Chris Kaiser - Founder, Vermont Peanut Butter Company, Inc

Chris Kaiser is one of six kids and comes from historic and blue-collar Pennsylvania.   Chris grew up in the outdoors, spending every chance he got making trails to ride bikes in the woods, playing tackle football, baseball, whiffle ball and creating games nobody has ever heard of before.  He became an entrepreneur as a pre-teen with creating charity haunted forest events at his home in Chester County.  “I grew up in the best neighborhood and the coolest area in the world”, Chris says.  Aspiring to become a professional baseball player someday, he was always not the best in the area.  He was a natural athlete, but he was also that kid who needed to work more to be good at stuff.  It was apparent at an early age that his right arm was not average.  He became one of the best baseball players in the area by late middle school and went on to capture a memorial award his senior year and beat the famous Boyertown Bears for the first time in school history.  Boyertown is in the baseball Hall of Fame for so many of their dominant baseball teams ranked number one in the USA.   Chris went on to receive a Division 1 baseball scholarship to Coastal Carolina University, who just won the National World Series in 2016.

His dad was so important to his decisions, who he lost years ago to cancer.  “My father taught me not just with words, but I followed him around, watched him and learned from that”.   A big man that loved his family and wife first, and work ended the minute he came through the door.  Every kid needs a good parental figure in their life.  Someone they can trust to the end of the earth.

After college and baseball experiences in MLB affiliated leagues, Chris tried keeping his foot in the baseball world somehow.  He met an old friend he played with in South Carolina who was the third baseman at the time for the Baltimore Orioles.  Chris became a strength training liaison to the Orioles and started his first company when he was 24.   North Country Fitness Inc, was a professional training company catering to athletes and contracted with the largest fitness centers in the greater Baltimore Maryland area.  He employed over 10 trainers and it was apparent that creating and running a business was something he was good at.

Chris moved to Saratoga Springs, NY in 1996, marrying his longtime college girlfriend, building his first home and opening his own fitness center.  The Cross-Training Studio was the first of its kind.  No huge weights, just stretch bands, cardio equipment, mid-sized free weights and top of the line professional trainers.   After selling the business three years later to a couple who were members, Chris began studying for his next chapter in life.  He was hired to be a financial advisor for AXA Financial, and he obtained his Series 7, Series 66 Securities Licenses and his NYS Life and Health Insurance License.

Chris went on to start his own firm in 2000-2001 to better work with individuals and small companies on their retirement planning and estate planning.   Utilizing so much of his time management skills he learned while playing a division one sport, and his creativity from his previous business, Chris built a very successful practice.  Suffering a divorce in 2003-2004, Chris was looking for a new path that could merge his lifelong love of health and fitness with his business skills.

After collaborating with a friend, he created the Saratoga Peanut Butter Company and designed, in his new rental home, peanut butter that was flavored.   He and his friend, who was a struggling realtor at the time, knew they had a great new idea. After selling his book of business, and becoming a full-time peanut butter guy, he had a disagreement with his friend about the products and decided to part ways.   Chris did not feel comfortable with products being made by others and then selling them as his own.  Chris decided to again, start a whole new path in life and move to another place on earth he loves so much…Vermont.

In 2008, Chris launched the Vermont Peanut Butter Company with a line of 11 products that he touted as “The nut butters made for athletes”.  Chris finally made the dream of tying health and fitness with business a reality.  Today both nut butter companies are regarded as some of the best in the industry, and he is proud to have created both.  With a solid eight years of growth under his belt and his company being compared to “Ben and Jerry’s of Peanut Butter”, Chris has again decided it is time to wrap his arms around another cause.  “My philosophy has always been that if it is something that helps people, makes their lives better or is a solution to a problem, then I want to do that”.  At 47 years old Chris already has a string of successful, entrepreneurial businesses, awards and personal accomplishments under his belt.  His future will consist of more time with the ones he loves and a less stress.  “Creativity is in my blood as is drive, so I am sure I will find myself doing something that is enriching to society as well as myself”.

How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?

I was first turned on to business development at such an early age.  Creating an actual business with employees, money transactions, deadlines and fun before I was 13 was amazing.  To develop a business or to develop money transactional events is so rewarding.  I remember the feeling of having money in my pocket that was not birthday money or from my mom and dad.   I created it!   When you learn that this is a possibility, it kind of unlocks a door in your brain, making you realize that YOU are the money and not the thing you sell or make.   There are so many that ride the wave of “poor me” “look what happened to me”, and create their own walls rendering them incapable of making what they want out of life.  Hell, I am guilty now and again of the pity party stuff, but in the end, the leader and the thinker wins.   Business Development for me has been the biggest asset in everything I have done.   I even marketed myself in high school to colleges, writing my own letters and “developing me as a business” so I could get a scholarship.  It worked.   I cannot really focus on one particular business that I have created, but rather the thing that created it…business development.

How do you make money?

I have always made money with great companies.  Even when I worked temporarily for a few companies here and there, I only wanted to associate myself with integrity.   To be able to sell products that make life better or easier for someone is a true reward, and makes you feel great.  There are lots of ways to make money, but doing it with integrity is very important, in fact the only way for me.   There are lots of people who copy ideas and start their own company, and I think that is great.  I mean who really cares.  If you create a slightly different angle or marketing then more power to you.  We do not live in a communist lead country, so if you do not want people copying you then go work for someone.   I think making money with creativity is amazing.  People keep inventing new ways to do old things and that is fantastic.   Peanut butter is a perfect example.  It used to be healthy, then it became junk food, and now It’s getting healthy again.

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

In any of the businesses I have owned, profitable is a tricky word.   The true sense of the definition is money left over after all expenses are paid, but I usually dumped money back into my enterprises.  So profitable to me was paying my bills, keeping stress down and being sure that the commodity delivered was 100% satisfied.   I have always thought that if you do these things then the money will come in piles someday.   From a business planning standpoint, profitability will be achieved if you stop following bad advice and too many cookie cutter directions.  Spending X on advertising, and X on marketing materials, and X on this or that is unrealistic.   I have had some people say they “want so badly to be a part of this new company and help to grow it”, yet they request a huge salary and have zero concept of what it is to own something themselves.   In my opinion, how can you know everything if you have never owned anything?  Profitability should not have a timeline as required by those who teach classes about it, but rather should have whatever meaning you would like.   If you want to have an extra $1,000 a month in your pocket, after customers are happy, and your bills are paid, then that is the profitability to you. For me personally, profitability was when I could simply just pay my bills, and hold my head high knowing that I created my own money.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

I remember the feeling I had in starting my businesses very well.   Excitement and scared as hell.   They went hand in hand, 50/50 every single day.  If you do not have the internal capacity for that, then starting a business is not for you.  There is a funny little incubation period when you have just enough money to get things launched, and then you see how long you can go before money needs to come in.  It is in that period I always felt the most like jumping ship.  Anyone would.  Bravery is sometimes taught, but it is usually a trait.   That’s is why entrepreneurs are their own group.  Never lumped in with 9-5 people.  So when that feeling came over me, I just thought about all of my accomplishments in life and who I was.  I trust myself and I know what I can do.  Sometimes you have to reach way, way back to a small accomplishment that happened as a kid, and the enormous cards stacked against you then.  As life goes on you can compile the accomplishments.  For example, when I was in 6th grade I was so scared of this bully in 8th grade, and he made life miserable for everyone.  I took him on in lunch one day (not that this is the right way), but I handled him, we became friends and I got empowered.   When I arrived at Coastal Carolina, I thought “these guys are all better than me”, but then again I must be ok or I would not be here.  Trust and believe in yourself.  Those are not just words.  Really believe in yourself.

How did you get your first customer?

In both peanut butter businesses, I remember walking right into a store with the box of samplers and asking for the manager.  I was nervous because those people are always so busy, and to grab their attention for 10 minutes, let alone have them stand there and sample things is not easy.  I believed that if they would just try it though, that they would be blown away.  I believed in my products!  It was Four Seasons Health Food Store in Saratoga and Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Vermont.  Both ended up as my first customers, and both still sell lots of products today.   There was no advertising.  It was me, on the road, walking into and calling stores.   It came down to face to face sampling.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

Partnerships…period!  Building relationships with business that share a customer “type” is the strongest and simplest way to grow a business.  Carhart clothing is not a good match for smoothies, but athletes and peanut butter is.   So simply creating meetings with other businesses and working out fun promotional with them to complement their sales or joining in on a community event is a no-brainer  I have been doing this for a long time, and I still see people spinning their wheels trying to develop marketing by spending ridiculous amounts of money.  A great example was a partnership I developed with world renowned Stowe Mountain Resort.   I gave away products to their racing events, and discounts to employees there.  They allowed a press release of the partnership and social media posting.   It went so well, I made an investment by purchasing the rights to all the race bibs worn by racers on that mountain for events.  My logo was on the front and back.   Two family friendly, outdoor oriented companies that work together is very powerful.   It engages marketing for the present and future while creating sales all over the place.  Relationships like these can continue to grow in so many valuable directions.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

The toughest decision for me in the past few months was deciding it was time to move on from my current position.   You can never replace a Founder, and there is always only one Founder, but my desires, needs and creativity is drawing me to other endeavors.   I wish to always help the companies I create in some capacity if they need me, as nobody can talk about or convey the vision like a Founder.   I think this is tough for any creator.   I was told that the 8-year itch is real for entrepreneurs and CEO’s.  There is a pull to engage yourself in something new and wrap your arms fully around it.  I love everything I create, or I would not have created it.   I would not say “walking away” is a negative thing.  It is just time for the company to perhaps take new directions, and I feel as if my usefulness has perhaps run its course.  I have so many interests it can literally be frustrating, because I could go into the outdoor industry, hunting industry, fishing industry, tv industry, continue with food or whatever.  Perhaps the right person reading this will see my experience as valuable to their own company, and want to bring me into their family.  That is fine too.  Its about the company and what it stands for not me.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I have a driven personality, and when I get my mind on something its ridiculous how much I will go after it.  This is not something learned in school, but a trait.   I have just always decided to do something and then achieved the result.  It can be uncomfortable for some, as my standards are really, high.  I do not like clutter, so I keep everything I own neat and organized.   My father taught me to take care of my stuff.  Why buy it twice if you can take care of it once.  Everyone has their own personality, god bless them for that.  My last company for example was a food company, so I took my level of cleanliness to another stratosphere.  It made a lot of people uncomfortable.  I don’t like dirty sneakers in a professional work environment, and your idea of clean is probably not mine.  If you want to have things your way, then you should go take your own risks, and start your own company.  That sounds harsh, but it is the truth, and that is a reality check for most.  It is not ok with me to do something halfway or break the rules because it can get done quicker.   Playing high level baseball reinforced that routine, practice and correct mechanics was the key to every success.   Short cuts end up costing more in the long run.  I am a habitual athlete, but I am not over the top.  I competed so much as a kid and young adult I have no desire to have to prove my athleticism to people.   I already have.  If I go mountain biking then it is with my girlfriend or alone, not with groups that want to go as fast as you can.  I mean, damn, slow down and enjoy the scenery man!  Its an individual, and self-pleasing sport to me.   So staying fit with so many recreational sports is everything to me.  I have a gym in my home, and I utilize that as in between outdoor sports workouts to strengthen muscle groups used in certain activities or to simply de-stress.    Having healthy habits has absolutely made me successful.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

Wow that is a tough one, as I have had the kindness of so many nice articles in magazines written about me.  I think the article in All Recipes Magazine was a real accomplishment for me.  They sent out their inaugural issue a few years ago and did a four-page spread on my company.  All Recipes is the number one food recipe website on the internet and now their magazine is equally as successful.  So being in the homes of a few hundred thousand families overnight was so joyful.  It was just something that made me feel like the world was taking notice, not just the state of Vermont.   I have been in national publications before with some sports and fitness modeling I have done, but this was so different.  It told my story and showcased my delicious products.  Yes, I spearheaded a smaller peanut butter company in Satratoga with a friend before Vermont, but that was just practice, and neither of us knew what we were doing.  You should get better at your craft, not do the same thing under a different name.  That is exactly what I did, and that is why super stars like professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones became a friend and athlete for the company, as well as becoming the official PB of the Boston Red Sox in 2016.  I feel that national magazine just opened doors for me, and that was so satisfying.  I created something different from anyone else’s.  A different message, different ingredients and a whole new look that I designed.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

The future for the Vermont business is bright.  There are so many stores now around the country that know the products and are requesting them.  There are more investors interested, more partnerships as well.  I believe the company can be around for a long, long time if it is run correctly and without changing too many things I designed.  I am mostly excited about the opportunities this company has created for me.   I have met thousands of wonderful, and intelligent people over these past 8 years, and when the word is out that I am looking to embrace another opportunity, I believe my emails will pour in.   People trust what I created.  I created the products for the right reasons.  For better health and to get people to make smarter eating choices.  That is a nice thing, and no matter what company does that or what products they sell, as long as they are for the right reasons.   Since I started Vermont there has been over 37 peanut butter companies that have decided to perhaps copy and do similar things.  Who cares, and more power to them.  To put them down, rant and rave about “copying” is ridiculous.  Free enterprise is awesome, and the smartest movers and shakers win.

What business books have inspired you?

Richard Branson’s books are awesome.  That guy is so neat.  He literally fails miserably, and embarrassingly, then wins, and wins big.  He is the perfect example of the entrepreneur.  Someone says no, and the entrepreneur says watch me.  His book, Business Stripped Bare on Amazon is a great one I own.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1905264429/?tag=mh0b-20&hvadid=3521123705&hvqmt=e&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_24odpac3n9_e

Also, my friend and fellow bass fisherman Christpher Rosica gave me his book a while ago called The Authentic Brand.  It is so great and informative.

https://www.amazon.com/Authentic-Brand-Christopher-Rosica/dp/0979310113

There are literally hundreds of great mentors out there with experienced insights.  To follow one is great, but to incorporate a lot of them is superior.

Dave Asprey is a cool guy to listen to if you ever have time for a podcast.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/bulletproof-radio/id451295014?mt=2

What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?

Honestly the best purchases I have made recently are downloaded podcasts.   My girlfriend turned me onto them and is a big fan of them.  It’s amazing how much knowledge you can get by just listening to interesting ideas, people, concepts, innovations through podcasts.  Listening to some of them has helped me so much with a few areas I need work on.  Just come concepts and experiences these people have, reinforce my strengths and help overcome a little doubt.  When I started my Vermont business, my old friend hated me and of course her friends and family for starting a competing business.   Its natural, but it wasn’t suppose to be competing, it was just another level. After listening to folks like Gary Erickson, the Founder of Clif Bar, it is astonishing what he accomplished.   Literally almost lost everything in his life to Power Bar, and came back.  Power Bar was mad, jealous and tried to stop free enterprise.   These are things nobody knows.  How about the founder of the Walls Street Journal?  A bum on the street, and created the most successful paper ever.  There are more than one financial newspaper out there and there are more than one nutrition bar and peanut butter.  So listening to these people just reinforces that the angry jealous types are just scared to be successful themselves.

How does it feel being a popular business owner?   What are your thoughts about cyber bullying?

This is something every person that reaches a certain level of success either small or large deals with.  I have experienced an enormous amount of public accolade for the “next Ben and Jerry” concept here in Vermont, and I am forever grateful.  People recognize you and are so friendly with you, it is as if you make hundreds of friends overnight.   It can be tricky though.  The more people that know you, the more people recognize your name, the harder it is to be private.  I, like a lot of people, have been through hard times.  Difficult times tend to make people stronger and build better empathy characteristics.  Suffering a divorce and all its stages thereafter was not easy.  A lot of folks can relate.  No matter how good of a person you are, there will always be those who have a negative opinion and form off based conclusions as to your character.  Usually if you look at the sources it is those closest to each person that does most of the shaming.  So when you launch a company that gains a lot of recognition, you open yourself up to tremendous scrutiny, and you have to have a thick skin.   Nobody is perfect, and everyone is just trying to live a happy life.  I live my life being the best father I can be and the best friend I have the ability to be to those who care about me.

What are your thoughts about cyber bullying and how it pertains to business?

I think cyber bullying and shaming is an out of control epidemic.  It was not very popular years back and really only existed in small chat rooms or social media sites I believe.  Today there are companies that troll on bad information and ways to public ally humiliate people.  It could be a harmless picture taken at a party with friends from 20 years ago, a break up, a law infraction or even completely fabricated.  The internet is now home to subhuman cowards that seem to feel good about not only trying to destroy their target, but they do not realize it hurts innocent family members, friends and colleagues.  I feel so strongly about this, because it happened to me.  I went through a weird and sad time in my life, and someone decided to make it their livelihood to hurt everyone around me.  It happens to kids every day, and it has even caused people to commit suicide.  All because someone simply cannot be happy with themselves and their own life.  It’s sad.   It is all too easy to cut and paste, and fabricate these days, but it is nearly impossible to make it a crime.  It’s ridiculous.   I love the freedoms we have in this country, but sometimes I just feel that there are too many.   Businesses can literally be ruined due to cyber shaming, and the weak always seem to feed of the negative.   I just hope people will always be smart enough to read between the lines and make informed, intelligent decisions.  When a little girl cyber bullies another about her body or something, it is obvious she has self-esteem issues and is jealous.  When a man cyber bullies another man from a past relationship with his girlfriend…well that’s an easy one to figure out.   I hope something can be done about these trolling types out there, because there are good people, doing good things, and THAT is what needs to be told.  Everyone is “one click away” from their misstep to be broadcasted to the universe via the internet.  No matter what you do as a mom, banker, teacher, pro athlete, state trooper etc., there is probably one thing you have learned from that someone wants to make you feel bad about for all eternity.  So if you know people like this, why would you associate with them or allow it?  That is all it takes…one click.

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