Gooder Podcast with Karen Huh
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American’s obsession with health and wellness and grown exponentially over the last few years. And gone are the days of “hippy” organics. The influence of food culture shows and celebrities and San Francisco’s technology industry has collided into a multi-billion-dollar world of better-for-you food and ingredient alternatives. As this part of the food industry grows and consumers continue to push manufacturers and retailers to mitigate impacts on the environment and better our health altogether, food technology is playing a huge role in meeting those needs.
In this episode, Karen Huh, CEO of Joywell Foods, and I cover the gamut of food tech. From fundraising during COVID to consumer adoption and leadership management style, Karen brings her start-up experience and dedication to servant leadership to this exciting (and exploding) category.
In this episode we learn:
- The Joywell Foods genesis backstory, its mission and long-term plans to reduce refined sugar consumption.
- Karen’s journey from Starbucks to Bulletproof to Joywell.
- Who’s open to adopting alternative sweeteners in manufacturing.
- The importance of developing a consistent brand experience.
- The impact of food tech on natural and Better-For-Your products.
- The impact COVID had on investment and capital raises.
- How fundraising and investment has changed for the food tech and natural food industries in the last 18 months.
- A little bit about Karen’s personal obsession with RTD’s and who she’s watching.
About Karen Huh:
Karen Huh brings a deep background in consumer, brand, and products from 15 years in the food and beverage industry. Prior to Joywell Foods, Karen served as Vice President of Product and Brand Strategy at Bulletproof 360, a food and beverage brand, where she built the consumer strategy and product portfolio to support the Bulletproof lifestyle while scaling teams across R&D, brand, marketing and product development. Prior to Bulletproof, Karen was at Starbucks Coffee Company for nearly 11 years in a wide range of roles including coffee innovation, launch of RTD and packaged coffee in international markets, and the acquisition of Evolution Fresh. Before joining Starbucks, Karen was an investment professional at two tech-focused venture capital firms.
Diana Fryc: Welcome to the Gooder Podcast. I am your host, Dianna Fryc. As partner and CMO of retail, Voodoo and award winning branding agency I have met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the naturals industry, food beverage wellness and fitness. As such, I decided to create the Gooder podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts and have them share their insights, expertise and even passions to help businesses all around the world become gooder. I have a very interesting guest to bring to the program today. At least she’s very interesting to me because what she does, Karen Huh. So who is the CEO of Joywell, which is a food tech company here- not in Seattle, but you’re in Seattle.
Karen Huh: That’s right.
Diana Fryc: It’s out of the Bay Area?
Karen Huh: It’s out of Davis, California.
Diana Fryc: Out of Davis, okay. A food tech company that makes high quality natural protein sweeteners and taste modifiers using both plant fermentation and technology. She brings a deep background in consumer brand and products from 15 years in the food and beverage industry. Prior to Joywell Foods, Karen served as VP of product development and brand strategy at Bulletproof 360. It’s a favorite of ours here in the office a food and beverage brand and Starbucks Coffee Company for nearly 11 years in a wide range of roles, including coffee innovation. Let’s see a little bit of RTD in there, and packaged coffee as well as you were involved in acquisition of evolution fresh. Before joining Starbucks, Karen was an investment professional, who worked at two tech venture capital firms. Welcome Karen, how are you today?
Karen Huh: I am Great. Thank you so much for having me.
Diana Fryc: Of course you’re in Seattle, of course only across town.
Karen Huh: With some rain, as one might expect, but given long fires, couldn’t celebrate rain more.
Diana Fryc: I know it. I know. And you and your family getting settled into this new school year okay?
Karen Huh: Depends how you define the word settle; that is really what it depends, but without completely getting us way off track. It’s a day by day situation and we’re figuring it out.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. Same with our family. Well, so I’m really excited to speak with you today because I’m fascinated about the impact of food tech and its impact on natural and better for you product space and I can’t wait to get to your thoughts about it. But before I do, I love the journey. I would love to hear a little bit more about how you got to Joywell, so maybe you could talk about that a little bit. We’ve got your history, but like maybe personally, how did Joywell be on your radar?
Karen Huh: Yeah, I first came across Joywell Foods, which back in the day, really back before July of this year, was called Miraculex by our recruiter, and they reached out, I want to say May timeframe; May June timeframe in 2019 and truth be told, I was not looking pretty busy at Bulletproof in almost any role. I can’t think of a role that I haven’t done this. But usually I’m so busy, the thought of looking for another job just seems impossible and they reached out and we’re looking for a new leader and with an interesting consumer story with it very interesting technology. And it was very much a curiosity killed the cat kind of situation, but in the most positive way where a lot of these calls that come in, I just want to hear about the opportunity and then call it good.
This one had a lot more teeth than that. As you can see as I just crossed my one year mark at Joywell.
Diana Fryc: Nice, congratulations. And tell us the story of Joywell. Well now you just talked about the name change like you had a nice yet of name change kind of an overhaul there. Pretty significant rebrand nice investment this summer. Give us the Backstory. Where did it start and where’s it going?
Karen Huh: Yeah, the name change started. It was one of the first things I wanted to do. In fact, in my very first call with a recruiter, I asked if I could change the name of the company, because Miraculex just sounds too much like Miralax and I think you know that’s a laxative, and I wasn’t very excited about being called something that sounded like a laxative. And there are other challenges too, and we can get into it but further into the podcast, but Miraculex sounds a lot like Miraculin which is one of the proteins that we’re pursuing, but it’s only one of the proteins.
And I think it creates some confusion around partnerships and potential investors, as we have conversations because they’ve become so hyper focused on just Miraculin which we can get into later. But the Backstory is our founder, had a family member who was diagnosed with cancer some time ago and as often the case may be when you undergo chemotherapy, you lose your ability to taste things and he had stumbled upon Miraculinas a way to address your inability to taste. And so that’s where the seed began, where the idea started, and blossoms from there, no pun intended. Really the rebrand is all about acknowledging that we’re not only about one protein, but also to create more emotion around the benefit we provide. We ultimately are addressing our addiction to sugar. Our mission is to reinvent the everyday experience of eating everyday foods, but with less sugar. The experience of eating things with less sugar now isn’t great in the consumer packaged foods category. And there are, don’t get me wrong; I mean, there are some good, I don’t want to say alternatives. There are some great products out there. But for the most part in the mainstream, it’s pretty bleak and so the name was very much centered around capturing that feeling of tasting something great. That’s super satisfying, and bringing that joy to consumers.
Diana Fryc: And I don’t know, this might be a question that you maybe can or can’t answer but… So when I hear like, we’re moving away from the protein, and we’re talking about foods, is Joywell going to expand outside of ingredients? Or are you wanting to stay in ingredients? Or can you say or do you know?
Karen Huh: It’s actually the most common question we get. So we do know. So COVID, threw a monkey wrench in some things and how we can see that going to market. But we are a bit of both, actually. And we’re not the only company out there to conceive of this type of business model. But really, at the end of the day, if I were to step back and tell you what we’re trying to achieve, we’re trying to reduce sugar consumption and then that is our mission. Really, the fastest way to do that is to get our ingredients in the hands of as many manufacturers as possible. It goes without saying for us to say that we could do it faster ourselves, frankly, is ridiculous. But having said that, it’s also important for us to compel manufacturers to do that. And part of that creating that story is showing them how it’s done because these proteins are noble, and they’re different and I would say in the conversations we’ve had with various CPG companies, they certainly are very aware they exist. So it’s not so noble that we’re coming completely out of left field. However, while they’re very excited, they always need a push, because the larger the company, the slower you go. And I think that push comes in the form of demonstrating how it can be done. I think from a brand perspective, since I’m a marketer by trade, there’s something to be said of controlling that first experience with these proteins and the fear, or the concern around another company taking a crack at it, and then potentially messing it up. And then I think the first consumer experience with these proteins stilted the gate and so it’s a little bit of a murky answer to your question, but the simplest one is both ingredients and products.
Diana Fryc: Sure. Okay. I’m curious; well, maybe we’ll answer this a little bit later. But adoption by these big CPGs from an ingredient and I’m curious as are you getting a lot of inquiries from these larger organizations. Are they curious or do you find that most of the inquiries in demand is coming from those smaller innovative brands?
Karen Huh: It’s coming across the board to be honest.
Diana Fryc: Really?
Karen Huh: Yeah. So we’ve had a number of conversations with CPG companies that everybody knows and also ones that we have no idea who they are. And so neither runs the whole gamut and it would make sense. I think they’re from my perspective, pros and cons for those different types of partnerships from a speed standpoint. When you think about the better view category, and how much it has exploded, it makes sense that anyone who has a booth at an expo is whenever that actually comes back, would be potentially interested in something like this because it would strengthen their better view positioning.
Diana Fryc: Well, when we kind of go back into that path of how you came to Joywell, my husband is a recovering bio hacker, I like to call it. Still a huge Bulletproof fan every day. And Bulletproof was kind of this new, like the first bio hacking brand, first brand to really come out and get any kind of traction velocity that kind of started hitting the mainstream. Do you have any interesting stories of what it was like to work there when things were just like going crazy?
Karen Huh: Yeah, I mean, where can I begin? So you know, I joined Bulletproof in November 2015, it was a lot smaller. It had been a few months since they finished raising their series A, and it was a very long, interesting list of ideas from Dave. And interesting isn’t meant to be a euphemism, but coming out of a place like Starbucks, where I think the average person might conceive of what the innovation pipeline might look like, or at least 50% correct. I had no idea what I was getting myself into really early on and I had a lot to learn, and in fact, those learnings for me to this very day. But in the beginning, it was very much the traditional startup phase where everything was trial by fire. We had people varying level of work experience. Bulletproof actually, and perhaps benefits from this, given COVID has a bit of heritage being a remote work setup living in Vancouver islands. And so it was my first time working at a company primarily working at home and there, especially in the first two years, and trying to make stuff happen and with a group of people who weren’t necessarily classically trained in any way was problematic. But it’s more about how do you calibrate to a totally different set of variables, and make it go fast. I’m trying to think of a story for you on the fly, I can’t think of any right now.
\Diana Fryc: It’s okay. Well, I just wonder, was he a little bit Willy Wonkaish, I mean, sometimes there were times when you guys would just come out with so much at the same time that I felt like, as a consumer, now, we see a lot of brands doing that, where there’s a lot of like, let’s push out and see what works like a lot of testing and learning. But at the time, it was just like, wow, okay, that this is what we’re doing. We’re doing these now. Like, was it Willy Wonkaish? Or was it a bit more measured? It just felt like there was just so much.
Karen Huh: I actually think it was more of the latter and granted, I’m biased, because that was my responsibility.
Diana Fryc: Yeah you had to manage Willy Wonka maybe.
Karen Huh: Right, and everything that Dave came up with to be crystal clear is that there was a reason for being in his head every time something came up. The question really is, well, how much appetite is there for this thing that I know you want? But is it just you and your 10 friends or is it you and 10 million friends, that’s a different story. I think that’s the equation that we had to step through and it was a lot of products. I have never launched so many products in my life. I had an extraordinary team to help me with that. No doubt about it. But though it probably from an outsider’s perspective, and if you weren’t really familiar with Dave or his books, it probably felt very scattershot.
But those who are close followers would know that everything we launched was actually very closely lined, aligned with the Bulletproof Diet book, and the subsequent books after that headstrong, and so on, and so forth. And so really what we were trying to capitalize was this brand equity that he created and I think if I were to say anything that was an interesting experience during that time that I’ve never experienced elsewhere is growing a business in tandem with someone’s brand equity also skyrocketing it at the same time.
Diana Fryc: What you’re saying is very common with our experience working with founder owner brands. They’ve got this vision, and sometimes they’re really good at articulating and other times, not so much. But this just kind of like, helping them commercialize what they’re thinking, this lifestyle that they’re thinking can be so much fun. It’s a roller coaster, because there’s emotion behind it, founder owners are passionate about what they’re doing and so it takes somebody like you who can go, “Okay, let’s do it this way.” That’s probably where I’m looking at and thinking of your experience, from Bulletproof and how it might be influencing what you’re doing today and then there’s the Starbucks component of it. So maybe we talk a little bit about; okay, well, so what is it from Bulletproof that you bring to Joywell? And then what is it from Starbucks? Like there’s got to be some of both clearly.
Karen Huh: Yes, definitely. So if I would start with Starbucks, I think what I learned, and I learned it without actually knowing that I was learning it to be honest, because that’s where I got my first marketing chops is how important it is to have a consistent brand experience, and to mean what you say and actually do it. And there were just things that we all knew that we had to abide by to respect the brands, not to cheapen the brand and even though it is a mainstream brand, there are just certain things you wouldn’t do for a brand perspective to dilute what it stands for. And learning about that consistency, and that messaging, and what you mean, in what you’re providing to the consumer and understanding what you’re promising to the consumer, is something that I carried through to Bulletproof and something that we worked really hard to create consistency around the messaging, the branding, how we talk about Dave, how we talk about brands. There are so many things important to Dave, about what he’s done and what he’s discovered.
Because basically, Bulletproof is the manifestation of everything that he’s learned in his own time, but how do we tell that story in a way that makes sense to the average person and really hone in on that communication so that story really can sing? That’s what I carried through from Starbucks. And then from Bulletproof to Joywell, what I really carried forward is, there are two main things that come to mind. One is pretty broad and then one is much more specific as one is, and this applies to Starbucks, too, actually, as I think about it. Is that how much it matters to me specifically to work for mission driven or purpose driven brands and how much that drives my personal motivation to show up every day and do what I do and that was part of the appeal when I first got the call from a recruiter is that Joywell is standing for something that is a really massive challenge and multifaceted challenge, which I would say that Joywell is only one part of a multi layered solution to it; that is sugar consumption and I realized that’s really important for my own motivation and my own job satisfaction. The other thing that I learned that’s very specific to carrying from Bulletproof is the role of alternative sweeteners and sugar alcohols, and how hard it is to formulate with them. I’m really proud of the product portfolio that I was involved in at Bulletproof and I’m sure they’ll continue to innovate it and bring it to the next level.
But figuring out how to make things taste great without sugar is really hard not to mention preserving them and making sure they have some reasonable shelf life to survive on the shelf; grocery store shelf for some time without sugar is his own challenge and so understanding that landscape, what food scientists face, what brand managers face when trying to create a really compelling offering is something that I have lived myself and take with me at Joywell, and as I have these conversations with CPG companies, and as we develop concepts of our own, it’s something I very much have in mind, because what we’re not trying to do and be is another lousy tasting ingredient.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. Interesting. I can literally see the experiences from just those two brands being so powerful for you in this role right now. And of the two brands that you could be coming from, how great, like Joywell has you. I hope they know that as a gift. I want to talk a little bit about this kind of a two part question and it’s a little bit not tricky, but sticky. So foodtech has been around for a long time. Like we know we don’t have Cheetos without food tech, like let’s be honest. In the naturals industry, food Tech has kind of only in the last few years really, really exploded in the way that the consumer demand has now started adopting naturals and better for your lifestyles and that type of thing. There’s a lot of opportunity in the research that I’ve done prior up to here, I see like the growth potential is pretty enormous and what do you think is driving the demands?
Karen Huh: Is it food tech specifically?
Diana Fryc: Products that are being generated from food technology, like food technology and the natural space? Are we looking at diets as a sustainability thing? Or does the consumer even really know?
Karen Huh: My opinion is strictly that means a hypothesis. But I think one is for consumers that are very savvy, which I would say most natural channel consumers are. There is a awareness piece of basically, methane and cows, and we can’t feed the world’s population with a cow population that we have and it’s as big as basic as that. And I do think that there’s awareness around that and that drives people’s interest in participating in those categories. I would also say that by the virtue of the fact that whole foods would carry beyond me and so forth, they effectively endorse those brands as natural channel, acceptable for the natural channel. I think that implicit endorsement also makes a really big difference in making people feel more comfortable around something that when you peel back the layers of the onion, especially as it relates to them. Well, both of them have many different ingredients to arrive at their finished good. But in the case of impossible, where their process is not dissimilar to Joywell, there’s a fermentation component to what they’re doing and I think that generally, by having it in store it helps dispel any concern around that. I’m not saying there isn’t concern, but I don’t see it rising to the surface very often and nor that I believe that it should, but frankly, I’m surprised and I’m glad that it doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as it is. I would also say it doesn’t hurt to have solid ad campaigns which both brands are done really well and that just drives awareness through the roof.
Diana Fryc: Well, exactly. And when we’re talking about endorsement, not only do you have Whole Foods, which is really catering to kind of like the elite upper middle class, but then you’ve got Burger King.
The Burger King component to me is what’s so fascinating to me, because that is Gen pop right there. That’s a whole group of people who aren’t going into Whole Foods. These are your Kroger buyers, these are your Walmart buyers and now they have access to something completely different and I don’t know where Burger King has gone if they’re still carrying the product or not. But just the fact that it was announced and then supported by ad campaigns was like, I was just wow, this is great. And then you were seeing that with KFC and all sorts of alternative proteins. I love that because I think that there’s a huge lift. The natural industry, we are so smart, and we know how to live really healthy lives. But our products are so expensive, and often out of reach for a number of people in the United States love that food technology is going to maybe allow us to bridge that gap and start to not only bring those products there, but then to educate people. So that it’s not naturals reaching in this way, but that we’re kind of building the bridge from two different sizes. That makes sense?
Karen Huh: That makes complete sense to me and I would say I think that is one of the core challenges in my mind and the better for you category in general is that in a pitch we did, we were talking about brands in the better view category and someone says but challenges, we’re making healthy people healthier were those rights. And I think that person is right, I think absolutely correct and not that that’s anyone’s intent, because there’s certainly a lot of money to be made to be more mainstream. But there’s, I think two components, one of which is price, as you mentioned, but also just being resonant to the consumer, which a lot of these brands aren’t. And once you hit Burger King, I thought it was genius, because you’ve basically put yourself in the minds of a different population of people who relate to Burger King, and maybe never have on a regular basis. It makes it more accessible and when it comes time for them to pick it up at their Walmart, then it might feel very foreign.
Diana Fryc: Absolutely. And you get away from that stigma of a veggie burger, like you’ve got these group of people over here aren’t touching veggie burgers, because they heard in 1948, that they tasted gross, you know what I mean? And like that you have the accessibility to even try it. Low cost like a burger at Burger King versus, a pound of meat or whatever. So I think it’s really great and that’s actually I think we talked about this; part of my goal with this podcast is just get us to start looking outside the audience had a really great conversation with somebody today, who said, there is a huge segment of the population, people who are not upper middle class, but middle class and even lower middle class that are still willing to buy the products, but they’re not on the radar, because they’re not considered a target audience and they’re not getting the education, they’re not being brought along and so therefore they’re not getting the benefits. I love that. The work that companies like yours are doing is like going to start to move there.
I think that’s like my next question is around this confusion components, almost like we’re talking about it a little bit. There is some confusion about; we talked about beyond meat and impossible burger. This is already a couple of years old, at least for people like us who are in the prime target audience, where we’re already beyond the fact that okay, well, we know what impossible is, we know what beyond is. Now we’re talking to this other audience and bringing them along and do you feel like everybody’s over the fact that beyond meat and impossible are scary, and that you can get protein from sugar and you can eat lower? We’ve had some products come in the market that weren’t great, like reduced fat, which was a big… How is Joywell kind of defining the role? Or what is your position about it? Like, I understand what your end goal is, but how do you help the CPGs and retailers understand how to talk to their consumers about your products and what food tech role is?
Karen Huh: Yeah, so there’s a lot in there. I think what I would say most broadly is that a lot of the conversations that I have I think there’s some confusion about because food tech is impossible in particular is so synonymous to food tech. There’s almost nothing else like the alternative meat, situation is huge.
And as it should be, because it’s a huge opportunity. But it has a corollary with all things that are plant based. I think what gets convoluted, is this universe of alternative meat and plant based food that’s acceptable for vegans and that being good for the environment, and good for you. And I would argue that they’re not always both and this is not necessarily specific to impossible foods. But I think, if there is a theme to the last 12 to 18 months, because they’re always what is one, if there was an expo this past March, the theme would have been plant based. But I think what people fail to realize, if you really look at the nutrition facts, panel, plant based doesn’t mean better for you, it just means that it’s plant based and the animal products, and it can have a lot of sugar.
I find that those dynamics to be interesting, because it’s, a lot like when someone says they’re vegetarian, but their diet is primarily comprised of French fries or something like that. I mean, that’s not actually really healthy. But it makes the conversation less clear for sure. And then with Joywell, I think what I’m very happy about is that our mission is so clear that it doesn’t have the same convoluted situation, alternative meats that are plant based, because we are plant based because we’re driving or fruit or productive driver fruits, but we’re not really talking about being a plant based brand, we’re talking about is dressing sugar consumption, providing truly great tasting alternatives and making them legitimate options for people to consume as part of their everyday routine. And we just focus on that story and that story alone, and it just becomes a conversation. That’s where it resonates. There’s not a single person I’ve ever talked to that that story does not resonate with. I think the question then becomes when can you do it? How fast can you do it? What products can I do it with? And those are all ongoing conversations.
Diana Fryc: I’m reminded by when whole foods had removed, like the organic category in their store, because they’re like, well, that’s a feature and benefit, I see a feature, instead of like, no, I feel like that’s what’s going on with plant based right now just because it’s plant based it’s not its own designation, and where you can have plant based ice cream that can have 37 grams of sugar per serving in there and that’s not any better or worse than a traditional ice. It could be from a cow perspective, there’s a bunch of different ways we can slice and dice that. But first, from a health standpoint, you kind of go okay, well, what’s important here. So having Joywell focus on the brand and the lifestyle and what the goal of the brand is, is really great and kind of moving away from just simply like we’re another print plant based protein, or sugar. That’s protein that comes from sugar, sugar that comes from protein- sugar that comes from protein?
Karen Huh: It’s a protein that comes from fruit actually.
Diana Fryc: Let’s just talk a little bit about consumer adoption. We talked about it a little bit already back when we started working with naturals brands in 2011 naturals was completely different. In the last few years, things have changed quite a bit from being kind of like this hippie, alternative lifestyle to a little bit and well, it’s super sexy and I think the last time I was at Expo or fancy foods, or one of them, I’m like, you’ve got celebrity chefs on the floor. You’ve got athletes on the floor starting brands and so I’m wondering, and you may have already answered this, but who’s really adopting this? Are we talking about the upper, upper or where are you seeing it? Are you seeing a demographic, a psychographic buy and large, or is it a little bit more brand based?
Karen Huh: I’ll give you the most generalized answer. I do think there are exceptions, obviously to every rule, but I think it’s a clearly middle to middle upper class person, both male and female, who shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and Costco, they’re shopping at multiple stores for different reasons. Now keep in mind, my opinion doesn’t consider COVID. COVID Rudd’s throws everything out the window, but pretty COVID behaviors, that’s what would be.
They are keenly interested in their own wellness, and are either actively trying to lose weight or just actively trying to feel better. And really, I think what you’re asking is, who’s ultimately adopting these products that you see in athletes and celebrity chef? And I think it goes back to what I said, is people who are already healthy, because I think people are already healthy are looking for things that are still healthy.
They just want something different, because most people, to over-generalize, admittedly, want some variety and discover things. And it’s fun. And, you could literally spend, if you could, I don’t think the expo floor is open that long. But if it was open for 12 to 16 hours, you could probably only work one section, section A of the floor and then you still haven’t gone to B, C, D, E and the other building. And there’s quite a lot to be discovered. But I don’t think the same motivation exists for the generalized mainstream. I think part of it is, lifestyles are different, what they can afford is different. And this might be stating the obvious, but when you think about the role of paid media, and pulling these consumers in to build a business, you’re very motivated to target the people who think more will most likely buy. And so then you target people like me, and that becomes a vicious circle, because you never actually target to people who fall outside is that certain demographic.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, I met this really powerful woman today. And don’t let me forget later to send you her contact information. She told me that middle class and lower middle class families love to experiment. But the reason why they don’t is because of the cost, but it’s not the cost of buying the product. It’s the cost of buying the product and then not liking it. And so they don’t experiment as much, because they’re afraid if they don’t like it, they’ve now wasted that dollar amount. And so for that group, she’s an advocate for people, for this demographic, she said those people have less opportunity, because marketers think that there’s not an audience there, the reality is the audience needs to be captured differently. Then, like, for me, if I go to the store, and I’m looking at markets, that’s my place where I shop, if I go down there, and I happen to see a couple of products that I want to try, I’ll throw it in there. And if it’s a bust, and it’s a bust, it’s no big deal for me, versus somebody else who’s measuring every purchase, they’re not going to try something new when they know that their kid is going to eat this or their spouse is going to eat this or whatever. So I think there’s a different opportunity to get in front of those consumers, they just have to be approached a different way.
Karen Huh: Yeah, and the irony of that, that’s the demographic that probably needed the most these better alternatives.
Diana Fryc: It is oh my gosh, 7% more children that are of color have more food allergies and intolerances and Caucasian, this was what I learned today. And they have like something like a three x percentage of deaths from food related illnesses, because their parents either don’t know that it’s a food allergy that their kids dealing with, or they just don’t have the resources to get what they need from them. So there’s a lot to unpack there in another day, but it’s just interesting. So let’s talk a little bit about something exciting that happened. You announced a round of investment this year, actually in July, so just a couple months ago, which means you were pitching during COVID. You want to talk about that a little bit?
Karen Huh: Sure. We really started pitching in earnest in January, and we’re really busy relying on in person meetings, spending a lot of time in the Bay Area. Our seed investor, Khosla Ventures is really helpful in making introductions. And with growing interest, although at the time, I would have told you that the interest wasn’t high enough. But growing interest in food tech, I mean, we had plenty of meetings for sure.
I could have taken more meetings at the time, but COVID hit and it really changed the complexion. And I wasn’t sure how it was going to change our situation. We’re really lucky in that we have very committed seed investors. But when you don’t know how long, we still don’t know how long the COVID situation is going to last if you don’t raise money, I was left wondering, are we going to tread water? What are we going to achieve? Are we really achieving anything, if we’re treading water? All these questions go through your head, and you’re worried about your staff and a whole litany of things. And what ended up happening was, there was a bit of a pause and pitching. And then we went right back to pitching all over again. And it was just done virtually, which is great, because the volume was still high. But I think then the challenge there was creating that human connection, and reading the tea leaves and these conversations to see how these conversations are going because sometimes you don’t get a lot of feedback. I would actually say that most of the time, you don’t get that much feedback. And so you’re navigating so much without the benefit of body language. Personally, I didn’t have any problem pitching over zoom or Google Hangouts, you choose a platform, I probably abused it at this point.
But just like any communication stream, it takes two to tango. And if the other person on the other side, the other firm on the other side aren’t great at adapting to this new normal of constantly communicating via video, then it gets really hard, that’s the thing, is that you just can’t connect with them, because it’s just radically so different. I spoke with one venture capitalist along the way, just asking what his experience was like, and one of them said, “We’re out still investing, but it’s just really hard to find the deals you want to invest in, when you don’t have that connection, that connectivity that’s actually in person.” And so, suffice to say, though, we reconnected with Evolve, I want to say in late February, so before everything really went south, and they’re based in Chicago, and we connected with Steve Sanger and his team and made plan in mid March, but that actually ended up being the week where really the world shut down. So much has got canceled, schools closed. And so no one was going anywhere. And we just continued to have the conversation. And Steve and his team, they just do business as if nothing’s changed. And that was just online versus being in person. This is a way we go. And I think with that mindset coming from his team, it was just full steam ahead and building that relationship understanding us as a team and understanding their interest in us as a company and just fielding all the questions that came along the way.
So it was certainly a wild ride. I think the fundraising activity was one thing because online and trying to build relationship, I think that the wild card really for me was my children and trying to do so many external pitches and praying to God that they don’t barge in the middle of one or have pepper cancer and while I’m having patience, and miraculously, that never happened, and I don’t know, but they’ve totally barge into meetings, but they somehow maybe they feel a vibe and they just don’t barge into pitches. And somehow I need to achieve that vibe more often because that vibe doesn’t exist anymore. But that was really the hardest part is just being a parent managing whatever learning that was existing at that time and fundraising at the same time.
Diana Fryc: It’s so fun there that there’s so much in there. Like my kids were very respectful in the very beginning and now when I’m working from home they just come in and will start talking to me and I will try to ignore them and they will just insist like what do you guys doing, what what’s happening?
Karen Huh: My kids new thing is and I guess I should be glad because it’s forcing them to write more is to hand me notes that say, yes or no like an I pad or something like that. But they don’t realize is that I can’t really read something while I’m talking and or they haven’t barged into a pitch for just talking in general. And so that’s creates some friction with them, but it just what it is.
Diana Fryc: That’s what it is, I’m thinking to myself, we’re talking about investment, we talked about kind of the celebrity status of the naturals industry better for you industry, and then the food techs, that money that it feels like there was just a decided to shift, I want to say in January 2019, when I went to fancy foods, it was probably because it was in San Francisco, but I just felt like there were more people there that were former tech, like literally, technology companies that were there at Fancy Food Show. And then within a year, all the sexy came in like it like Expo West went full on sexy. I wonder like, I don’t know if that was just my impression or do you feel that same way too. Do you feel like food and food technology, has it passed? Traditional technology, like electronics, or are they on par from an investment standpoint I would say?
Karen Huh: That’s a tough question for me to answer because I’m not tracking at a macro level, but I would say that there seems to be a tremendous amount of interest in food tech in general, there was just an article that came out yesterday, and I’m happy to send it to you by TechCrunch, saying that in the first seven months of the year, food tech raised some total of one and a half billion dollars. I think that’s a very compelling data point. I can’t tell you what that number was in the past, that’s 2019, but suffice to say it’s a headline, I’m guessing that it’s a lot bigger than last year. And so, I do think there’s a lot of interest in the space. I think there’s growing interest, I have observed that there seem to be more firms poking in this area in the last six months of post COVID than there were when I was building my list back in November, December of who to go out to pitch. There’s so many more firms out there. And having conversations more recently, I’m thinking where were you back then? But it’s really exciting to see a lot more interest and their companies like Impossible Foods, Perfect Day, have shine a light, is that the right word, but they’ve created awareness around the space that Joywell certainly benefiting from. And there’s so much that can be done with this technology across the food chain whether it’s alternative meat, alternative seafood, so on and so forth.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. Well, let’s talk a little bit, we’re going to shift a little bit from the industry a little bit, let’s talk about kind of your leadership. Maybe a little bit more your leadership style, maybe we can talk about some of the most influential experiences you’ve had in your career and how they help you be a leader in this kind of space where anything is possible.
Karen Huh: Yeah, so let’s see, if I had to pick the most influential experiences, if I would go back to the beginning where one of my first jobs was working in tech VC, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand probably 80% of what I was reading, because technology companies have all kinds of software, hardware, I mean, I can’t even properly repeat the things I was looking at back in 1997. A long time ago, but what I did learn was reading through a lot of business plans, and what makes a great business and what makes a lousy business. And certainly in the eyes of a potential investor. So I learned a lot, just by sheer repetition, I was an investment professional at two different VC firms. So I’ve read and skimmed thousands of executive summaries and pitches at this point. And over with repetition, you learn a lot. So that’s number one.
Number two, and it’s actually not in my bio, because it’s brief on a relative scale is that between my two VC jobs, I was at a startup in New York called Cosmo.com. And I chuckling now because Amazon’s just started doing this in the last couple years, but we were trying to deliver videos back when people actually watch videos and DVDs.
And under an hour to people’s homes in New York City eventually expand to Seattle, a few other cities. And I was based in New York, I was applying 19, there are people who sleep at the office because he didn’t have an apartment, and none of us, I didn’t think and I’m probably insulting someone, probably. But I don’t think any of us knew what we were doing. But that’s what made it so great, honestly, is that I had no idea what I was doing. I had no frame of reference, I was assigned to inventory management at one point, figuring out how to launch alcohol at another point, I don’t know, up or down, where I’m supposed to begin where I’m supposed to end. I just know the questions I would ask. And that was a really fun ride because it really gave me an eye into what it means to be at a startup. That experience has lived with me honestly, to this very day, because without that experience, I don’t know that I actually would have ever gone to bulletproof to be honest.
When I understand startup crazy, I actually know what that means, because I’ve done it a few times now and I know what I’m signing up for. And I also know what other people are experiencing too. And just to be nimble and know how to operate, because I’m not 20 something anymore, and I don’t want to sleep at the office if it wasn’t COVID, and so I brought a lot of learnings of how I would do it again, and how I would want the 20 something’s at Joywell, to see, which is not necessarily the way I did it. With Starbucks, you know, I alluded to it before, but it is this whole idea of general management and that you can’t get by just being a marketer, or the person that does finance or the person that gets to taste stuff in the R&D Lab, you got to do it all. And you have to be comfortable at some level with doing it all even if you don’t like at all. And that has been really helpful to me, because it has basically the foundation for me to be a cross functional leader. And I don’t know that I could be where I am today without that foundation because fundamentally, that’s how I operate. That’s just my operating system.
Diana Fryc: So you’re cross functional leader, are you able to help your team because when you’re managing down and you’re leading a team, particularly those that don’t have the experiences you and you want to not just build your team to be really awesome at their one job as you’re identifying do you have a way or do you have a system that you like to encourage your team to grow? Like, do you have them do cross functional roles? Is that part of your vetting process?
Karen Huh: Ultimately depends on the job itself. But generally speaking, I encourage everyone to partake in cross functional projects, because being siloed, as a subject matter expert is a really difficult place to be, especially as you rise in the ranks, and then you look left and look right, and don’t understand what anyone’s saying you don’t understand why people aren’t getting along or not understanding you. That’s a really frustrating experience, but it could happen anyway. But it would be less surprising and it could be mitigated by not operating in a silo because it does happen all the time. But I think about individuals on my team, I think about the goals they have today, in the goals and skills they have today, in the skills they need down the road to get to the next level because I think traditionally, a lot of people get promoted based on their performance enroll. They crushed it, they did everything they were supposed to do. They didn’t get promoted, but getting promoted doesn’t mean that they’ve suddenly become a manager of five people from being an individual contributor, doesn’t actually inform whether they’re actually going to be a good manager.
The promotion is a retroactive, is honoring what happened retroactively? And so what I try to think about is, what are the skills they want, ideally we don’t want them. But they would need at the next level, and let’s get them there and let’s give them the projects that gets them there. And let’s make sure they know that what they need to get there. And so there’s the other side of this is my philosophy, which is really grounded in servant leadership, and around the fact that I need to get out of the way, sometimes or most the time, I should say, and my role is to provide guidance, to provide education, remove obstacles, but not to be too close to the situation every single time in every instance, and let people run with it. And I think it’s uncomfortable for people, but that’s probably where people are most likely to learn. But the key component to all this and my philosophy comes down to the person. And you hire or who I hire, if they are not interested in learning and growing, and understanding what it means to move the needle on their own leadership acumen, then all that falls apart, and effectively, I would say bluntly, that that’s a bad hire in my mind, because you really can’t advance them. And they’re not motivated by a growth mindset. And I’m very much a believer that you want an organization that’s centered around a growth mindset, because at the end of the day, though, we may be satisfied by our compensation or title, that’s always ephemeral. It’s really the people and what you’re learning, what you’re getting out of it, that really creates retention and satisfaction ultimately, in people’s roles.
Diana Fryc: I want my T shirt that says quiet here, because when I first started in the workforce, which was in the 90s, I spent a good chunk of time working at Safeco Insurance. I don’t know if you’re from the northwest, but Safeco insurance was very much insurance driven. And it was very much like, okay, well, now that you’ve done, we call it individual contributor, now that you’ve had these three roles in your job, now the next level in order for you to get a raise is to make your manager and I saw so many people and teams just absolutely crashed into that format. Just because you’re ready for more challenge and opportunity doesn’t necessarily make you good manager and vice versa. And so I love hearing that you are in an organization, this is your ship. So this is how you’re running it. Listen, I see, you’re really great here, I’m going to grow you this way, I see that you’re really great leading teams, I’m going to put you this way. I just love that. It’s very individualized rule, individualized way, mentoring people and to grow the organization.
Karen Huh: Yeah, and I should add, our team is primarily comprised of scientists, and I have extraordinary CTO, Jason Ryder, who is steering that ship of that team. And part of what makes us a good fit mean, we are nothing alike, in terms of skill set which is actually ideal. But what also make a good fit is that we organically carry the same mindset around how to grow people and how to invest in people and keep them inspired. I will say what also really helps is working for a mission driven brand, because a lot of people, many people are motivated by what we’re doing and what we achieve. And that creates a level standard of how we’re thinking about our day to day.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, you naturally attract those types of people too. So it’s not like you’re trying to convince anybody of anything. So when we’re talking about mission driven brands, was kind of a weird and not exactly a direct segue. But when you are looking at the marketplace in general, who else are you watching? Who do you got your eye on? Or maybe the question is, what are the CPG trends in 2022 that have you been most interested?
Karen Huh: Yeah, so there are a few, I am intrigued by the innovation in beverages, and under that, there’s a couple different categories is there’s the alcoholic kombucha, brands like JuneShine, I think are very interesting because they carry somewhat of a health Halo, but they’re an alcoholic beverage obviously. But then there’s a whole the sparkling category I just find fascinating because there’s just basically this category of healthy indulgence that’s very much emerging from poppy to only pop to bhuj pop, which is new launched by health aid.
There’s a sparkling concept, botanical sparkling water by Rishi teas. There’s the United States of sodas, I think. And there’s this whole range of sparkling where a few years ago it was La Croix and nothing else but La Croix but now we’re in Waterloo and then there is spindrift, but now it feels like the continuum is pushing closer to soda, carbonated soft drinks as we know them as kids, but not all the way there, healthy alternative that’s satisfying because it’s still sweet. Ollie pop is actually one of my favorites because I don’t know who’s formulating their beverages. But yeah, they are stellar truly. Their Cola, their root beer, and they really harken back to another day of my life. Not now, but maybe the teenage years?
And I think also the non alcoholic, basically the sobriety category of drinks, whether it’s seed lip and dry soda, which has been around for a while. And curious elixirs is another one. There seems to be a movement with younger millennials, and Gen Z that are very interested in I think there’s a better term for it. I just don’t know it, because I’m not deeply in the space around these beverages that are centered around not being alcoholic. Yeah, this whole being satisfying.
Diana Fryc: It’s a it’s a sober and sober curious movement. Actually, I just interviewed Sharelle, from DRY about this, and she’s pushing quite heavily into that space. In fact, they just re-launched the website, if you get a moment, you can take a look at them. But they are really pushing into kind of moving away from like, kind of like sugar. Why is alcohol have to be the way because there’s a whole group of people that can’t drink alcohol. And then there’s a whole group of people that don’t want to drink alcohol, and then you go to a party and adult party, and it’s almost your only option. And so, she’s doing some pretty great things. And she’s calling it the sober and sober, curious movement. She’s coming out with a really great mock tail book too here in the next couple of weeks as well. So those are very interesting beverages, that must be something that you consume a lot of, you must try a lot of different products there.
Karen Huh: I do try a lot of different products. Partially, it comes from working in CPG. I do try a lot of beverages. I personally like beverages. My first foray into this world was beverages, beverages for Japan. And so I just have a lot of history there. It’s a habit. That’s a tough habit to break.
Diana Fryc: I’m there with you. Well, our time is almost up. But I have a couple of questions that are kind of outside of, well, this one kind of crosses the bridge. One is I always ask my guests to share some sort of interesting tidbit that they could take to like a happy hour, and kind of go Did you know, like, do you have anything interesting that people might not know about, it could be about Joywell, it could be about sugar proteins, it could be about fruit, anything like kind of related to your industry?
Karen Huh: Yeah, I would say it’d be about fermentation because ultimately, we’re producing these proteins via fermentation that sounds when I say it in the context of a business podcast. That sounds scary and strange to many consumers, but reality is, fermentation has been around for a really long time. It goes far back as far back as 7000 bc to create alcoholic beverages and they’ve, I think the first known example of alcoholic beverages in China, some 7000 bc ish, I can’t be quite precise, but way back when and it’s actually truly one of the first food technologies in the sense that it’s one of the ways that people have been able to preserve food and also create food when you think about things like sauerkraut and kin cheese, which are stored, and there’s obviously alcoholic beverages.
But then there are also things like beer, cheese, and lots of other things that I probably can’t think of right now that fermentation enables. So it’s really the original food tech methodology if you want.
Diana Fryc: Fermentation, the original food tech. Yeah, I love it. I always like to know how particularly because of COVID. And this is just something I find curious is how are you unwinding from your day? How are you giving yourself kind of like, I’m keeping yourself sane and center like going from the office to home? Like, what are you doing for yourself?
Karen Huh: That’s a great question. Not enough, probably. But what I have done for myself is that, in the early days of COVID, probably starting sometime in February into early April, I was very obsessive compulsive and understanding what was happening with COVID. But as soon as it became very clear, and I probably waited too long that COVID has become a political conversation and we don’t have to dive into that, but it just as it is, I actually just disassociated myself from media, not completely but I really didn’t get back on NewYorktimes.com until the George Floyd incident, in fact, probably a little after because I actually didn’t know it had happened for some time, to be honest, because that’s how much I disassociated myself. I found that to be really helpful. That was one thing in light of Covid.
The other thing is, is just taking time for myself, and finding things to listen to specifically podcasts and music that don’t relate anything to COVID, News, my kids, work. And so I am a re-watchable as podcast addict, I find it really funny. And I listen to other podcasts too in addition to that, but I enjoy listening to audio books and different podcasts that aren’t news related or current events related to mix things up and have a laugh and sometimes it involves me laughing by myself as I’m walking down the streets and looking like a complete crazy person very early in the morning. But you know what? That’s what it takes.
Diana Fryc: Oh, before we go, if somebody wanted to get a hold of you, LinkedIn is the best way or do you have a different channel that you like?
Karen Huh: LinkedIn is great.
Diana Fryc: Okay, great. And it’s Karen K-A-R-E-N H-U-H, correct?
Karen Huh: That’s correct.
Diana Fryc: That’s the one and only. Excellent. Well, thank you so very much for joining me today and for sharing. I like their little journey. It was kind of a little bit everywhere, a little bit of everything from your past and I’m excited to see what Joywell is up to in the next few years. Very exciting times.
Karen Huh: Well, thanks so much for having me. It was really fun.