Daniel “D” Katz started his first business—“an eBay/Craigslist electronic business”—when he was 12 years old. And that wasn’t the only business he started before landing on his current healthy protein bar and cookie company No Cow.

Some highlights include a reptile breeding business in his mom’s basement (“it was a very rough time in the Katz household, for sure”) and an alarm clock that you could throw against the wall that would ring again, forcing you out of bed to turn it off (“in sixth or seventh grade, I had to leave class to go talk to [manufacturers] in China”).

But Katz views all this entrepreneurial trial and error as a necessary precursor to No Cow because he’s always known that being an entrepreneur was his path.

“Ever since I could speak, if anybody asked me what I wanted to do, I either said an angel investor or start a business,” Katz says. “It was the concept of being able to take something in your mind and turn it into something real.”

A bar is born

Katz, who started No Cow from his kitchen three years ago at age 18, has always been a bit of a rebel. He describes himself as a “strange kid”—the type with no social life who did as little as possible to pass a class. Katz even quit sports to focus on fitness because team activities were too social.

After high school, and much to his mother’s disapproval, Katz moved from his home in Cincinnati to Los Angeles to start a beverage company.

“I was not old enough to sign a lease, so I had to rent from someone I found on Craigslist, which, again, my mom was not thrilled with,” Katz explains, laughing.

The beverage Katz created was the first of its kind, a ready to drink amino-acid zero-calorie beverage, which Katz loaded up into a van and took to every convenience store in California trying to sell. During this period, Katz was eating whey protein bars to maintain his macros during the day, but he was getting stomachaches.

“That same week, USA Today came out with a report that said 60 percent of Americans cannot digest milk protein,” Katz recalls. “That kind of sparked my mind. I have a dairy sensitivity, just like 60 percent of the country, and I did some research. This was three and a half, four years ago, probably, and the plant-based protein was not readily available in the marketplace.”

Katz started looking into plant-based proteins, and he saw a huge hole, and an even bigger opportunity. Within a day, Katz killed his beverage business and moved back to Ohio. He rented a space, set up an air mattress and got to work on D’s Naturals—the precursor to No Cow.

He began work on the type of bar he wanted to see. “I started with the macros. It needed to be over 20 grams of protein, low net carbs, 1 gram of sugar, dairy-free, soy-free, gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to contact suppliers with and say, ‘Hey, I need ingredients to develop this thing.’ I started calling all these large flavor and ingredient suppliers and pretended like I was the head of research and development at this big company so that they would send me free samples.”

Katz spent day and night mixing and creating, trying to figure out how to make his bar. All in all, he says, he made hundreds of trial products before he landed one that stuck together in “something that sort of looked like a protein bar.”

Once he had the prototype, Katz knew that this couldn’t just be a “farmers market approach.”

“I knew that I needed to take this national right off the bat and focus on putting this product into as many people’s hands as possible,” he explains. “For me, it was about making this business seem a lot bigger than it actually is, and by that, I mean let me contact every single national retailer in the country and see if somebody will take a meeting from an 18-year-old who doesn’t even have a product in his hands.”

And that’s exactly what Katz did—with Target, GNC, The Vitamin Shoppe and Whole Foods, to name a few. For his first meeting with GNC executives, he walked in wearing shorts and a T-shirt, holding a plastic baggie of his product. Their response?

“The first reaction from everybody was, ‘This tastes like sh**.’” Katz says, laughing. So naturally, Katz turned to their biggest competitor, The Vitamin Shoppe, and set up a meeting.

“It was a similar story, except The Vitamin Shoppe said, ‘Hey, listen, we get that it doesn’t taste good. But if you can deliver a product that tastes better than this with packaging that looks good and deliver it in 90 days, we’ll send you over a purchase order and commit to launching one flavor in 200 stores nationwide,’” Katz recalls.

While Katz can’t explain why The Vitamin Shoppe had so much confidence in him, he had product and packaging to them within the deadline. “They put the peanut butter chocolate chip bar flavor on the shelf—still our No. 1–best-selling flavor today—and I got a call back a week later saying, ‘Give us more.’”

A week later, they called again, asking for more flavors and expanded No Cow to 700 stores.

Setting the bar

Today, No Cow is sold in stores and gyms across the country, including Sprouts, Walgreens, GNC and 24 Hour Fitness. And the company has since expanded its products, offering bars, cookies and—coming soon—energy bars.

Katz, who sold a piece of the company to General Mills last year, recently took a year sabbatical from his role as CEO. And while he sees “about 100 things” still missing from the marketplace—in true entrepreneur fashion—he is back full time as CEO and taking the company to new heights.

“When I hired a CEO and stepped back from the day to day, what I quickly found out is that I wasn’t finished at No Cow. We have a lot of work we can do, and I am not ready to let go of that quite yet,” Katz says.

For example, No Cow’s energy bar is not full of sugar, like traditional energy bars. Instead, the bar uses a natural caffeine source from low-temperature-roasted coffee flour—with 1 gram of sugar per serving, 12 grams of protein and a sustained release of energy. “The chocolate sea salt flavor is by far the greatest thing we’ve ever created,” Katz says.

As for Katz, the last three years have been nothing short of long nights and crazy ideas, but none of it wasted because it was all done out of passion.

“I’m not doing this to make money or to live a better life. I’m doing it because I love it and that’s the only reason. That’s one of the things I realized early on, I’m only going to do the things that I truly love, and if you can find your passion early on, there’s no reason to not go after it,” Katz says. “I just realize now that I wake up every day and only do the things that I’m really passionate about.”

Find No Cow products at a 24 Hour Fitness near you.

Photo credit: Courtesy of No Cow