Going Back to the Beginning: a reflection

Posted by Austin Britts on

Today, I am kicking off our new website and ecommerce platform with the very first zealios blog post. The pressure is immense. We have never had a blog. Over the past few years we have been so busy with operational issues that we never stopped to truly tell our story. This seems like a great forum so I am going to give it a crack! 

We have huge changes underway at zealios, and with big change comes uncomfortable and sometimes hilarious reflection. We have come so far in this little company of ours, and yet I feel like we are still at the beginning of our big journey. So often we get the question "how did you guys get into this!??". It feels like the right time to tell our story. It's a doozy. 

It's a story best told over few pints of cold beer. The beer helps to ease the pain of hard times past and makes it a little easier to laugh at the struggles we endured while trying to get this company of ours off the ground. Also, we love beer.

From me, the story starts on a cold February day in Chicago. 

I was dressed ears to ankles in my longest and warmest coat, quickly shuffling my feet down the frozen towards the safe refuge of a Starbucks across the street. It was mid day and my coffee maker was on the fritz so decided to venture outside for a mid day pick-me-up. It was absolutely freezing in my apartment despite my space heater trying its hardest to battle what proved to be an incredibly cold winter even for Chicago. I was in my 4th year working for a Seattle based chemical trading company as an outside salesman. I worked from home most days and enjoyed a great day of flexibility. It was a job I loved at times. It paid well, it was flexible, I didn't have people looking over my shoulder telling me to perform. It was great for a number of reasons, but if I was completely honest with myself, it was something I passionate about.

I can't say exactly what was going through my mind when my foot hit the ice patch outside of Starbucks, but landing square on my back sure brought some clarity. I remember lying on the sidewalk on my back and looking up into the sky while thinking "what the hell am I doing here". I probably stayed on my back for about a minute before I bothered to struggle to me feet. This was the moment I realized I needed to find a way back to my native state of Northern California. 

A week later I was displaying at a trade show in Las Vegas with my best friend and colleague Kevin Fuller. Kevin and I played rugby together at the University of Washington. After a two and a half year walkabout in New Zealand and Australia Kevin had returned to the states and began to work at the same trading firm. At the time, Kevin was trying to open the food and beverage market and I was lending a hand. While at the booth, a friendly woman working for Clif Bar happened by. I mentioned in passing that I had a habit of eating a Clif Bar before every rugby game. She took our addresses and promised to send a free box of our favorite flavor. Sure enough, a week later a package arrived at my Chicago apartment. In it was a box of my favorite Clif Bar and a signed copy of "Raising the Bar", a wonderful book about the history of Clif Bar written by Clif Bar's founder Gary Erickson. 

I was immediately taken with the story of Clif Bar and Gary Erickson's story.  An outdoor enthusiast, Erickson built a massively successful company that has become widely known for empowering it's people, strengthening it's community, and supporting athletes who are chasing their dreams. I was enthralled from the start. This was around 2005, well before all the over-the-top employee fringe benefits now commonplace in the tech world were in vogue. Before Google implemented their free laundry service, and free all you can eat gourmet cafeterias, Clif Bar was building onsite gyms, yoga classes, paid saboticals, bike riding incentives, dry cleaning, and even put a climbing wall in their office. The one key difference was that Clif Bar was doing this to enhance the happiness and community of their employees while most of the tech companies were doing it in order to recruit and hold the hottest tech talent (and to maximize their work hours on campus). The community and employee happiness policies at Clif are what really inspired me. I wanted to work at a place like Clif.

For weeks I couldn't get the story of Clif Bar out of my mind. I was taken with the success of the company and how they created an organization in which people were proud, even inspired, to work for. I wanted to create the same thing. 

A few weeks later I was on the phone with one my favorite customers-turned-good-friend Ron Hinck. Ron took over his family business from his dad back in the 80's and has built quite a business over the past 30 years. California Soda Company supplies customer cleaning solutions to most of the wineries in Northern California. Ron was telling me how he was working on a Paraben Free Chamois Cream formula for the cycling industry. He had to explain to me both what a paraben and a chamois was. He sent me some samples because I told him I run into chaffing issues when playing rugby sevens. It worked like a charm! Ron said he could use some help on the branding/marketing/sales side. After all, he had 3 kids in college and a business to run. Since Kevin and I had always wanted to be in business together, I enlisted his help and set up a meeting with Ron in Oakland, CA. 

In Oakland we were joined by William Nystrom, a former Clif Bar employee who now worked for a chemical distributor in the Bay Area. Will was a competitive triathlete and did a most of the initial testing on the first chamois cream formulas. What makes him even more impressive is that he has been battling MS for over 18 years.

The four of us hit it off and discovered that we all shared the same vision for the company we wanted to build. Ron also had a lead on an amazing performance sunscreen formula that would make a great compliment to the Chamois Cream. Now, all we had to do was find some names and start a business. 

 

 

 

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