Shannon Duffy – Co-Founder & CEO, Tender Belly

Shannon Duffy was born and raised in Fairfax, IA, a small community just outside Cedar Rapids. Growing up, Shannon spent all of his time outdoors, whether that be at his grandpa’s farm (where he raised hogs), camping, playing tennis and racing BMX competitively, or just your regular shenanigans with his younger brother, Erik.

Shannon then went on to attend the University of Iowa to study economics. In 2002, it was time to leave Iowa City and he found himself in Chicago, where he quickly found work in IT enterprise sales and account management. Then, after 6 1/2 years, he and his future wife decided it was time for a change, so off to Denver, CO it was.

In Denver, Shannon worked in software sales for a healthcare company, but was eventually fired because he was “too aggressive,” they said. Odd jobs and doing construction kept the bills paid in 2008. He then found a sales job with a building supply company managing the whole western part of the country. Fast forward to 2010, and not only did Shannon get engaged and buy a home with his fiance, but he was also promptly fired again for being too aggressive.

One call to his brother, who was also out of work with a family to support, and a discussion about a bacon recipe that Erik had been toying with during his culinary days, and Tender Belly was born out of pure necessity and the desire to write their own story and not answer to anyone but themselves. Seven years later, and Shannon along with the whole team at Tender Belly, have completely broken the mold on premium pork purveyors. He continues to look for new and innovative products to develop while always staying true to what the business was founded on. Tender Belly is a lifestyle, not just a pork company, and that is what drives this business owner.

In the rare free time Shannon has, he loves to travel with his wife and son, hang at their home in Denver, snowboard, ride his One Wheel, chill with friends and family, and perfect his golf game.

Tell me about your early career.
After attending the University of Iowa and studying economics, I moved to Chicago where I worked for a IT hardware and software reseller managing national and global accounts. Life took me to Denver where I worked in sales of DuPont building supplies throughout the Southwest Region of the country.

How did the concept for Tender Belly come about?
Out of sheer need, due to both myself and my brother not being employed, coupled with the fact that I had just gotten engaged and bought a home. We weren’t interested in looking for jobs in the traditional sense. Erik had a bacon recipe and we thought, “Let’s make a business out of this.” Plus, it will be fun to work together and for ourselves.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was fast and furious and the learning curve through growth required me to learn on the fly and adapt. One good thing was that there wasn’t one big monumental mistake that shut us down.

What was your marketing strategy?
Sampling our product for free to as many high-end restaurants and chefs as we could. They loved the product and were hooked. Having fun with the brand name and being a bit in your face with things such as giving out branded hats to the chefs and back house staff. We showed the love and they showed the love back. No one had really ever done that before.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
In the first three years, we more than doubled our business every year.

How do you define success?
Satisfied and loyal customers. Low attrition rates. Employees that rock and are steadfast and grow with us. Continuous growth that came from not having a massive marketing budget.

What is the key to success?
You must learn from all your mistakes and never stop working 100% toward your goal. Set the goal and do what is needed to achieve it, even the not so fun stuff.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Sticking with your first instinct/decision. It is not always going to be the right one, but I have learned more often than not that it is.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“We will either find a way, or make one.” – Hannibal Barca
“Cheap stuff is expensive.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Undaunted Courage – Stephen E. Ambrose
Tools of Titans – Tim Ferris
Open – Andre Agassi

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
In the beginning, we had a distributor that we were working with and they weren’t performing to the level I expected them to. I yelled at them and then they refused to pay their outstanding bills. We were backed into a corner at a very crucial time, as we were the little guy and they were the big distributor.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Knowing that we have employees with families and my own family counting on Tender Belly. They all need to be cared for.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Never give up. Don’t even entertain the notion. Create a plan and work your tail off for it, but know that the plan is not set in stone, and can be a living, breathing thing that can be molded.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.