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Rebbl CEO: 'I’m having the time of my life as an entrepreneur'

Equipped with learnings from nearly two decades in the natural products business, Sheryl O'Loughlin is out to change the culture of entrepreneurship.

Rachel Cernansky

February 16, 2017

6 Min Read
Rebbl CEO: 'I’m having the time of my life as an entrepreneur'

Sheryl O’Loughlin, CEO of super-herb beverage maker REBBL—and former CEO of Clif Bar and Plum Organics—will give the keynote at this year’s Natural Products Business School at Expo West. She’ll talk in part about the focus of her recent book, "Killing It!," which explores how to launch and grow a business while maintaining a fulfilled life.

Can you give us a preview of what you'll discuss during your Expo keynote?

Sheryl O'Loughlin: I’m having the time of my life as an entrepreneur—and that’s saying something, because as anyone knows who has done it or is thinking of doing it, it’s really not an easy job. But I’ve learned a lot—about business, and about myself—over the years, much of it the hard way. My talk is a really honest accounting of some of the more painful mistakes I’ve made, mistakes that I feel a lot of entrepreneurs make, and how I have used them to launch me to a much stronger, healthier place now.

What led you to write Killing It!, and can you share a few quick tips to help people get on track to a successful business-life balance? 

SO: The idea for this book was borne from several different events that meant I had to write it. First off, I worked as the executive director of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. In that role, I constantly advised young entrepreneurs, and as energized as I was by their enthusiasm, I started to say, 'Be careful. Take care of yourself. Here’s how.' I recognized I had the battle scars that meant people would listen. I had a failed business, but I also had enormously successful businesses. My health suffered, and my personal finances were devastated, yet I’d recovered, survived and I’m loving being an entrepreneur again. I wrote this book to get this message to as many entrepreneurs as possible to help change the culture of entrepreneurship from one of 'everything is always great' to 'everything is great but sometimes I need help.' 

I want readers to come away with an understanding that their business is an important piece of their life, but it is not the sum total of their life. As an entrepreneur, you have to actively cultivate a life outside of your business in order to be healthy and to go the distance at your company. You also have to be vulnerable and open with others who can understand your experience. Often entrepreneurs get so caught up in selling a vision of happiness that they forget how to be open, and even honest, in front of others who could really help them get through it. I share these ideas in the book, but in more detail. I also get into some of the nitty-gritty of running a business, like how to assess your risk tolerance, and stuff about truly living your whole life, like how to be a significant other, parent, friend and thriving entrepreneur at the same time.

What are some of the biggest or most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs in the natural foods industry make while trying to build their businesses that end up compromising their quality of life?

SO: First off, when an entrepreneur’s well-being suffers, the business suffers. If you are not well, you are not on your game, and if you’re not on your game, you’re not making good decisions for the company.

A common moment of tension often comes when/if you decide to take on investors. This is an especially important time if you work in the natural foods industry, because so many of us went into this field because we are purpose-driven. It’s tempting to take on investors who are willing to help you get to the next level without fully vetting them and their approach to your mission—especially when you really need the money! If you’re committed in your core to multiple bottom lines—a profitable business model to sustain your mission-based commitment, helping people and healing our planet—are you certain these investors are on board? Will they support all of these goals, especially if times get tough (which they likely will with the ups and downs of startups)? How crazy will they make you? Do they expect you to never take a vacation, or answer questions any time day or night? I’ve seen entrepreneurs take on investors who were misfits, and I have made this mistake myself. The results can be ulcer-inducing.

The decisions you make at any stage of your company have big impact. However, the choices you make with your venture in the early days can change the course of your future. Really understand your vision, your purpose, and carefully consider the longer-term implications of your choices. Actively seek out the advice of others who have done it before you, ask lots of questions, and really listen. Look for the thread of truth in what others are saying to help you to make the best choices for your future.

Any other advice for new (or would-be) entrepreneurs out there today, and/or tips for navigating the industry in the current climate?

SO: I think it’s particularly exciting to be an entrepreneur today, because more consumers are looking to businesses to be moral leaders. Consumers want a delicious, healthy drink, for instance, but they also want to feel that they are using their purchasing power to better the world. Companies that qualify as B Corps—beholden to multiple bottom lines—are taking off. And smart, qualified people want to work not just for a paycheck but for a company they believe in.

Case in point, I feel beyond lucky to have that chance at REBBL super-herb beverages. I just had to be a part of this company! We take these powerful plants called adaptogens that are known to help the body adapt to stress and we blend them into coconut milk so that they taste amazing. These are plants you might have heard of: turmeric, maca, matcha, ashwagandha, ginseng and reishi mushrooms. What’s even more special about REBBL is that we were born out of a partnership with an organization that aims to eradicate human trafficking, Not for Sale. Our team will move mountains for the company because we believe in it so deeply. Our consumers are evangelists for the brand. This gives me such a source of pride.

I encourage every entrepreneur, as you create and grow your startup—do it out of this pride, and out of love. 


Catch Sheryl O'Loughlin at Natural Products Expo West
What: Business School Keynote Kickoff
When: 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Where: Marriott, Marquis Ballroom S/C

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