How a Coast Guard vet garnered national attention with ‘Dee’s Nuts’

dee's nuts
dee's nuts

Serving in the military means many things, including persevering in the face of adversity and adapting to uncertainty to complete your mission.

These are critical skills in a military environment, but they’re equally important when we return to the civilian world because even though we may no longer face life-and-death situations as entrepreneurs, we do still face tremendous challenges. Being able to think clearly and adapt quickly, all while persevering through adversity, can mean the difference between going out of business or thriving. Especially when the economy is weak, like we’re experiencing these days with growing inflation, declining consumer confidence and a tightening credit market.

During his time in the Coast Guard, Donavin Warren honed these skills, which helped him to then build and grow the successful snack company Dee's Nuts.

Starting any kind of company is a monumental challenge, but some industries are more challenging than others, and Donavin Warren chose a tough one. In addition to higher start-up costs for products and equipment, there are also burdensome regulations, inventory expiration, and difficulties getting shelf space—either physical or virtual, to contend with. In the face of these significant challenges, Warren buckled down and put the lessons learned during his time in service into action to overcome them.

dees nuts team
dees nuts team

He started by putting in the hard work, grinding every day to build a reputation as well as valuable relationships in the industry. Along the way, he strategically built the company’s brand, complete with an attention-grabbing brand, packaging, and characters, and then began to earn market share, first through small independent stores, then through titans like Walgreens, 7-11, and Walmart. He even wrapped an RV with Dee's Nuts branding, taking it all over the country to promote their products at fairs, festivals, trade shows and food-themed events.

While the daily impact of his efforts was small in the beginning, his grassroots approach built a solid foundation from which he then continuously expanded on. Just like in the military, it was the consistent effort, executed daily over a 10+ year journey, that transformed the company into a giant in the industry.

We all understand that in the military, we start out with boot camp, then move on to our MOS school, then we go to our unit, and for many, we also then go to specialized schools.

Each day, we learn a little more, get smarter, stronger and faster, and we build valuable relationships and a reputation. This is something we all understand when it comes to life in the military, but many expect a shortcut when they return to the civilian world. Warren knew that didn’t exist, so he took the same methodical approach we’ve all experienced in the military to building Dee's Nuts, and it has served him and everyone connected to the company quite well. He says his time serving in the Coast Guard taught him several key lessons that helped him to build a successful business.

Have a game plan

“You would never go out on a mission if you didn’t already have a game plan laid out. People want to go out and say, ‘I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that,’ but you’ve got to watch peoples’ feet, not their lips. So you need a plan that you and your team can follow, and then you need to go out and execute on that plan,” he explains. He also said, “This is something the military teaches you—you have a plan, you train for that plan, and then you execute on that plan. That’s how you increase your chances of success.”

Quitting is not an option

Warren says, “Failure is OK—that’s just an opportunity to learn something, but quitting is not an option. If you’re going to give up, you’re better off not even starting in the first place. Too many people give up when faced with adversity, but if you wouldn’t give up in the military, you shouldn’t give up in business either.”

You can’t do it all yourself

“We didn’t do anything by ourselves in the military because the mission made it virtually impossible, and if you want to build a significant business, you have to take the same approach and that requires leadership,” he said. “The military taught me to lead by example, so figuratively speaking, I carry a mirror so that when I’m ready to give an excuse or blame someone, I can look back at myself and ask, ‘Did I do everything right and did I do everything I could have done here?’ instead of taking the easy way out. You need to be able to depend on people, and you need to be an effective leader in order to be able to do that. I’m so grateful for my partners, Lisa Hurst and Brian Ditore, and the support they’ve provided as we’ve built this thing together. I could never have done this on my own.”