A strong leader compels those around them to be excellent and to find creative solutions to impossible tasks, like reinventing an entire category in 3 months. They are effective community builders focused on making a lasting impact on their customers.

I want to thank you for listening. Today’s guest has an important message. He said you need to build your story around being an evangelist, and then bringing people along on the journey. Let me explain. Neil shares that there are three important elements to build your story around. First, make it personal. Focus on how you impact others. Two, make it a mission. Make it bigger than yourself. Create a movement. Create a community with a healthy dialogue. Three, get in the mindset. Focus on serving others. Neil shares that the brands that serve others first are the brands that are succeeding today. This is exactly why we do this podcast. Remember, it’s about you and it’s for you. It’s to help get your products on more retailer shelves and in the hands of more shoppers.

Next, we talk about personalization, how your product needs to meet the needs, the specific needs, of your customer. How your product needs to be something different, something unique, something that stands out on the shelf, that aligns with them. Remember, shoppers today have a lot of choices. Shoppers look beyond the four corners of the packages. Shoppers want to feel good about the products they purchase, beginning with yours. This is why your story is so very important. This is why your story needs to resonate. The story that the founder starts with has got to be the exact story with the exact same clarity and excitement and same passion as it’s shared with everyone on your team. Neil shares how he was able to leverage this simple strategy to build an iconic brand that changed the industry, that changed the way consumers think about healthy nutrition. Neil was then able to use this strategy to develop his new company, Habit, a company that’s focused on personalizing nutrition for the individual.

Personalization is the next big thing in CPG. It’s what consumers are looking for today. The brand and the retailers that are able to focus are delivering at a high level, delivering personal value to their customers, are the ones that are winning on shelf and beyond.

Download the show notes below

Click here to learn more about Habit

Food just got personal  | TEDxSanFrancisco



Hello and thank you for joining us today. This is the Brand Secrets and Strategies Podcast #64

Welcome to the Brand Secrets and Strategies podcast where the focus is on empowering brands and raising the bar.

I’m your host Dan Lohman. This weekly show is dedicated to getting your brand on the shelf and keeping it there.

Get ready to learn actionable insights and strategic solutions to grow your brand and save you valuable time and money.


Dan: Welcome. I want to thank you for listening. Today's guest has an important message. He said you need to build your story around being an evangelist, and then bringing people along on the journey. Let me explain. Neil shares that there are three important elements to build your story around. First, make it personal. Focus on how you impact others. Two, make it a mission. Make it bigger than yourself. Create a movement. Create a community with a healthy dialogue. Three, get in the mindset. Focus on serving others. Neil shares that the brands that serve others first are the brands that are succeeding today. This is exactly why we do this podcast. Remember, it's about you and it's for you. It's to help get your products on more retailer shelves and in the hands of more shoppers.

Next, we talk about personalization, how your product needs to meet the needs, the specific needs, of your customer. How your product needs to be something different, something unique, something that stands out on the shelf, that aligns with them. Remember, shoppers today have a lot of choices. Shoppers look beyond the four corners of the packages. Shoppers want to feel good about the products they purchase, beginning with yours. This is why your story is so very important. This is why your story needs to resonate. The story that the founder starts with has got to be the exact story with the exact same clarity and excitement and same passion as it's shared with everyone on your team. Neil shares how he was able to leverage this simple strategy to build an iconic brand that changed the industry, that changed the way consumers think about healthy nutrition. Neil was then able to use this strategy to develop his new company, Habit, a company that's focused on personalizing nutrition for the individual.

Personalization is the next big thing in CPG. It's what consumers are looking for today. The brand and the retailers that are able to focus are delivering at a high level, delivering personal value to their customers, are the ones that are winning on shelf and beyond. Here's Neil. Neil, thank you for coming on today. Before we start, I've got to tell you, I've listened to you speak at Expo a few times, and I just recently interviewed Sheryl O'Loughlin. She said I absolutely had to have you on the show. She's a huge fan. So, can we start with having you telling us a little bit about yourself and your journey to become an entrepreneur, and how you went and worked with different brands like Clif and Plum, and where you're at today.

Neil: Yeah, absolutely. Dan, first off thanks for having me on the podcast. It's great to be here, and Sheryl is a dear friend of mine. We've been in the trenches together co-founding Plum, so super glad that she had a chance to share her story with you and your audience, as well.

Dan: Thanks.

Neil: Just to dive in, and I'll tell you, I have a very non-traditional business background. I started as a punk rock musician playing out in Berkeley, California opening for bands like Green Day back in the day.

Dan: Really?

Neil: Oh yeah. It was amazing. it was back in the early '90s. We had a band, and there were a bunch of amazing bands that were playing in Berkeley at the time, and we'd play shows at this very, now it's an infamous club called 924 Gilman, and it's where a lot of amazing brands, including Green Day, got their start, and it's probably 150 kids kicking it around Berkeley/Oakland area, and we'd show up and we'd play, and it wasn't a big deal. It was like, "Who's playing tonight?" And people would get up on stage and play some amazing music, and then over the summer it was like a little ant trail coming out of Berkeley when all these bands would get Econoline vans, put a loft in there and we'd have our equipment underneath the loft and we'd go up to top of the country, across, and then go down the East Coast, and then come around the South and wind back up in California. It was a really incredible experience. Actually, in many ways it shaped how I approach being an entrepreneur.

Dan: Interesting. I'm anxious to learn more about that.

Neil: Well I'll just fill you in a little bit more on that, I think back in the day when you were playing, you had to have a point of view about the world, you had to be willing to sing it at the mountaintops, which is evangelize that opinion and point of view, and then you had to get a group of people together to go on the journey with you. And that was both our band mates and our band. And then the last thing, which is totally true for entrepreneurs is like a lot of duct tape and a hope and a prayer gets the job done.

Dan: Oh, yeah.

Neil: So we ended up, that was really kind of a foundational experience for myself and other band mates, as well. Then it went from there to being an artist. I went to art school, and then graduating from art school I had shown in commercial galleries, so I'd have exhibits in San Francisco and New York, and that was another amazing experience, surrounding myself with really incredible creatives. And then I had this one exhibit in particular where, the kind of artwork I was making was what turned out to be futuristic product design, and I would make it all fully-functional. I'll give you an example of it.

I had one idea that was a wireless hub where you have couture vests, and you'd give yourself a hug and the vest would take a snapshot of your heartbeat, pressure, and body temperature, and it would send it wirelessly over a hacked pager network to another vest, and your heartbeat would tap on somebody's chest and it would constrict and warm in the areas of a hug. All of that to say, someone from Stanford Product Design saw that, invited me to come down and speak to the students there, fell in love with the discipline of product design, and that took me on a path of becoming an entrepreneur.

Dan: Very interesting. So my Apple watch is old school, I guess, right?

Neil: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.

Dan: That's so eclectic. I appreciate you sharing that. So how did you go from then Stanford to Clif and IDEO and some of these other brands? What did you do, what did you learn there, and how did that help you?

Neil: One of my professors was the founder of the product design program at Stanford, and also the founder of IDEO, which is one of the premier design and innovation firms in the country, and arguably around the world. His name is David Kelly, and he was an incredibly influential person in my life. He taught me the discipline of creating products through empathy in the people that you are designing for. He called it human-centered design, what is really about understanding peoples' needs, wants, and desires and using that as the foundation of what you design around. Then, as part of getting into, if you're not designing it for yourself or people that live a similar experience as you, you have to empathically walk in the shoes of those that you're hoping to design for. So he would bring all kinds of empathy exercises into the classroom that we ended up applying to our design practice. And I had the good fortune of going from Stanford to work for him at IDEO, and spent about seven years leading all the food and beverage design work there.

Dan: I love that, and it's so important. And that's of course what we spend all of our time on in the natural channel. Back to what you're saying before, have an evangelistic product or mission, and then help people go with you on the journey, which I love the illustration and the way you put that. I can envision seeing you riding around in a van, although it wasn't a microbus, but that's such a cool story.

Neil: Well, just to build on this, because this parlays into the early days of Plum and Sheryl and I. But actually, one of the things that we did, and you know this because you're in the natural products industry, but this is back in 2008 and we were launching our first product line under our first brand, which was called Revolution Foods. We were in California, the show was on the East Coast, so it was Natural Products Expo East, and we had enough money for the booth or we had enough money to ship the booth, but we didn't have enough money for both.

So we're like, "How are we going to solve this problem?" And I think it was hearkening back to those old punk rock days, but we're like, "Hey, let's get a small bus, little school bus, shrink wrap it with all of our branding, put all of our products and the tables and everything into the center of the bus, and let's drive it across the country and roll it onto the floor of Natural Products Expo East, and that will be our booth." And the bus was our booth. It was an incredible experience and got a lot of buzz at the time.

Dan: I love how that's very creative, and I love that the fact that the natural brands do that kind of thing. I mean, they really get in the trenches.

Neil: Absolutely.

Dan: Sheryl shared some of the stories that you had back with Clif and then with Plum, how you were asked to create a product with Plum in the squeeze pouch. You did not have a product at the time, but someone said, "Hey, if you can do this, we'll buy it." Very inspirational, can you talk a little bit about that?

Neil: Yeah, that was a seminal moment. And just to put more definition and color on that, we actually parlayed directly into that meeting that we had at Natural Products Expo East. We actually did have a product at that show, but it was an applesauce for kids. It was one of the first ones that was out there launching, and it was definitely getting a lot of attention. I met the buyer, Toys R Us/Babies R Us at that show, and at the time, we were all really focused on Whole Foods and landing in a Whole Foods region, so we were spending all of our time sort of chasing after all those buyers. And the head buyer of Babies R Us/Toys R Us and wanted to talk to us. And there was no one there to talk to him, but I'm like, "I'll talk to him."

So I went over and met with him. The guy's name was Pauly D. Pauly and I hit it off. He said, which was surprising to me at the time, but it saw it play itself out, but he said, "I've got every new mother in America walking in these doors, and I want to be able to provide healthier food for their kids. You guys seem like you are a brand that is both modern and healthy, which means that it'll be accessible to moms across the country, and not just a niche product in a Whole Foods store. We said, "Great, let's meet and see if there's something there." I flew out and had a bunch of concept sketches of how we were going to take the applesauce pouch and make it into a baby pouch product, and it was born on the insight where we actually saw mothers giving the infants the applesauce product we had because it was pureed, and in our case it was applesauce plus some veggies in there. So really kind of the essence of what healthy baby food is, now, and they were feeding it to their babies.

The light bulb went off and said, "That's the big idea." So I flew out the next week to meet with Paul D. in New Jersey. We were having dinner, and he said, "Yep, love your applesauce product we called Mash Up." He's like, "Yep, love that. Let's take that." And I said, "Here are some concept sketches of how we're going to bring it into the baby food category under the Plum brand. He said, "If you can give that to me in three months, I'll launch you nationally and introduce you to every new mother in America through the baby registry." It was such a seminal moment, because if anyone who's listening to this, realize three months is almost impossible to launch a new product.

Dan: It is.

Neil: Usually, the fastest you usually get it done is six months, and standard for the industry is more like 9 or 12 months. It was one of those moments, though where I just leaned in and I said, "Yes, we'll get it done."

Dan: Love that.

Neil: I literally walked out of that dinner, and it was on the East Coast, so the West Coast time was three hours behind, so I called up my team that was still in the office, and I said, "Guys, we've got the biggest challenge of our lives, but if we do it we're going to knock this out of the park." We were a small team of maybe 10 people at the time, and everyone sort of stood up and raised up to the challenge, and we got it done, knocked it out of the park, and it was literally the hockey stick moment for our company.

Dan: How did you do that, because I talk to a lot of brands, and I talk to a lot of packaging companies. I'm really getting into that. We're starting to spend a lot of time studying and understanding the sustainable packaging model, and when a company like Frito or PepsiCo says that they need 6-18 months minimum just to order the film, how did you get the product, the packaging, just the packaging alone to be able to do that?

Neil: Yep. No doubt. So what we did, because we already had that packaging format in production, we already had the vendors and suppliers. We literally called up every vendor we had and said, "We're going to try and do the impossible. Are you willing to do it with us? We think it can be huge." Now bear in mind, the pouch industry did not exist before Plum.

Dan: Right.

Neil: We literally built that entire industry that now is producing over, I'd probably estimate now over a billion pouches in North America alone. At the time, though, it as nascent. There wasn't any infrastructure really in the US, and so when we showed up with our partners, our co-packers and our vendor partners, we said, "This could be the moment that we can build this packaging industry out of this seminal moment." And they all stepped up. I think it stands to, if you have a very clear mission and you have a very clear objective, we went minimal viable product meaning we said, "It's only going to be six flavors." We had already had the formulations roughly identified, we did the graphic design in a week, we already had some of the nutritionals specked out, so those were really quick to get on there, and then we had it in production in the pouch printing facility, and then we air-freighted all of it over to meet the deadline. Literally, there were so many points and so many moments where it could have gone off the rails.

Dan: Oh, yeah.

Neil: But we had a pretty incredible team to get it done.

Dan: It's mind-boggling to think that you had three months to pull this off, to invent a new package, not invent a new package, but to be able to scale it to that degree and do everything that needed to be done. I work with and mentor a lot of brands, and the time to get the product on the shelf and to be able to scale it and be able to the inventory and everything else, let alone just the capital that you need to be able to have to be able to support it, that's just unbelievable. So, did they help support you with this? Or did you have the resources within your network?

Neil: No, we had the resources in our network. You know, they were a great partner of ours, for sure. They just actually became one of our seminal accounts at the early stages of Plum, but I think the reality is we had great investors around the table prior to that moment of saying yes. We had a great team. And we had a really phenomenal co-pack network, meaning the pouch supplier, the co-manufacturer, and everyone was interested in building this, not only help build this product, but in doing so and what has materialized is, we built a whole segment of the baby food industry. If you go into any store, whether it's Walmart to Whole Foods, you'll see that over 50% of the shelves are now this pouch format.

Dan: Sure.

Neil: And it ladders all back to some of those early moments.

Dan: Well, we use them as a snack. I love them. I think they taste great, and it's a great way to get your vitamins.

Neil: Oh, really?

Dan: Yeah. And it's great to take on your bike when you go cycling, and just to have it along with you. They're lightweight, and again, thank you for doing that. So how did you go about building the team and building the resources, the infrastructure? Because to be able to pull this off, again if anyone's listening, this really is more than just a simple magic act. This is almost a miracle in the sense of what it takes to be able to put something together, take it from concept to shelf in three months. That's unbelievable. So how did you build the team? How did you assemble the right resources so that, when you had to pull the trigger, they were there ready for you?

Neil: Well, bear in mind, we already had a team and we'd already built the set of products under the Revelation Foods brand. Our designer, Rachel Lloyd, Rachel Scully now, she just got married, is one of the best designers I've ever worked with. She is not only intuitive in the sense of understanding what that end user wants out of that packaging design, but she is accurate, and the precision by which she executes is flawless. So to be able to put a creative brief in front of a designer that quickly and then have it turned within that short period of time is something magical, and Rachel is one of the few that I think could actually pull that off. She's exceptional. She's now the head of creative at Olly, which is as you may know and many on the podcast may know, they're a leading vitamin supplement company that's out there using design and packaging to really stand out from the crowd.

Dan: Interesting.

Neil: And then from there, we just had Sheryl and I both came from Clif Bar prior to starting the company, so we had Bentley Hall, who is another just amazing rock star who was really came in, which is just kind of funny he was our third hire, and at that time, he was looking to start his own company and said, "I'm going to put that on pause and I'll be 'Entrepreneur in Residence' with us." We were like, "That's great!" And there's a learning out of this, but Bentley came in, and he ran finance and operations, and he was again just an amazing guy. He's now the CEO of Good Eggs, which is one of the leading natural, organic online retailers doing fresh, whole, real food available at your doorstep. It's primarily focused in the Bay Area, but again just another exceptional talent. I could go on and on, but I don't want to bore your listeners, here.

The point is that it was all about the people. That would never have been possible if we didn't have the right people, and it was not only just their talent, it was their mindset. They saw that challenge that came in over the phone as an opportunity, and they were hungry enough to say, "Yeah, let's go for it." It was a pragmatic fearlessness that I think all of us embodied at the time that came from this deep sense of mission and purpose in the work where we said, "Look if we succeed we're feeding kids across this country really healthy food."

Dan: Yes.

Neil: And we said our mission was to feed little ones the very best food from their very first bite. So we're like, if we're successful at this, know this is what moms want, because it had great, natural, organic ingredients, it was a young, modern brand that spoke to young, modern parents, and then the formulation or the recipes were culinary-inspired. There was nothing like it on the market. We were bringing in Greek yogurt, chia, quinoa, things that you would never imagine to be in baby food, and we brought all those elements together. So we said, "If we can pull this off we're delivering on our mission." And I think that allowed people to lean into it with a fearless pragmatism.

Dan: I love that, and the fact that you're playing in that space, moms and parents, new parents, will go out of their way to give their kids the best products, the best nutrition. They want the very best of everything for their kids, and the fact that you're delivering that value, and what I really like about that, my background with Kimberly-Clark, I used to sell diapers and actually helped a lot of retailers actually develop not only the schematic, but I was the category captain for several years. We developed the entire baby section, the entire baby solution section, if you will in terms of a retailer. I know Gerber and a lot of the other brands that were in there, and nothing against them, but it was a lot of the same old, same old, same old. The fact that you guys were able to come in and disrupt it to such a degree.

I know the category very well, I know the consumer very well, and again for anyone listening, for you to be able to put all that together in three months is just amazing. So going back to what you said, I love the fact that you help evangelize the product or the mission, and then you bring people along on your journey. And what I'm hearing is a reoccurring theme of how a punk rocker was able to inspire so many people around them to want to be something more than they currently were. What other stories and other areas can you share with us, how you were able to influence people with that?

Neil: I'll tell you guys a little bit about my new company, but it's almost the exact same kind of narrative, which is, after running Plum for eight years, I ended up selling it to Campbell's Soup after six years in our journey, and I stayed on to run it for another two years. I had what I characterize as CEO disease, which is I was working too hard, call it as I've heard on the podcasts is like, think of it as workaholics disease, working too hard, traveling too much, not sleeping enough, not eating the right kinds of food enough, drinking too much, not exercising. You know, you can kind of see that unfold when we let the work get in front of our own well-being and health. I was 65 pounds heavier than I was when I first started Plum with Sheryl, and prior to even starting that company I was an Iron Man triathlete, so the contrast was pretty stark. My wife, in all her infinite wisdom said, "Hey Neil, you've been taking care of this company for this really long period of time. Now you've got to start taking care of yourself." That was a good strong kick in the butt. I was off on my own health and wellness journey.

And you know, instead of, and probably inspired by my time as a designer, instead of just going to the doctor, I said, "This is something that's probably not just unique to me in that many of us around the country put our family first, put our work first, put our obligations before our health, and how can we do both? How can we have our health by still being a good father, to be a good husband, to be a good citizen? How can we do that?" So it really set me off on my own health exploration that I got every test you can imagine done, got my full genome sequenced with one of the fathers of the human genome project, a gentleman named Dr. Leroy Hood who actually invented the first genetic sequencing machine. It's incredible. This man is brilliant. I spent some time with him and learned a lot about myself at a cellular level.

Then, over the course of a number of trips and travels, I ended up meeting some scientists in the Netherlands who had been working on personalized nutrition for a number of years, specifically a way of testing your metabolism by giving it a food challenge. You could see how your body reacts to that food challenge through doing a series of blood draws. I got all of this work done, crafted a personalized nutrition plan for myself with some specialists based on all of the data, and then started to run the program. After three months, I started feeling amazing. After six months, I had lost 25 pounds and had more energy than I had in years. And that inspired me to say, "How do I take this in a similar fashion, like when I was a young parent, but how do I take this and make this available to anyone in the country that wants to be the best version of themselves through the power of whole, fresh, real, personalized food?"

That kind of set me off on my next journey. And much like that, we had a very clear mission. I brought a groups of amazing people together to help get that job done.

Dan: Can we back up a little bit back to your triathlete days?

Neil: Yep.

Dan: I used to be very athletic, and like you I stopped making myself a priority. Single parent, two kids, and I started gaining weight. But before that, I did a lot of biathlons, did a lot of 10Ks. I was fast, I really enjoyed that lifestyle of being able to go out running and trail running back before it was cool, et cetera. And what a great experience. I'm so glad I had that. But then, like you, I stopped making myself a priority. I'm glad you said that. Gained weight, and so now I'm refocusing. Where I'm going with this, Neil is, I listened to your Ted Talk, and it wasn't just what you shared in terms of what your wife said, but the fact that you stopped, took a step back, and took a look on everything going on around you and how the choices that you were making, you were talking about this, how they were negatively influencing your health.

So, one of the things I talk a lot about with natural brands and some of the different people I talk about in the podcasts is that what's important nowadays is personalization, and personalization in terms of being able to have a product talk to the consumer. So at Plum Organic, you're talking to that mom that wants the best product for their kids, et cetera. So when you're talking about personalization, you're talking about your unpacking this, what was the pivotal moment where you stepped back and said, "Hmm, there's probably a better way to do this, probably a better way to treat myself." And then how did you get reconnected to what you knew previously in terms of how to support yourself and make yourself a priority?

Neil: Well, the first thing is, I've always been fascinated with food, so anyone who wants to watch the Ted Talk, hopefully you can send that link out or post it.

Dan: Yeah, we can put a link on it.

Neil: It goes through some of the background of the early days when I was a punk rocker, I was vegan, so it was more of a political and social statement than anything, but that led me to then, when I became a triathlete, I actually weighed and measured my food every meal with the mouth calculation, and it was designed to drive ultimate human performance to the extent that I could. So when I went through this health journey and arrived at the point where I knew I had to do something different, I was lost in a way, because I had tried every, you can call them fad diets, but I had tried every new way of eating or new strategy that came on the market, because I've always been fascinated by it. And I had some success in some ways and in others not, but one of the things that I realized is that each one of us is unique and different, and that the one size fits all approach that we've taken in the food industry, the wellness industry, the weight loss industry, and most importantly the medical industry is actually leaving us more confused than helping us out.

And one of the things, as I started unpacking my genetics and the blood work that was going on, I started to see the story of me unfold in a way that I was like, "Oh, that explains." Like for example, I have the FTO gene, which is a genetic snip that, those that have the positive allele of it are more predisposed to gaining and storing weight. 25% higher likelihood of doing it than someone who does not have the positive allele of that. And all of a sudden it was like, "God, that makes so much sense." I was always the guy, if I was not on the top of my wellness game, eating right, exercising properly, I could gain weight just like that whereas, I had friends that would eat the fries, the burgers, drink some beer and they'd be fine. And I'm like, "What is going on here?" So all of the sudden it explained some phenomena that I saw but couldn't understand and couldn't translate.

So what it did for me was saying, "You know what, if my goal is to be healthy, I have to do the work." That's what my genes are telling me. And this gave me a very clear roadmap to say, "Okay, you've got to do the work." There's so many of those kind of stories or narratives that come out of your genetics, that come out of the blood work, that ultimately it not only helps you get a nutrition plan or a wellness plan, but it also tells you more about who you are and how you're composes. And the thing that I love the most, and it's true of everyone in the Habit building, I'm standing up on our mezzanine looking over my team, and everyone here has a story like that. Everyone who came to Habit wants to understand themselves better, and then unlock the best version of themselves through personalized nutrition. So I think that was the most meaningful part of the whole journey.

Dan: Well, I'm a firm believer that you cannot be your best for anyone else until you're your best for yourself. And that doesn't sound very sexy or attractive, but the point is that you cannot help support someone else or be there for someone else or to be on your game for someone else when they need you if you're not taking care of yourself.

Neil: One of the first things that gets said when you're about to take off in an airplane as they go through all of the stuff that we all usually fall asleep to is, "Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child," right? And that analog kind of persists across our lives, which is like to be the best father, husband, in my case CEO I have to actually be a healthy person myself. It puts it into focus where oftentimes what we see is, some of our customers have this conflict where taking care of themselves feels self-serving because of all these other obligations they have. What we try and tell them is, "No, actually taking care of yourself is the most important job you have, and then you can be the best version of yourself to be in service to others."

Dan: Well, and going back to your Plum experience, you've got to have your team. Everyone's got to be firing on all cylinders, they've got to be at the height of their game. So, when you're thinking back about how you were as a triathlete, obviously you've got to be in pretty phenomenal shape. You've got to have a really high or really good understanding of what nutritionally makes sense, or how to get more out of your body. What was the pivotal moment or the transformational moment where you realized that you had gotten away from that, outside of gaining the weight? And are you saying that one of the things that you learned is that how to go back to that, or are you saying that what you were doing back then wasn't what you should have been doing? Because in your Ted Talk, you talk about how there's a lot of fallacy in terms of, or misunderstanding in terms of the way you should have been treating yourself.

Neil: Look, I mean when I was a triathlete, I was definitely pushing my limits, for sure. I say you either have to be at the top of your game, or you have to be able to endure a lot of suffering to be a triathlete. I think I probably had a little bit of both. But you know, at the end of the day when I was really focusing on trying to achieve certain goals from an athletic performance standpoint, I don't think I was optimizing my health in the process. I got very lean, down to 6% body fat, which is a great target for a triathlete, but my body doesn't function at that lean level. I had all kinds of things that were going on, and I was following the fad diet of triathletes at the time.

The punchline on all of this is to say that I think we're stepping into a new era where, in the case of food, health, and well-being we're moving into an age where with big data and computational biology we're able to understand ourselves more than we ever have in the history of humankind. So being able to embrace the insights that we get from this new science, from this new understanding, to be able to take our health into our own hands in a time where we're also inundated with more stress than we probably have ever had, more unhealthy food choices around every corner, and all the things that bombard us that distract us from our overall well-being. So I think we need to equip ourselves, armor ourselves with those tools to be able to get the job done, especially now in this modern era.

Dan: And that's, of course, the focus of a lot of the natural brands. A lot of people that I talk to, the industry thought leaders like yourself, are talking about how they're trying to make a difference. So, first focusing on food, and then I certainly want to talk about Habit. But focusing on a lot of the small brands out there, Plum and a lot of the other brands, I liken it to being the ripple in the pond. Paying attention to those healthy, disruptive brands that are working closely with their consumers, the consumers are going to buy their product. The point is that they have a very close, intimate relationship with those brands, with those consumers. And I think that's what's driving sales across every shelf.

So starting at that point, how would you recommend some of these brands interact with and help tell their story to retailers and to consumers? Because you've got to start there first before you can begin to understand some of the complex stuff that you're talking about now, which I believe, which I agree there's a lot of value to it.

Neil: Yeah. When asked any tips or bits of advice you pass on to entrepreneurs, I always go back to three things. The first one is make your company personal to you. If you can find a way that it's improved your life in a material way, chances are that you're going to have the ability to improve someone else's lives with the same thing. And if it's something that you empathically, personally experienced, it's actually going to carry you through the tough times. I mean, starting a company is an incredibly difficult journey. It's got so many pitfalls, and having the endurance to kind of weather through those storms or overcome those hurdles, it has to be more meaningful. It has to be something you've felt personally to help you give that kind of drive.

The second thing, and it gets back to what we were talking about earlier is, make it a mission. Make it bigger than yourself. Once you've understood how it can change your life, and hopefully others around you, now turn it into something that's a movement, a mission that you can rally a group of people together to see how you can affect change in the world through your collective efforts. And that includes your consumers. If you think about creating a movement, that's about having an idea or a set of beliefs that everyone rallies around, that's having some point people or focal points. A product can be a leader in that, a brand or a figurehead can be a leader in that. And then, it's about creating community and dialogue. So if you can establish that with your product ecosystem, then chances are you're going to start to create that ground swell, which all of the successful natural organic brands have done. And they've done it in a way that, when you look back it feels very systematic and effective, but it's always been done organically, and it's from all the right reasons with all the right passion points.

Then the last one, the last one is around the mindset. Now, once you've made it personal, you can see how it can impact peoples' lives, you've made it a mission or a movement, and you've coalesced a group of people with you. Now, it's about getting in the mindset of being in service to others. I see this periodically, but you know, entrepreneurs that are in to serve themselves, and I think the most successful entrepreneurs, and we've got hundreds of examples of it in the natural organic industry is that leaders that are in service to others, that are doing this because they want to change the world, they want to improve peoples' lives, they want to tackle climate change, they want to do whatever it is. But they always take that orientation that it's in service of something outside of themselves, and I think that's essential.

Dan: Well, and I really appreciate you saying that, because that is so important. I could not agree with you more. Consumers want to feel good about the products that they buy, and if the brand can tell the story and communicate the value of their mission and what they're doing, and I love the way you said create a community around and a dialogue. The big brands spend a lot of time talking at us, rather than talking with us or having a conversation like you and I are having, and I think that's their achilles heel. So the brands that are able to do that successfully are the brands that are really growing by helping those consumers feel good not only about themselves, but about the products that they're purchasing.

Neil: Oh yeah. Good point.

Dan: So then the next step, to be able to have a healthy product and be able to support that product on the shelf and the personalization to help connect that consumer with that product. Now you're talking about Habit. So how do you develop, first the product side of it, of what we're talking about with natural brands, and then elevate that or communicate that or take that into what you're doing with Habit in terms of how do you build a story to help a brand communicate the value that they offer to the retailer to the consumer, and then how do you leverage that story to help you get it on more store shelves and in the hands of more shoppers?

Neil: You know, it's funny. Actually, I would say your story needs to follow those same three guiding principles; make it personal, make it a movement, and then be in service to others. So as you actually think about the storytelling, it was true of Plum. We'd go in there and are like, "Hey we're young parents on a mission to change the way the kids eat." And you'd see these retailers looking at us. They were with us, you know, and we're like, "We're on a movement, we're going to do this thing, and we want you with us." And they were like, "Wait, wait a second. I'm usually getting skews across the table like, "Will you take this? No, will you take that?" And we were bringing them into the fold. It was one of the most electrifying kind of ways to interact with our partners, because we were like we gave them a role in the movement. We gave them a role in the mission.

Dan: Love that.

Neil: And we said, "You know what? When you put this on the store shelves," whether it's Whole Foods or whether it was Babies R Us or Target or Safeway, "you're actually helping advance the mission of getting better food to kids. Are you in?" And that had an emotional connection. Then of course, that is just not enough. If you have a bad product that doesn't sell, you go in with that story. They're like, "All right, there's the door, buddy. See you next year."

What we had to do is have the discipline to have a fact-based selling story, which is to say we needed to prove out that we have units per store per week that exceeded category expectations. We had to show demonstration in other retailers that we actually could get the job done. We had a very thoughtful, strategic plan on how we rolled out our brand, and there were three phases. The first one was, create a beachhead, which is, what other retailers that you were going to create a beachhead for your brand. Meaning that it's going to be on display in its purest form.

For Plum, it was Whole Foods on no uncertain terms, and Babies R Us. And of course, those, for some people, it'd be like, it seems like they're opposite extremes. But they fulfilled on our mission, right? We wanted to be the highest quality food available to every mom in America, and those two in combination, allowed us to do those two things.

Then we went from there, which is create a beachhead, to validate the brand nationally. We had the opportunity to partner with Target, who was a very early and amazing partner of ours, and they took in Plum and gave us a shot. It didn't work right out of the gate, which, you know, with these stories it was like, "Oh, it was amazing. It was a hockey stick." We're like, actually, when we were selling on the shelf, we weren't really selling. We had six SKUs, and you can imagine, six little pouches in a sea of products in a Target store, it wasn't really working. So, we spent a lot of time working on our end, making sure that each product was in stock in every store. Did a lot of shelf work and pricing. Ultimately, we got the SKUs to start to turn, and then once consumers tried out the product, they loved it, they came back, and then we got the flywheel really spinning.

Dan: Good.

Neil: And then we took it to the third phase, which was drive ubiquity. For us, we said, going back to our mission, we wanted to be in every high chair and lunchbox in America, so we could get the best food to kids from the very first bite. And that meant that we needed to be everywhere. Today, Plum is in 75% of retailers around the country. You can find us in Walmart all the way to Whole Foods, Amazon, everything in between. But I think getting back to the original point, I think it's so essential that you bring those retailers into your mission in a way that helps drive their mission of driving their business forward.

Dan: So then how do you translate, then, into what you're doing now? We're talking about nutrition, but very personalized. How do you build a story around that?

Neil: Well, and this one is so different than Plum. This business could not be more different than what we did at Plum. It's direct to consumer, so we actually have no retailed involved in our business. And the product is one part life science, one part technology, one part food. So we really are a very different kind of company at the end of the day. And how do we build a story around it? We tell my personal story as a start, which is why this company came to be was because transformation I experienced that turned it into a mission and a movement.

Now, in terms of telling the story, we actually are capturing testimonials of our customers that have had great health transformations by going through the Habit test and learning what foods are right for them, and then putting that into practice. We're hearing stories that are just amazing outcomes. The one most recently that we just captured was a husband wife couple, [Leesal 00:44:00] and Jess. They're the owners of Oakland Harley-Davidson.

What I love about this story is that in many ways, they're not your quintessential or stereotypical health and wellness consumer. They were early 50s, much like the story I was saying. They put their business, their family, everything ahead of their own health, and they just got to a point where they just became empty nesters, and they said, "We need to do something different." The funny part of the story, I actually bought a motorcycle from them, and that's how they found out about Habit. I was filling out the forms. They're like, "What do you do?" And I'm like, "Oh, I run this company called Habit." You know, because I put Habit.com down on the thing. And that was that.

Three months later I'm in buying a part for my bike, and Jess comes over. The husband comes over, and he's like, "I've been researching this habit thing. It's really cool." I was really shocked. I was like, "Oh my God, you're interested?" He's like, "Yeah. We bought our kits." And I was like, "That's so cool. Well, let me know if I can be helpful." And I just followed their journey along the way, and now I hear the punchline on this thing. Leesal will tell you that she got her life back. She lost over 45 pounds. She feels better than she's ever felt.

Dan: Good.

Neil: And she actually is excited to go out and clothes shop; to be out with her husband, and be in public. Were things that seem foundational, but she wasn't excited about that previously. Jess has lost over 70 pounds, and his blood work is looking phenomenal, and these are two that now, when you'll see in this video that we'll ultimately launch about these two, is they've fallen back in love with each other. It's the cutest thing in the world. And at the end of the day, that's why we do what we do at Habit; is to help create those kinds of stories.

Dan: I appreciate your sharing that. It's so important. It goes back to what you were talking about before; being evangelist, and then have people come on the journey with you, but more importantly, like we were talking about, you got to be your best self before you can be your best self for someone else. So I love how we've been able to reconnect and weave that theme through the entire conversation, so thank you for that.

How does it work? Why does it work? What's important about it? And then what do people do? How do you put it together? What's the science behind it?

Neil: Let me start from the beginning. How does it work? So, if you go onto Habit.com, you can order one of two products. One is called Habit Core, which is an at-home test kit that'll help figure out which foods are right for you, and it'll provide you with a personalized nutrition plan. The second one's called Habit Ally, which is all of that plus five weeks coaching program that helps. Text-based coaching that helps you adopt these new habits and put it into practice. That's specifically, people really want to drive an outcome like weight loss or clean eating, having more energy, feeling better, people opt in for Ally. It's been really, really successful for us.

Breaking it down one step further, you can go onto Habit.com, order a test kit. Within the week, you'll get an at-home test kit. It's fashioned after a book, so it doesn't look like a medical test. It actually looks like a high designed luxury product. Each page of the book houses a new test, and each page is part of the story of you. You open up the thing and it says, "Every body tells a story. What's yours?" So you flip the page, and it talks about DNA and core samples, so you do a cheek swab for your DNA, measure your waist measurement, and then flip the next page. You do a fasting blood test. This is a test that you do first thing in the morning, so you've fasted overnight, and you prick your finger. Drop six drops of blood onto a little card.

Then we have you drink a very large shake that's called a metabolic challenge, and that is a high carb, high fat moderate protein shake. After you drink it, 30 minutes later, we have you prick your finger again, and 120 minutes after you drink it, we do the same thing. What we do is, we track how your body's processing fats and carbs in real time by looking at your blood work. Then you take all of those collection tools, put it into the envelope that's got paid postage on it. You send it to our third party lab, and that lab will process all your results. Roughly four weeks later, you'll get an email that'll introduce you to your new nutrition plan, and that'll be a ... It's a desktop or a mobile application where you can have all the tips and tricks for how to eat against your biology in a personalized way at the touch of your hand, with your phone or on your computer.

Dan: Why is the DNA important? Because I'm looking at your site right now. Why does that test matter?

Neil: Yeah. Well, the first thing I would say is that we don't just look at someone's DNA. We look at a number of different components connected together. It's actually a methodology called systems biology, and it's based on the idea ... It'll be intuitive. That's sort of a technical way of describing it, but it'll be intuitive to your listeners. It used to be, you go to a doctor and you'd see a specialist for your head, your heart, your bone, your arm, whatever it may be. Systems biology approach looks at the interrelationship of your genetics with your blood, with what's going on in your gut. A lot of different factors, because at the end of the day, you're one system of all these interrelated parts.

So, getting to your question, DNA is important because that's your genetic architecture. That's your structure. It alone can't tell you what foods are right for you, but it can be a really important guide post for you to understand what you're genetically predisposed to or not. Right? And what we do is, we take that information and then we combine it with what's happening in your body right now through a series of blood tests. You put those two data sets together, combined with your body metrics, your age, your weight, your height; all of those components, and behavioral questionnaires, and we can give you a really rich, personalized nutrition plan.

Dan: And what does it look like? And then how do you deliver that? You said mobile device, but what does it really look like? I'm looking at a picture of an iPad with a bunch of different foods on it.

Neil: Yep. Yeah, there's two parts to your nutrition plan. One section is called your results, which is all of the insights that we get from all of your tests. It's really the story of you as it relates to your food and nutrition, and we break it down into little digestible bits of stories, as I was talking about earlier. Story about your weight, your heart health, how you process carbs, how you process fats. Whether you have a lactose intolerance. How you deal with caffeine. These stories, you've got them to go on.

And then inside each one of the stories, as you click into it, you actually get an expanded understanding of how you relate to that particular story, the genetic and the blood markers that lead to that reccomendation, and what you should do about it. And then that reccomendation directly links to your nutrition plan.

So the second section, if that's your results, then the nutrition plan, it breaks it down into what we called a personalized food philosophy, which is the approach that you should be taking at the highest level around your eating, in terms of your relationship to carbs, fats, and proteins. What ratio they should be together, and then what food you should be eating to deliver on that.

Dan: I always say that if you are what you eat, then what you eat matters; meaning that if you eat healthy nutrition products that really fuel your body, you're going to be well satiated, well sustained. So I don't mean to put you on the spot, but I've got a question for you. If it says that I'm lactose intolerant, but I'm drinking milk that comes from cows that eat grain and hay, cows aren't designed to eat that. And I were to switch to grass-fed milk, then does the test have the ability to discern the importance of that?

Neil: No. I mean, the test will tell us whether or not you have a genetic variant that leads to lactose intolerance. What you do with that, or how you then respond to it ... We say reduce or eliminate lactose. Right? So, lot of different options that are out there. One is, I drink Organic Valley lactose-free milk. It's an amazing product. It's organic dairy. Still get all the protein. I just don't have the lactose, right? There are things like that that work really well.

There are other things where obviously you know in the industry, brands like Ripple, where it's pea-based protein, milk alternatives, obviously there's been soy and almond milk. All of those are great varieties as well. Specifically, I would love to see the research on the difference between the different feeding cycles and how it relates to lactose intolerance. But I think the other thing I would say in relation to that is, obviously some experimentation is going to be part of this mix.

What we're trying to do is move away from experimentation, trial and error being the only way that you figure out what foods are right for you. I've been tinkering with my food for probably the last 35 years, and the reality is that this test still gave me a lot of insights into what I should be doing.

Dan: I appreciate you're sharing that, and it sounds very interesting. How's the company doing? How are you doing at getting the word out, and what's next? Where do you see this going from here?

Neil: The company's doing great. We're super excited about it. We're pioneering a whole new category, as you know. We've always taken a one size fits all as it relates to food. That's true of the food industry, the diet industry, the wellness industry, and the medical industry. So, we're really bringing a whole new perspective to how you make food choices in your life. We're super charged up about it.

How we're getting the word out, we've had the good fortune, and thank you to you for continuing this. We've had the good fortune of people want to hear this story, and they are excited about the possibilities of personalized nutrition. We've had the good fortune of being on The Today Show, Good Morning America, featured in Popular Science multiple times. We've had a really wide breadth of media coverage, so that's been exciting. That's one big part of it.

The second thing is, I have the good fortune of working with a guy named Rob Singer, who was the CMO, the chief marketing officer, of Ancestry.com. He is now our chief marketing officer here at Habit, and he's a mastermind of being able to really understand how to connect the dots between those people that would be interested in Habit and Habit. Again, going back to that same theme, find the most amazing people that you can to come into your company, and he's certainly one of them. So, that's kind of how we're getting the word out.

Dan: Fantastic. What is the next evolution, or have you gotten there yet? In other words, with everything that you've learned, Neil, and by the way, your story is so inspiring, and I really appreciate your sharing it. With everything you've learned, what is next for the brand? Are you thinking about putting together meal kits? Are you thinking about coming up with line extensions or other ways to help support the people that sign up?

Neil: Yeah. What we're excited about is once people lock into the idea that the one size fits all approach doesn't work for them anymore, and they've actually adopted a personalized approach, then they want help with how they cook, shop, and dine. Right? So, we're really focused on helping people sort through the hundreds of thousands of items in the grocery store to figure out which ones of those are right for them. We're working on and focused on, how do we help people who walk into a restaurant and know what's right to order on that menu?

Lastly, and we serve this up today with our current customers, is that we provide every one of our customers personalized recipes every week, nine personalized recipes, how they can cook to their personalized nutrition plan. So we really are in the business of not creating food, but actually curating all the food choices that people have out in their lives.

Dan: Does it help you do your shopping by brand, by what to look for? I'm just curious.

Neil: I'd say stay tuned.

Dan: Okay. That's what I was getting at. The reason I asked that question, we're talking about personalized food, and personalized eating, which I think is such an important concept, and I talk about this a lot. One of the things that I've really been invested in, understanding how the food interacts with people. There are a lot of apps that are trying to do a better job of helping people understand what they're eating, and what they're taking in, and counting calories. I've got one of my own that I really love.

But the point is, to be able to connect those two pieces. To me, that seems like a logical evolution, and that's really what I was curious about. Certainly didn't want to put you on the spot, but I think what you've got is a great.

Neil: I said, "It's all good."

Dan: Well, and thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate your making time for me today, and for us, and for coming on. Any last words? Any other advice you want to share? You've shared some amazing antidotes, and some good stories. A lot of great points. Anything else?

Neil: I would just say, check us out. You can find us at Habit.com, and I'd encourage you to explore what foods are right for you.

Dan: I'll make sure I put a link to the website in the shows notes and on the podcast webpage.

Neil: That would be awesome.

Dan: I'll also include your TED Talk, because I like your TED Talk. In fact, one of the things we didn't talk about, and I thought this was interesting. For those of us that really focus on nutrition, you were talking about how ... I don't want to say this the wrong way, but you were sabotaging your heart by metabolizing the muscle within it.

Neil: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Do you want a quick snippet on that?

Dan: Sure.

Neil: It's actually a syndrome called athlete's heart. What typically happens when athletes are too lean and the nutrition plan is not meeting the fuel requirements for the workout that they're doing, and so your body will start to cut into muscle. That's when it naturally metabolizes muscle. And when it needs a new fuel source, it actually will go to your heart muscle. It's a phenomena that extreme endurance athletes can have happen if they're not careful, and that's what happened to me.

Dan: I appreciate your sharing that, and the only reason I wanted to bring it up is because a lot of people take nutrition for granted, and to your point, we're used to doing things the same way we've always done it. People need to think out of the box, and they need to think beyond what they're used to, especially in this new age, when all that information, the technology and the science and everything is out there, and really focus in on how's your body interacting with the food? How's your body metabolizing the food?

For me, one of the things that was a wake-up call for me, as I got back to thinking about, what are the things I did before? And starting to at least get back to that place where I could start getting healthier again. It's made a tremendous difference. Of course, now I'm ready to-take it to the next step, but I'm never going to be able to run a 10K like I did before, or something like that. But there's hope.

Neil: Get out there anyway.

Dan: Oh yeah. Well, I've got my mountain bike, and I ride it every day. I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much Neil, and I look forward to seeing you at the next Expo or next trade show.

Neil: Absolutely. Hey, thanks for having me on.

Dan: Thank you, Neil.

Neil: Take care.

Dan: Appreciate it. I want to thank Neil for coming on the podcast today, for sharing his insights, and his thought leadership in addition to his story. I'll be certain to put a link to habit, as well as Neil's TED Talk, in the show notes, and on this podcast website. You can access it by going to brandsecretsandstrategies.com/session64. Today's freebie is my free turnkey sales story strategies course, where I teach you how to multiply your sales with a simple strategy that I practically built my career on; a strategy that allowed me to continually outperform every brand that I went up against, and every category, and in every channel. These strategies work for me, and they can work for you, too. You can access it in the podcast webpage, or by going to turnkeysalesstorystrategies.com/growsales. Again, thank you for listening, and I look forward to seeing you in the next show.

Habit habit.com

Food just got personal |

Neil Grimmer |

TEDxSanFrancisco https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RmAK50tOzw&feature=youtu.be

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