The Next Brand, Episode #23

Emotional healing, the brand I failed to launch, and setting life goals

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

In the last 4 years, I’ve started 3 health brands (Kettle & Fire, Perfect Keto, Surely), which each do 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 20, 21, 22). Otherwise, let’s dive in!

🆕 What’s new

In the last episode, I talked about how what you choose to do is a reflection of what a well-lived life means to you. Do you want to achieve an outcome, enjoy the process, or work towards understanding more of the world? 

Or to use a different model from my friend Nick de Wilde - do you want your work to be a source of meaning? Or something that enables meaning in other areas of your life? 

There’s no wrong answer, just as there’s no permanent right answer. Just an answer that’s right for you, right now. 

What makes this hard is that your goals change. You change. And sometimes (as I’ve experienced lately), you only realize you’ve changed after the fact. You achieve a goal, only to move the goalposts… on yourself. 

Early in your career, you wonder what it’d be like to remove your money worries. When money is the most pressing problem in your life, you think solving it will make you happy. 

Then it’s solved, and you realize you were wrong. That on the other side of one solved problem lies a slew of other, different problems. Not good or bad, just… different. And what do you do once you’ve achieved a goal you set for yourself years ago? 

In my case, you decide to feel bad about yourself! After all, you’re not comparing current you to the You of years ago. That person is long gone, and the new you has new goals. 

So, you look around, as a changed human with a changed set of goals, and find yourself lacking. If only I’d done this, having that seems amazing, oh man this person over here crushed it… 

Obviously, this isn’t a healthy way to live. It’s why I’ve been working on more appreciation, less comparison. Rather than compare present-me (and my present goals) to others, I’m working instead to appreciate myself for achieving the goals I set years ago. 

And if I want to change my goals today and play a new game, I can do so! Just hopefully without the stress and judgment of comparing present-day goals with past accomplishments. That’s a game it’s impossible to win. 

💪 Health stuff

There’s a mental health revolution on the horizon. And no, I’m not talking about psychedelics (though those will help). 

I’m talking about neurotech: specifically, the potential for neurotech to improve the way we think and feel. 

For the last year or so I’ve been going down the neurotech rabbit hole. It’s early and rapidly changing, but I’m building conviction that in a few short years, developments in the space will transform the way we think, feel, and treat mental health issues. 

Why is this important? Basically, because the standard of care for things like depression - which impacts nearly 18 million people in the US - doesn’t really work all that well. Antidepressants have very real side effects and (unfortunately) for many, they are by no means a 100% cure (1). 

Since the 1930s, scientists have been aware of electrical stimulation’s ability to impact the brain. Though boy, was it not pretty - imagine being this patient in 1937:

Ablative therapy involves the deliberate, precise destruction of particular areas within the brain…. The first such procedure, the ‘Montreal Procedure’, was developed… to treat epilepsy. Patients were kept awake while a surgeon would stimulate different areas of their cerebral cortex with an electrical probe. By noting the patient’s response when stimulating various regions, the surgeon hoped to locate, and subsequently destroy, the particular area implicated in the patient’s seizures (2).

Yikes. 

Fortunately since then, we’ve learned a lot about how the brain functions AND have far more precise tools for achieving the targeted effects we’re going for. We do a lot less rooting around in the brain “stimulating” (ie electrocuting) random regions to see what jumps these days. 

As tools on the imaging and stimulation side have gotten better, companies like Flow Neuroscience have cropped up, building transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) devices to help with depression. Others (like Halo Neuroscience) have built neurostimulation products to help with learning and focus, based on research (3) that points to tDCS being helpful when it comes to improving learning ability. 

As neurostimulation technology becomes more common and better-studied, researchers are beginning to explore it for more than treating mental health. They’re beginning to research it from the standpoint of improving one’s day-to-day experience. 

Let’s take meditation. 

For most (🙋‍♂️) people, meditating is hard. What if you could use neurostimulation to increase focus? Not *hack* your system, but use technology to deepen your practice and experience what meditators call Mindful Awareness? 

Mindful Awareness is a cultivatable form of mental strength that becomes available to a person when their base level of concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity gets elevated through practicing mindfulness techniques. I think it’s safe to say that giving more people more equanimity would be a net good for humanity (though I don’t think it’d mean good things for Facebook’s stock price). 

Well, fortunately for us humans, that’s what Dr. Jay Sanguinetti is working on. As he outlines in his talk, he’s run some fascinating studies where his team uses transcranial Focused Ultrasound (tFUS) to get subjects into a mindful state. 

In his studies, he found that tFUS lessened activity in subjects’ Default Mode Network (DMN), the neuron network responsible for making you want to check Instagram or your emails every time you have 10 seconds waiting for something. Not only did it ramp down, but it did so SIGNIFICANTLY. Like, one 5-minute session equals 8 weeks of meditation significantly. 

This seems wildly good to me. I’m fully here for a world where more people can experience the benefits of deep meditation, and pretty strongly believe it’d be a better world. The promise of neurotechnologies are that they can help with skill acquisition, focus, mood, mental health, meditation… basically a whole bunch of things that would make it just that much easier to be human in the modern age. 

My mental model for neurotech is something like this. We don’t fully understand our biology, but lots of people are depressed or suffer from anxiety. So, as a society, we give people a bunch of strong drugs meant to impact their brain chemistry in just such a way that they’re feeling better. Yet - because we don’t understand our biology that well - there are all kinds of off-target side effects that result from this pharma-based approach, which leads to unhappy people. 

At some point in the (hopefully, near) future, I suspect we’ll see an explosion of neurotech companies creating treatments that work better than standard pharmacological ones for all kinds of mental health issues. If you can have a treatment that’s minimally harmful, has near-zero side effects AND the effects last longer... why would you ever choose a daily antidepressant? 

I also suspect the pace of innovation in the space is going to accelerate. Elon has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Neuralink, Kernel is building tools to better map and understand the brain, and we have a slew of research (like that on tDCS) that’s just now beginning to get applied commercially. 

There’s also an ethical piece to think about here. If we’re moving towards a future where anxiety and depression can just be zapped away, what does that mean for humanity? Are we moving towards a Brave New World of humans self-medicating every time they feel a negative emotion? 

Well, maybe. This is a deeply philosophical and complex topic that I can’t really do justice here. But I tend to side with David Pearce and suspect that there is an ethical way we can apply this technology and massively improve the quality of life for humans on this planet. As Pearce says in his piece on the “Hedonistic Imperative” (well worth the read if you find this stuff interesting):

Two hundred years ago, before the development of potent synthetic painkillers or surgical anesthetics, the notion that "physical" pain could be banished from most people's lives would have seemed… bizarre. Most of us in the developed world now take its daily absence for granted. 

The prospect that what we describe as "mental" pain, too, could one day be superseded is equally counter-intuitive. The technical option of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of political policy and ethical choice.

Issues of mental health are everywhere, they severely impact our society, our dating choices, and negatively color our too-brief time on this planet. Neurotech is one of the areas that gives me hope, and I suspect it will begin to impact and improve the human experience quite a bit over the coming decades. 

If you’re interested in more about pleasure, reward architecture, and consciousness, this article is complex, dense, and worth the read if you find the above interesting. 

🤑 Biz stuff

Last month, I talked about the non-alcoholic wine brand, Surely, I recently incubated. 

This month, I want to talk about the first time I tried to get into the alcohol space. And how it didn’t go nearly as well. 

In 2013, I had an idea. I had been Paleo (with many egregious cheat days) for about 2 years, was new-ish to San Francisco, and was struggling with the alcohol options available to those trying to avoid beer. At the time, it seemed like my options were to drink tequila + blackout OR… no really that was basically it. 

After selecting Option #1 too many times at the ripe age of 24, I had an idea. I’d been reading about various alcohols in other cultures and had stumbled across feni - an Indian liquor traditionally produced in Goa, India. Please now take this opportunity to send your cultural appropriation hate mail - thank you. 

What made feni unique compared to the sea of grain-based alcoholic options I’d seen was that most varieties were made from either fermented coconut sap or cashew apples. Because feni was made from fermenting fruit, the thinking was, they’d be Paleo… and something that rules-abiding Justin would be able to drink. Finally! 

Yes, when cashews are growing they really do look like little demons 

As I did my research, I got more and more excited by the idea. As I thought about it more, there really wasn’t an alcohol brand that was a fit for health-oriented people. And if health was one of your highest priorities, what was your go-to drink? Really, there was nothing. 

I thought that - just maybe - if there was a way to bring alcohol for healthy people to market, there was a good chance it’d do well. I suspected that feni could be that alcohol. So, I bought some. 

Just kidding! Literally nowhere in the US sold any. 

So instead, I went to my favorite local Indian restaurant, talked to the owner (who was from Goa, the region in India where they traditionally make feni), and convinced him to bring some back from his next trip to India. 

A month later, I scooped a few bottles of feni from his restaurant to take home and try. I took them home, poured out the liquor I’d worked so hard to procure, took a sip and IMMEDIATELY spit it up. 

A second sip was no different. This stuff was truly abhorrent. 

Okay - feni is out. But I was still into the “alcohol, but for health-minded people” idea, so figured I’d give it one more shot. After all, the reason the feni made me consider ending my life was that it was strong as hell! Maybe if I used less of it - say 5% - the taste wouldn’t be as bad. And maybe, if I blended it with something that was hydrating (like coconut water, which was then all the rage), it’d reduce hangovers and be surprisingly good. 

So I thought, let’s take this a step further. Let’s create a 5% alcohol drink that comes in a can, uses super clean alcohol, and blends it with coconut water. We’d call it Covo, and market it to people looking for a healthier alcohol alternative. 

I also thought that we’d make it cool: put it in a slim can, make it white, and really hit on the health things people care about: low-calorie, gluten-free, etc. 

I hired the supremely talented designer Erin Tyler (honestly far too talented to work with me at that point in my career, I’m not sure what she was doing), and Erin came up with this:

I had the design, I had the idea… and from there just utterly failed to get the product off the ground. 

The problem was, I just wasn’t serious. I was 23 and was writing a book (Traction), in a new city, making new friends, and (for some reason) was trying to get 1-2 other projects off the ground at the same time. Oh, and I was highly allergic to venture funding at that time, so was trying to self-fund the whole thing with no more than one comma in my bank account. 

In short, I just wasn’t a good enough entrepreneur. I wasn’t serious enough and didn’t have the internal conviction that THIS was the next thing I should do, nor the conviction that it would really work if I really ran hard at it. 

Additionally, because I wasn’t serious enough, I didn’t get help from others in the alcohol and CPG world. Rather than seek out advisors and others who could make Covo a reality, I tried to move forward and figure out product development, channel strategy, etc all on my own, on my own dime. I was playing entrepreneur, not acting like one. 

Looking back, it was crazy that I thought I could make this work without a budget or a co-founder in the alcohol world. To win in the alcohol space, I’d have to win in channels I had no knowledge of (ie retail), navigate the highly-regulated and complex alcohol space, and do so without any funding or outside mentorship. I just was ngmi. 

Though Covo didn’t work out, I learned a TON about what not to do. And changed basically everything about my approach to making Kettle & Fire work. We got advisors, we raised funding, we started online (which I knew) vs in retail (which I didn’t), we built a board of advisors, we hired experienced people… basically did everything differently. And guess what - it worked much better! 

Am I bummed that we didn’t launch a 100 calorie, slim white can 5% alcoholic drink 2 years before White Claw came out? I suppose so. But it was a good lesson and showed me early in my career that you get literally zero credit for just having an idea in startup land. You gotta execute. And it meant that I was much more prepared and driven to execute the next time around. 

Plus, the idea of alcohol for healthy people clearly stuck with me, as years later I co-founded Surely, which I’m super excited about. 

😌 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 - Bitcoin is the Great Definancialization. I’ve long been a supporter of Bitcoin (and crypto more broadly), and this is one of the more fascinating posts I’ve read. In it, the author argues that inflation is the driving force behind the increasing financialization of everything.
    Because of inflation, money loses value. To protect against that loss of value, we need to make money grow (which drives financialization and an increase in demand for financial products). This makes saving unattractive (as saving means losing purchasing power), and drives savers to take more and more risk, just to maintain purchasing power.
    Now I’m more skeptical of their conclusion (that Bitcoin completely and forever solves this), but it’s an interesting take that got me thinking. And it pairs well with the Index Mindset post and a bottle of chilled non-alcoholic wine (🤔good product placement?).

  • 📚 Book rec - I recently read Count Down about the wildly disturbing trends in society-wide decreases in fertility, sperm count, testosterone… basically everything. If you’re looking for a happy pick-me-up book that will have you feeling good about the future, this is not it.
    It is, however, a fascinating overview of the havoc that environmental contaminants and unhealthy lifestyles are wreaking on our hormones and reproductive systems. I continue to believe that the next decade will bring more and more awareness to the dangers of environmental toxins: this book is a great summary of why such awareness is important for our health.

  • Cool product - I recently purchased these recovery massage legs for my fiancee’s birthday. They’re expensive, but they work better for recovery than just about anything I’ve tried after a long run or bike ride. I’ve enjoyed putting them on and cruising through emails while getting my legs massaged, though I can’t help but feel like I’m getting closer and closer to the robot-mediated, mindless pleasure world of WALL-E.

  • 🎵 Music - With autumn officially here, Lane 8 has kindly made it dead simple for me to write this section of the newsletter. Just listen to his fall mixtape and thank me later.

  • 🏀 Random - This tweet seemed to resonate, and I’m starting to think more seriously about setting up a deep-work-focused office space (or testing the concept virtually). If you have experience setting up co-working spaces (or are interested in trialing a virtual productivity experiment), let me know - I’d love to chat.

  • 🙋‍♂️Asks -There are now enough of you reading this that I figured I’d share some opportunities that might be of interest. That said, if you (or someone you know) are interested in the below roles, let me know!

    • VP of Growth for Surely non-alcoholic wines

    • A company I invested in is looking for a General Manager / CEO to kick off a new brand concept they’re working on (that I’m excited about) in the health + wellness space. If you or someone you know wants to break into the consumer health space, I think this is a great opportunity. 

***

Another month, another newsletter. I’ve been doing this for nearly 2 years now, and there are now nearly 5000 of you who read this on the monthly 👋

We’ve covered a lot from a health, business, and life standpoint, and in many ways feel like we’re just getting started. If you feel so inclined, I’d love if you’d forward this to a friend and ask them to subscribe - the party gets more fun as more people join 👨‍👩‍👦‍👦

Enjoy the month, and I’ll see you in ~30 days ✌️

  • Justin