Gibson Biddle, Netflix’s former VP of Product Management, shares a powerful insight in First Round Review about finding and establishing your company’s “something bigger.” “At the heart of “something bigger” is one question,” he says. “What will you do for your customers — and more importantly, for the world at large?"
Whether you’re launching a new business or planning your next expansion, the assertion carries significant weight during each stage of the building process. “It’s something you aspire to embody and plan to contribute to humanity,” Biddle continues.
The rise of digital commerce and marketing has left us bombarded with products and services that are constantly clawing for our loyalty. Very few capture Biddle’s “something bigger” which is why Health-Ade Kombucha stands out as a company dedicated to building a brand that matters.
Founded by Daina Trout, her husband Justin, and her best friend Vanessa Dew Health-Ade brews and sells high quality, organic kombucha, which is like probiotic tea. Their slogan “Follow Your Gut” originated as a catchy reference to demonstrate the health benefits of probiotics nourishing healthy gut bacteria. Four years later, what began as a tagline morphed into a deeper purpose for the team: A mission to encourage individuals to trust themselves.
The concept of ‘Follow Your Gut’ is that everything you need to succeed is already inside of you.
In today’s featured interview, Daina explains how the mantra fuels the team’s creativity while serving as a constant reminder of their “something bigger” as they navigate the challenges of becoming a national brand.
After running a catering company for six years, Daina, Justin, and Vanessa were brainstorming their next business. The trio sipped Daina’s homemade kombucha during their conversations and quickly realized that their next venture had presented itself. With a combined $900 to invest, they started brewing and selling the probiotic tea at Los Angeles farmers markets in 2012. The founders spent the year meeting customers, asking them to try the probiotic tea, and exposing them to the drink’s health benefits, which include stimulating gut bacteria and elevating overall health. They used the conversations to gather feedback to iterate, improve, and brew new flavors.
“The first year was about putting our hearts out there and putting aside our fears,” Daina says. “We knew we didn’t know what we were doing. We still don’t. We just knew that we had a reason for existing. As long as we stay true to that reason, I know we’ll always grow.”
Brewing kombucha is a long process. A single batch takes 21 days and relies on intricacies such as specific brewing temperatures and handling procedures. Health-Ade aims to mimic 2,000-year-old processes to ensure that every drink you purchase is equivalent to a batch you’d make at home. Despite distributing their product to stores around the country, the team still brews their kombucha in two and a half gallon glass jars so they can control every batch. Glass is the most inert brewing vessel making it possible for the drink to retain it’s potency over the three week period without any outside particles being absorbed. Health-Ade is the only commercial brand that does this at scale.
“No matter how big we grow we plan to use our two and a half gallon jars,” Daina says. “What you put in is what you get out. The better you care for your process, the better your output.”
Health-Ade’s values continue to become more rooted with scale. The founding team is adamant about establishing their beliefs with new investors and partners.
“You have to partner with the right people who believe in what you are doing,” Daina says, reflecting on Health-Ade’s recent Series A, which was led by CAVU Venture Partners, a fund started by Rohan Oza. The investor, who played a key role scaling Vitaminwater, believes that Health-Ade can be selling five times the amount of product if they have the capability to brew it. The team is currently building a 50,000 square foot brewery in Los Angeles.
Determining which parts of your business to operationalize is a shared challenge for scaling startups. Daina’s first to admit that there are responsibilities the founders have had to delegate from the early days, like capping every bottle and writing the flavors by hand, to maximize growth. Others, such as quality of produce, have and will continue to be non-negotiable.
“When it comes to the ingredients used in our kombucha, (the actual fruits and vegetables that are cold pressed into juice,) I literally stop at nothing,” Daina says. “We buy organic produce directly from the farms, juice it ourselves the day we brew the kombucha, and mix it in. That’s what you drink. There is no pasteurization or processing.”
We follow what we believe is right, and we do it with all of our hearts.
Health-Ade is cognizant that their method is unconventional and has led to slower growth for the company (compared to what it could be if they comprised their practices). “No manufacturing company is using two and a half gallons as their brewing size, but it’s working for us,” Daina affirms. Despite competitors, investors, and partners advocating for or choosing different processes, Health-Ade put an early stake in the ground establishing their values. Thousands of stores later, it's made an enormous difference. “Now everyone is on our side,” Daina says. “I committed to this, and now the investors who have helped us grow are saying ‘Okay, I see what you were saying. This really does matter.’”
The company’s faced similar push back on their amber colored bottles (brown bottles protect the probiotics) which disguise brightly colored flavors like their fuchsia beet. “If we’re here to brew the best quality kombucha we aren’t going to put it in a clear bottle. I care about the content, not the color. Now people know us as the brown bottle company and others are starting to follow.”
Sticking to our guns created a drive in the market to focus on functionality, not aesthetics.
Since launching in 2012, Health-Ade’s grown to be over 40 team members; Each who is equally motivated to produce the “best tasting and highest quality kombucha on the market.” To achieve that, the founders are committed to creating a culture that thrives on experimentation and an insatiable desire to improve. They start by hiring individuals who are deeply aligned with their mission and give them the guardrails to uncover creative solutions to complex problems. They’ve learned that passion is more telling than experience and utilize personal questions to determine if a candidate is a right fit for the team. Examples include: "Are you willing to put your heart into this? Do you care about food? Are you willing to push boundaries, to push fear aside and follow your gut?"
“Those are people who do well here,” Daina remarks. “When they encounter a problem they say ‘Let’s look at this as an opportunity.'”
The attitude is often proclaimed but incredibly difficult to put into practice. To streamline it, Daina, Justin, and Vanessa are adamant about building an environment that accepts mistakes. “If people feel like they can fall, I’m telling you, they’ll learn to run faster,” Daina says. “Running a business is like falling off a horse 1,000 times a day and getting back on every single time.”
You either win or you learn. There is no loss.
“If we win, great. If we learn even better. As long as we aren’t making the same mistakes, I’m happy,” she says, reflecting on the Maya Angelou quote that hangs next to her desk: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Daina shares a recent example of Health-Ade’s first custom bottle that they released in April. The team assembled a voluntary special projects group that spent a week working alongside the company's lead designer to create it. While they could have spent weeks researching best branding and design practices, the team optimized for iteration, improvement, and output.
It’s not perfect. That’s the point.
The quest for progress over perfection is a path well traveled, and often stumbled, by all of us. It’s exactly how and why "Follow Your Gut" comes alive at Health-Ade. Daina is entirely transparent that the tagline started as a way to promote improved gut health and evolved as a result of the team’s experiences navigating and overcoming the never-ending challenges of building a business.
“Growing this business has challenged every aspect of my intellect and made me grow in ways that make me feel like I've had 15 lifetimes,” she says. “The one thing that has been constant is: We win when we follow our gut. When we really look inside and ask: ‘What do we think is the right thing to do?’ Not what convention or history has taught us, but what we think is best… Instead of looking outwards for the answer of what is going to make you happy and healthy we believe the answer is within."
To learn more about Health-Ade meet Daina in her Beyond the Headline interview and try the tea at a store near you.
Images retrieved from Health-Ade's Instagram.
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