Behind those nutritional bars on the shelf is usually a story of someone who came up with an idea. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling story than Gary Erickson’s. Tired of the energy bars he consumed to boost his power for arduous climbs, he decided it was time to create his own. Something told him he could make something better, something that “if you needed to eat six of them, you wouldn’t have to choke the last one down.” So out of countless hours in mom’s kitchen came Clif Bar, today the largest privately held company in its category.
I was encouraged to read his story from a former Villager who did innovative work at Starbucks, but eventually shifted and made the move to Clif Bar. After reading Raising the Bar, I can see why he made the switch. It sounds like a pretty impressive and inspiring company, one that ministries can learn from. Here are some quick lessons from Erickson’s journey–
1-Embrace Risk. Any venture begins with risk, but then, this is what entrepreneurs do. This is what Erickson did, starting with very simple beginnings. And as I have been around guys in ministry who have done some pretty profound things—risk is what they assume. This is what church planters, what apostles do—they start small and assume the risk of a ministry venture. Paul started from Antioch with a small team and embraced the risk of setting his sights on Rome, and even on to Spain. But in this case, the risk amounts to faith—not in self–but in a great God who can do anything.
2-Be Willing to Start Small. When Clif Bar first came out, there wasn’t any budget for marketing, etc. So they went to athletic events, set up booths in sporting ventures and got to know people. They did the hard work, grunt work of working with people where they are at, staying within their means. For us in ministry, we must always be willing to start small, get low, and stay low. This is where we find God (Matt 18:5).
3-Catch the Wave. Fortunately for Clif Bar, it was the right bar at the right time. In business, timing is everything. They suddenly found themselves on a ride, growing from three to fifty to hundred employees in no time. For us in ministry, there is something to timing as well. We plant and water, but God causes the growth. We never know where this is all going, where the Spirit moves next (John 3). The important thing is to be ready when the Spirit blows.
4-It’s the Road—Not the Destination. Out of amazing growth, Gary Erickson saw himself thinking more and more destinational–making it big, earning immense profits. He was on a mission, growing from 2 to 5 to 40 million in annual income. But he came to a settled conviction that it can’t be about the destination—the bottom line, maximizing shareholder value. It has to be about the journey—not about the most direct and quick route. The road drives the company. As a result, Clif Bar is one of those unique corporations that doesn’t just make money—it gives back to the community, to environmental issues, etc. The older I get, the more I am getting it—that the road is what is important. Destinations are good (Phil 3:12), but when we are too destinational, we can miss the present for the future.
5-Watch for Drift. Inevitably, things that take off fast slow down. After some early years of growth, things began to flatten at Clif Bar. Gossip and morale loss began to take hold. As Erickson explains, they began to rest on their laurels. The organizational machinery began to transcend the vision. They stopped attending to changes in the market. They were not so careful in listening to their customers. More players entered the field, but those at Clif Bar weren’t paying attention, were not launching new products, nor being decisive in their execution. This happens all the time at corporate level. It also happens in churches that grow. The mission, values, and direction can begin to blur. Growth for growth’s sake rather than growth to further a vision. We can lose our focus, get caught up in early successes and assume we’ve reached the summit when, in reality, we are still at base camp. One way to avoid drift is keep to the adage—what got you here won’t keep you there.
6-Remember Who You Are. As Erickson put it, think big, but realize its only health food. He started Clif Bar for one simple purpose—to make a better energy bar. As I noted in an earlier post on lessons from Starbucks, it is important to know who we are in ministry. While corporate entrepreneurs can go after amazing goals and do great things, too many pastors underestimate their purpose as well as the possibilities. We’re the church, the hope of the world. We have to think big. Anything less is missing the mark, missing our call, missing this immense challenge to be part of advancing God’s kingdom.
7-Keep It Simple. One of the keys to Clif Bars success is that they have kept this large enterprise as simple as possible. Simple, natural ingredients. Organizational structure simple—few hierarchal layers. Decision making and direct communication happen quickly. Live within your means. Grow at a rate you can sustain.
I reread Simple Church this week, and it gives a similar recipe to the church. Ministry creep slinks in. Elder meetings become full of complexities that get off the main thing. Keep it simple really is critical to an effective ministry, just as it is for something as small as health bars. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing (German proverb).