Nike’s Phil Knight and GoDaddy’s Bob Parsons are notable examples of accountants who founded their own businesses. Chris Cage did it, too, after leaving his cost accounting job and traveling the world.
He told me, “I was an accountant for about a year and a half after college. I quit my job and traveled for two years — a lot of adventure travel, hiking, bicycling, that sort of thing. And when I came back, I was thinking, what are my options to make money?”
He settled on entrepreneurship. Inspired by his hiking and bicycling experiences, Cage started Greenbelly, a maker of high-nutrition backpacking meals, in 2014 from his mother’s kitchen. Fast-forward to 2021, and the business is thriving.
He and I recently discussed his journey. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Greenbelly.
Chris Cage: We make and sell backpacking meals, essentially two big, fat, fluffy bars in a single pouch that provide 650 calories. I started working on the business in March 2014 and launched it in March 2015 with a $19,000 Kickstarter campaign.
Without going too far back, I majored in accounting. I was an accountant for about a year and a half after college. I quit my job and traveled for two years — a lot of adventure travel, hiking, bicycling, that sort of thing. And when I came back, I was thinking, what are my options to make money?
The main options were to go back to accounting or start a business. Starting a business seemed too good to be true. It would check all my boxes. I could make money, live where I wanted, and work in an industry I was excited about. That’s ultimately the path I went down. I was about 25 then.
Early on, I lived in my parent’s basement and used my mom’s kitchen to make the products. The Kickstarter campaign allowed me to move out.
In hindsight, $19,000 was peanuts to get the business going. But I was super stoked to make it work. I wanted that life.
Bandholz: So you were making the bars out of your mom’s kitchen. Did that meet regulatory requirements?
Cage: No. There were Cottage Food laws at the time that varied from state to state. Those laws are designed for a grandma who wants to sell her pies on the corner, so to speak. In Georgia, where I lived, it was $50,000 in revenue. As soon as you hit $50,000 in annual revenue you were subject to oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which meant your kitchen had to be up to code.
So I was in that transitional period when I made food out of my mom’s kitchen and sold it. I couldn’t do that forever.
Bandholz: Didn’t you have the $19,000 from Kickstarter?
Cage: That came in 2015. In March 2014 I was fresh off two years of travel, which included a six-month hike on the Appalachian Trail and a three-month bicycle ride down the length of New Zealand. I burned a lot of calories in both of those. That’s where the idea for a high-calorie food product came from. I finished all of that travel at the end of 2013.
So in early 2014, I’m sitting at my parents’ house trying to figure out what to do with my life. I started working on Greenbelly then — an all-natural food product for outdoor enthusiasts burning 5,000 calories a day.
My first idea was a goo — peanut butter, honey, nuts, who knows what else. I experimented in my mom’s kitchen, mixing stuff. After a couple of days I realized, “This is just junk, a terrible flavor, bad composition, everything.”
So I started transitioning towards a bar. I quickly realized that making a bar is complicated. A basic bar is straightforward. But a bar that I wanted with high nutrition, good taste, shelf-stable — that’s much more difficult.
I was over my head. I had no food background. So I started contacting nutritionists, chefs, anybody I knew that might know something about food. And eventually, I came upon the profession of food scientists, people that make and develop food products. So, I interviewed a few food scientists and started working with one.
He was in New York and provided the framework for what I was considering: high nutrition, all-natural ingredients, two bars. And we talked through a lot of things in terms of what the product was going to be. Then we started to work.
That was March 2014. It took a few months to perfect a product — lots of samples back and forth through the mail, lots of iterations. I ended up taking a bunch of samples to a hiking festival, handing out stuff for free, trying to get feedback. Is it too salty? What’s the texture like?
So by late summer 2014, I was 90% there with a product. I then worked on getting a few customers.
I sent many samples to hiking bloggers. That generated a few articles and a trickle of sales, but by no means was it a viable business to enable me to move out of my parents’ house. So I started thinking about launching the Kickstarter campaign. If I could raise enough money to outsource the production and get me out of my mom’s kitchen, that would be the green light moment. I would run with it from there.
Bandholz: How long did it take to close the Kickstarter and send the products?
Cage: The Kickstarter ended in April 2015. I had all orders shipped by July or August. During that time, I searched for a facility to make the food.
I would call potential vendors and ask, “Do you want to fulfill a $20,000 bar order?” And they would respond with, like, “Who are you?” I called maybe 100 potential food manufacturers, trying to find the right fit. Fortunately, I found one. We’re still with them.
Bandholz: Fast forward to today. You’re doing well. You’ve found a balance in business and life. How have you maintained your sanity while building the company?
Cage: It’s a good question. In the first couple of years, I questioned the viability of the business.
Bandholz: You’re a 100% owner, right?
Cage: Yes. In the early days, location independence was important. I lived in an apartment in Thailand for $120 a month. I was living where I wanted, surrounded by people I valued, and doing activities that I enjoyed. So all of the basics were there.
Then a couple of years later, the business became viable.
Bandholz: You had made it.
Cage: I made it. Once that happened, a lot changed in my personal life. Much less stress. I was still working regular hours, if not longer. But I was enjoying my life more — going on vacations, pursuing hobbies. I took drum lessons in Thailand. So it was a fun journey. I’m fortunate.
Bandholz: How long were you in Thailand?
Cage: Since 2015, I’ve spent about two and a half years there, although in different intervals — three to six months at a time. I was also in Spain for eight months and Guatemala for three months, all with tourist visas.
Bandholz: Let’s talk about your marketing strategy.
Cage: Initially, I targeted long-distance thru-hikers, folks that spend six months hiking on a trail. I thought that was my only market opportunity: people with no money because they’re unemployed for six months. You told me back then, “What are you talking about? Have you heard of Patagonia?” I remember thinking, “That’s a great point. Patagonia is for wealthy, outdoorsy people.”
So I increased my prices early on. Greenbelly would not be here had I not done that. My marketing at the time was public relations outreach — a bunch of hiking bloggers. Then I started reaching out to bigger outlets, magazines, such as Backpacker and various bicycling magazines. More traditional outlets. Then content marketing took off.
I started writing backpacking articles and posting them on our site. They addressed tips to lighten your weight, things like that. We received traffic from those articles. From there, I started understanding that I could optimize organic search rankings with a strategy behind what I’m writing.
To this day, a big part of customer acquisition is traffic to our blog. We went from a few thousand visitors a month to hundreds of thousands.
Bandholz: Is most of your revenue is from your website? Do you also sell on Amazon?
Cage: Thankfully, Amazon is not the main revenue driver, but it continues to be important for better or worse. Ideally, the benefit of being on Amazon is discoverability. People find out about Greenbelly because we’re on that platform. If that’s the case, I’m stoked to be on Amazon, but I don’t know how many actually do that.
Anyway, content marketing is more important for us than Amazon. Joe Rogan helped, too — a really nice explosion.
Bandholz: How so?
Cage: I was on his show in 2017. It came about because of a PR outreach. Joe Rogan listened to a hunting podcast I had been on. He ordered some Greenbelly products.
Bandholz: He was a customer. That’s crazy.
Cage: Yes. Eventually, he mentioned us several times on his show. Customers told us about seeing it. So I reached out to Joe. Eventually, in 2017, I was a guest on the show. It gave us a nice boost for sure.
Bandholz: Where can people learn more about you, reach out, or buy your products?