Growing up in the Netherlands, Rip Pruisken’s favorite treat was the stroopwafel, a near universal treat in the country. But while he was attending Brown University, he found that it was largely unknown in the US. Pruisken sat out to change that with the launch of Rip Van, which has grown into a better-for-you snack food company. I sat down with Pruisken to learn more about the journey of building Rip Van over the last decade and how the brand has evolved with their growth.
Dave Knox: What is Rip Van and what’s the origin story for the business?
Rip Pruisken: Rip Van is a better-for-you snack food company. The origin story of the business was actually in my dorm room in college. I went to Brown, graduated, and decided to bring over my favorite treat from back home in the Netherlands called the stroopwafel. The stroopwafel is a waffle patterned cookie with a caramel filling. As a snack in Holland, it is consumed by everyone, whether you’re a kid, whether you’re in college, whether you’re working or a senior citizen, everyone loves the product.
To launch Rip Van, I joined hands with Marco De Leon, my co-founder and friend from college. Marco was doing an internship in Morgan Stanley in investment banking. I interned at McKinsey. We both really wanted to build something. We went through the process and realized that the cookie market was a massive category and yet this product that I loved growing up wasn’t part of it here in the US. We both thought it was a really fun idea to work on and that’s how we started on our first product, which is Rip Van Wafels. We started making them, selling them on Main Green and selling them to local cafes. After those early days, we scaled our business over the coming years.
Knox: That first product was more in the cookie space, not the better-for-you space. What led you to re-engineer the product to lower the sugar and increase the fiber?
Pruisken: Part of it was value-driven and then part of it was understanding our consumer and what they wanted. We realized a couple of things. One is, we wanted to create a product that actually had an impact, and we wanted that impact to be as profound as it could be within snacking. And then, the second thing is, what do people really care about? And so, we already had a product that was totally foreign. And so, we had to have a bridge essentially, to connect the consumer to our product. And we thought low sugar was the critical mega-trend that we’re going to see grow and grow over the next 20 plus years. Sugar is a bad thing, and if you look at cookies by and large, whether it’s an Oreo or a premium Tate’s, they both have north of 10 grams of sugar per serving. And so, we thought, well, if we could take this product, which rivals these products in tastes and reduce the sugar levels significantly and make the product more nutritious, we’d give people a better option. And we knew from Holland that the stroopwafel can be an universal product. So I thought if we could make it healthier and make it accessible in the US and it has this appeal, it could be the next big cookie.
Knox: When you launched, what was your initial go-to market strategy for the brand?
Pruisken: We wanted to grow the business and generate revenue and generate cash. It was really important to us to have the independence and be able to propel the business forward versus taking a lot of investment upfront, diluting ourselves out of the company. So we started by thinking about where the product could really move. Where is there natural product market fit? And where’s the cost of acquisition of a customer the lowest, given the resources that we had? We first started selling to college cafes. We had gone to about 30 college cafes, but we realized that to merchandise our product in each of these locations required distribution support and merchandising support. Because we could clearly see colleges we visited and helped merchandise the product, we had significantly better performance than in colleges where the product sold out and it would take three or four days to restock the product. We pivoted in our go-to-market strategy and moved the business to the Bay Area for a while. We did this because we realized that tech companies were giving snacks away for free to their employees. We were very early on that bandwagon and were one of the first snacks at Google, at Facebook, at Yelp, at Dropbox, you name it. And from there, we were able to build a nice business and then start expanding into different channels. Then we expanded into Whole Foods, regionally. We expanded to Peet’s Coffee, and then eventually we got into Starbucks.
Knox: That expansion has continued and today you are in new formats like Costco. What led to you looking at these more traditional channels?
Pruisken: Our mission was and is today, to be a ubiquitous snack. Specifically, our mission is to improve people’s lives by inventing better convenient foods. And by people, we really mean a broad range of people. And so, unless the brand could really land in a major retailer and land across different geographies, we wouldn’t really be able to live that mission. From the onset, we have always wanted to be in large retailers, but from a exposure standpoint, in terms of brand equity, in terms of familiarity with the type of product, if you expand too quickly into these channels, you are at risk. The slotting fees are crazy and the cost of marketing support is really high. You need the resources to afford those channels. And on the other hand, if the product does not perform well, then you are stuck because you lose your credibility in that store or in that chain. And that is going to stunt your growth because without good performance, why would another retailer bring you on board? So, when we started the conversations with Costco, we had a lot more data. We knew that the product worked well across different channels. We knew that the product worked well across different geographies. We knew that it was not a coastal product, that only people on the West Coast or the East Coast bought the product. We saw success in other parts of the country as well. And so, that gave us the confidence and reassurance to say, “Hey, yes, you know what? If we have the right pack type that’ll work for the Costco member, because we think the member demographics, psychographically, really overlaps with our core consumer, and regardless of geography, the products going to click,” that’s when we were like,” Okay, let’s go for it.”
Knox: As you have grown, how have you had to change your business model to the needs of these diverse customers?
Pruisken: Supply chain is a huge driver of this. Ultimately, what a customer wants, needs to fit their strategy as well. You don’t buy single units in Costco, you buy product in bulk in Costco. And so, in a Costco-sized setting, you need to be able to produce the right amount of volume, but also of a custom pack type. In a food service type setting, you are producing different volumes, but it’s the same hero SKU that you are selling to all your other customers. You need to have the manufacturing flexibility, and you need to have the manufacturing scale to be able to deal with larger and larger partners and more and more differentiated partners. When you start off, you are trying to build volume with a few SKUs. That gives you permission to actually go ahead and innovate and launch other products, whether it’s other pack types of the same product, or whether it’s other products entirely. That comes with scale naturally. The larger your business gets, the more resources you have and the more legitimacy you have with your manufacturing partners to do more custom things, because you have that volume.
Knox: The brand is constantly innovating and one of those recent innovations was a birthday cake flavor. How have consumers inspired your choices of where you are taking the business?
Pruisken: Our D2C site has been incredible for that. We run these purchase surveys in which we ask consumers, not specifically about an innovation but, “How can we improve?” And we give them a multiple choice set of answers, and one of them is other products and another is flavors. What we see is that a lot of consumers view Rip Van as a better-for-you snacking brand, not as a stroopwafel brand. They see the low-sugar benefit that we’ve been delivering to them, something that they actually really want, and they want to see other products from us. And then, we also see that people are looking for flavors they love in the stroopwafels as well. Birthday cake was really a response to, “We want more flavors.” We think that D2C and Amazon are great testing platforms for new flavors, but then also for new product concepts entirely.
Knox: Where do you see the brand headed in the years to come?
Pruisken: We started very focused on one product line for a while. With COVID, we really started building our e-commerce presence and having that direct dialogue with our consumers. And what that really inspired is that we have the option to provide them a range of different, better-for-you snacks.
What we want to do is two things. One is, we want to expand Rip Van Wafels across the country, increase our penetration in the market, and make it a more ubiquitous product. We are really excited about that because we are gaining more brand equity and we are at that tipping point. We also want to go abroad. We want to bring the success we have had with Rip Van Wafels and go to other parts of the world. And then, the second point is we really see our website as a platform, a testing platform to try different product, to respond to what consumers want. And then, test out hypotheses of what we think consumers want, even if they didn’t mention it, based on broader consumer trends. And in so doing, the ones that really resonate, we can then scale offline, but also, we can build this platform where you can come to Rip Van and buy something for yourself, buy something for your wife, buy something for your kids, and you can all have your own snacks. A big focus over the next three years specifically, is going to be turbocharging innovation. So, we have been disciplined, focused in expanding omni-channel with one product line. We’re going to test dozens of new product lines online. That for us is super exciting because you just get to innovate, learn, and it requires the team to move incredibly quickly, which requires them to be very agile. That is the trip we are currently on.
Knox: You started Rip Van right out of college. Looking back, what’s the one thing you wish you had known when you started this business, that you have learned along the way?
Pruisken: It is a double-edged sword. Part of ignorance is that you have this freshness, this courage, and you don’t let the fear of low probability get to you. And so, even though you know rationally, most startups fail, you believe your startup’s going to work. That’s a very good thing to engineer that state of mind. But on the other hand, when you are so inexperienced, that’s a huge impediment because you’re initially learning by doing, by making mistakes and getting lucky on certain respects. It takes some time and resources to essentially get better. And so, while you’re trying to operate the business, you’re learning how to, and you’re also going from being a very poor operator to a relatively better operator in time. That can feel painful in retrospect, but there are two sides to a coin. In a CPG business, if it takes longer to build that distribution, build those relationships, get the core innovation right, once you have that, you can really scale. So, maybe you have more knowledge and maybe you would have shaved off a year or two, but it would still take quite a long time to get to the point where you are.
As we went along, we really talked to people who have done similar things before. A lot of people say that, but it is incredibly important. But the second thing is really understanding how to think for yourself. I know it sounds silly but most people, myself included, don’t think for themselves on a regular basis. If you actually look at things from their fundamentals and you’re like, “Okay, well, how do I solve this problem? This is how this person has done it. How does that fit into the context of where we are? What knowledge do we need to acquire or resources do we need to acquire in order to de-risk the chance of actually achieving that goal?” That exercise is incredibly valuable because you see things. You can hire many people that are really good at what they do and increase your SG&A substantially. Or you can understand how things work, set up a system, bring in executional, offshore resources, and execute on that same strategy for one-tenth the cost. The first one, may work, but you lose all of the capital because you Are burning through all that SG&A. The second one, you have a lot more gunpowder and you are actually running a tighter ship because you understand the mechanics of how things actually work. And that goes to getting better at operating, which is a learning process.
I’m glad I started young, spending more time learning along the way, and then also being more patient, are two things I wish, but I do not think if someone told me that at the time I would have listened. Which brings me to the last point, which is, trying to really listen and be open-minded because I know so little. And so, by opening yourself up to solutions, you might actually see how to prevent obstacles when they come your way or see opportunities when they come your way.