On any given weekday morning, Cross Campus is quiet, sparsely populated with the regular crew of natural early-risers (I’ve been told they exist) and unfortunate souls with 9 AM lectures (I’ve appointed myself their leader). On March 30, after a morning midterm that was eager to ruin my post-spring break high, I was meandering back to my room when I noticed an abnormal ruckus on the Cross Campus lawn. A single table was set up in the usual spot, the go-to for Woads ticket sales, panlist sign-ups for Fossil Free Yale, or Yale Banner photo campaigns. Keep in mind, it’s still around 9:45, well before most students start pouring out of Berkeley and Hopper, makeshift breakfast in hand. And yet, a buzzing, gradually growing crowd begins to gather around, excitedly chittering above nondescript dance music playing from a speaker behind the table. I passed by, sneaking a peek at what could possibly have triggered this singularity.
As it happens, March 30 was the official launch date of Verb, the caffeinated energy bar enterprise begun by Yale students, and I was just out of the loop. Of course, in retrospect, this wasn’t the first I’d heard of it. Beginning in May of last year, I’d seen the Bass Café campaigns, the well-edited photos of the Verb bar above an East Rock sunrise popping up on my timeline as it was shared by Facebook friends. Elena Conde (DC ‘19), one of my personal Verb-impassioned Facebook friends (who may or may not have two Verb bars in her bag at any time), describes Verb the way one might describe a wildly reliable best friend: “Verb pulls through when you think you can’t keep going anymore. When it’s 2 AM and you have 10 lecture slides to go before that midterm in 7 hours, eat a Verb and you’re good to go. When it’s 3 PM on a Friday afternoon and you have one section left before the weekend, Verb is there to help you out!” Verb has even recently traveled its way up Broadway to the GHeav cash register. GHeav employee Joshua Han puts it bluntly, “Everybody knows these bars. Everybody knows that these are Yale students’.” However, as Verb has recently begun to really make its presence known, they’ve also attracted the amped up curiosity of students beyond the core group of true believers. Who began it? Where do they manufacture? And, the most pressing and prevalent question of all, why this product? Why the hype?
The origin story
It begins with a passionate fisher. Matt Czarnecki (DC ’18), after a long day of fishing, realized that he had a need for sustenance, a snack to keep him going while he fished that could prevent seasickness, a fisherman’s fuel, if you will. Spurred by this thought, Czarnecki set out to create just that—only to find that a bar just like this was already being sold in grocery stores. Surely, this was disappointing, but it also served as an impetus, a force that got the ball rolling toward what would become the Verb bar. Czarnecki would go on to become the CEO and co-founder of Verb Energy, Inc., with a team of three other undergraduates—Bennett Byerley (CFO/co-founder, SY ’19), André Monteiro (CTO/co-founder, DC ’18), and Isaac Morrier (creative director/co-founder, BR ’17). Their vision: an energy bar that tastes good, is natural, and is relatively inexpensive, something they felt did not currently exist on the market. Although the very beginning of the venture’s history began with a bar, Byerley states that “we didn’t set out to make a bar company. We were just unsatisfied with our energy options.”
Their mission began in earnest in the spring of 2016, after the concept of this caffeinated energy bar had been validated by a group of expert judges through the pitch competition of Yale Launch, a fairly new entrepreneurial club on campus. The team began cranking out versions of what would become Verb, trying over a hundred recipes in a variety of residential college kitchens. After all this work, they finally settled on a concoction that they wanted to bring to the people. They rented out local bakeries to produce the bar for an event in Bass Café in hopes of introducing the bar to studious, but potentially exhausted, individuals in the underground library. Armed with the feedback of newly-caffeinated Yalies, the Verb team spent the summer reconfiguring and improving their bar, preparing to formally launch.
Their resurgence has definitely proved successful by the numbers, clearing 1500+ bars in just one month of sales last semester, and, at their event last week, selling 100 boxes of 10 bars each in the first twenty minutes. Verb’s website boasts “good energy for every day” and “healthy ingredients & amazing taste,” claims that Verb enthusiasts clearly believe in. Although I’m not sure if it’s good marketing or a frequency illusion after my first run-in with Verb, I have been noticing Verb bars everywhere on campus—students munching on them during physics lecture, someone deciding to buy one at GHeav as a last-minute addition to their egg sandwich order, a half-second glimpse of the wrapper when you accidentally look into the trash can as you’re throwing something away. More and more people are getting on the Verb train, partaking almost every day. “Originally we thought we had like a Redbull, Five Hour Energy thing,” says Byerley, “but we realized that we made something that’s better for use every single day, if you want. You don’t have to be jumping off mountains or, like, doing backflips to enjoy our bars.”
For good reason, the food industry is one of the most expansive and regulated industries to break into for any beginning venture. The facilities must be up to code, the food handlers must be certified, the ingredients must be assessed—think of anything that might have an ancillary role in the production of something that could sit on a grocery store shelf and you’ll surely find the plethora of guidelines and red tape. And, at the beginning, the Verb team (like most college students) knew little to nothing about the food industry. They started out by putting together funds to pay lawyers to make sure they were within these strict food guidelines. Fast forward a year, and now the energy bars are manufactured at a co-packing company in Spokane, WA, a way to produce Verb on a large scale while ensuring the labor and facilities are in line with standards. To get there, Verb needed some funding, resources, and connections. Enter the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.
For those who’ve wondered what happens in the mysterious office above Gant, the YEI is a university department that acts as an incubator and accelerator for new business ventures by students of all schools at Yale. They host a variety of programs, of which Kassie Tucker serves as director, to aid such initiatives, including the Venture Creation Program, the YEI Innovation Fund, and the YEI fellowship, the last of which Verb has been awarded for 2017. The fellowship is described as an “intensive summer bootcamp for incubating ventures” and includes support in the form of a $15,000 stipend, access to potential partnerships, and workshops for “starting a new high-growth venture” on campus and beyond.
Verb credits the entrepreneurial environment at Yale for many of its impressive connections, including Kevin Ryan—internet entrepreneur, founder of Business Insider and Gilt Groupe, sitting member of the Yale Board of Trustees—and Barry Nalebuff—co-founder of Honest Tea and professor at the School of Management. “Yale has provided an important group of advisors and mentors that help us navigate and maneuver the business,” says Byerley. The fellowship at YEI has contributed to the dramatic development of student-run undertakings in previous years. Both Re-Harvest Foods, a company that encourages sustainable snacks made from the “Ugly Fruit” that grocery stores won’t sell, and PreemieBreathe, a low-cost product that helps newborns breathe when suffering from respiratory illness, were part of the cohort of 2016 Fellowship teams. Both have begun to garner national attention, moving to sites beyond New Haven—to different states or, in the case of PreemieBreathe, to another continent, as they recently tested their device in Ethiopia. As the cohort of 2017 Fellowship teams start gearing up for the summer, all the ventures, including Verb, hope to capitalize on this growth potential.
Even with this valuable support, the small business scene at Yale is still burgeoning. In the last ten years, “entrepreneurial opportunity” did not commonly follow “Yale” in rapid-fire word association. We don’t even make it onto U.S. News and World Report’s list of undergraduate entrepreneurship rankings. However, with heavy-handed encouragement from the university in the form of more competitions and opportunities for assistance, as well as new student-run organizations like Yale Launch, Yale is definitely on the up and up. For Byerley, creating and leading a small business is a way to make your own place, especially at Yale where students may feel inclined, or even obligated, to fall into a predetermined niche. “I really didn’t like being told what to do and fitting into a stagnant model that you couldn’t create. [. . .] Yalies should do more entrepreneurship. Not just for the sake of doing business, but whether it’s starting non-profits or starting social enterprises or starting government initiatives, people should take it upon themselves. We don’t all have to take the same job at graduation. We don’t all have to follow the same trajectories.”
Verb is one of the most recent entries in a growing history of student business endeavors (other newer additions include CHOPS Beef Jerky and SunUp). But, with these start-ups, it seems that the magic ingredient isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking idea, a windfall of funding, or an excess of media connections and coverage. What they require is people who believe in them, gusto from the ground floor, a core group of true believers. Every movement, local or global, highly-specific or grand-sweeping, caffeinated energy bars or international policy change, needs to start at the community level because this most intimate rung is vital to growth—forgoing this relationship only breeds contempt, distrust, and backlash. Local supporters have no interest in investing their energy in a group that hasn’t taken the time to cultivate a conversation with them; jilted individuals weaken the base of any following. I am no business major, but I’m sure this is Entrepreneurship 101. Build your base market as a solid foundation for the future. But, the process of cultivating local enthusiasm is still overlooked by many start-ups, even on college campuses where the entrepreneurs should, theoretically, be most able to reach their peers.
Fortunately for them, The Verb team has not forsaken the students that have been with them from the beginning; in fact, it is just the opposite: “We don’t think of them as customers. We think of them very much as people who’ve been with Verb all the way through [. . .] They’ve shaped the way that it is now.” Joshua at GHeav articulated the mutualism best: “other Yale students know [the Verb bars] are from Yale students, so they buy them and support them. It’s good for everyone.” Verb may be the product, but student support has really made the venture. As their rapid growth has shown, if you can garner a critical mass of fans on Cross Campus in the wee hours of a cloudy spring day, you’re off to a good start.