A Conversation With Brian and Corin Mullins, Founders of Holy Crap Cereal
Brian and Corin share how they turned their idea into a reality with curiosity and cooperation.
Brian: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” That’s an old Irish proverb but people always forget about the second part. They think it has a negative connotation, but the cat had nine lives and was satisfied to give up just one for the sake of curiosity. That’s kind of how we started. We were curious to see if Corin’s idea for a new kind of healthy cereal would pay-off. Our curiosity was rewarded with a bigger pay off than we ever anticipated.
Corin: I had always wanted to create a granola bar that we could sell and make some extra money from in retirement; but the idea took another form after Brian and I experienced the Montreal ice storm in 1998. It was a terrible storm that left people without access to food and at that time we really saw how important it was to have emergency food available.
Brian: It’s true. Did you know that people are only nine meals away from chaos in a city? Food supplies in any given city generally run out within three days of a major disaster.
Corin: I started looking in the emergency packages and saw that they were filled with candy bars and things containing peanuts, which is obviously a problem for anyone who is allergic to nuts. There wasn’t anything organic or good for you in them. I wanted to create a healthy, long-lasting cereal that could act as a survival food if needed, and that’s how the idea for Holy Crap cereal started.
With a package of Holy Crap and water you can survive for eight days in the event of an emergency. I tried 21 different recipes before settling on the one we sell now. It had to be healthy, but also taste great, and everything had to be organic and good for you.
Holy Crap is wheat free, gluten free, lactose free, salt free and sugar free. It’s packed with Omega 3s, Omega 6s, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, fiber and antioxidants. It has organic apples, raisins, cranberries and cinnamon. It also contains wild chia, which is a seed that can absorb water to grow ten times in size, making a small bag last a long time. Studies suggest it changes people’s lives by giving them unbelievable energy. It also helps lower blood sugar and blood pressure, builds muscles, lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. What more could you want? Holy Crap is the healthiest thing you will ever eat.
Brian: Before we launched our product we looked at other cereals using chia and found out they weren’t organic or good for you. They were using salt and sugar and candy. The Americans felt that they had to put chocolate and candy into stuff to get people to eat it. So what Corin did, which was a big innovation in this industry, was take out all the salt and all the sugar.
Corin: Brian fought me on it. He didn’t want me to change the recipe because people liked it. There was a small amount of sugar and salt included at first, but I felt it needed to be healthy and sugar and salt isn’t good for you, so I stuck to my guns. People loved it. They were so happy to have a healthy, organic, natural choice, and no one missed the salt or sugar.
In fact they didn’t even notice it was gone.
Brian: She was right, as always, (laughing) and the product did well. In taste tests, one out of two people said they loved the cereal. The only issue was we didn’t have a catchy name – something to draw people in and pique their curiosity. That’s when I came up with the name Holy Crap. It was something I mentioned as a joke, because we had customers calling saying, “Holy crap, is this ever good.” Everyone liked it, and I asked Corin to try the name.
Corin: I didn’t want to, but he persuaded me, saying we would just try it once. We took the cereal labeled Holy Crap to the market and we sold out right away. It was the name that got their attention and the product benefits that kept them coming back.
Brian: We were making about $10,000 a weekend at Granville Island selling Holy Crap using Corin’s method of serving one customer at a time, getting them to try the product and letting their taste buds make the decision. Word about our product was getting out and new customers kept coming to us, but we needed a larger audience. That’s exactly what “Dragons’ Den” offered us.
“Dragons’ Den” was one of my favourite shows and I always watched entrepreneurs pitch their products and seek partnership from business moguls like Arlene Dickinson, Kevin O’Leary, and Jim Treliving. When we heard they were taking auditions for the show in Vancouver, I told Corin we had to try. Honestly, I thought it would just be good publicity. I didn’t think we’d get a deal. I thought we’d be the big joke actually. So needless to say, I was amazed at how fast Jim offered us a deal. To this day it is the fastest deal ever made in the Den. What you didn’t see was that we were offered millions by other Dragons, and offered 10 per cent more than anything Jim Treliving would give us, but we stuck to our deal. When the other Dragons offered more and offered this and offered that, we’d seen the show enough to know that you dance with the one that bought you. So we left the Den with a handshake and a promise of investment, but we never finalized the deal because the train had already left the station.
We were no longer worth $600,000, which was what the deal was based on. The night the show aired, we sold so much product our net worth jumped to $1.5 million. Now our value is somewhere between $12 to $30 million. Jim keeps in touch with us despite not closing the deal. He loves the cereal and has said he eats it every day. He has also acted as our mentor, which has been priceless.
Corin: When the show re-aired later, sales shot up again! So many people were placing orders that our website crashed. All of a sudden we had demand from all over Canada and the U.S. and we had to keep up.
Brian: We expanded our operation, got a new warehouse and mechanized the components that we could, but we weren’t willing to sacrifice the quality that hand-packing gives our product.
Corin: Machines are not people and it’s the love that the workers put into every package that people feel. Machines can’t do that. It also ensures quality because people are checking every bag and handling the organic berries with care so they aren’t broken.
Obviously, “Dragons’ Den” and our unique product name contributed greatly to our success, but there are fundamental things about our business that I believe help it thrive. We’ve decided to keep our company local and keep our product made by real people. It seems “experts” are always telling us to change these two things, but I believe in leaving things alone when they’re working well. The success of our company is largely due to the people we’ve hired, who take as much pride in the product as we do. We also live by the golden rule. We do unto others as we would like to have done unto us. We treat everybody with respect and I believe in kindness and giving, which has always served us well.
Finally, I still live by the motto, “No matter how big we get, we focus on one customer at a time.” Everyone appreciates that service and it’s a practical way to take a big job and break it into manageable pieces. No matter how many people we have to serve in a day, we can do it if we just focus on one customer at a time.
Brian: I’d add that we have committed to staying authentic. Corin’s authentic and she has stayed away from selling anything that isn’t. We’ll always be that authentic, trusted brand that people can rely on.
FIVE INGREDIENTS for a healthy business recipe
1. Get your product and branding right – You’ve got to love your own product and understand how to brand it to reach your target market. For Holy Crap, our target market includes women between the ages of 25 and 54. They account for 90 per cent of our purchases.
2. Make sure you have enough resources – You need money to make money. Find a bank or private investor that is willing to help you realize your dream. It’s impossible to market a product without money. Our local credit union stepped up to help finance our dream.
3. Find a mentor – Having Jim Treliving as our mentor has been a phenomenal gift. In the beginning, he was there with wisdom to share and we made sure to take notes. Following his advice has always paid off. Buy his new book, Decisions: Making the Right Decisions, Righting the Wrong Ones.
4. Demonstrate your product – You can have a great product, but if people don’t try it, they’ll never know. In the beginning, we were at farmers’ markets every weekend getting spoonfuls of our cereal into the mouths of as many people as possible. Everyone who loved it told a friend, and every week we had more people trying and buying our product.
5. Tap into social media – In today’s market, you can’t make it without social media. We do the majority of our sales online at www.Holycrap.ca, and our Twitter and Facebook presence has been expanded over the past year. Not only do these venues give us a way to market our cereal to the world, they allow for a dialogue about it, and everyday people talking about how great your product is will do more to boost sales than any artificial ad campaign.