From Farm Life to GEM Bites
Episode 69
August 31, 2021

From Farm Life to GEM Bites

with Sara Cullen, Founder and CEO of GEM

Sara Cullen is the Founder and CEO of GEM, a consumer science company offering plant-based innovations to deliver more efficient and sustainable nutrient solutions to consumers. Starting with a line of nutrient dense bites, GEM is a natural alternative to the supplement aisle. In this episode, Sara shares with us her entrepreneurial journey from growing up on a farm in Oregon, to studying at Cornell University, to joining Venture for America where she worked for a startup for two years, to starting her first company, a functional beverage brand called Plant Water, to building and launching GEM in 2018. She talks with us about what it takes to create a brand, why it's important to build community first, how she raised over ten million dollars and maintains relationships with investors, and why it's essential to ask "Why?" throughout a rebranding process.

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In This Episode You’ll Hear About:

  • What life was like growing up on a farm in Oregon and learning a lot about nutrition and agriculture and entrepreneurship and how that brought her to study at Cornell
  • Why she started pursuing internships with the government, such as an Oregon Senator, and then in DC working on Capitol Hill before deciding that wasn’t the long term path for her
  • What led her to the entrepreneurial fellowship called Venture for America and why that experience gave her so many learnings to take with her when she would later build her own brands
  • How she traveled around the world for six months after the fellowship ended and what she learned from seeing farms in other parts of the world
  • How her time with an angel group led to being the Co-Founder of a company called Plant Water back in 2016 where she was able to learn about how to build something from scratch
  • Why her learnings from building Plant Water led her to approach building GEM differently by creating an MVP product and intentionally building a community with which to understand, gain insight, and even look at as co-creators developing the product and the brand to meet needs more specifically and successfully
  • How the community first model led to a quick and successful pre-seed funding round that came about very organically and quite differently than Sara had originally imagined
  • What great advice she has about fundraising and building your investor team through communication and relational partnerships
  • How Sara and the team approached a recent rebrand, why they went about it, and what the process looked like 
  • How they have used a simple and small retail approach to continue to gain brand awareness, build a bigger audience, and gather more insight as to how they can continue to do things better and better
  • Why their product is so different and why it matters

To Find Out More:

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“I was always interested in our food system as a whole and how we can continue to improve it. And so I knew that was something that always was going to be a lifelong mission of mine.”

“I learned most of all that it's about the people that you work with. When you get the right people in the room with big ideas and vision,  you work really hard, and you learn that you really can, there's a lot that you can do when you set your mind to it.”

“I learned that a really good leader is one that is always willing to roll up their sleeves and be a maker at any point at the company.”

“The really good leaders are the ones that really understand how important it is to invest in the people and those relationships.” 

“Everything is a relationship and relationships are all about negotiation.”

“I knew that I needed to get an MVP out in the market, and I needed to build a community first and make sure that I understood their problems that I needed to solve.”

“Through that community, I was able to optimize the product enough to the point where we could then commercialize it and get it to market. And so this kind of community-based approach was the best way for me to leanly iterate on our initial product.”

“This community organically really showed like, wow, people are wanting this.”

“Once I realized that the pathway to successful fundraising was to build the relationships with the right investors that aligned with my mission, vision, and values, and when I started to find those and unlock those, that's when it started to become more successful for me.”

“Just as much as they're buying a piece of your business, you are selling them a piece.”

“I believe that the most successful companies are ones that take a step back and look at their community first and invest in customer experience first and foremost early on, not just the brand.”

Lee: [00:00:03] Welcome to Episode 69 of the Stairway to CEO podcast. I'm your host, Lee Greene. And today I spoke with Sara Cullen, the Founder and CEO of GEM. GEM is a consumer science company offering plant based innovations to deliver more efficient and sustainable nutrient solutions to consumers. Starting with a line of nutrient dense bites, GEM is a natural alternative to the supplement aisle. In this episode, Sara shares with us her entrepreneurial journey from growing up on a farm in Oregon, to studying at Cornell University, to joining Venture for America where she worked for a startup for two years, to starting her first company, a functional beverage brand called Plant Water, to building and launching GEM in 2018. She talks with us about what it takes to create a brand, why it's important to build community first, how she raised over ten million dollars and maintains relationships with investors, and why it's essential to ask "Why?" throughout a rebranding process. If you like what you hear, don't forget to click Subscribe to get updates on our new episode releases happening every Tuesday morning. Until then, we hope you enjoy this episode.

Lee: [00:02:06] Hi, Sara, thank you so much for being on the show. I'm excited to hear your awesome story in building GEM. Thanks for joining us.

Sara: [00:02:12] Thanks so much, Lee. It's great to be here.

Lee: [00:02:15] So where are you from originally? Let's start with some of your background.

Sara: [00:02:19] Yeah, I grew up in Oregon on a farm in Oregon and...

Lee: [00:02:23] On a farm? What kind of animals did you have?

Sara: [00:02:26] It was mostly... It was on a for profit farm, but I say a farm because we had every animal under the sun, from a lot of horses, pigs, cows, peacocks. I mean, you name it. I had everything.

Lee: [00:02:40] That's crazy. Did you have to take care of them when you were younger?

Sara: [00:02:42] Yeah. So I took care of them. I very much had your kind of standard Oregonian experience sort of raising my own food and yeah, eating a very clean farm to table diet. And so I've always been interested in the world of food and nutrition just through my own kind of upbringing, being so close to it.

Lee: [00:02:59] That's so crazy. So as a kid, at what age, do you remember where maybe mom and dad were like, OK, so you know that chicken soup you just had, that little chicken that you used to play with...? How did they have the conversation with you?

Sara: [00:03:12] It was so natural. It was part of just like what you did when I was growing up, you know, it's like, yeah, let's raise our pig, I guess.

Lee: [00:03:22] Were you ever like "Where'd Freddy go?"

Sara: [00:03:25] Well, it was a conversation that we had, like we knew when we got Freddy, who wasn't Freddy, but we were raising Freddy {laughter} to have a natural way of nourishing ourselves. So I had a very healthy way of thinking about it. So I grew up with that kind of mindset early on, and my father was an entrepreneur in the agricultural world. And so I really grew up kind of living and breathing, I guess, you know, entrepreneurship and agriculture and really thinking about where your food comes from and how you feed the animals to feed yourselves and all those things. So it was definitely part of my DNA from an early age.

Lee: [00:04:11] Awesome. So what did you want to be when you grew up? You said your dad's an entrepreneur. You grew up on this farm. No pigs named Freddy. But, you know, what were you thinking at the time that you wanted to be when you grow up? What did you want to do?

Sara: [00:04:23] Actually, when I was a very little girl, I wanted to be a baker. I loved experimenting in the kitchen. And I was always making the weirdest concoctions, I think, at a young age. And I remember running down to my dad and being like, "Try this," and "Try that." And he was always up to taste testing whatever shenanigans I was concocting in the kitchen. And so I, from an early age, thought of myself as like a baker or cook. By the time I graduated high school, I thought I wanted to be a wildlife scientist or a veterinarian. And so I ended up going to Cornell University where I thought I was going to fulfill that dream, and then very quickly realized that that wasn't quite the path for me. And I ended up studying food and nutrition more from a sustainability and environmental lens and graduated with a degree in International Development,

Lee: [00:05:17] Went to Cornell. I mean, that's a pretty hard school to get into. Did you like school growing up?

Sara: [00:05:22] Yes, I was a very studious child. I came from a small town, so there was probably in my class at Cornell three people from the entire state of Oregon.

Lee: [00:05:33] Right.

Sara: [00:05:33] And so it was certainly a surprise and an interesting path that I chose. But I knew that I wanted to be studying, and growing and learning was always like a big part of me since I was young. And so I took it very seriously from a young age.

Lee: [00:05:51] So you were like, farms aren't for me. I don't need to do that for my career, or were you considering that?

Sara: [00:05:57] Certainly not. No, I never thought of myself as a farmer, per se. I think it's just something where, like I said, we never had a for profit farm. [00:06:06] My father, since he was an entrepreneur in the agricultural industry, he worked with a lot of big dairy farms and actual big commercial farms. And I always knew that that wasn't the path for me. But I was always interested in kind of our food system as a whole and how we can continue to improve it. And so that very much I knew was something that always was going to be a lifelong mission of mine. [00:06:31]

Lee: [00:06:31] Interesting. So you're at Cornell, you're like this is a change of pace, I'm sure.

Sara: [00:06:38] Yes. Definitely.

Lee: [00:06:38] What's your experience like in college and what did you study?

Sara: [00:06:41] Yeah, so my formal title of my major is actually quite long. It's International Agricultural Development with a focus in Near Eastern studies. So I actually toured the world really throughout college. I lived in different places. I studied abroad in Morocco. I went to India. I went to Russia as well. And I worked with different farming systems, different entrepreneurs across the world, and always just looking at how we can again kind of improve our food system. A lot of it was more through that sustainability and environmental lens. And so I did a lot of studies through that in college.

Lee: [00:07:25] In high school or in college, what were some of the jobs that you did early in the day?

Sara: [00:07:29] Well, early in the day... So there is a point in college where I started to look more through government as a solution to some of these things. And so one of my first internships was with an Oregon senator, Senator Merkley, and that was my first internship freshman year of college. So I was in Washington, DC, I was on the Hill and was a part of some pretty big bills; the Dodd-Frank bill and others. And so and my second internship was at the UN and World Bank. And so I was starting to pursue that path. And then I think my romanticism, sort of that idealistic self kind of popped a little bit and realized, wow, this is not the path to create a big impact. The bureaucracy definitely is a highly inefficient way. And that's where I started turning more towards entrepreneurialism. And I wasn't sure what that was going to look like. And my first job out of college was with an entrepreneurial fellowship called Venture for America, which a lot of people know now because of Andrew Yang, who ran for President, and he was also part of the mayoral race in New York City. But I was part of the first class of Venture for America, and through that, I ended up joining a startup based out of New Orleans. So it's kind of like Teach for America, but instead of being placed in schools, you're placed in startups, sort of in cities that typically struggle to retain young, smart talent. And so I was based out of New Orleans working for a startup there. And the goal was to really rebuild the entrepreneurial ecosystem, work for these startups and actually learn from the ground up what it really means to build something. And so that was a really cool experience. I ended up working as a brand marketing consultant, so I learned a lot about that world of consumer branding, customer segmentation, high growth eCommerce companies, and that was kind of my first foray into startups and building things.

Lee: [00:09:36] And so what did you learn about what it means to build something?

Sara: [00:09:40] I learned a lot. I think [00:09:43] I learned most of all that it's about the people that you work with. And when you get the right people in the room with big ideas and vision and you work really hard and you learn that you really can, there's a lot that you can do when you set your mind to it. [00:09:58] And I think that's really what I learned. I just love the fast paced life. I love the continued learning and testing and iterating. And most of all, it's just about trying to throw a lot of things at the wall and see what sticks. And the faster that you can test and learn, I think that the faster that you can move. And I think that the experience at a startup at that kind of high pace growth early on was a big contributor to how I thought about starting my own company eventually.

Lee: [00:10:33] And what takeaways did you have in terms of leadership? Was there anything that you kind of learned what not to do or what to do in terms of being a leader?

Sara: [00:10:43] It's a good question. I think [00:10:46] I learned that a really good leader is one that is always willing to kind of roll up their sleeves and be a maker at any point at the company. And the really good leaders are the ones that really understand how important it is, like I said, to invest in the people and those relationships. And I think that was a big thing that I learned actually in those first two years is that everything is a relationship and relationships are all about negotiation. [00:11:15] And so how you think about your even your personal romantic relationship is the same way that you think about your professional relationships. It's continual investment. It's continued hard work to build those. And you have to keep doing that in order to build that trust and to always be a maker. I think that's one thing that we look for in our own company. No matter if you're the CMO or you're a junior analyst, everyone will contribute in the same way. There's no one above taking out the trash or doing the nitty gritty. And it takes that kind of hard work from every person at every level, I think, to invest in those relationships and then to gain the trust of those in order to see your bigger vision.

Lee: [00:12:01] So you worked at the startup from having been a fellow at Venture for America. What happened after that? How long were you there and why did you decide to leave?

Sara: [00:12:10] Yes, it's a two year fellowship, so it had an expiration date. So once that ended, I ended up actually backpacking the world for six months.

Lee: [00:12:23] Wow. Where did you go?

Sara: [00:12:25] I went all over. We started in Europe and Turkey and then ended up in Southeast Asia. So I was in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar and got to really see the world and see a lot of other farming communities, actually. And I got to live with a lot of ethnic tribes in different areas as well, which was really, really cool. So that was an eye opening experience. And I found myself back in New York after that. And that's when I joined a small angel group. And that became Plant Life Ventures. And I was an EIR, Entrepreneur in Residence. And so part of my role was helping invest the angel group's kind of personal funds into high growth startups. And then the other part of my role was incubating my own concept in the food and beverage space. And that's what I ultimately ended up doing. I co-founded a functional beverage company. I was the first CBD beverage to market. This is back in 2016 in New York, and it was called Plant Water. And that's when I learned how to build a product from the ground up and how to create a supply chain, how to tell a story, how to fundraise, how to bring the brand and the product to life. And so that was my first experience in really building something from scratch.

Lee: [00:13:48] Great. And how long did you work on that and what were some of the takeaways from that experience that has helped you to get to where you are?

Sara: [00:13:54] A lot of takeaways. I worked on that for about two years, and I learned a lot about, like I said, about the kind of the fundamentals and the foundation of how you kind of build a product in and bring that to market. And I also learned a lot about what not to do. So I think in those early days, I learned about what kind of founding team that I want to have, what's important to me in a leadership team, and how I think about building a company and making sure that the way that there's a lot of different ways to grow a company and a lot of different ways to approach it. And I knew that I wanted to approach it from a high growth lens and building something really fast. And so I think a lot of those foundational founding team structural infrastructure, I would say, is something that I learned a lot about in that first company that I really was able to take and build GEM. In the right way for me and make sure that I get the right partners on board that were aligned with my vision and values and ethics and how we wanted to build that.

Lee: [00:15:04] Yeah, that's definitely really important to get that founding team pretty solid early on.

Sara: [00:15:10] One hundred percent.

Lee: [00:15:11] Yeah. I mean, so in your experience, what are some of those things, for some of the aspiring entrepreneurs that are tuning in, what are some things they should be thinking of that are things they should not do? Like what are some of those things on the list of what not to do when building a company?

Sara: [00:15:28] Actually, one thing that I did learn is that with the first company, we spent too much time building a product and building a brand without understanding the customer. And that was a big thing that I took away when building GEM. I knew that you're not going to have certainty. You're not going to know exactly, you know, you're not going to have exactly the right product or exactly the right brand out of the gates. And a lot of it comes with really co-creating that with your customer. And so the faster that you can get to market with an MVP and this is where kind of lean startup effect model I think has come into play, but that is maybe an easier application for SaaS companies or tech or not necessarily for CPG. And so how do you apply that to consumer product good? And that was something that I took away in building GEM, is that [00:16:27] I knew that I needed to get an MVP out in the market, and I needed to build a community first and make sure that I understood their problems that I needed to solve. [00:16:38] And that was where the inspiration for GEM came in my own kind of personal health journeys and things that I knew were big problems for me. But are they big problems for other people, too? And what are these other white spaces and needs and unmet needs that we could address? And so the faster that you can build that community and understand that and co-create with them, I think the more successful you'll be versus kind of waiting and spending all this money and years. I mean, some companies I think, will spend five years building the perfect product and brand and then they launch to realize that their customer is something that they didn't even expect. And they have to kind of go back to square one.

Lee: [00:17:17] Yeah.

Sara: [00:17:17] And so that was the biggest learning that I had, is to kind of switch that lens of investment early on. And then secondarily, like I mentioned, the founding infrastructure. I think sometimes people don't really have a thoughtful approach to making sure you set up the relationships right from the early days, whether it's with your Co-Founder or with your investors or just with the people that you bring on board, making sure you have the right structures in place, that you guys have a relationship that's aligned on those vision and values is so important. And so the first company, I think, we maybe had investors and a different founding team that were not aligned on the same vision that looked at building a product differently, not that it was bad or good, but you want to make sure that you get the right people involved who are aligned with you and to be really thoughtful about that. Those are things that are hard to change later on, especially in the early days when you might not have the experience or leverage or competence in those negotiations to make the changes that you need. And so setting it right from the get go is so important.

Lee: [00:18:27] Yeah. And you say build community first. I agree with you completely. What tips do you have for Founders out there that are trying to figure out, Ok, I've got to build a community first? Now what? What do I do? How do you build community first?

Sara: [00:18:42] There are a lot of different ways to to think about doing this, and for me, what that looked like in the early days of GEM is I actually first started with a private beta community on a very complicated platform called Facebook Groups. {laughter} So it doesn't have to be rocket science or some insane technology. I started a Facebook group, and I grew this to about three hundred women. At the time we were just building products for women by a women. And it wasn't just my friends. I had kind of set up a way for people to refer others in across the country. So I didn't know everyone in this group, and of this kind of three hundred women we grew I just started to seed questions to them. Where can we help you along your health journey? What are the problems that you're having? What's frustrating you today? And understanding their values and ethics around specifically nutrition is what we are focusing on. And from that data and from just building these authentic relationships with this initial micro community, I was able to build a few prototypes of the product and actually sent the product to these women. And I did another round of surveying and feedback and focus groups. And then I would send a second iteration of this prototype. Did it improve? Is it actually meeting these needs? And so [00:20:08] through that community, I was able to optimize the product enough to the point where we could then commercialize it and get it to market. And so this kind of community-based approach was the best way for me to leanly iterate on our initial product. And that community has now grown into its own kind of, I would say, macro community within the GEM ecosystem, which has been really cool. They became our initial evangelists in our word of mouth.  [00:20:36]But there's other ways that you can kind of create this type of community. I know a lot of people do this maybe on Product Hunt or through Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaigns. There's different ways to do it. But I just started with kind of a very organic and sort of rudimentary approach and thinking about a community. And we've always tried to maintain that approach too, as we've grown. So even in the early days when we first launched our product publicly, we started with my group of influencers as a community. And today we have a Customer Advisory Board that we kind of rotate out each semester. And this Customer Advisory Board, you kind of have to apply to be a part of it. And it's used about eight to 10 individuals. And it's something that this Customer Advisory Board, I meet with every month, I ask for feedback on the products. I talk about what's going on, content, things that they're interested in learning, things that they're confused about or overwhelmed. We see new ideas about our branding or the ways that we want to communicate. And it's become the sort of, I guess, hyper focused group of individuals that we empower also to lead within our community. And so I think this Customer Advisory Board is something that we will continue to use in order to develop new products that make sure that they align with the heart and soul of our customers. And so we are always thinking about how can we build these different community microcosms in order to make sure that we're staying close to the customer and building the relationships in the right way and empowering our own community to do that, to be part of the conversation.

Lee: [00:22:20] So what does the selection process look like? I mean, this Customer Advisory Board, you're having people apply, I guess, to be on this board. How do you select them? What are you looking for?

Sara: [00:22:33] We look for a lot of things. We look for their passion, and interest for this. So we ask them a lot of questions about why they would want to be a part of this and why they joined GEM. We look for diversity across a broad spectrum of age and gender and different points of their health journey. And so we look for those types of things and also different points of products that they're taking and at what point of their lifecycle they're in with our product. And so we take all those things into account along with the application, which is really quite simple. It's just getting to know you and your ethos. And so we make sure that they're aligned with our food as medicine philosophy and some of the requirements of us looking at reimagining to supplement aisle, reimagining kind of the traditional ways of nourishing yourself with healthier alternatives. And so we look for people who have that kind of open minded and imaginative nature and really radical curiosity about this space, people who are asking questions and are willing to learn and maybe do things a little bit differently. And so we ask questions around that to make sure that they are aligned with those types of values and that they are excited to engage and to work with people and to help everyone feel their best. And that's really like the simple mission of what we're trying to do. And so those are the types of things that we're looking for in these applications and these conversations in order to select them for our Customer Advisory Board.

Lee: [00:24:08] Yeah. So when did you realize things were working? What metrics did you use to measure success really early on? Like when did you realize, "Hey, this is it. Let's run with this. This is the product?"

Sara: [00:24:20] I would say it's simply like an NPS, right? Your Net Promoter Score in some ways. I mean, we value it in different ways. But when I was seeding the product, we would ask them a series of questions. Is this product working for you? Do you like the taste of it? Would you take it every day? Why or why not? Until we scored high or would you recommend it to a friend? Right? That's the NPS. Until we scored high across all of those variables, then we knew, ok, we have a product that people really want, [00:24:54] and this community organically really showed like, wow, people are wanting this. People are tired and have been going through their own trial and error for years, cobbling together pills and capsules and gummy bears and superfood powders and really expensive routines, and nothing has really worked for them. And we started seeing results and they were like, "Wow, GEM is the solution for me. It's really working." And when we started seeing that and hearing that I was like, "Ok, it's go time." [00:25:28] And it's funny because originally I started this community with the thought I would do a crowdfunding campaign. I thought that that was how I was going to grow the brand. I wasn't originally originally keen about growing it the VC route. But when I saw this demand and this excitement from this community, I ended up inviting investors into this community as well. And we ended up raising a round pretty quickly as our pre seed round that enabled us to just accelerate our product development and commercialization of the product to get to market pretty quickly.

Lee: [00:26:05] Yeah, so you raised over ten point five million dollars since then. I know you closed your seed round in April. What are some of the challenges that you faced in fundraising and how did you overcome those challenges?

Sara: [00:26:19] Many challenges. You learn a lot about rejection. You know 99 percent of those meetings are a "No." And you learn a lot about the early days of how to articulate your story and your vision. And it was not easy. And I think, you know, it takes only a few people really aligning with you and betting on you. And like I mentioned, it's relationship building. And so [00:26:49] once I realized that the pathway to successful fundraising was to build the relationships with the right investors that aligned with my mission, vision, and values, and when I started to find those and unlock those, that's when it started to become more successful for me.  [00:27:06]And yeah, so it took a lot of trial and error.

Lee: [00:27:12] Yeah, absolutely. And how did you build relationships with these investors? Like what advice do you have for Founders that are trying to fundraise? Like, when do you start building those relationships and what does that look like?

Sara: [00:27:24] I started building those relationships early on. Even in the company I had prior to GEM, I had some of these relationships. And this was pre COVID. So I was doing some pretty intense traveling. I mean, I had this kind of rule for myself that I wanted to be in person and meet these people face to face and build a real relationship. It wasn't just a phone call. In fact, I rarely took an intro, 30 minute call over the phone. I would instead fly to New York or San Francisco, and I'm based out of LA, and make sure that I have that first meeting face to face because in the early days, pre product and pre revenue, it is about you and the story and the vision. And so it's so important that you are there face to face with them and building those relationships. And so I invested a lot of my time and effort flying around, making sure that I was there, having these meetings in person and taking the time to really get to know them. And I asked them a lot of questions. I mean, most of my meetings early on with these investors, it was me asking them questions about how they think about building companies, how they like to work with companies, where their value ads are. And I approached it from a very... It wasn't like they were interviewing me, it was we were interviewing each other in that process. And it was a true like dating period, I would say. And that's how I approached it.

Lee: [00:28:55] Yeah.

Sara: [00:28:55] So it was very hands on personal relationship development.

Lee: [00:29:01] That's great. And after you had that meeting, I'm sure you did things to continue to build that relationship because you have to continue maintaining it. What did the maintenance part look like?

Sara: [00:29:15] I invested a lot of time in that maintenance. It's something that I continue to do to this day. I'm a very transparent, open book person. And so I shared the highs and the lows. You know, I didn't sugarcoat things. It's like, "Here is what we're working on. Here's where we are going." We can't do well right away. And sometimes I use this metaphor like you have to build the Starbucks before the blue bottle. Sometimes you need to understand, like how to even introduce espresso before you go into, like, the high quality coffee methodologies or that kind of thing. You can continue this metaphor. And so, yeah, I would have since the beginning, I've always had a monthly investor updates where I send them, you know, the good, the bad, the ugly. And it's the investors that really were excited about that, not just seeing the highs, but we're excited about the lows, too, and being a real partner with you and rolling up your sleeves and being in your corner through that time, like those are the people that you want behind you early on. And so I think by sharing all of that, I was able to get the right people in the door and I continue that practice today. I continue to update them. In the earlier days of fundraising, I spent a lot of time having a lot of one on one conversations and making sure that I understood each investing partner, what were their kind of strengths. I could go to one investing partner, maybe more for hiring or one more for the science background and knowing who to go to for what and mapping that out. You can't have one friend or one investing partner be everything for you. And so building the right ecosystem from the get go, it required a lot of time spent making sure that you are updating people along the way. It wasn't like someone would write a check and I wouldn't to speak to them then for months and months. I made sure that they were really part of our team. And I thought of them that way. And so even today, some of our investors are plugged in into our Slack. We're on a text message basis. I'm telling them real time things that are going on. And I made sure to build a highly communicative relationship with everyone.

Lee: [00:31:43] That's great. That's really interesting you have them in Slack. {laughter}

Sara: [00:31:49] Not everyone.

Lee: [00:31:50] {laughter} I'm like, "I don't know about that."

Sara: [00:31:54] That certainly has evolved as we've grown and raised more money and now have more investors. I wouldn't say having every single investor in a Slack group would be maybe the most productive at this stage. But in the early days, certainly. Right? Because you think of them as partners in your business. And [00:32:11] just as much as they're buying a piece of your business, you know, you are selling them a piece. [00:32:16] And so that's, again, thinking about this founding infrastructure, you need to think about all of that. And I think some people just want to look for the check maybe right away, but you really need to think about who is writing the check behind it and what else is how can we transcend that transactional relationship to build a more meaningful contribution?

Lee: [00:32:38] Yeah, I forgot to BCC all my investors once and they were all CCd, and that was a huge mistake actually, that ended up being not a good situation later on with one of them. But yeah. So I think that there's a level of transparency that's good and then there's a level that can bite you in the ass.

Sara: [00:32:58] I couldn't agree more. I also learned that early on, and I always BCC my investors ever since then.

Lee: [00:33:09] Yeah.

Sara: [00:33:10] It's like an individual relationship. They all don't need to have a relationship with each other necessarily because then you may have this us versus them thing that starts to happen.

Lee: [00:33:22] Right. There's always like one bad apple when you have a lot of investors, there's probably always one bad apple and it's just takes one to just have a field day. So anyways... So with that, I know your business, you were saying before, it's like 99 percent DTC. What are some of the challenges you've been seeing since launching that DTC brands are now kind of facing and how have you been finding solutions to those challenges?

Sara: [00:33:51] I think a lot of DTC brands are, I actually would go back to that number one thing that I learned with my first company is that I think that they're trying to build these rinse and repeat models and using sort of kind of stale ways of thinking about marketing. You build this, you invest really heavily in this perfect brand book and this product, and you kind of check these boxes and then you launch and then you use Facebook or Instagram, these generic paid channels, and you kind of build up this rubric. And [00:34:28] I believe that the most successful companies are ones that kind of take a step back and look at their community first and invest in customer experience first and foremost early on, not just the brand. And [00:34:41] that's something that we try to do. We actually didn't invest in our brand heavily until a year and a half into launching. We had built sort of a brandless brand, in fact. We did everything in-house. We tried to keep it super minimal because we wanted to be about the product and about the customer, and we were able to do a lot of data digging and learning about who she was in the early days. And from that, we then were able to invest in a really a more elaborate, I think, strategy and brand essence that then built out a more robust brand that was able to meet them and really grow and expand with them. And it's because of that that I feel like we have a really expansive brand now that can scale and isn't, again, kind of just rinse and repeat model that people are trying to emulate now in the DTC world. And so, you know, that comes with authenticity. Customers are looking for genuine authenticity. They are very skeptical of this world. They're very overwhelmed. They don't know who to trust. And so building that trust early on and just as much as I am transparent with our investors, I have to be transparent with our customers as well. We are focused on sustainability. We want to have the most environmentally friendly products and an eco friendly packaging system. But we knew that we couldn't do that from the get go. We couldn't afford to do. If we wanted to do that right then no one could afford our products. And so we were very honest with our customers early on that this was kind of like our first stage. Here's what we can deliver. But we hope that with scale we can then go to a more sustainable packaging system, for instance. And that's what we did. We first launched with PET, kind of recycled plastic containers, because that was the sort of best way that we could get our products into the hands at an affordable price. And we knew that accessibility was important. And then with scale a year into it, we were able to go into other formats, recycled tins, compostable packages that finally met more of our needs. And so keeping your customers in the loop too of things that you're trying to do as a brand, things that you want to do and to invest in, but telling them, "This is how it works to build this product. This is what it takes." And our customers have always been very supportive of that. And that we're not perfect, but we're continually trying to improve. And so, again, keeping them in the loop on your own transparency and kind of giving them the information in order to empower them to make their own choice instead of being super prescriptive in the early days. And that was something that I really tried to invest in in building a direct to consumer brand that is hopefully much more expansive and evolving with our community.

Lee: [00:37:47] So speaking of brand, I know that you guys rebranded, I think, fairly recently. What are some rebranding tips and how did you go about that whole process? Did you use an agency? Like what were kind of things top of mind as a Founder that you should think of when you're thinking of rebranding? Because it can be kind of scary, right? Especially when you've already have a product in market and a certain type of branding already. I mean, to rebrand is to refresh, maybe not completely rebrand, but how do you think about those two things and just rebranding in general?

Sara: [00:38:19] It's a really daunting process. And we first started with bringing in, we did bring in an agency. The agency that we brought in already had a relationship actually with some of our investing partners. And so we were able to build a relationship with them too, where it wasn't, you know, go do this in a silo and come back with a pretty brand. We actually started the first three months all we did was strategy sessions around our own mission or our own vision. And I don't know if you're familiar with Simon Sinek and his kind of deeper why, but that was really what we did in those first three months. Every question we had, we would go one step deeper. "Why? Like getting to that heart of like really what are we trying to do with our brand? What is that core ethos? And once you kind of discover that brand essence then it all starts to trickle down there. And we spent a lot of time honing our value, optimizing them, getting really critical and kind of pushing ourselves of making sure that is you can say things like it's about, you know, curiosity or imagination or being courageous. But does that really mean on a deeper level? When you push yourself on some of those values, then you start to say, ok, how does that manifest into a visual design aesthetic? What does that look like? And we spent a lot of time in those strategy sessions, not only as a team asking ourselves and pushing ourselves, but then bringing in our customers as well. And this is where the Customer Advisory Board came in, and asking them questions about, you know, what else does GEM serve for you besides this product? What questions do you have for us? How else can we be partner in your journey? What are those daily health companions like? And so we took those into account when doing this rebrand, and that's why I didn't want to do it until we were, you know, a year in market. And I didn't want to do it until I had those relationships established with the community. But we took a very thoughtful approach to that brand refresh, and we worked on it for six to eight months before we launched it. And that's how we came to this new what we call kaleidoscopic ecosystem of GEM and this new brand refresh that we feel takes into account kind of the ways that we look at different sources and forces throughout history and nature and how to bring that into a system that holistically addresses your health. And that came through a lot of thoughtful strategy in the early days. It wasn't just like, oh, we want a new color or a more nicely designed font system. I mean, all of those tactical things were rooted in our strategy of accessibility, of transparency. Yeah.

Lee: [00:41:20] So in terms of retail, I know you guys are in Erewhon, some fitness studios and spas. What was your thought process behind retail strategy?

Sara: [00:41:30] We have always been laser focused as a direct to consumer company because again, to me that was the quickest way to build a relationship with the customer and own that data. And that was really important and something that I learned in my first company, too, that was more retail focused. When you start in retail, like the natural channel, there's Whole Foods or Sprouts or Costco, you work with brokers and you lose all of that data about how people are shopping on the shelves or learning of your product. And we wanted to be really close with the customer, Direct to Consumer, so that we could collect that data. And so we started out doing just that. And we also have a product that is really disrupting the supplement aisle and reimagining the supplement industry by producing whole foods alternatives to vitamins and supplements. And our core product is kind of anti-vitamin. It's a small format bar with concentrated and carefully selected plant based ingredients that kind of help to provide these holistic health benefits. And so it's a funny looking bite that we're saying this is kind of your new real food vitamin. Let's reimagine vitamins all together. That's a lot of education to do with just a shelf. If you're just putting that product on the shelf next to a pill or capsule or gummy bear, you might lose that larger food as medicine philosophy that you'd be able to communicate through a more contextualized website. And so that educational component and that data with the customer early on, that's why we focused heavily on Direct to Consumer, and we used retail in the early days just as a way to grow brand awareness and as a way to test our brand actually in these other areas to see where else are we missing, how can we start to now distill what we've learned online through these other educational mediums? And how can we condense that down into a retail merchandizing strategy and what does it look like? And so [00:43:40] a lot of our retail today has been opportunistic and has been in areas where we think we can reach the right customer who is more discovery oriented, the right customer in settings where they might be looking for products like this, and ones where we have really good relationships with these retailers, that we can continue collecting this type of feedback. [00:44:00] And so it's been very, very minimal and again, very opportunistic. It has been a way for us to kind of test other audiences we think we might not be able to reach online. So if it's fitness studios or spas, you know, people looking at wellness in other ways as well, whether it's Eastern and Western medicine or these different fitness communities or for Erewhon, these people who are already looking for new types of superfoods. They're interested in other plant based systems. These are the types of audiences that were interesting to try out a more simple retail strategy and see what that looks like. And so it's been more of a test channel than anything and a way for us to experiment with how we want to merchandise our brand and express it.

Lee: [00:44:51] Yeah, I mean, and about the product, and thanks for sending these over. We've got some Sleep Essentials, chocolate cherry, five nutrient dense bites, which sound really good. Haven't tried it yet, but hopefully it'll help me sleep. But it's got some I mean you really have like some really unique ingredients on the back here in each of these. There's the Daily Essential, which sounds great. I tasted that one. We've got the Immunity Essential, turmeric ginger citrus. Each bag has five nutrient dense bites in it. But how did you kind of decide on these specific ingredients? Because it's like a lot of stuff in here. It looks like, especially this daily one, it's over 15 vitamins and minerals from 13 real food ingredients. And yeah, these are we've got like mushrooms and Spirulina, and a lot of these stuff. I can't even pronounce. I can pronounce red algae, but yeah, I mean, Ashwagandha... It's a lot of stuff in here.

Sara: [00:45:52] So we started with our original product, the Daily Essentials. And the idea is like, let's reimagine the multi vitamin. What do you really need to address the average deficiency in American Diet, but also stress that our modern lifestyle needs? And you do eat food, right? So you don't need every single vitamin and mineral at one hundred percent. You eat. You do get some nutrients already. How can you fill the gaps most efficiently? And we kind of started with that core. And so looking at the Daily Essential... And take a step back, we also have this philosophy of really bringing in a kaleidoscopic array of different science perspectives and disciplines, and so on our Scientific Advisory Board, we have a functional medicine doctor. We have an herbalist. We have a dietician. We have a biochemist. We have a neurologist. And so we wanted to look at different ways that we approach our health and how can we build kind of the best foundation for you? And so if you look at the Daily Essentials, some of them, the nutrients that we are most kind of deprived in are often especially from a plant based perspective or things like vitamin Bs. That might be hard to get unless you have a more meat based diet. Or we have a lot of stress in our lives. That is very evident. And that's why we included an adaptogen, an herb Ashwagandha, which is proven to reduce your cortisol levels by 20 percent when you take it every day in the functional dose. And so we brought in these herbs that can address stress. Or we have Cholera, which is a green algae that has incredible detoxifying properties, kind of bind to heavy metals. We live in this very polluted world. And so we brought in these super food ingredients, these herbs, that we think are important for our modern lifestyle demands. And then we also took into account these vitamins and minerals that we think are the hardest things, I think, to fill the gaps in our diets and where we're probably most nutrient deficient. And when we looked at all of these things, we also wanted to make sure that we're carefully selecting ingredients in ways that they are from the whole plant itself and not stripped of its co factors and co nutrients that actually make them the most effective. So, for instance, our iron in our Daily Essentials Bite comes from curry leaves. Our vitamin D comes from mushrooms. And so as a result, you're getting these other antioxidants, these other phytonutrients that are synergistically working together with iron or vitamin D to do so much more for your body. And that's how we crafted this bite, where it really is much more holistic and it's kind of fighting against, I think, this reductionist lens that traditional supplements take, which is they just might isolate vitamin C, for instance, to a capsule, and it's like a thousand percent vitamin C, but it misses all of these other antioxidants that you would get from an orange or from a tomato that actually have proven scientific effects to do a lot more for you, even at not a hundred thousand percent dose. And that's that kind of simple philosophy, that food is medicine. And so we were very careful in crafting kind of holistic systems. With our newest bites, our Immunity and our Sleep, we did the same thing. Often, you might think of your immunity essential being something like EmergenC, which is just vitamin C and zinc, but it turns out we actually get a lot of vitamin C from our average daily diets, so if you eat a somewhat well-rounded diet. You actually are getting a lot of vitamin C, but what you're missing are these other components that are critical to your immune health. So in our Immunity Bite we have things like probiotics and probiotics. And most of your immune system actually lies in your gut. So it's important that you address that. A lot of immune health with inflammation. And that's why we have turmeric, and we pair that with black pepper, which activates curcumin, the kind of antioxidant power within turmeric, to help fight inflammation. We also have vitamin D and zinc and beta glucan as well, which helps with cellular immune health. And so we craft things that are not only maybe hard things to get in your daily diet, but things that you might not think of that actually build the holistic system to address immune health on a on a much broader scale. And we think about everything that way. Sleep is another good example. Most sleep supplements, people think, oh, melatonin, right?

Lee: [00:50:42] Right.

Sara: [00:50:42] "I'm going to go take my melatonin pill." Well, melatonin is actually habit forming. The more that you take melatonin, the less your body naturally produces. And that's why it's not necessarily so bad for you. But you start to rely on it. And actually a lot of our sleep problems are rooted in stress. They're rooted in other aspects of your nervous system, of your body and brain. How can you relax those and invigorate those? So in our Sleep Essentials we don't use melatonin. We use a natural alternative Valerian root that actually is non habit forming. And it's kind of to relax your body for sleep. But then we pair that with magnesium, of course, which is your foundation for all of your kind of hormones and balancing it. And then we put in theanine and GABA, which are really great competitors for stress. And so that's why with our sleep system is not only kind of addressing this larger, I think, issues around your sleep, helping you fall asleep, but also wake up feeling really refreshed and not groggy because you're getting other nutrients that lead to a deeper, healthier, restorative night's sleep. And so each of our products, we're always thinking in that kind of ecosystem format, which is why they're all holistic, they're something that can be a foundational bite that you take every daily or nightly sleep. And they all work great alone, but even better together. We designed our system where all of our bites synergistically work together to help to amplify and to go as deep as you want within our GEM ecosystem to address the needs that you need most. And we created a flexible way for you to pick and choose what those look like.

Lee: [00:52:29] Yeah, that's really cool. I mean, and you can tell there's a lot of thought put into the various ingredients there. Definitely feels very holistic. But I really appreciate you coming on the show. Before we wrap up, is there any final advice you have for entrepreneurs that are tuning in? I know you've already shared so many great insights and advice, but is there anything you want to leave us with?

Sara: [00:52:52] Just to go off of our what we've been talking about, I think, is to really try to build a close relationship with that customer early on. That might be, I guess, cliche advice. But it's something that people often overlook about what that really looks like. And so how can you set up those feedback loops in order to build those authentic relationships and transcend a transactional relationship that you have with your customer in order to build a more holistic ecosystem to really address the core issues? I think that would be my best advice for people who are building companies today is to think more through that lens than maybe kind of the checkbox of just a product and a brand and that kind of thing. And so to me, that is the biggest takeaway here.

Lee: [00:53:42] Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Sara. I really appreciate your time and sharing your awesome story. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Sara: [00:53:50] Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Lee: [00:53:54] Thank you so much for listening to the Stairway to CEO podcast. Once again, I'm your host, Lee Greene, and if you have any burning business questions, please feel free to reach us at We'd love to hear from you. And if you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe to the show, tell your friends, leave us a review, and follow us on Instagram @StairwaytoCEO. Until next time, guys, keep on climbing.

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