Nik’s ‘rare breed’ rebellious instincts were as much curse as blessing. People were infuriated, and they didn’t get the joke at all.
The first thing you notice about Nik Ingersöll, 31, is that he’s got great hair. If he’s sitting down for a Forbes photo shoot, it’s slicked back and well-behaved, but when he’s in his natural habitat it curls over the right side of his head like a wave breaking over a surfer in Malibu. The awesomeness extends down to his face, with a beard like a thicket of brambles.
The second thing you notice his is gaze: piercing and direct. It’s a look you find in MMA fighters, Special Forces veterans, and ex-cops, a look that says, “I’m just going to stare until you drop your gaze, you wuss.” He’s practiced Brazilian jujitsu since he was a teenager and it’s an intimidating package.
Lesson: Never Be What Anyone Expects
That’s exactly what Nik wants you to think, because then he breaks into a big, warm grin and you realize he’s been fucking with you. He’s actually a big teddy bear who says things like, “I’m just too nice and don’t want to make people feel bad.” He’s been defying expectations since growing up in Middle of Nowhere, Nebraska.
In building natural foods company Barnana and winning a truckload of awards (including being named to the Forbes 30 Under 30), he’s shown that:
“Rebelling against people’s expectations can be a powerful tool for finding success doing what you care about—in his case, feeding his fellow humans and taking care of the planet. That’s what makes him a Rare Breed.”
Nik’s been a rebel since birth, growing up poor in an isolated Nebraska town. “I grew up on government assistance and it wasn’t the most poetic upbringing,” he said in our interview. “No one ever was going to go to college from my family. Where I grew up, you had to fly into Denver and then drive for four hours to get there. I thought being rich was having a five-room house, two cars or something like that.”
But Nik’s first big lesson in the pressure other people’s expectations can put on you came when he realized that he and his family were the practically the only visible non-Christians in town. “I didn’t grow up in a religious household,” he said, “I didn’t believe in Jesus and everybody else did. That limited a lot of my opportunities growing up, because I was viewed as this outsider. You get this strange sort of black flag pinned on your jacket, and you are ostracized from groups in school. (I ended up with a) very small, close-knit group of friends, and I always had a disdain for people who just wanted to please everyone and be popular—be yes men and women in whatever they were doing.
“It taught me how to be resilient to what other people think and to really not care about what other people’s perceptions were of me,” he continues. “That has certainly enabled me to start businesses and do everything that I’ve done today.”
The journey to entrepreneurship started when Nik moved to San Diego, slept five hours a night, and enrolled at San Diego State University. He and a partner had already launched an interactive marketing firm, Candy Lab, when Nik hit on an idea. He cared about reducing the amount of food waste in the world, and knew that about 20 percent of the bananas grown on organic farms ended up in landfills. Why not intercept that waste stream at the source and turn those unwanted bananas into healthy snacks? That was the beginning of Barnana.
Now came another chance to show the power of rebelling against expectations. Nik was a broke young entrepreneur with wild hair and ear, lip and nose piercings, and he had to go out and try to raise money from rich investors. “My business partner and I would travel from South San Diego, which is a bad part of town, up to La Jolla, the Beverly hills of San Diego,” he said. “I would go to K-mart and put on my $5 clearance button-up shirt and black pants and fake it, and I was terrified that someone would find out that that I was living (in the ghetto).” He would make his pitch, go home, spend hours on his side hustle, and crash after another 18-hour day.
All along, Nik says, he was never afraid that he couldn’t raise the money despite being a fish out of water in a world of wealth and privilege, an attitude that’s carried him through every one of his ventures. “I don’t care if you don’t think I can do it…I’m just not scared,” he said. “I have an internal locus of control, and I don’t care about any of those other things.”
In the end, he raised enough capital to start Barnana, eventually securing investments from players like Boulder Food Group, Brad Feld, Mark Rampolla, Finn Capital Partners, and Verde LLC. But Nik didn’t put his instinct to rebel against expectations in park; he doubled down on it instead. Fast forward to 2016, and he and his partners were eager to debut a breakout new innovation at the important Natural Product Expo West trade show. Problem was, they didn’t have anything.
So Nik decided to screw with people’s expectations in a huge way. He knew the natural foods industry was filled with people who took conservation very seriously, and that a controversy that fed people’s outrage but proved to be a pretty obvious “Gotcha!” would garner his company a ton of attention. So Barnana released an announcement: they would be launching a new product: fair trade, grass fed, raw, unpasteurized gorilla milk. A dead-on press release read, “After spending time with western lowland gorillas in Africa, seeing their wild habitat being destroyed and after having the privilege to milk one myself – I am excited to bring mother gorillas’ milk to market for human consumption and save the lives of gorillas and their wild habitat.”
It was a brilliant promotion that tied into the company’s conservationist mission…until people actually thought they were serious and went (pardon the pun) apeshit. “I had a package mocked up and everything, and the whole hook was to turn it into a PSA that said something like, ‘Just because you can milk a gorilla, doesn’t mean you should, and just because you can use pesticides in the food industry doesn’t mean you should,’” he said. “Then people on Instagram were like, ‘We’re going to boycott your booth at Expo and send in the troops.
This might have been an instance when Nik’s rebellious instincts were as much curse as blessing. People were infuriated, and they didn’t get the joke at all.
“During the show, all the brokers, buyers and investors—the entire industry—was asking, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’” Nik continues. “I was like, ‘You’ve just gotta find out on Sunday.’ We had this big reveal where we served vegan coconut milk and I gave a speech about ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’” People were angry at being duped, but they loved the message and the pure balls of the promotion.
That’s typical Nik, and his cheerful rebellion against the expectations of investors, small-town Nebraskans, the natural foods industry and pretty much everyone else has helped turn Barnana into a success, with product in stores all over the Midwest and growing.
“Nik is a living lesson in the power of defying what other people expect of you.”
If you’re an entrepreneur, a provocateur, an artist or someone who wants to bring change, people will expect you to speak and act in a certain way at every stage of your journey. Once they think they know you, they’ll categorize you and feel good about believing they have you in a box. The trick is to rebel against those expectations again and again—to surprise the world with your new ideas or direction over and over so you’re always asking people to throw out their preconceptions. You might make them uncomfortable, but in the end, they’ll love you for it and follow where you lead, because we all love the novel and daring.
It takes self-awareness and guts to see what other people expect from you and to make the intentional choice to go in a daring, dangerous new direction. But for Rare Breeds with the courage to rebel, the rewards are out there.
If you’re inspired by this episode and ready to turn your vices into virtues, get your hands on a copy of our explosive new book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous and Different. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BAM, Porchlight, and Audible.
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