By Karen Knapstein, contributor via the Underground Group
⏰ 6-minute read
The Pur Company tweaked the manufacturing and distribution of its aspartame-free gum until it had the basis for a global brand.
CEO Jay Klein credits Pur’s success to careful pacing of the company’s growth and hiring of experienced employees for each unique stage.
Bootstrapping his company and knocking on doors to win over retail partners established a runway for success.
Pur started on an airplane in 2009. Jay Klein was developing a new chewing gum, and he attempted to share a prototype with his seatmates.
“I remember sampling chewing gum up and down the aisle,” shared Klein, who worked in marketing at the time. “I would offer gum to people, and when I would hear ‘I don’t chew gum,’ I would always inquire ‘Why not?'”
Some folks cited artificial ingredients like aspartame as the reason they wouldn’t accept a piece. Klein saw an opportunity: If he could update his chewing-gum formula to be free of artificial ingredients, he could convert those holdouts.
“You don’t realize that a small bit of artificial ingredients actually make an impact on people’s lives," said Klein. "When you could have an option with chemicals or without chemicals, it actually becomes a simple choice."
Eleven years later, the Toronto-based Pur Company's aspartame-free gum and mints -- and popcorn! -- are available in 55 countries, and packaging is printed in as many as 10 different languages.
Klein credits this success to reasonable, steady growth and hiring experienced, dedicated employees that help the company thrive.
Jay Klein launched The Pur Company in 2010 as an alternative to aspartame-sweetened chewing gum.
Chewing on an idea
Klein was the owner of a marketing agency, Drivertise, when he came up with the idea for Pur. His agency did the majority of its business with consumer product companies. So when he landed on the idea of creating an all-natural gum, he leaned on that experience.
"I would listen to [my clients] get so worked up over their own product, and I wanted to feel what it’s like to be them,” Klein said.
"I would listen to [my clients] get so worked up over their own product, and I wanted to feel what it’s like to be them."
Klein was bootstrapping Pur, and he took advantage of every savings so he could maintain the agency while starting his new company. After borrowing some resources from Drivertise, Pur launched in 2010.
“We were doing shared services with graphic design and … some of the other things. But we didn't have anyone that knew how to sell gum or that understood customer service in terms of retailers, so we hired new people,” Klein said.
He brought on a warehouse manager, two salespeople and an accountant to support the new business.
The actual Pur gum formula started with trial and error. Klein had very little research and development (R&D) experience and even less experience manufacturing chewing gum. He kind of “winged it” and relied on a small R&D team.
The team went through about 10 iterations before landing on the gum formula used in Pur’s launch. Two years later, they redeveloped the formula. All in all, they’ve enhanced the formula about four times, Klein said.
"You learn very fast that people have different tastes buds and desires from a product,” he added. “… You try to please many of the people along the way and try to do the best you can. That [pushed us] into a better product.”
Today, the Pur gum formula includes just nine ingredients, including gum from trees, man-made gum base and fruit-derived xylitol for sweetness.
Pur's team relied on a small R&D team to come up with its chewing-gum formula.
Blazing the market with gumption
With an aspartame-free chewing gum product and a clever company premise (“Kicking aspartame”), Klein was ready to move ahead. He started by going door to door to health food stores in Toronto, Canada, where he was based. Klein would educate the store owners on the gum's all-natural ingredients, handing out free samples and asking if they’d like to stock it.
After a month, The Pur Company got about 33 stores to sell its gum at a retail price of $1.59 USD per pack. It got 100 more in the second month and roughly 800 by the end of its first year.
All along, the team tracked sales.
“Really what we tried to do was understand the success at each point of distribution before we went out [to more stores],” Klein said.
If 800 points of distribution in the first year seems like a lot to you, you’re not wrong.
“We probably over-manufactured to get started," said Klein. "We had so much product, but we wanted to make sure we had enough supplies; we really had to work hard to sell it all.”
“We probably over-manufactured to get started. We had so much product, but we wanted to make sure we had enough supplies."
With a low-priced product like gum, large quantities really are required to generate substantial revenue. So is keeping an eye on value.
"We care about people’s health and well-being, and we didn’t want to just charge a premium for products to charge a premium for products," Klein said. "That’s part of our [responsibility] to the health food market.”
Expanding with small bites
Pur also stayed measured when it was time to grow. For a relatively long while, the company resisted the urge to debut products beyond gum.
“I think one of our best strategies was being very disciplined and very careful. We didn’t expand our product range for the first five years,” Klein said. "We wanted to make sure our business was running well, that we had a strong following and … that our distribution net was wide enough.
"Naturally, you want to sell more, but you also don’t want to risk having business units fail, or products fail."
There were times in 2014-15 when the company grew “faster than [it] could handle” in terms of sales volume, he added. In these times, leadership consulted experts to help Pur chew what it’d bitten off, so to speak.
Then, it was time to add more products. In 2015, Pur introduced mints to its line, making a point to use similarly natural, high-quality ingredients and flavors as in its gum. In 2018, Pur saw an opportunity in the snack food market and launched a popcorn product with 40% less fat than its counterparts. Both were just as well-received as their gum predecessor.
Pur expanded from gum and mints into popcorn in 2015.
Finding the right people for the right growth stage
Klein explained that the team is what changed the most over Pur’s history, in tandem with its annual revenue.
"One of the challenges with a growing business is you blast through different sell levels [and] velocity rates, and you need different people along the way,” he said. “The people who have experience working in a $1 million business, a $10 million business and a $100 million business are very different.”
Pur’s current higher-ups include folks with marketing, business intelligence and technical supply chain expertise. They’re critical to the company’s future, according to Klein.
"You can have a great product; you can have a great market strategy; but you need the support of a team," he said. "It's what keeps the foundation strong as we grow.”
"You can have a great product; you can have a great market strategy; but you need the support of a team."
Pur has now sold well over 1 billion pieces of gum, “a cool milestone to hit,” per Klein. The goal is to be a company known not only for its great products, but also for its longevity -- to be a “Campell’s, Heinz, Kraft or Mars.”
You can bet that comfortable, controlled growth will continue to live at Pur’s core as it pursues that goal.
"Not everyone has to be that [$100 million business],” Klein said. “Some of the best businesses have been around for 100 years [and] continue to grow at a reasonable pace every year. You don’t always have to be the biggest, fastest grower, because with that comes the possibility for a big crash.”