The Next Brand, Episode #22

Career philosophy, my newest brand, and butthole sunning

Hi there, and welcome to The Next Brand - my take on health, wellness, and brand building.

In the last 4 years I’ve founded 3 health brands (Kettle & Fire, Perfect Keto, Surely), which each do tens of millions in revenue. I’ve raised ~$20mm to build Kettle & Fire, gotten into 10k+ retail stores, bootstrapped Perfect Keto, launched 80+ SKUs… and have a small portfolio of Shopify apps I run on the side. Previously, I worked in tech and had no experience in CPG, DTC, or any other 3-letter industries.

If you missed past episodes, you can catch up here (Episode 19, 20, 21). Otherwise, let’s dive in!

🆕 What’s new

I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately. At this point in my life, I’m fortunate that I can dictate pretty much everything about my working life. I get to decide what to work on, who to work with, how to structure my day… pretty much everything 20-year-old Justin could have hoped for when he first started thinking about startups as a career path. 

Though I wouldn't have it any other way, this work freedom comes with its own challenges. It can feel like being dropped in the middle of the ocean: sure you’re “free” to swim in any direction you’d like, but without constraints, how do you decide where to go? 

I’ve seen friends face similar challenges as they’ve gone through career transitions, sold a company, or made a lot of money “investing” in crypto. 

When your career choices are not constrained by the normal factors (How much will you make? Where will you live? How stable is this job?), it leads to a lot of questions. It’s the whole “what do I do with my life” mid-life crisis, just experienced at a younger age. I think. 

As I was talking with a brilliant friend a few weeks back, he said something that has stuck with me:

Ultimately, what you choose to do for work is a reflection of a deeper question - what does a well-lived life look like to you?

Not anyone’s life. Just yours: what does it mean to live a good life?  

If your goal is to find meaningful work - to answer the work component of the “what does a well-lived life look like?” question - you can approach this a few ways. 

The first of these is process-oriented. Rather than focus on the end goal (be a billionaire! Go to mars!), you focus on the process. Someone focused on the process portion of a life well-lived will focus less on headlines, and far more on the day-to-day, hour-by-hour of what one’s life looks like. Am I spending time with people I love and find amazing? Are my days structured in ways I enjoy? Am I able to travel, get sunlight, be healthy, and work the amount I want to? 

The Archetype of this approach might be a digital nomad. Someone more interested in life’s daily offerings and adventures than in achieving a big goal or solving a huge problem. For these people, life is a journey, not a destination. And that journey really, really matters.

Others have more of an outcome-oriented approach to work and a life well-lived. This orientation goes well beyond just financial (though includes a fair number of people), but also includes those driven to solve problems in the world. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela… these are people who (from the outside at least - they still won’t answer my phone calls) seem more motivated to achieve an outcome than they are by any day to day considerations. 

I’m sure that Bill Gates, Bezos, and Elon Musk would all have much happier personal lives had they been more process-focused. But boy did they also seem to knock their chosen outcomes out of the park. 

Archetype: a single-minded founder hell-bent on creating some outcome in the world or solving a specific problem. 

Last (in my likely incorrect, smooth-brained way of thinking) is the understanding-oriented crew. This group is motivated almost entirely by a desire to understand the universe. They are less focused on solving a problem or driving a specific outcome, and rarely consumed by how to craft each hour of their life. 

Instead, these folks are often consumed by a desire to understand more deeply what is going on in the world. Whether a scientist, independent researcher, philosopher, or whatever, there are a smattering of folks purely motivated by increasing their understanding of the world. 

Each of these 3 approaches has tradeoffs, and all have bits and pieces of one another. However, knowing which type you are can often be discovered by looking at where you make sacrifices. 

When push comes to shove, do you often skip friend hangs in order to progress towards an outcome? Do you prioritize travel, and daily routine over any and all other responsibilities (process-oriented)? Or do you eschew responsibilities and commitments, choosing instead to spend as much of your time as possible reading, learning and understanding more of the world around you? 

I’m still answering these questions for myself. But I’ve found this frame helpful in thinking through what I care about work-wise. Hopefully, it helps you as well. 

💪 Health stuff

One of the challenges of our influencer-driven information age is that influencers get rewarded when they get attention, not when they drive results

As a health influencer, you’ll get more attention when you talk about the wonders of butthole sunning than you will when you talk about eating clean and exercising regularly. 

Sure your advice is far more likely to drive results for people who follow it (though to be fair, I haven’t gone too deep down the butt-sunning hole)... but that’s unlikely to translate to a loyal following you can build a career off of. 

That’s a problem when it comes to health advice. Truly, most health advice is simple: get sun, lower stress, avoid highly processed foods (especially vegetable oils), move, and exercise. Simple, yet kinda boring! 

And because it’s boring, those who share the advice that’s most likely to work are also not the ones who tend to garner the largest online followings. Influencers are incentivized to talk about things at the cutting edge that are less likely to move the needle for the average person. This leads to a polluted information environment: one where people focus on the 20% of things that just won’t matter as much as making committed lifestyle changes. 

I’m guilty of this too. Often when I sit down to write this section of the newsletter, I think about what would interest people vs what would help them. 

But fortunately for my efforts to make this section interesting, health is simple: being healthy in our ever-changing modern environment is not. 

Much like the average food environment, the deck is stacked against you. Your environment is playing a game optimized to tug your attention (or your taste buds) towards things that are not good for you. Something to be aware of the next time you see a health influencer promoting their latest game-changing product. 

Now please continue to the next section, where I peddle my latest health product. 

🤑 Biz stuff

Today I want to share the story of the most recent brand I co-founded (this time via incubation). 

Meet Surely - the first non-alcoholic wine brand made from real wine. 

I talk quite a lot about entrepreneurship in this newsletter, and figured it could be helpful to go behind the scenes a bit and share just how this went from an idea in early 2020 to a thriving business just 18 months later. 

First, let’s start with the why - why should Surely exist?

As I mentioned in a previous newsletter, to build a fast-growing CPG brand you want to bet on a trend. And boy is the non-alcoholic trend taking off. 

Drinking is often the #1 thing that even healthy people do too much of (🙋‍♂️guilty). As someone who’s into health, decreasing or cutting out alcohol is something people talk about but have trouble doing. There are just so many social rituals tied to alcohol that it’s challenging to remove from your life completely. 

This has driven a TON of demand for non-alcoholic alternatives (some good color here). Non-alcoholic beer brands like Athletic Brewing have gone from $0 to tens of millions in annual revenue in just a few years, Budweiser is getting in the non-alc game, and Heineken Zero (their non-alc beer) is one of their best-selling (and fastest-growing) products in their portfolio. 

In non-alc spirits, Seedlip has also done incredibly well and exited to Diageo for a rumored $200M+. Not bad for a brand that’s less than 6 years old. 

And in wine?

🦗. 

Most products in the non-alc wine space are afterthought products from a large winery. They’re cheap, taste bad, and aren’t even made with real wine (most of them use grape concentrate). 

After seeing the growth of the space, personally being interested in the category, and feeling like there were no good products in the non-alc wine category... I thought there was an opportunity. 

So, did I go out and raise funding right away, spend $80k on a branding agency, and get to work in the background? 

Not quite. Instead, I took a similar approach as I did when validating the idea for Kettle & Fire: I threw up a website, bought some ads, and saw if people wanted this product as badly as I thought they might. 

Turns out, they did! 

After spending $1k validating the idea (and driving nearly $2k in revenue with a totally un-optimized site, ads, etc), I was confident that if we made the product, there was demand. 

After validation, I figured it was time to see just how good of a wine replacement we could make. 

Through a friend, I found a winemaker who was excited about the idea of making the first non-alc wine made from… wine (crazy, I know). We spent the next 7 months testing sample after sample, working on sourcing and supply chain, and finally signed off on our first product (a sparkling rose) that launched roughly 8 months after starting to think about the idea. It was time to launch. 

We did a test launch in late 2020 and quickly sold out of product. Based on customer feedback from that first round, we knew we had a few tweaks to make (namely, tone down the carbonation) but that overall the reception to the product was incredible. On our first try, we were getting feedback from customers saying it was their favorite non-alc wine on the market - not bad for a beta product! 

Now came the important part: finding someone to run the business. 

You see, I really enjoy spinning things up and testing ideas. I also enjoy running companies. But I can’t do both, and was still running Kettle & Fire (and overseeing the recent launch of our regenerative bone broth line). 

For Surely to really take off the way I suspected it could, someone needed to run it. We’d already validated that this was likely a good idea, acquired some customers, and made a solid v1 product. Now it was time to go from creating a product to building a company. 

Fortunately, at Perfect Keto we had a super talented President, Ryan, who told me in December that he was ready to move on. He’d crushed it at Perfect Keto for a few years, and wanted to do his own thing. He’d also turned his life around after cutting out alcohol 3 years back, had seen how terrible the non-alcoholic options are,  and had a real passion for the space and customer. 

So, I pitched him. Would he be interested in working together to build + run Surely, co-found the business with me, and take Surely from a beta product to a category-defining brand? 

Fortunately, he said yes. Since teaming up with Ryan, Surely has been on a tear. We’ve raised funding, built an incredible team, sold a ton of product… and are just getting started.

I’m really proud of the work done to get Surely up and running, and couldn’t be more excited about the company. 

I’m also really interested in this incubation model. Is it possible to test and validate other ideas I (or others) have, then recruit more founder/CEOs to run them? 

I’m not sure, but it’s something I’m planning to explore over the coming months. If you’re interested in incubations (as an operator, or as someone with ideas), holler 👋. 

😌 Dope stuff on the internet

Some of my favorite things since the last newsletter (note: I don’t get paid to recommend anything here):

  • 📰  Article - Given the poor state of health in the US, I think one of the most important questions today is why have humans in this country become so sick in the last 50 years? It’s something I wonder quite a bit, and as such have been really enjoying this series that digs into the obesity question in a very rigorous way. If you too have wondered why health in this nation has gotten so much worse over the years, I highly recommend checking this out. 

    • (Bonus mention!) If you care about technological progress and how we as a society can make good things happen faster, check out the work Jason is doing at Roots of Progress and his new non-profit. I’ve been a longtime fan of his and am excited to follow and support his important non-profit work.

  • 📚 Book rec - I’ve been on a history kick lately, and am making my way through just about everything David McCullough has written. I recently finished his book on the Wright Brothers and how they invented the first “flying machine”, and wow. I often take these kinds of things for granted: we have airplanes, the Wright brothers invented the first one, cool great great.
    Reading the history was SO much more compelling. For 5 straight years, the Wright brothers left their homes in Ohio to camp on the beach in North Carolina and run tests on a machine that literally everyone (the press, the Army’s Chief Engineer, the head of the Smithsonian) said would not work. And they did this for 5 years, funding all of their experiments, tests, and travel/lodging/equipment/labor out of their own pockets. Given these challenges, it’s truly amazing that they figured out flying at all.
    Reading it made me ask myself, just what is that thing that I feel compelled to throw myself at for years without recognition or support? I’m not totally sure, but am (very) slowly working to figure that out.

  • Cool product - Crypto and the internet tend to disintermediate gatekeepers. The music industry is full of gatekeepers: artists make 12 cents of every dollar earned in music. Royal (disclosure: I’m a small investor) recently launched to fix this, and allow artists to share ownership in their music directly with fans. Basically, you can invest in your favorite artists and do well when they do well. My little music recommendation section is about to get a lot more profitable…

  • 🎵 Music - I’ve been digging this very chill, melodic mix by Lee Burridge. Lee is going on tour through some spots in the US this summer if you want to check him out. I saw him at All Day I Dream in SF some years back - he’s a blast to see live.

  • 🏀 Random - As I’ve been doing more investing, I’ve been thinking of sharing investments I’m making with some members of this newsletter community. If you’re interested in seeing what I see (and maybe participating in some of my investments), let me know here.

***

That’s all I got this month! As always, thanks for reading, and be well 👋

  • Justin