When I met Lara Maré van Niekerk, it was to talk books. The friend who introduced us raved about her many entrepreneurial endeavours and promised that she was bound to offer me some inspiration. I was not only inspired but also amazed and curious!
In 2010 Lara self-published a children’s cookbook Tails and Treats, the proceeds of which now go to the Centre for Early Childhood Development, and in mid-2013 she made her foray into the food industry with RUSH Bars. I caught up with her to find out what has led to her voracious appetite for entrepreneurship and why it revolves around food.
In response to my curiosity about her entrepreneurial journey Lara became quite philosophical but at the same time quite practical. Her views will no doubt have you asking yourself some hard questions and possibly opt for a healthier way of life.
“It’s a fascinating exercise – looking back over your life and trying to pick out those things that have shaped you. What I’ve come to realise more than anything else is that there’s a thread that stitches your life together – a thread called passion – and it’s not random. It’s your calling. So keep an eye out for that thread. It’ll make itself apparent in the places you spend your time, in the conversations you have and the things that inspire you and make you want to reach for more.”
Growing up on a farm in South Africa I learnt to appreciate first-hand the importance of community, home-grown foods, the ‘boer maak a plan’ mentality and the smell of rains approaching. Together, these things form my thread – a thread that has weaved itself through my life and still excites me to this day. My passion for people, my quest for health, my need to make things better and my belief in a life-giving force have been ever present and, regardless of where I go, it all comes together with my mantra: make one life better.”
To her mind her entrepreneurial journey has been less of a journey and more a way of life.
Both her parents worked for themselves so, as Lara puts it, “I didn’t know any other way.” She recalls a particular instance where she set up shop on the pavement outside their house at the age of six. The goods for sale were the contents of her mom’s fridge (much to her horror!).
With the arrival of her son thoughts about what legacy she’d be leaving him set in. She woke up to the fact that there was an ache inside for more. This was the kind of ‘more’ that simply finishing school, going to university and getting a job was not going to get her. “I believe most people feel this ache but learn to stifle it as the responsibilities of adulthood set in and it becomes too risky to do or be anything other than what their CV dictates.” This ache for more found expression in a commitment to make one life better.
One could say that Rush Bars was the culmination of self-evaluation and what Lara calls ‘counter-narrative questioning. “I believe we all have a responsibility to make a difference. We need to take control of our minds and question everything society has dumped on us.” She encourages us to question why we abide by the pressure-filled 40-hour work week that has created convenience-hungry chaos or strive for more in a resource-scarce society that has created dissatisfied and competitive silos and encouraged the addition of chemicals and flavourants to our foods because it sells, yet leaves our bodies disease ridden and lethargic. “We need to centre ourselves – take stock of where we’re at and begin making healthier choices from a place of opportunity and abundance. Our lives and our sanity depend on it.”
After her son was born, Lara studied Perinatal Health and Fitness as well as Child Psychology. She also spent considerable time creating both infant development programmes and nutrition solutions for little ones while in the UK. Upon her return she was struck by the huge gap in the South African market for convenient, healthy snack alternatives. Before long an old school-friend Gavin Memper, now an avid sportsman and qualified chef, approached her in the hope that together they could create all-natural sports performance nutrition. The result was a whole range of RUSH Bars – whole food solutions in a time and society where it’s difficult to take time out to prepare food the way it should be – naturally.
Lara and Gavin consider RUSH Bars as a pioneer in the South African ‘free-from’ food category. Their mission is to inspire people to alter their nutritional intake from products with unnatural additives to raw, natural ingredients that are a healthier. While they continue to attract interest from the local industry, they have been surprised by the increasing interest from foreign players. Their number one challenge and a contentious point with retailers is the shorter shelf-life of the bars because they are preservative.
“But we remain optimistic that retailers will join the rallying cry for clean foods while we inspire people to get real and join the counter revolution – one that demands more from each other and more from society at large.”
As one who has embraced entrepreneurship as a way of life Lara no doubt has a wealth of wisdom to share with would-be revolutionists (aka entrepreneurs). Here are her top tips:
- You will face obstacles and lots of NO’s- but these NO’s will be irrelevant if your YES is bigger.
- Be a co-founder (rather than a one-man band) as you keep each other accountable. Make sure your skill-sets complement each other.
- Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Make sure you only take on what you can handle as your integrity and credibility are at stake, especially in a market where you have no track record.
- Conversely there are too many players promising the world and leaving disgruntled customers in their wake. These customers are desperate for personalised, authentic service. Offer them that. Customers are a lot more understanding if you’re transparent and personal in your dealings.
- You don’thave to be great to get started, but you do have to get started to be great.
- Start small and test the market on friends and family before investing too much money in the venture.
- Starting small also allows you to build a community around your product who become just as passionate about it as you do. They become your ambassadors and are the only marketing you need or, rather, the only marketing you can afford in the early days ;-).
- Be agile. Listen to your customers. Change what isn’t working and constantly improve on your offering.
- People will stare. Make it worth their while!