This week, Shawn Busse and Loren Feldman talk to Jeff Braverman about how he walked away from a career as an investment banker and went to work in the family’s nut store, the Newark Nut Co. “My dad and my uncle told me I was nuts,” says Jeff. But with an instinct for taking risks—like acquiring the URL Nuts.com—Braverman has turned the family business into an internet juggernaut, unleashing years of explosive growth. And despite being a former investment banker, he’s managed to do that without taking any outside capital. And he’s far from finished. “To this day,” he says, “we’re doing deep brand research: What is Nuts.com? What can it be? Can it scale? Can it transcend just the word nuts?”
— Loren Feldman
This content was produced by 21 Hats.
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When you have a hunch, don't be afraid to take risks and execute on it. ALWAYS look for new opportunities and be willing to learn.
So along those lines of taking risks—which is something I love to talk about, in terms of what makes a good decision—you took some other risks. So you’re over here tinkering with the online space. You’re really in this kind of A test/B test, inputs/outputs, very what I would call kind of “left-brain activity.” And then I was reading, you did this thing—you shipped a bunch of nuts to CBS. [Laughter] And you have this kind of history of these goofy, kind of ballsy moves that have no direct correlation to return on investment, and yet they made a difference in your business. Can you talk a little bit about whether it’s the “Jericho” thing, or other examples like that? I feel like it’s not an isolated incident, either.
Yeah, and you know what the Jericho example reminds me of? Sometimes I listen to the How I Built This podcast by Guy Raz, and he always asks, “How much of this was hard work and smarts and so on versus luck?” I’m not going to be smart enough to answer that well, but I think you have to be open to receiving the luck. And with the case of Jericho, this was a long time ago, 15 years ago or so. But long story short, the show was being canceled on CBS. And it’s a long story, but fans decided to send nuts in protest.
I had never seen the show. I see some orders come in. We have a fraud system. I was like, “Oh, it’s getting tripped up as fraud,” and start poking around, and just latched on to this thing. Again, mind you, it took me several weeks before even watching the show, because I finally did have to watch it. But like, I had never posted on a blog. We launched a blog. When you see fundraisers, it’s like a thermometer and you want the red to go up. We were saying, “Hey, let’s raise $4,000. That’s the campaign.” And 40,000 pounds later… We raised $20,000 for shirts and whatever, we donated all this money. We just wrapped our head around this thing for about three weeks. I didn’t sleep. You know, taking interviews at midnight, hopping in a truck and driving a truckload to CBS.
Were those nuts paid for? Or were you just donating those nuts?
No, no, no. What we did was, people started buying a pound of something. And then shipping is expensive. What we did was we became a facilitator. We became the focal point of a campaign. Put in $25, put in $100. We’re going to give it to you at the wholesale price. And we’re going to ship this in bulk, 25 pound cases. Hell, we were freshly roasting. These were gorgeous peanuts. And then they realized they wanted to ship it to another executive in L.A. So I was like, “Unh unh, you guys. This ain’t leaving me.” So then I arranged for the company in L.A. to do the final delivery for us. So we were still the focal point of this campaign.
And what’s interesting is, they brought the show back. They flew me out for the full lineup party in L.A. And I’m in the season two DVD, which is kind of funny. And mind you, I wasn’t a fan. I thought these people were crazy at first. I had no idea what this was about. But then, ultimately, what happened was, we did an analysis to say, “Hey, what do we gain from these customers? It turned out, these people are rabid fans, but they didn’t turn out to be rabid customers.” There wasn’t a lot of lifetime value there. But when you have links from The New York Times, and all these other publications about this campaign…
What did we do? We took that Jericho page where we had pictures and this blog and like all this stuff going, we ended up just saying, “Okay, let’s put that page somewhere else. And let’s take that page and redirect it to our nuts page.” And then our rankings went up. So we did maneuver once this whole thing died down. But I think just being open and flexible, and being able to pounce when you have a sense there’s some opportunity. I didn’t expect it to be crazy like that.
Know when to go with your gut and when to hire the experts. When you bring on staff, take the time you need to make sure you hire the right person. If you hire someone who's not a good fit, fix it quickly.
You gave two examples there: one in which you said, “Hey, let’s just trust these professionals. You know, we’ve got to go.” And that was your TV experience, right? Then the other example you just gave was like, “I don’t trust what my team is telling me.” Maybe I’m simplifying it a little too much. But maybe you can help folks, from your own experience, how you think about decision making. And how do you think about trust and when to go with your gut and when to rely on experts?
I’ll answer this in a few ways. Recognize, I’m still learning and I’m still a novice. At some points, I said, “Hey, I should hire an executive team.” I was the highest paid manual laborer for far too long. Let’s put it that way. And I struggled. I said, “How should I reinvest in this business?” I struggled for years. I didn’t know, and I should have invested in people. The problem is, I didn’t know how, and I didn’t have enough confidence in myself in hiring the right people.
So I did go on a crusade and start hiring people. And the mistake I made was I certainly emphasized intelligence, because that was easier for me to measure. There’s a lot more to it than that. And I probably over-indexed there, but some stuff was much more theoretical than practical, and you need to be able to execute. But I think then I was much more of a trust, like, “Hey, I’m bringing on these very intelligent people: Go.” A few years later, I learned that you should really trust, but verify. That’s a newer principle.
And for me, now, it’s like, “Really try to spend a lot of time hiring great people. If you bring someone in that’s not good, fix it, and fix it quickly. But then empower them. But still, verify—and until people are ready.” Because sometimes it’s too much pressure. And like for me, I’ve got 20 plus years of deep institutional knowledge, where for years, I knew everything, literally everything. And that doesn’t scale.
The other thing I did is, I did hire an advisor. Because I would get informed advice from people, but that’s not enough. So I don’t have a board of directors yet. One day, I’ll figure that out, but I think a little over two years ago, I did bring on an advisor. And it just gave me a lot of confidence, because then when you go to make hiring decisions, there’s someone else in your corner who understands the business, not just at a superficial level. I was spending probably four hours a week with the advisor then. And even though I’ve done great in life, like I said, I’m still a novice at this. And there are some things I’m really good at, and some things I’m not. And that’s where I had someone to talk to.
And look, I mean, Young Presidents Organization, where you have your kind of board, it’s a little different. We meet once a month for four hours but they don’t know the intimate details and the ins and outs, and they’re learning, too. But that did help, where then I had someone who I could go to for advice and so on. So I made a big move. We were thinking about, “How do we map my path out? What do I like doing? And how do we get there?” And he had said, “Hey, in three years, you could focus on people, strategy, and then acquisitions.” All of which sound good to me. And I said, “Why three years?” And I saw someone dynamic along the way, and then we hired a president—well ahead of when we were planning to do it.
But I begin to have the structure in place, and it applies to help make these right decisions. I don’t know if that exactly answered it. But in my heart of hearts, I want to just delegate and that’s different. Most people are reluctant to cede control. I probably am too trusting of people. Hence that emphasis on being able to verify. But I think what we’re trying to do is: How do you create a culture environment where you give guidance from up top but let the team set their objectives? Let them feel empowered. Turn people loose.
Know when to hire an advisor and WHAT you're hiring that advisor for.
Yeah, gosh, I think we could have a whole show on this, decision making and risk-taking, and where to get help and when to trust your gut. I think the interesting lesson for Jeff here is how he’s using his advisor. If you listen carefully to the section about television, he didn’t ask an advisor, “Should I go into TV or not?” It was like his hunch, right? He was like, “I think this is an opportunity.” But what he did was he brought in a guy who knew TV really well to help him accelerate that hunch, and so like, within like 10 days, he’s capitalizing on this idea.
And I think that’s a really important thing to understand. If you’re a business owner: Am I hiring an advisor to bring new ideas because I need help innovating and creating new things? Am I hiring an advisor to help pull good ideas out of me, but I can’t quite get them without some help? Or am I hiring an advisor who’s really a subject matter expert, and is accelerating the idea I already have? And all three are totally legit ways to work with outside help.