Inside Track is a new feature that reveals how people came up with game-changing ideas or got interesting or unusual industry jobs.
Eric Ryan is co-founder of Olly, an easier-to-use, design-savvy take on vitamins, and before that co-founder of Method Products, the natural-positioned, style-conscious household- and personal-products brand. As such, he's been creating his own cool jobs since the turn of the millennium.
The formula is largely the same: Find a problem category and fix it.
"I was looking for a category that was really big but had failed," Mr. Ryan said of his first foray into entrepreneurship in 2000 with Method. The former account planner turned consultant was at Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco one day with his then-girlfriend when he asked her why Pine-Sol couldn't be designed more like Snapple's Elements line of premium beverages.
Specifically, he wanted to close the "cultural gap" between what cleaners mostly were then and what many people really wanted—products free of toxic ingredients and with a design flair they would welcome into their homes as "extensions of themselves," he said.
To flesh out the concept, Mr. Ryan started talking about the idea to his roommate and ultimate Method co-founder, Adam Lowry, soon after on a skiing trip. "The first thing I did was take it to the 20 smartest people I knew in the industry," Mr. Ryan said. "I asked them to shoot holes in it and tell me why it was flawed. No one could come up with any valid reasons."
So they scraped together what money they had, including a $50,000 inheritance from Mr. Ryan's grandfather. They used that to pay graphic and package designers, found fairly readily in San Francisco, plus a chemist and contract manufacturer they discovered on Google.
The team developed four products, and the founders started pitching local high-end or natural grocery retailers, getting space on shelves they restocked themselves to keep tabs on progress. Then they branched into West Coast chains Ralphs, Albertson's and QFC. The track record there helped land Method at Target.
For additional capital, the co-founders tapped friends and family as angel investors, later enlisting Steve Simon, CEO of Melvin Simon & Associates, to lead a Series A round.
Olly, co-founded 14 years later with former Shaklee Corp. Chief Marketing Officer Brad Harrington, wasn't so different, but started from a higher perch. The idea came to Mr. Ryan while he was helping Target develop its Made to Matter Collection of innovative, better-for-you products.
"I was spending a lot of time across categories, and we couldn't find a brand in nutritional supplements that really resonated with a millennial consumer. If you stand in an aisle and act like you know what you're doing, people will ask you for help. And I realized people were stressed out. Everyone feels stupid in that aisle, because it's so confusing. And yet it's so big. So that was a clue to dig here."
Three tips for making your own cool brand, and hence, cool job:
1) KNOW HOW TO PITCH: "I think that's the greatest skill you can learn in marketing and advertising. What I learned so well [at agencies] was how to sell a concept. So I treated retailers like clients. That was especially true of Target."
2) EXECUTE IN BITE-SIZE CHUNKS: "That's where most people fail. To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to be good at the vision and good at executing. We broke everything into bite-size steps. That takes a lot of insecurity out of the business.
3) DON'T HAVE A BUSINESS, HAVE A CAUSE: "Having a higher purpose is important to motivate people to work alongside you, whether that's partners or employees."