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The Next, Episode #42
Finding your passion, environmental toxins, and doing work you care about
Hi there, and welcome to The Next - my take on health, wellness, and company building.
In the last few years I’ve founded 3 health brands (Kettle & Fire, Perfect Keto, Surely non-alc wine), which each do tens of millions in revenue. I’m now working on TrueMed, which allows health and wellness brands to accept HSA/FSA funds. Previously, I worked in tech and had no experience in CPG, DTC, or any other 3-letter industries.
If you missed past episodes, I recommend checking out Episode 37 on the bonkers Tuft’s Food Compass - the one that claims Lucky Charms are healthier than steak. Otherwise, let’s dive in!
🆕 What’s new
Doing stuff you care about is the best.
I’ve been on both sides: in my early 20s, I was part of a team rolling up SaaS businesses in the developer tools space. As someone who was neither (1) a developer nor (2) a tool, I found the space boring. The team was awesome, I learned a ton, and would never change my experience. But man: pretty much as soon as I could get out of that space, I did.
After we got acquired, I played around with a bunch of ideas. I considered starting a real estate thing, building a tech company in the drug addiction space, launching a cloud kitchen brand… What ended up working was Kettle & Fire, an idea I tested on the side, not thinking it would be a big business.
As Kettle & Fire took off, I kept thinking “wow, I got lucky”. I certainly did. But in retrospect, it also makes sense to me that an idea in the health space would be the one to work: that’s where my interests lay!
2015 Justin spent his free time reading about the food system, doing Crossfit, understanding the relationship between food and health, and having disgusting cheat days. As one of my friends said, I was living in Edge City when it came to health, and was surrounded by people on the frontier of health knowledge.
I was (and still am) interested in health. To my mind, one of the great mysteries of our time is just why the US has seen obesity, chronic disease and healthcare costs explode in the last 50 years. This intellectual curiosity meant I spent so much of my free time thinking, reading, and learning about health and food. I went mostly Paleo in 2012, at a time when almost nobody had heard of it: in retrospect, it’s no wonder my first big startup win came in a space I was fascinated by.
This is certainly one of the benefits of working on something you’re interested in: you have better ideas. But the benefits go beyond that.
In my experience, not only are your ideas better, but your ability to sell those ideas is 100x better. I’m not a charismatic person, yet when I talk about the food system, I get fired up! I can’t help it. And that passion compels people, makes them sit up and take notice. When you work on something you care about, you get charisma for free. .
The charisma that comes from working on problems you care about acts as a lubricant for everything you want to do in business. Recruiting? Guess what, you’re now a compelling boss. Raising money? The same. It’s nice to sell a product you care about. It comes through, whether you like it or not.
A founder is always selling. A nightmare, if “always selling” means constant talk about developer tools. A blessing, if “selling” means discussing a topic I’m wildly interested in day in and day out.
I’m incredibly grateful that I got out of the dev tools space at 23. It wasn’t as obvious then, but had I stayed in it I would have inevitably been outcompeted by someone else who found dev tools fascinating. I’d spend my nights and weekends talking about health and wellness, while they’d be building side projects and playing with the latest and greatest tools in the space. I could get away with not caring for a bit, but compounded over decades my unwillingness to work/read/think about the topic on nights and weekends would add up. I’d have spent 2 decades learning 5 days a week, while others in the space go 7. There’s no way to make up that gap, no way for me to be the greatest in a space I don’t care about.
As a founder, this really, really matters. Work on things you’re interested in, and you practically get two extra work days for free. Your work becomes play, while others clock out at 5p. How can you help but win?
And when work becomes play… it’s game over. I will regularly have weekend conversations with friends on health and food stuff, just because it fascinates me. And the more that my work becomes part of my life, part of who I am as a person, the more that life delivers interesting people, compelling opportunities, and new ideas to me “for free”. The whole “don’t talk about work at parties” rule may make sense if you live in a suburb full of lawyers. But to an entrepreneur, to someone who is building, why would I NOT want to talk about the things I find most interesting?
This all sounds great, but how do I find what I care about?!
I think finding your passion is (1) hard to do for anyone, but damn near impossible for someone under 25, and (2) not the real goal.
Instead, of finding your passion, find your problem. For me, I kept thinking about the existential health issue in the US. In my worldview, nearly everyone in the US is getting fat, depressed, and sick because our environment is killing us. That seems like a problem! And I’ve spent most of the last 7 years ruminating on ways to solve that Big Freaking Problem.
Finding a problem is far, far better than finding your passion. Passions come and go, problems are lasting. Probably, people will want to be healthier for as long as I’m alive: problems are an infinite game, passions are finite.
I also like orienting one’s career around a problem rather than a passion because it unlocks the long game. For me, “fixing the food system” is a problem I can dedicate my life and career to. Fixing that problem will likely involve many approaches, multiple companies, and span the gamut from angel investing, starting companies, funding non-profits... if everything I do is oriented around solving this problem, my career becomes legible in a way it may not otherwise. And with every new person I meet, with everything I learn, it all can play a role in the larger game I’m focused on.
This problem orientation also allows you to ride the inevitable highs and lows of any industry. If you worked in crypto through the 2018 bear market or remained in tech after the Dotcom Bubble, you likely did pretty darn well. If you’re following the money or chasing the latest news cycle, I’m not sure that you hang around through either downturn.
Long time horizons unlock people, relationships, interests, and learning. They allow for compounding, the strongest force in the universe, to work in your favor.
At the end of the day, you couldn’t pay me to do things I don’t care about. Not simply because I wouldn’t enjoy it (though that too), but for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Do things you care about and enjoy the benefits that come with it. For an ambitious person, I don’t think there’s any other way.
💪 Health stuff
Lately I’ve been obsessively reading about environmental toxins. I suppose my interest in health would inevitably lead me here, to a place where I get more tinfoil-hat-y and see toxins and health issues everywhere I look. Yet, here we are.
Today, I’m at a place where I’d say with 80%+ confidence that environmental toxins are - at least partially - responsible for a slew of modern health issues:
Decreasing sperm counts
Sperm counts have declined worldwide by 50-60% from 1973-2011 (Levine et al. 2017)
Men in highest quartile of consumption of high pesticide-residue fruit and vegetables (≥1.5 servings/day) had a 49% lower total sperm count and a 32% lower percentage of morphologically normal sperm as compared to men in the lowest quartile of intake (<0.5 servings/day) (Chiu et al. 2015; Pizzorno 2018)
…and likely have a role to play in the fact that girls are also hitting puberty 1-2 years sooner than they were 40 years ago (link).
These environmental toxins - PFAS, phthalates, EDCs, etc - are everywhere. They’re in your shirts, your detergents, soap, shampoo, paint, furniture, water, air, and even your underwear.
Because of their prevalence, your odds of not exposure are basically nil. As of this writing, 92% of Americans have measurable phthalates in their body (linked to 25%+ decrease in testosterone). 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood (linked to cancer, infertility, neurological conditions, etc). And as a society, we see the highest cancer rates for parts of the body that accumulate toxin exposure (breasts, testes/prostate, lungs, etc) (1).
Humans aren’t the only creatures impacted by these widespread chemicals. In the last 30 years, we’ve seen salmon go extinct, wild animals drop their testosterone, and bug biomass down more than 80% (known as the windshield phenomenon).
In large part, we are here because the FDA has totally dropped the ball on regulation. The EU takes what Taleb would call a “do no harm” approach: they assume that these entirely new chemicals, literally unknown in nature, may possibly maybe cause harm. And so, they regulate them! The EU currently bans 1300+ chemicals and compounds that the US allows.
The FDA, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach, Sure humans have never before been exposed to these classes of chemicals, but whatever - let’s assume they’re safe! And thus the US has 40,000+ chemicals allowed in our food, in our water, in our environment, with literally no pushback from the FDA. Between this and the 50 years it took the FDA to act on the whole trans fats thing (and then, only after multiple lawsuits were brought against them), it’s no wonder some are calling for the breakup of the FDA.
Anyway - back to invisible chemicals killing us.
Only now, with PFAS in the bloodstream of 97% of Americans and glyphosate in 93% of Americans are we starting to more fully understand the impact of these chemicals on our health (2).
Let’s talk about glyphosate/Roundup, one of the most common herbicides.
Each year, 280 million pounds of glyphosate/Roundup are sprayed on US crops, while the same compound is banned in Europe (beginning in 2024). The evidence around glyphosate toxicity is becoming clearer: after 15 years of lawsuits around glyphosate exposure and cancer, Bayer/Monsanto paid $10.9B, the largest settlement in pharma history (3). The first scientific studies showing links of RoundUp to adverse health effects were in 2005, yet only now are the courts and the media waking up to the devastating impact glyphosate has had on human health.
And what an impact it is! Quoting from my friend Anthony’s excellent newsletter on glyphosate:
In 2015, the WHO's cancer arm, IARC, categorized glyphosate as a "probable human carcinogen”. Glyphosate has also been shown to exhibit an antibiotic effect that can destroy beneficial gut bacteria, cause damage to the gut lining ldeaing to possible autoimmune conditions, act as a chelating substance which binds minerals and leeches them out of your body, an endocrine disruptor that modulates our hormones and turns testosterone into estrogen (hey there, fertility crisis!), lead to celiac and gluten intolerance, and is tightly linked to the rapid increase in autism, and more.
There are 28 countries that have banned the use of glyphosate entirely and the EU has limited the exposure to minuscule amounts. Not in the home of the free and the brave! The acceptable levels of glyphosate in the water in the USA are seven thousand times (yes, 7000x) that of the EU.
Here's some shocking data from The Detox Project to show some relative amounts of glyphosate (in parts per billion):
0.1 ppb: altered the gene function and severe organ damage in rats
0.1 ppb: permitted level for glyphosate in EU tap water
10 ppb: toxic effects on the livers of fish
700 ppb: permitted level for glyphosate in U.S. tap water
1125 ppb: found in Cheerios
11,900 ppb: found in GMO Soybeans
What’s equally concerning is just how prevalent this stuff is. A recent study showed that literally 100% of cereals tested had high levels of glyphosate. 100%! That’s every brand in the middle of the grocery store, all loaded with glyphosate at concentrations roughly 10,000x the permitted levels for tap water in the EU.
This is disgusting. Exposures like this are why Kettle & Fire was one of the first brands to get certified glyphosate-free, and why I’m thrilled that The Detox Project is working to help more and more brands become certified glyphosate-free.
What can you do about this issue?
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lower your environmental toxin exposure. Some steps I’ve taken are to:
Upgrade your socks and underwear - studies have shown that the chemicals used in many socks, underwear and other fabrics (1) have a serious impact on your hormones and the like, and (2) are very much absorbed into your body via your largest organ, the skin. In fact, some studies have shown that polyester - the most common fabric used in underwear today - leads to a significant decline in sperm count. For that reason, I buy all my socks and underwear from a combination of Pact, Paka and Patagonia, as those are the pieces I wear day in and day out. I also try to buy organic cotton tees, but to be honest it’s tough to find things that both look good and are made of organic cotton or linens.
Filter your water - with PFAS and glyphosate in water almost everywhere, filtering it is critical. I have a whole home filter from Radiant Life, but an under-sink reverse-osmosis filter (or Berkey) and a showerhead filter should also get the job done.
Donate fluids - sweating is one of the best ways to clear toxins from the body. If you have access, using a sauna a few times a week can do wonders to lower your toxin load, as can donating blood a few times per year.
Buy organic - buying organic, local produce from farmers who don’t use these toxic herbicides will go a long way to lowering your exposure (though is certainly not perfect). It’s a safe assumption that any non-organic grain or soy product is absolutely loaded with glyphosate and other toxins, so avoid if you can. And be sure to check out The Detox Project for brands that are certified free of glyphosate residue.
Upgrade your cleaning supplies - soaps, shampoos, detergents, deodorants… all the name brand stuff is filled with phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. I buy and like Branch Basics and Puracy, but fortunately, there are quite a few good options out there (including a lot on Thrive Market and Grove).
Stop using non-toxic pans - I recommend using ceramic, cast iron or stainless steel. Personally, I really like our Caraway stuff.
I’m currently working with a researcher to pull together a guide around removing these environmental chemicals from your environment. If you want to get this guide when I release it, enter your email here.
There is a silver lining to all this. If you’re relatively healthy, the body is pretty damn good at clearing some of these toxic compounds (mainly, phthalates) from your body. Many phthalates can be cleared from one’s body within 24 hours (4), so interventions in this area can go a long way.
If I had to make a prediction, I suspect that toxin contamination will be one of the largest health trends of the next decade. It’s worth paying attention to now, and if any of you have more things I should read, ideas for products or companies, or really anything that touches this space, please reply to this email. I’m all ears.
Thanks to Daniel Goodwin and others for sharing thoughts and ideas about all things environmental toxins and helping me get smarter on this topic.
😌 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 - Against Safetyism puts into words something I’ve felt for a while now. Namely, that in many areas (climate change, nuclear, AI safety, etc) society has a tendency to over-react to what we can see and measure (ie nuclear accidents) while ignoring the hidden, unknown cost of NOT doing something (like the hundreds of thousands of annual deaths attributed to gas, coal, and other non-nuclear energy sources). This is a topic I’m thinking a lot about, and this article did a great job putting into words some of the things I’ve been thinking and feeling.
📚Book rec - I’ve been into all things regenerative agriculture lately, and Eat Like A Fish was another book I enjoyed in this vein. If you read and enjoyed What Your Food Ate, I suspect you’ll enjoy this as well.
⌚Cool product - I’ve been really enjoying my toxin-free tees from Paka. Especially as I’ve been going deeper into what healthy supply chains look like, I’m pretty excited by what Paka is doing in their business and with their product lines.
🎵Music - Some of you may not like this, but this set from Patrick Khach was the best one I saw during New Year’s 2022. It’s a bit harder hitting than what I’m normally into, but still 🔥. If that’s not your vibe, the Fred Again… tiny desk show is fantastic. Fred is just wildly talented - that’s a man who loves what he does 😉.
🏀Random - I absolutely love what Austin and the Building Culture team are doing, bringing brick homes back into American architecture. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what makes a home or office environment healthy: if you have thoughts or things I should read on this topic, please let me know!
🙋♂️Ask - TrueMed is gearing up to launch and allow people to use tax-free HSA/FSA funds in the next few weeks. If you’re interested in being a beta user, please sign up on our website and feel free to email me feedback at any point about what you’d like to see from us. We’re very much in early days and would love to chat with anyone and everyone interested in using tax-free funds to invest in their health.
That’s all I got for this month gang! Thanks for sticking around to read another missive.
If you enjoyed this one, I’d love if you’d forward it to a friend. Otherwise, catch you in 30!