. Because we had taken that pack. Saying that was such a shift and in that moment they said, “We actually feel exactly the same way and we felt that way for a while.” And in that moment we all realize that you can get so myopically focused on the money that you lose sight of what you’re actually trying to do. So you have to answer that question. Who knows Simon Sinek?

All right. Incredible human being. He has his whole concept to start with why, absolutely critical. Understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’m going to tell you in the rest of this talk, you’re going to see it throughout everything that I talk about, the world is changing and I cannot say that emphatically enough. I’m sure there are gaggles of millennials here. Millennials are just the first wave of a shift that is coming. The world is moving to a commerce style that is driven entirely by impact. What are you trying to do? Where the consumer is going to make a demand that you tell them what you stand for, that you tell them how you’re spending your profits. They want to know, and they’re not going to support your brand unless you do that. And we’re going to get into that more and how it should affect your business and how for those of you that are in this for the right reasons that really want to build something that matters, and you’re willing to break yourself the fucking half to pull it off, this is the best news ever.

But make sure you know your why, what’s driving you. Now we live in a highly social, technological age, but one thing I want you guys to get very, very comfortable with is the idea from Elon Musk that once you break a problem down to its physics, you will actually know what is and isn’t possible. I’m here to tell you as a marketer, your physics is the human mind. If you don’t take the time to study neuro anatomy, to learn the brain, to understand emotion, to read about how people make just crazy, weird decisions that are totally irrational, you’ll never be able to speak the language of your customer. Figuring out social media, which I’m sure is way overplayed in terms of how we talk about it, but way under utilized in terms of its potential effect if you can find the humanity in it.

The idea behind technology isn’t to form fake relationships, it’s to communicate and add value. It’s to show people who you really are. It’s to get to a world where you’re able to build authentic connection with your consumer. Really think about those words for a second because neither of them are an accident, authentic connection. You as somebody building a brand, you don’t get to hide anymore in your lonely office with the whatever, eight by eight inch window that we saw earlier. You’ve now got a step forward. And as somebody who, I literally lied about my birthday on my Facebook page because I was so convinced someone was going to use it to steal my identity. Okay. I had no desire to step out front. I had no desire to be the face of the company or anything like that. They hounded me. Literally, my chief marketing officer, a wonderful millennial, hounded me to finally go out front because what he made clear was that there are two new kingmakers, which are authenticity and transparency.

Now, why does that matter? Because millennials and gen Z want to have impact. And they want to know how by engaging with your company, they can have that impact. That’s one of the things that you’re going to need to make clear in your marketing. You’ll notice I’m not yet even talking about your product. I’m talking about the relationship that you need to build with your community. So how did we get to 57000%. I got so angry at myself for chasing money and pretending like I didn’t just want to connect with people that I didn’t want to add value, that I didn’t want somebody to write in and say, “Your product has changed my life.” I was so furious that I’d wasted so many years of my life doing that was, eight and a half years by the time we finally sold that company. That’s almost a decade of my life chasing money.

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At the end of that decade, I said never again. When we went into quest, we said this is going to be predicated around delivering value and that’s where we’re going to focus on. Showing people how, not only your product is going to deliver value, but how your marketing efforts are going to deliver value. Now here’s the thing. If you’re going to build a business at the end of the day, there is one thing for all the like airy, wonderful, beautiful stuff. I’m talking about building relationships, really connecting, putting yourself out there, being authentic. You have to know how to build the business. The rubber has to meet the road at some point. Understanding this pyramid of influence in today’s social world is exactly what you guys need to understand and this pyramid is exactly how we built quest into $1 billion brand, from nothing by the way. We bootstrapped it. We started with like $10,000. We were making the bars by hand in a kitchen that we rented by the hour.

It took like eight or nine people, seven or eight hours to make 1200 protein bars. We now make 1.5 million a day. Okay, scale. But how did we get there? And how do we get there so fast? The pyramid of influence. At the top are the thought leaders. It’s the people most people don’t understand, okay? They’re very bright and they literally, they’re the ones winning the Nobel prizes, but they’re not easy to understand for the average person. Influencers are the band of people that pay attention to the thought leaders, but make it accessible to the masses. The influencers in a highly social age is the boon to your business, and if you can find them, it’s how becoming an entrepreneur has been so radically democratized.

Your job is to find you 1,000 screaming fans. Find the most influential thousand screaming fans that you can, people that really resonate with your product. They love it, they use it. For us at quest, we literally gave the product away. We would write, you want to talk about unscalable? We would write well researched letters to each of these people, showing them that we knew who they were, that we knew what they were trying to bring to the world, and we thought that our product would give them the unique ability to offer something wonderful to their community and that we didn’t want to control their message. If you hate it, tell people you hate it. If you love it, tell them you love it. All we ask is that you talk.

And because we didn’t try to control the message, people felt way better about it. Now when people think about getting influential people, they normally think of these guys, but in the way that things have changed, you should be thinking of people like this. Now I’m guessing most of you don’t know any of the faces there, but I’ll give you an example of a social influencer. Anybody know Jenna Marbles?

All right, crazy. That will say that was about 10% of you. She reaches over 20 million people a day. 20 million people a day. How did we get her to post with our product? A huge stack of product, by the way. Somebody with a reach of 20 million, that’s like primetime TV. How did we get her to post a photo for free with all of our products? We knitted sweaters for her dogs, because she’s huge into her dogs, okay. You want to identify your influencers, you want to add value to them in their community, engage with their content, figure out what it is, is meaningful to them, and make sure that you do it. Go above and beyond. Sending huge stacks of products for her along with the sweaters for her dogs, for her was just over, above and beyond. Nobody had done it.

And then your goal is to build those relationships into real partnerships. Where it starts with getting to know each other, having something in common and it becomes building a business. All right, don’t market build a community. There are a lot of ways that you can engage with your fans, but the goal for you guys is to really get in there, give content that delivers value to them, engage with them, reply to them, look at their page, give contextual responses. It is a lot of work, but when you do that, people feel really known and understood and you can get them talking to each other, which is incredible. I could do a whole hour long talk just about how to do that. And then make amazing, impactful content. That is really, I think the thing that’s most overlooked.

Your content has to crush. And there’s just no shortcuts to that. When people ask me what the shortcut is to making amazing content, I know they’re going to fail. Let that sink in. If what you’re looking for is the shortcut, I know you’re going to fail. Stop asking yourself how little you can get away with and start asking yourself how much you can bear. At the end of every talk that I give, I will stand out in the lobby today included, and I will answer your questions for as long as there are questions to answer. I’ve done it for eight hours in the past, until the last question is answered. I will stand there. That’s how you add value to your community. All right? What if I told you guys, your customers hate your content? Don’t sell. You need to find a way. In today’s world, the marketing in and of itself needs to be awesome. It needs to be something that I want to watch, I want to consume that adds value to my life.

If you look at the show that we do, it’s called the Impact Theory. We don’t charge for, it’s not a revenue generator, but the number of people every day that write me and say, “You’ve changed my life with the people that you’ve interviewed on that show. You’ve changed my life. I’m going to start a business that I wouldn’t have started without that. I’m getting out of a depression that I was worried was going to consume me.” Now imagine I can build 100,000 people that believe I’ve changed their life. A million people that believe I’ve changed their life, 10 million people that believe I’ve changed their life. What can I do with that?

When you switch your mind from I want to sell something to, they’re going to want to buy something just to be deeper in this community, that’s when it gets interesting. When your product is real, when your product delivers real value, whether it’s a suitcase, whether it’s a protein bar, whether it’s a T-shirt, it doesn’t matter. If you’re delivering real value and they feel like you have materially improve their lives, they’re going to be with you. Then I’ll leave you with this. Do cool shit. There’s literally no substitute for it. And I hope that you will leave today understanding that you’re not yet the person you need to be to succeed.

Once you can embrace the beauty of the journey of becoming that person, the person that is capable of executing at the highest level, the person who is no longer worried about getting a championship ring, and instead they are focused solely on becoming capable of a championship performance, then you’ll win. That brings us back. The reason you are here is to find out how many skills you can acquire and put them to service for something greater than yourself. You do that, you’ll build a big business. Thank you.