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How I Made It: Lizanne Falsetto, founder of ThinkProducts

The entrepreneur started concocting protein bars as quick nutrition when she was a fashion model in Japan. That was the beginning of thinkThin snack bars, now a 23-employee venture.

March 27, 2011|By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Lizanne Falsetto is founder and chief executive of ThinkProducts, the Ventura maker of the popular thinkThin brand of nutritional snack and weight-management protein bars. Over the last 12 years, Falsetto has grown her operation from a one-woman venture into a firm with 23 employees. Among the newest offerings: 100-calorie thinkThin Bites in flavors including chocolate toffee nut and white chocolate raspberry. The privately held company does not disclose its financial results, but Falsetto said sales grew 51% in 2010, despite a sluggish economy.

Family matters: Single, mother of two, Alexa, 11, and Aydan, 7. A basketball player during high school, Falsetto, 47, still enjoys working out by running and hiking.

Favorite snack: ThinkThin Creamy Peanut Butter protein bar. She eats one a day.

Earliest days: Falsetto, who was born and grew up in Seattle, said creating healthful dishes from scratch was a source of comfort she learned from her Italian grandparents. "I remember my grandfather spent so much time in his backyard garden, he smelled fresh like a tomato vine," Falsetto said.

Taking a different path: After graduating from high school, the lanky 5-foot-10-inch 17-year-old packed a bag and signed with a modeling agency in Japan. Her family wasn't pleased. "They thought I'd go to culinary school. But I was into fashion. I was voted best dressed in high school, which is funny now," Falsetto said. "I was looking through old photos last weekend and thought, 'Best dressed? Are you kidding me?'"

Eating on the run: For 10 years, she worked as a fashion model, hired by Donna Karan, Hanae Mori, Giorgio Armani and other designers. In Japan, she was inspired by portable meals and nutritional supplements sold in vending machines. Trying to save money and avoid heavy meals at airports, Falsetto cooked up peanut butter and granola-cranberry snack bars and carried them in her purse when she traveled to shoots. Word spread. Fellow models would plead for a bite when a shoot went long.

She started taking orders, charging just enough to cover the cost of ingredients. She felt guilty asking for more. "People kept saying I could sell these," Falsetto said. "It was my first real management lesson: Pay attention to what people are saying, because that's opportunity knocking." By her late 20s, Falsetto was living in Los Angeles and tired of her travel schedule. A friend suggested they visit a health-food trade show to see how to market her bars to grocery stores.

Growing pains: Her father, who handled her financial investments while she modeled, helped her raise enough funds in 1999 to create a small product line. Whole Foods Markets on the East Coast was her first customer. She refused to take on loans. "If I didn't have the money for something, I found a way to make it happen that I could afford." Initially, Falsetto relied on family members and friends for help. But when the business changed and grew, she hired people with food-industry experience to fill out her executive team.

When finances restricted how many full-time employees she could afford, she worked with consultants. The results were mixed. "Good consultants are like having a good map in your car. You can get to the place you want to go a lot quicker," Falsetto said. "The downside is that they're not dedicated to you. You're a priority — but not the priority. So you have to stay on top of them and be very specific in how you delegate tasks to them, so they're focused on your brand and not wasting time on something else."

Keep a cool head: Success, she learned, meant taking the emotions out of her everyday decisions, a difficult task at times. "Because the business is your baby, you take things very personally," Falsetto said. "But getting that emotional can be a mistake.... Always take the time to make sure you have all the information you need before you take action."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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