As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Rip Pruisken.
Rip is the CEO and co-founder of Rip Van, a snack brand creating convenient, better-for-you foods. The company’s signature product, the Rip Van Wafel, is a low sugar take on the traditional Dutch stroopwafel. It has exploded in popularity and is now sold at Whole Foods, Albertsons, Costco, Sprouts, Meijer, Starbucks, and many other retailers nationwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
While in college I, like many other students, was trying to figure out what I wanted to pursue as a career. I came to the conclusion after taking a number of different classes that I didn’t want to become an academic, doctor, engineer, or an economist. I then decided to give consulting & banking a try but after two summer internships realized that I didn’t want to pursue those career paths either. I was quite puzzled at the time and decided to spend some time alone to really reflect and try and get some clarity. As an Italophile, I thought it would be fun to get away in Italy, so I parked myself in Perugia, a little town an hour away from Florence. While in Perugia I visited a local bookstore and I bought a few books that happened to be about entrepreneurship because those were the only available books they had in English.
Reading these books really opened my mind; I realized that I could sustainably pursue my childhood passion for “invention” as a career by starting and building a business. Inventing products and selling them successfully would enable me to invent more products and so forth.
Going back to college, my final year, I was convinced that I wanted to start a business and I remembered my friends loving stroopwafels (my favorite dutch treat I grew up eating in The Netherlands) when I brought them to campus my freshman year. After doing some market research I realized that stroopwafels were not widely available in the US at the time and arguably tasted better than most cookies in the US. With a $7 billion US cookie market, bringing stroopwafels stateside seemed like a great idea, so we started making them in our dorm room at Brown University. It wasn’t long before we started selling them to local cafes and other colleges. Eventually, we ramped up to stocking them in some of the best-known tech companies’ cafeterias (like Google), before moving into noteworthy retail locations like Starbucks, Costco, and more. We’re now in over 20,000 retail locations and I couldn’t be more proud of how far we’ve come.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
At the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, we launched our product for the first time at Costco in the Bay Area of California. We were a small company at that time, so our ability to scale was limited and we weren’t able to command value pricing from our manufacturer. We went in with a product that had a lot of momentum, but was too expensive — a pack of fourteen Stroopwafels was about $14.99, which wasn’t a great deal for a Costco product.
While the product performed okay, it didn’t perform well enough to expand within the Costco family of stores at the time. This was very disheartening and tested our fortitude. We knew we’d have to spend multiple years working incredibly hard and building scale across other sales channels in order to re-approach Costco with a more compelling value proposition.
Over the subsequent 3 years we were able to significantly reduce the sugar levels in our product and we developed the capability to produce minis as well. This in combination with having better pricing at scale and having cycled through 3 broker partners we finally developed an offering that two regions of Costco decided to give a try in 2021. Our launch was a massive success and we soon will be launching nationally within Costco in the fall of 2022.
Reflecting on this experience, I’m reminded of the combined power of belief, perseverance, learning & timing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the very beginning, we partnered with manufacturers to produce our products at scale. We produced about 20,000 units in our first run and we thought, “Oh, yeah, we’ll sell out of these really quickly.” Ultimately, half of that inventory went bad because we over-ordered stock. Fast-forward to the end of last year, and we had the opposite problem: too much demand and not enough product. It goes to show that the difference between finding product-market fit and lack thereof results in a disproportionate ramp up in demand.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people that helped us in different parts and phases of the business including team members, investors, consultants, etc. That said I think my source of courage is definitely by far the most important driver of success in the business and this undoubtedly comes from my grandmother.
My grandmother was an incredibly kind, altruistic & philanthropic individual despite the tremendous hardship she faced in her life. She always was a role model & inspired me with her incredible grit and determination. Even when she was in her last weeks after being diagnosed for the 2nd time with advanced cancer she radiated positivity and made everyone around her feel comfortable. When she passed away a few years ago, I could hear the words she used to repeat to me every time I used to visit her. She used to say “One day, when I pass away don’t be sad. Do something positive in this world. Have an impact.”
Remembering her words is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about doing good through our business, hence our mission “improving people’s lives by inventing better convenient foods.”
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
You’ll have a smarter team, for one; you’ll be able to bring in more cultures and viewpoints and perspectives, which empowers teams and companies to run on another level entirely. And it’s also more fun, I think. Your team members will enjoy a broader range of inputs and perspectives, and that’s really important to ensure there’s equity and inclusion at all levels.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Kindness, respect, honesty: If you embody these principles with your teams, and your teams operate that way with you and those you serve, you will automatically have an incredibly inclusive and equitable culture. That, in turn, permeates people’s personal lives and sets the bar really high for what people should ask of not just the companies they work for, but the companies they support with their money, advertising, and so on.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Identifying, solidifying, and defining a vision for the company. I think everything else can be replaced, but there’s a direction and a vision that a company is trying to create and the CEO has the responsibility to be the steward of that vision.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The responsibility that you have will be far above what you could estimate or imagine. You have a 360-degree responsibility to your customers, shareholders, and teams, and that responsibility is mapped out in both your day-to-day and your future. When you put that into perspective, you’ll quickly find you need to allocate the majority of your life to those responsibilities. It can be exhausting, but it’s incredibly rewarding.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Most of the time in the business especially during the first phase prior to having a fully-fledged team across vertices is an inhuman amount of work. You spend a lot of time executing on the nuts and bolts of the business, wearing multiple hats vs advancing the broader vision of the business. It is therefore so incredibly important to have a clear vision and see the progress made against it to keep motivated during this time.
At present, I’m fortunately able to spend more and more time on key drivers of the business and so my day-to-day is getting closer to what I wanted it to be.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I truly do believe that everyone has multiple strengths and multiple weaknesses, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all profile for a CEO. That said, I think anyone who wants to be a CEO has to really want it, because it takes a lot of time and energy, and they need to be able to constantly learn and improve.
I think the best leaders take total ownership of their organization and are servant leaders. I firmly believe that one needs to lead by example.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
In order to accomplish something great, a team needs to work incredibly hard, collaborating and problem-solving together. For someone to be willing to be part of such a team they need to deeply care about the work they are doing, enjoy & respect the people they are working with and the working principles the company embodies. They need to be inspired by the mission, vision, and progress the organization is making.
In order to create a great work environment, leadership needs to be inspiring. This happens as a result of conveying the vision & demonstrating results via the core team that gives the vision credibility.
The human connection, especially in our increasingly virtual world, is incredibly important, and those genuine points of connection also really make a difference. One thing that’s been very effective for us is a 15-minute daily meeting every day where we go through our sales updates, operational issues or concerns, and team updates.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
First and foremost through the products that we make. We give people healthier snacks without compromising on taste, which helps improve their overall quality of life. As a growing business, we are also working toward impacting communities through job creation right now.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You are going to fail, and you are going to fail multiple times.
- It’s going to take about five times as long as you think to get to a state where you have a steady business
- The ups and downs are going to be far higher and lower than you ever imagined
- You need to build your own processes and systems to be able to maintain your sanity. You’re in a marathon, not a sprint, and that pace is relentless.
- Dream bigger.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The people who inspire humanity are the people who show others something believed to be impossible. They do this by tackling something that brought about good for humanity, and I find that incredibly inspiring. We’re all connected, and anything that reminds people of that is a great movement; in my company’s case, it’s inventing delicious foods that are healthier than people could have imagined.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Rip Van to date is the result of all the learnings we’ve had, a lot of which have come from mistakes and failures along the way. To quote Yoda: “the greatest teacher, failure is.”