KIND's Daniel Lubetzky on building a mission-driven empire
The founder of KIND bars opens up about what galvanized him to build a wildly successful company—hint: it’s not (just) profit
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, KIND’s founder and executive chairman Daniel Lubetzky grew up with a deeply ingrained resolve to fight for social justice. He is determined to generate kindness in what can sometimes be an ugly world—even if it makes others raise an eyebrow.
Known to strike up friendly conversations with strangers everywhere he goes, Daniel often brightens people’s days by offering them a healthy treat. But every time he boards a flight, Daniel says two voices in his head speak to him. One voice says, “Come on, Daniel, hand out the KIND bars. Make someone’s day.”
And then there’s the other voice, which says, “Can you take a break, man? Just relax and read your book like a normal person. Why are you going to risk rejection?” But the former voice always wins. For Daniel, his personal mission is to seek a genuine connection and pay forward values of kindness, humility, and unrelenting work ethic his father taught him.
Today, the KIND brand is a household name and is worth an estimated $2.9 billion. Daniel calls it a “not-only-for-profit,” striving to balance commercial objectives with social ones. He’s also the founder of multiple true not-for-profits, including the OneVoice Movement, an international grassroots effort that amplifies the voices of moderate Israelis and Palestinians seeking to end the conflict—with celebrity supporters like Natalie Portman, Jennifer Aniston, and Jason Alexander.
In our conversation on This Is Series A, Daniel shares wisdom gleaned from a career of being a founder driven by his genuine, whole-hearted (and irrepressible) drive to do good.
When Daniel launched his first venture PeaceWorks in 2002—a condiments company that aimed to bring Arabs and Israelis together through commerce—he raised $100,000 piecemeal from family and friends. After a few years however, he struggled to show his investors a return. When one of the initial investors asked for her $25,000 back, Daniel was crestfallen. Even though it wasn’t part of the deal, Daniel honored her request.
When he launched KIND as a spin-off of PeaceWorks, Daniel felt uncertain he could secure investors with his financial track record, so he bootstrapped the business. Looking back, Daniel feels this discipline and approach—effectively skipping a Series A —forced him to build a ruthlessly efficient business. By the time Daniel secured his first private equity investment for KIND, he had already generated $30 to $50 million in revenue.
The investors who stuck with him since his PeaceWorks days ended up seeing a staggering 2000x return—literally getting tens of millions of dollars back for their initial contributions. They earned more for every dollar invested than even Apple’s early investors. Daniel attributes this incredible success to his meticulously careful spending as he built the company.
Even though Daniel operates in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space, he believes that tech founders would be wise to adopt a similar fundraising philosophy, and stop vying for unnecessarily extravagant raises. “If you look underneath the hood at software companies, many of these businesses are not sustainable because they’re spending more to acquire a customer than the customer’s lifetime value,” he says.
Daniel predicts that many of these businesses are hurt by overinflated raises and are unlikely to survive the decade. “Don’t assume more money can solve all your ills, and you can just spend your way to success.” If you can build your business efficiently, you’ll also end up owning a lot more of it when you get to the end of the rainbow.
If you are an authentically mission-driven leader, supporters will rally support in your time of need
According to Daniel, the KIND brand is about helping his community be kind to their bodies, their taste buds, and their world. “Big Food tends to favor lower-cost inputs, but it’s a major contributor to the prevalence of so many inflammatory diseases that plague our society,” Daniel says. While many of his competitors use inexpensive ingredients like white flour or sugar—which cost an average of $0.25 to $0.37 a pound—Daniel insists on leading with nutrient-dense ingredients like almonds—which go for $3 to $6 a pound.
But cost-cutting competitors wouldn’t go down without a fight. In a move Daniel highly suspects was lobbied for by competitors, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suddenly announced in March 2015 that KIND bars couldn’t be called healthy anymore. This was a major blow, as every single KIND bar package said “healthy and tasty” on it.
“Every board member we consulted with said, ‘Daniel, lick your wounds and move on. This is the government. You’re not going to be able to change anything,’” Daniel recalls. “But I’m very much driven by a sense of justice. It was not right for us and it was not right for society.”
So Daniel filed a citizen’s petition. And he was shocked and heartened to see the outpouring of support from his community. “The entire nutrition community and all the scientists, and all the consumers rallied on our part,” says Daniel. “It was remarkably moving.”
The FDA was pressured to revisit outdated nutritional knowledge that labeled all fats “bad”—a school of thought we now know was heavily influenced by sugar lobbyists wanting to point the finger at fats as the bigger contributor to obesity and disease. The same logic would label avocados as “unhealthy,” because they are rich in polyunsaturated fat (the “good” kind). Due to the widespread support of his community and Daniel’s unwavering drive to fight for justice, the FDA reversed its decision in May 2016.
But Daniel didn’t stop there. His community had his back in his time of need, and Daniel kept serving this community. Once he glimpsed the injustice of food lobbyists obfuscating nutritional knowledge in favor of profits, he had to do something. Daniel created a non-profit called ‘Feed the Truth.’’ While he funds the organization, it’s an independent group of scientists, academics, and directors leading the charge to avoid any bias towards KIND’s products. “I don’t influence their work,” he says. “I just want to expose the truth.”
After sixteen years of running KIND, one of the most gratifying things for Daniel is seeing his mission resound wider than his own projects. The company he built has attracted hundreds of similarly values-driven employees who extend KIND’s altruistic origins in new directions. KIND recently announced that it would be the first company to ever globally source almonds exclusively from bee-friendly farms.
“What I love about this initiative the most is it was not my initiative,” says Daniel. “I didn’t conceive it. My team worked on it for over two years, partnering with foremost scientists at different universities and almond farmers worldwide.”
With the declining population of bees threatening to exacerbate food scarcity, many environmentalists believe that saving the bees is among the world’s most critical concerns. Since KIND buys 1-2% of the world’s almonds, switching to only sustainable partners is poised to significantly protect the world’s bee population and our global food sources.
Daniel gets a special thrill from empowering others to carry his mission forward. But he never loses sight of those who played a role in allowing him to be a leader. “I would not be alive today were it not for the courage of American soldiers who liberated my father, and the immigration policies that allowed me to come to America as a 15-year-old,” Daniel says. “If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to launch several non-profits, nor provide thousands of jobs to Americans.”
“Immigrants are an important addition to the makeup of society because we don’t take anything for granted. We sincerely cherish our democracy and our freedom,” he adds. “And we will do everything we can to protect those values.”
With these core values galvanizing him to lead with kindness, Daniel’s become so successful that these days, many major airlines have started handing out the KIND bars for him.