Joel Clark, CEO & Founder of Kodiak Cakes.
Joel’s story is a study of perseverance. When his brother Jon handed operations of Kodiak Cakes over to him in 1997, Joel was a 23-year-old economics major attending the University of Utah. Over the next 12 years, Joel juggled side jobs, earned an MBA from Oxford University, and he still found time to make Kodiak Cakes a success. Today, Joel runs the company he built around his family’s flapjack recipe in Park City, Utah, where he enjoys spending his free time in the surrounding mountains with friends and family.
Check out more interviews with entrepreneurs here.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO GET FEATURED?
All interviews are 100% FREE OF CHARGE
Table of Contents
We’re happy that you could join us today! Please introduce yourself to our readers. What’s your story?
Joel Clark: I’m Joel Clark, CEO at Kodiak Cakes. I sold homemade pancake mixes out of my red wagon when I was 8 made from my mom’s recipe. Then my other brother started Kodiak Cakes in 1995 and I took over the fledgling business in 1997. I went full-time in 2004 and have been running the business ever since!
CEOs and leaders usually have different motives and aspirations when getting started. Let’s go straight to the beginning. What was your primary goal for starting your business? Was it wealth, respect, or to offer a service that would help improve lives?
Joel Clark: I had an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age. I would knock on doors to pick up lawn mowing, window washing, or snow removal jobs. I started buying and selling cars at 18. I think for me some of the motivation was to have more control over my career destiny. I liked being responsible for that, and the challenge being a self-starter created. I liked the creative freedom and that there would be no limit to what I could do. Shortly after I quit my job to dive into Kodiak full-time, I also quickly experienced the reality or downside of these aspirations. I began to feel daunted by that freedom and realized that this road of entrepreneurship was going to be long, uncertain, and insecure. I would have no one to work with for a long time. I worked alone for many years, at night, trying to stay motivated. I had no capital. I had to work my day job, and then go home and work more. I had to make a lot of sacrifices, both financially and with my time.
My motivation became about finding security in my own business, and any thought of making a ton of money dissipated. Just to get some security and be able to live comfortably on a business I built became my ultimate goal. I had an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age. I would knock on doors to pick up lawn mowing, window washing, or snow removal jobs. I started buying and selling cars at 18. I think for me some of the motivation was to have more control over my career destiny. I liked being responsible for that, and the challenge being a self-starter created. I liked the creative freedom and that there would be no limit to what I could do. Shortly after I quit my job to dive into Kodiak full-time, I also quickly experienced the reality or downside of these aspirations.
I began to feel daunted by that freedom and realized that this road of entrepreneurship was going to be long, uncertain, and insecure. I would have no one to work with for a long time. I worked alone for many years, at night, trying to stay motivated. I had no capital. I had to work my day job, and then go home and work more.
I had to make a lot of sacrifices, both financially and with my time. My motivation became about finding security in my own business, and any thought of making a ton of money dissipated. Just to get some security and be able to live comfortably on a business I built became my ultimate goal.
Tell us about 2 things that you like and two things that you dislike about your industry. Share what you’d like to see change and why.
Joel Clark: One thing I love about consumer products is the innovation side. The ability to create a product that is tangible and differentiated and then go and sell it is fun. I get so excited thinking about new products that we could create. Another aspect of my industry I love is the selling process. Selling in consumer products is not stereotypical sales where you’re cold calling or trying to sell something few people want. Selling in consumer products is more like managing a business with partners. Buyers want to meet with you and learn about your new products. They want to hear your marketing plans, and collaborate on building a business together. And then when the buyer says they want to take a new item and place it in hundreds of stores, there’s no better feeling.
One thing I dislike about my industry is what are called slotting fees. Retailers have become so large and powerful that they can charge you an upfront fee to put your product into their stores. That to me is an unfair way to do business, but it’s now unfortunately the norm. Another thing I don’t love about consumer products is thinking about supply chain risk. There are so many factors that have to come together to create a product from farming the crops, to production, to shipping and warehousing. It’s amazing to see it in action, but it’s complicated and often keeps me up at night.
Companies around the world are rapidly changing their work environment and organizational culture to facilitate diversity. How do you see your organizational culture changing in the next 3 years and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Joel Clark: We would like to be a business that is progressive and proactive about facilitating diversity, and as we say, “infuse diversity and inclusion into the fundamentals of the company.” We have a set of initiatives to help us accomplish this, some of which include ongoing training, how we recruit, company newsletters, and tracking metrics. When I look at high-level aspirations, we’d specifically like to have a workforce that more closely mirrors the racial makeup of the US, as well as more diversity in upper-level management.
According to the Michigan State University “An organization’s culture is responsible for creating the kind of environment in which the business is managed, and has a major impact on its ultimate success or failure.” What kind of culture has your organization adopted and how has it impacted your business?
Joel Clark: Our culture is a huge reason why we’ve been so successful as a business over the past many years and why we’ve been able to sustain momentum for so long. Our culture, known as the Kodiak Code, is a documented standard of values we strive to live up to that tries to achieve best-in-class accountability along with a high degree of psychological safety.
Some of the key principles in the Kodiak Code are to “leave the growl behind,” “come as you are, leave better,” “be collaborative,” “empower others,” “avoid gossip,” “stay humble,” and “produce results.” We are also held accountable for living the values in the Kodiak Code by making how we exemplify our culture worth half of our bonuses.
Richard Branson once famously stated “There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.” and Stephen R. Covey admonishes to “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers. What’s your take on creating a great organizational culture?
Joel Clark: I definitely agree with Branson’s and Covey’s statements about how to treat people, but I do think there is a bit of a formula for how to create a great culture. And for me that is to document the values you would like to see in your culture, and then hold each other accountable to those values, and hire people that share those values. My point is that you must be deliberate about managing your culture, otherwise, your culture will end up in a spot you don’t like
The overwhelming majority of more than 9,000 workers included in a recent Accenture survey on the future of work said they felt a hybrid work model would be optimal going forward, a major reason for that being the improved work-life balance that it offers. How do you promote work-life balance at your company?
Joel Clark: We are moving toward a hybrid work model as well, and will generally be working 3 days in the office and two at home for those who want that. I agree that this could be a great situation in helping with work-life balance. We have always been a business that has tried to care about work-life balance. A couple of other things we do are a self-managed vacation schedule, where we don’t track days off, and “Bear Bucks.”
Bear Bucks is a get active program we created that reimburses everyone a certain percentage of their salary for outdoor or other equipment to help you get outside or get active. You could buy a season ski pass, or a new mountain bike, or gym equipment, etc. It’s a great way to help people get active, which helps with work-life balance and to show that we really care about it.
How would you describe your company’s overall culture? Give us examples.
Joel Clark: I mentioned some of this above, but our culture is made up of 5 main themes: 1) Leave the Growl Behind, Bear Together, Claw Through, Forge a Fresh Trail, and Get Out of the Bear Den. Some of the main points to emphasize are that we want a culture that is empowering and collaborative and not a heavy top-down vibe.
- We want to be “awesome to work with.”
- We want to be candid with each other and get to the real issues, yet be respectful.
- We want to be results-oriented, and not only be a “nice” culture.
- We always want to do the right thing and have integrity, avoid entitlement, and work hard/play hard.
An overarching theme is to “come as you are, leave better.”
It is believed that a company’s culture is rooted in a company’s values. What are your values and how do they affect daily life at the workplace?
Joel Clark: I have described some of the cultural values above, but I would go back to come as you are, leave better. This encompasses our desire to truly be a place where people can come to Kodiak and be accepted for who they are – ALL of what makes someone diverse is welcome here. But we want people who want to become better people. People who want to progress, get better at their jobs, get better at interacting with each other, are better at leading others and thrive in getting feedback and incorporating that feedback to improve. Personal development is hard, but it’s rewarding and inspiring.
An organization’s management has a deep impact on its culture. What is your management style and how well has it worked so far?
Joel Clark: I would describe my management style as collaborative and empowering. I’ve tried not to be the supreme top-down leader who has all the ideas. I don’t like being the center of attention, nor do I like being treated any differently because I happen to be the CEO. I try to create psychological safety so that everyone on the team feels confident to share ideas and challenge the norms. I think being approachable, real, and vulnerable can help create this type of atmosphere. I am pretty aware of my weaknesses and fortunately, I have a great team around me who help compensate where I’m not strong.
Every organization suffers from internal conflicts, whether functional or dysfunctional. Our readers would love to know, how do you solve an internal conflict?
Joel Clark: One rule of thumb for me is to never try to solve problems or express dissatisfaction over email or text. Tough conversations must always be done in person. That way the person gets to see your body language and has a better chance of knowing where they stand. The issue has a better chance of being resolved right then, as opposed to festering until a conversation happens. The other thing I strive to do is to be candid and talk straight. Be open and get to the real issues. If you ignore them or sweep them under the rug, they never go away and can become larger. I think you can resolve most issues if you stay calm, not get emotional, listen first, and then get to a resolution.
According to Culture AMP, Only 40% of women feel satisfied with the decision-making process at their organization (versus 70% of men), which leads to job dissatisfaction and poor employee retention. What is your organization doing to facilitate an inclusive and supportive environment for women?
Joel Clark: We are currently 60% female and 40% male overall. However, as you get into senior leadership, we are more male than female. One of our aspirational goals is to have more women in senior leadership over time, which will not only be a great support for all of the women in the company but will also bring more diversity of thought into leadership. In addition, we have diversity and inclusion initiatives as a business, a diversity and inclusion committee, and do training and newsletters on these subjects. I think one of the best ways to make women feel supported is to take action on initiatives such as these, as opposed to merely talking about what we could do.
What role do your company’s culture and values play in the recruitment process and how do you ensure that it is free from bias?
Joel Clark: Our company culture and values are the axes of the recruitment process. I mentioned the “Come as you are, leave better” principle of the Kodiak Code above, In addition, The Kodiak Code states, “Be yourself, real, authentic” in an effort to reiterate that we accept people the way they are. In terms of bias, in the past year, we have started to have company-wide formal training from an outside agency on this subject so that we can learn what our own biases are so we are able to combat them in the process.
We also strive to have diverse candidate pipelines and are in the process of building recruiting sources from a variety of places as another way to build diverse candidate pools. And lastly, we are starting a project to update Job descriptions in job postings to be broader and use inclusive language
We’re grateful for all that you have shared so far! We would also love to know if there was one thing that you could improve about your company’s culture, what would it be?
Joel Clark: This one is completely on me, but I think we need to celebrate more. We have accomplished so much in the past several years, but sometimes it hasn’t felt that way and I think that is totally my fault for not being more deliberate about celebrating the wins! So going forward, we have some great plans for how to celebrate very specific milestones and we are all looking forward to that.
This has been truly insightful and we thank you for your time. Our final question, however, might be a bit of a curveball. If you had a choice to either fly or be invisible, which would you choose and why?
Joel Clark: I would say invisible because that sounds easier lol. But I can’t do that because then I don’t think I would be able to have as much of an impact in people’s lives or make as much of a contribution. So, at the end of the day, fly. It takes more effort, more planning, more sacrifice, but when you get to higher ground, you can lift others around you.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Joel Clark for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Joel Clark or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
Disclaimer: The ValiantCEO Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.