Before you ask, yes, it’s true: one entrepreneur (and his founding team) was able to grow his business by 57,000 percent in just three years. His name is Tom Bilyeu. You may have munched on a few of his Quest bars before.
You might not hear his name as often as you hear Richard Branson’s or Elon Musk’s, but he’s certainly accomplished; Bilyeu’s company, Quest Nutrition, is the second fastest-growing private business in the U.S. Bilyeu also founded Epigenix, a nonprofit organization that works to reverse genetic disease through proper diet, targeted exercise and other modern techniques. " Inside Quest," Bilyeu’s online show, discusses transformation and passion with successful masterminds like Gabrielle Reece, Russell Simmons and Tony Robbins.
As you can tell, Bilyeu is a busy guy. In line with his company’s vision, Bilyeu maintains a healthy and active lifestyle while running his various ventures. Nonetheless, I had the chance to catch up with him and chat about his successes, his goals, and his growth techniques.
1. Your story started when you realized your family was facing an obesity epidemic. Why were protein bars the solution?
Honestly, my story started as an entrepreneur. My business partners and I began asking ourselves a different question. Instead of focusing on asking what would be more profitable, we started asking ourselves: What could we believe in (and love doing everyday), even if we were failing?
That’s when we started focusing purely on value creation: building a business whose primary aim was to deliver value to people. There’s a quote often attributed to Mother Teresa that has always resonated with me: “No one will act for the many, but they will act for the one.” That’s where my background plays into my passion for Quest’s mission to end metabolic disease in all of its forms. I grew up in a morbidly obese family, and watching the emotional and life- shortening toll that takes left me hungry to help people make change. It just was abundantly clear to my partners and I that the conventional solution to the obesity epidemic -- eat less and exercise more -- just wasn’t going to work for the vast majority of the world. Our goal was to create foods that people could choose based on taste, and that happened to be good for them.
The thing that gives me the energy to fight every day to make that a reality is my family. I want to help the people that I know and love. Protein bars aren’t the solution, they’re just the first step, and we’ve always known that. The reason that we started there was because it’s a product that’s aimed at people who are already trying to live a healthier life. There wasn’t a single bar on the market that tasted amazing, but didn’t have sugar. So we knew there was pent-up demand for that product -- especially among the most fitness-focused people on the planet.
And the reason we didn’t focus on home recipes or exercise plans is because if you’re really going to end metabolic disease you’ve got to tap into people’s desire to eat delicious food, rather than try to grow the exercise culture. Everyone is going to eat. Not everyone is going to go to the gym. So the obvious place to start is with making food good and good for you.
2. How did your family react to the protein bars you made in Quest’s early development?
They were excited by them and by what we were trying to build, but like everyone else, they knew they could be better. We have a “tech mindset” that we believe the whole food industry needs to adopt: you put out a viable product as rapidly as possible, and then iterate to make it better. The process of constant, never-ending improvement in our recipes is something that really separates us from the rest of the food industry. But we hope it won’t stay that way for long.
[Now] I think they all agree that they’ve continued to improve. Especially as we’ve added innovative ingredients like our zero sugar chocolate chips that we manufacture ourselves.
3. What kept you going when you experienced obstacles during the startup process?
It’s a mindset. At Quest, instead of a list of core values, we have a 25-point belief system. One of the points on the belief system is that any obstacle can be overcome. When you really believe that, when you hit a dead end, you get creative and try something new instead of shutting down and giving up.
4. What would you say drove most of Quest’s growth over the past few years?
First and foremost, amazing products. We have a massive R&D team that serves one master and one master only: metabolic truth. The team is hungry and driven to make new discoveries and to push the boundaries of what people believe is possible with food.
Beyond that, it’s been a real understanding of what draws people to brands these days. Being socially active and socially conscious, aggressively authentic, driven by a desire to help others and create value, and a true understanding of where to allocate marketing dollars so that we can actually reach our audience, and reach them in a way that they appreciate. Our goal isn’t to market the product with our marketing; it’s largely to create content that in and of itself delivers value. That’s a big shift in marketing that a lot of companies are just now beginning to understand. We’ve been ahead of the curve with that.
6. Many entrepreneurs dream of imitating Quest’s growth. What practices can they employ to help them do so? What practices should they avoid?
If they’re focusing on the growth, they’ve already lost. Instead, they should be focused on delivering value and evangelizing their customers at every possible touch point. Quest is driven by a mission, and that has led to some seriously counter-intuitive decisions, but those decisions let our customers know who we really are. So when we created our non-profit arm called Epigenix, which focuses on researching the intersection of diet and disease -- specifically cancer -- we sent a very clear signal internally and externally about what we’re all about, and what it means to support this brand.
Additionally, if you look at what we’re doing with "Inside Quest," which is a talk show for the podcast generation, you can see that we’re trying to elevate brand content. We’re not trying to move units or drive sales. Revenue and company growth needs to be a byproduct of the other choices that you make. And all of those choices should be focused around delivering value to the world. Honestly, it’s that. Don’t even overly focus on just delivering value to your customers. Find new customers by really fighting to make good on your mission -- whatever that is. And man, oh man, have a mission. And don’t make your mission about money. That’s a sure-fire way to go nowhere.
7. Where did you learn your growth techniques, and what were they?
Quest has been an exercise in human psychology. That’s why one of the main drivers behind our growth has always been our focus on social and content marketing.
Those two forms of marketing are all about understanding people to create a real human connection between the customer and brand. In today’s hyper-connected and socially-driven world, brands have to be asking and answering questions like: What do we as a society truly value? What really resonates with us? What makes up happy and feel connected? That’s even part of the reason we thought food was such an important way to go about tackling the global health crisis. Food sits at the center of our emotional and cultural lives. It’s so integral to our well-being, mentally and physically.
Our main techniques all focus around understanding what it means to be a human living in today’s world. Authenticity. Connection. Transparency. That’s what people want in their brand relationships. It’s such an awesome time to be a brand if you legitimately like people and like the idea of being a servant leader. That’s why, to us, it makes all the sense in the world to make sure the content we produce (and we produce all of our own content in-house) addresses both the mind and the body. We want to prove to people every day that we’re invested in helping them succeed -- no matter what their quest is. And that’s where the company gets its name. It’s not about us. It’s about them. The people who are loyal to our brand can feel that.
Where did we learn these techniques? Quest is largely a reaction to the traditional way of doing business: identify an underserved niche in the market place, and then profitably exploit that niche with clever marketing. Focus on top-line revenue and EBITDA, leave enough of the market untapped so that a potential acquirer gets excited about what they can add to your business and then sell for as much money as you can. We’ve played that game in the past, and it just doesn’t match our personalities. We want to have purpose to what we do. We want to have global impact. So we focused on something else: value creation.
In addition to that, the three of us that founded the company have weird backgrounds. Ron comes from a family of doctors with no business background; Mike is an Iowa farm boy; and I went to film school. Nothing about us is traditional in the business sense, but that fresh perspective led us to make different choices.
The only honest answer to where we’ve learned our techniques is the School of Hard Knocks. All three of us are focused on learning. We never think of ourselves as having arrived or having figured it all out. We work to improve every day.
8. Do you feel that you’ve accomplished your goal of introducing healthy and delicious food to those who need it??
To answer that, I’ll tell you a story from my own life. Growing up, my mom and my sister both struggled profoundly with their weight. It’s a battle so many people face, myself included. I used to be 60 pounds heavier. Since we’ve launched the company, my sister has lost over 120 pounds. It’s a breathtaking transformation. My mom, however, continues to struggle. It’s a reminder that we’ve made progress, but that we’re also at the very beginning of a long and exciting journey. We have so much work left to do. There are many, many other food categories that we have left to revolutionize. But our R&D team is working on it. Trust me. What they’ve got coming is going to change the food landscape. It’s very, very exciting.
9. What is your company’s culture like? How did you maintain that as you grew from a small team to what Quest is today?
There are three things that we look for in any team member. One - grand ambition; two -- drive (the willingness to acquire the skills needed to realize your grand ambition); and three -- compassion.
The Quest culture prioritizes personal development. We’re a driven group of individuals who understand that to accomplish our goals we’re going to need to constantly evolve and improve our individual and collective skill sets.
When you surround yourself with compassionate, like-minded and supportive people, you can have fun while pushing yourself to get better.
Maintaining and evolving your culture when you’re growing at breakneck speed (we grew by 57,000 percent in our first three years alone, and we’ve gone from a team of six to a team of 1,400) is hard. What works when you’re small does not at all translate when you have multiple locations and a distributed team spanning multiple countries and continents. But if you stay true to your personal and company values and put your employees first -- ahead of even your customers -- you can make your way through the growing pains. You just have to be willing to embrace change and learn from your mistakes.
10. How do you maintain a healthy lifestyle and a busy entrepreneurial lifestyle at the same time?
This is really a question of values and identity. Everyone does exactly what’s important to them. Look at anyone’s life: the results that they’re getting reflect what they spend their time and energy on. It’s part of my identity to work out and eat right and to always learn and push myself. I could never become the person I want to be if I didn’t do that. Once I aligned my value system with what I try to accomplish, everything else fell into place. From there, it’s about time management and getting hyper-efficient and using “life hacks” whenever possible.
I go to bed early. I use habits and routines whenever possible to remove decision fatigue. I work out first thing in the morning to ensure that I don’t get distracted or tired before hitting the gym. I use bright lines on my diet -- meaning there is no gray area for me. I know exactly what I’m going to eat at every meal of every day. I never deviate from that (except on Saturday). And I judge everything by my results. If I’m not getting the result that I want, I know I need to change my approach. I’m constantly evolving my strategies until I get the desired outcome.
11. Is Quest involved in any initiatives to end obesity/promote healthy living?
Everything we do is designed to end metabolic disease and promote healthy living for the body and mind. Two of the lesser-known things we’re doing towards that end are our non-profit arm, Epigenix, and talk show/podcast, "Inside Quest."
Epigenix’s focus is researching the intersection of diet and disease. Epigenix takes a look at the world through the lens of epigenetics. If genetics says you were dealt a certain hand of cards that controls every aspect of your life, epigenetics says it’s not about the hand you were dealt -- what counts is how you play that hand. Said another way, it’s about the choices you make, not your genetics.
Right now, Epigenix allocates most of its research dollars to cancer. While it’s too early to call, there is some fascinating directional information flowing out of that research that has greatly informed our ketogenic product development cycle. It’s the most exciting thing that we’re involved in right now!
12. How did you come up with the idea for "Inside Quest" and what does it aim to accomplish?
"Inside Quest" is me making good on a promise to myself. A change in my own mindset changed everything about my life. It took me from being the stereotypical, lost 20-something working dead end jobs to founding and running a billion-dollar business. I told myself that if I ever had a platform to reach people, that I would use it to help others adopt that same growth mindset. I realized about a year ago that if I wanted that platform, I was going to have to build it. So that’s what we’ve done. The show is still in its infancy, yet it has already attracted an incredible list of wildly successful guests who have shared an absolutely staggering amount of transformative information. We’ve had Russell Simmons, Tony Robbins, Peter Diamandis, Criss Angel, Jason Silva, Rainn Wilson and many other profound minds on the show. It’s really been incredible. Such an honor to share with our audience the universal principles of success.
Additionally, the goal of ending metabolic disease is to help people live a healthier and more fulfilling life. So if Quest Nutrition is aimed at helping people optimize their body, "Inside Quest" is designed to help people optimize their mind and lifestyle.
Quite frankly, it’s also designed to help build up the Quest community. In the social age, companies are more than makers and marketers of product. As entrepreneurs, we have the opportunity to create communities that help people do more with their lives. Not only is it awesome to help, but there’s also nothing better to associate with your brand than the feeling that your customers can rely on you to help them achieve their life’s aim.
13. What are some of the biggest takeaways you’ve gotten from guests?
So many of the guests have touched on grit, and that’s something that really resonates with me. It is certainly the key to my own success. Neuroplasticity (the ability to rewire the brain) is such a profound and under-appreciated science. To have so many high achievers come on the show and demonstrate that they are not the result of a genetic lottery, but rather hard work and tenacity is liberating. Whether you’re talking about legendary MMA coach Firas Zahabi, Tony Robbins, Criss Angel, or double-amputee Patrick Blake Leeper (who is one of the fastest men alive even with his disability), they all tell a tale of achievement by working hard and grinding it out. They don’t make excuses. They set a goal and they go for it, always showing a willingness to bleed to make their dreams a reality.
14. Have you ever used those lessons and principles at your own company?
That’s the very thing Quest is founded on. We’ve achieved what we have, not because we knew what we were doing when we started, but because we were willing to learn and put the hard work in to make it happen.
15. If you could have absolutely anyone on "Inside Quest," who would it be??
The list of amazing people we are trying to book for the show is long, but if you’re going to force me to pick one, I’ll go with a man who has had an incredible impact on me: Jay Z. What he has done with his life is nothing short of astonishing. There’s an awesome quote from Booker T. Washington that explains why I respond so strongly to Jay Z: “You measure the size of the accomplishment by the obstacles you have to overcome to reach your goals.”
16. What would you change about your entrepreneurial process with Quest, looking back?
I know so much more now than when we started. I’m not overly romantic about the specifics of our journey. From a tactical standpoint, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like we got it right on the first try. We’ve made countless mistakes, and we’ll make countless more. It’s all about iterating and improving. And if I could go back and do it over knowing what I know now, we’d grow even faster.
While Tom Bilyeu’s journey with Quest Nutrition may not have been perfect, it’s certainly the dream for many entrepreneurs. He started with zero small business experience, zero seed funding, and just a bit of industry know-how. Despite it all, Bilyeu and his ultra-motivated team managed to turn just an idea into a company 57,000 percent larger than its original size. They proved that, armed with a great protein bar and the right vision, one can achieve just about anything.