Co-founder of Bundle Organics Juices and Teas, John Mascari discusses how building a business comes down to perseverance, the shift of influence between big business and smaller startups, and why consumers are helping encourage capital with a focus on long term sustainability.
Tracy: You're the co-founder of Bundle Organics. Why is organic important to you, and why is it something you wanted to include in your business plan?
The idea of having all organic products is a no-brainer for me. Organic is something I think a lot about because when talking to OBGYNs, perinatal nutritionists, as well as considering myself as a consumer, I understand that organic is our best bet, but only to the extent that you can do it. What we focus on with our products, is having as healthy of products as possible with ingredients that nobody would ever have to Google to find the definition of. We want everyone to be able to look at our ingredient label and make their decision completely based on taste, and feel confident in not having to question our ingredients.
I look at organic as the bare minimum of what I can do to make a product as healthy and as clean as possible, so that [a] mom feels very comfortable knowing exactly what she's putting into her body. I don't like any mystery around products whatsoever, and having something be organic meets my standards of being able to check a box knowing that what's going in my body is the same as if I were growing it in my back yard.
For some people, 'organic' is simply a term, and some believe it's a marketing ploy. Reading any Dan Barber or Michael Pollan helps us to understand farming in an exciting way, but how do you personally work around those preconceived notions?
Yes, I encounter that often, and in part you have to understand where it's coming from. I go to a lot of trade shows for the industry and a lot of companies have organic boxed snacks. But they're still snacks. Organic chips are still a bag of chips; organic cookies are still cookies. Sure, they're a bit of a better option, but if you're really focused on health, these snacks are still going to add up as junk food. So my focus is on produce. I also understand that not everyone can afford organic all the time, so you have to work alongside a problem and find solutions to the issues of concern to consumers. Luckily I was able to find a supply chain in addition to partners that were able to help us be organic, because we believe that is what's important for the company going forward. So I look at it as the least we can do. And following that is honesty, as I mentioned: making sure all our ingredients are straightforward: fruits and veggies and things people know of.
For instance, while more people are turning to look at labels, 'natural flavors' is something that ends up in a lot of products. But it's something that I fought hard to make sure never goes into our products, even though a majority of folks who come into contact with our product might be perfectly fine with it. But if it's not something I'm fine putting into my own body, why put it in our product? So it's fighting that battle of wanting things to be perfect, even when not everyone is quite there yet in agreement with you. Whether or not something like natural flavors can be in the product comes down to letting yourself do it even in advance of the customer wanting it. Because we're there to offer the best product with the best knowledge of the possibilities for the product. But of course as a business owner, it's a question that's always there. You're forcing yourself to do things you believe in, even if the value isn't always perceived by every single consumer. The consumers that care a lot will notice.
It rolls in later as people become more aware from talking to others, or stumbling on an article one day in the papers. However it's a brave thing, because a lot of companies only make shifts after consumers realize how bad something was, they didn't take a stand when they personally knew.
You're right, I don't see a lot of companies doing a great job being leaders in that way. If you're just taking snack foods and making them with organic sugar rather than table sugar, and telling everybody that it's totally fine, well you're doing a disservice to your consumer. We're lucky in New York because there are so many companies here that really lead the trend. I feel like when I'm sampling our product in New York, or talking about our product with folks in New York, people are really thankful for what we've done. It's nice to be here where there's a lot of consumer awareness.
Why did you decide to base your business around pressed juices? Were you always interested in health foods and convenient foods?
As a consumer I was, but it wasn't something that I knew I'd go into business for. I was drawn to the need before I was drawn to the product. When I graduated from business school, my sister was pregnant, and being as close as we are, I often heard her experiences of being pregnant and how nutrition was the one area that just didn't seem as easily taken care of, which leads into being a new mom and having so little time. There's so much stuff for the new baby, but there's not a lot for the ease and convenience of mom's health. My sister was really frustrated because as a busy, working woman she felt like her options were to either pack a million little snacks to keep throughout the day, (which if you're on the go, you aren't carrying around a refrigerator to keep them in) or else go to the bodega across the street that doesn't always carry the healthiest of produce. Most things you can buy on the go are too high in sugar, and new moms want to avoid that for themselves and for their kids.
To my sister it seemed like this should be way easier. You have a group of consumers who care a lot about their nutrition, as they should, but a lot of packaged foods just entirely abandon pregnant women. How many products have "Consult your OBGYN if you're pregnant."? It just felt like we could make things so much easier.
That's the next thing I was going to ask: Why new moms? It was because of your sister?
She was really the inspiration, yes for sure.
That's very cool. Does it feel odd at times as a man to be in the business of thinking in terms of pregnant women and new moms so often?
It's funny, it really doesn't. It should I guess, but it really doesn't. I was drawn to the need, and over time the passion just continued to grow. So much of that passion comes from the amount of customer interaction that I get to have. We do tons of sampling events, I go to the Biggest Baby Shower, and many other trade shows. Talking to these women that we're making products for and hearing their experience with it, really ignites the passion I have for it. It's a huge motivator. I feel like I've learned so much, which has made me more passionate about what I'm doing as every day goes by. It's cool, I really feel like we're on a mission, and that's important to me for anything I would run.
The other day someone was asking me about how so many big companies don't want to touch the consumer group of pregnant women because there's risk involved, and they asked how I felt about it. I don't put anything that's not straight-forward into my products, so there's nothing questionable in there. It's all OBGYN-checked and approved. But if you're creating something entirely clean and safe, what liability is there to worry about?
You consult with health care professionals as you build the product?
The chair of the OBGYN unit at Tuft's Medical School in Boston is on our board. He's involved in everything from ideation through formulation, and has been since the beginning. After we initially started talking about the idea, he was the very first call I made. He said, "I support this, and I'll get involved in a serious capacity." So we've been working together since the very beginning, which I'm both proud of and thankful for. There's a lot of fear around what we can and can't put into our bodies, and so having an OBGYN on this really helps people feel a sense of relief. You have to listen to your body a lot, no matter who yo are. I look at Bundle as something that you can put in between meals when you're on the go. You do have to listen to your body.
It also enables mom to be more active during her pregnancy. As I'm sure you know, what you eat makes you feel better, and makes you more likely to go workout and be active. Being active during your pregnancy is another thing that we tie our brand to pretty closely. I personally feel strongly that nutrition and fitness go hand-in-hand, and I think that a lot of our customers do too. And of course we know that both of those things help reduce stress levels.
One other thing that I'd add that we're also very conscious about is that [doctors] are now finding that what you eat when you're pregnant not only impacts the nutritional disposition of your child, but of your child's child. What mom is eating really matters; it has a big impact on this country and how people think about food. What our children's taste buds are going to develop to like or dislike depends on this to great lengths. It's planning very early on for a healthier society.
You wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal partly about never taking no for an answer, and sticking to your plan even if others tell you it's not plausible. Want to tell me a bit about this as an aspect of how you began Bundle?
I often think from the perspective of how much building a business is about perseverance. It's the same thought process as never taking 'no' for an answer. In building a company and creating partners of all kinds, it's worth it to consider these things. I think startups hear 'no' a lot for a couple of reasons. One reason, I believe, is that it's a little bit of a test, frankly.
In the early days of building the company, a lot of our partners said no to us because they wanted to see how serious we were before they committed to being a partner. That took a lot of persistence on my part: convincing them, showing them my vision, getting in front of them rather than just calling them on the phone, etc. Instead of trying to figure out why they didn't want to work with me, if they were indeed the supplier that I thought made the most sense for us, then it's about really trying to show them the value of what we're trying to create. Businesses see a lot of startups come and go, so before they invest a lot of time and resources in you, they really want to know what you're building. It's important when you hear a 'No' to not take it personally, and then figure out how you are going to convince that person. So I think that's part of it.
The other reason is that some people are looking for a bit of an easier route. I think [hearing no] is a good litmus test of whether or not they're the right partner for you.
Businesses that started out small with a high standard of ethics, but who eventually grew too large to keep those initial morals in place (Walmart for example), are seen to some as a success story, but to most as an example of capitalism gone wrong. How do you suggest a business keeps those ethics in place if the monetary incentive isn't there?
That's a really hard question. I agree that this happens. Whether or not it holds true for everyone, for me at least, I view the decisions that we make around our product so fundamental to why any customer is interested in us that we can't stray from those standards. For instance, our vetting of each ingredient that goes into our product, and our standard of organic, are both the baseline of who we are.
Because I consider this so core, it means that with every decision we make, we have to always stay authentic to this. It's hard for me to imagine continuing to build on that baseline, and then having someone take us in another direction. With any level of expansion, we would need to have a longer term partner who understands the intimate relationship we have with the consumer. She is loyal to us because we've been so loyal to her in what we've been doing, so it would really mean that we picked the wrong partner if they didn't see that, and instead started putting out products that didn't meet what I view as a very strict criteria. So I suppose it's all in the partners that you choose.
Pertaining to capitalism, I'm going to respond specifically to food, because I think it's a nice example. Here, I feel like capitalism is working really well, including the idea of growth. The reason I say that is because all of the big companies we've had for years: Pepsi, Coke, General Mills, etc. All of these companies that, frankly, have put stuff in our food that a lot of people are not happy about are seeing that reflect in their profits. Customers have reacted by dropping those products and giving their loyalty to others that are being created to meet this new understanding of what we should be putting into our bodies.
Thankfully, we live in a society where this gave rise to a lot of new entrepreneurs saying, "We're going to create something that works better for the customer." Suddenly those big guys have had to partner and learn from these smaller companies because they have shareholders to respond to who are saying, "Hold on, Pepsi, you're losing your shoes to this tiny little company that's organic and clean." So in our case, I think it's a good system.
Another concept I often bring up is 'voting with your dollar'. By choosing to spend more on a company that doesn't use pesticides all over a huge monoculture crop, you're essentially voting for a future that employs those who are putting more effort into organic farming methods like crop rotation, feeding the soil with spelt and clover, etc. All this extra energy takes more time, but as a consumer I'm willing to pay more for what it means for the product.
I completely agree. I think some of those same decisions that we've made as a business, in terms of how strictly we comply with being organic and considering each ingredient, of course means that we will grow slower, but ultimately we'll grow the way that we should. I feel very strongly that if I made a cookie, even if that cookie had better ingredients, that it would probably be flying off the shelves. But it's still a cookie; it's not what I want to sell. It's not what I believe in.
When we talk about what we're eating being really impactful on the nutritional disposition of not just our children, but our grandchildren, to me that says, I'm not going after the cookie, even though in the short term I would likely be a bigger company. But I'd rather be patient, and perseverant in building loyalty with customers who help lead the idea of what it means to be thoughtful of what you put into your body. Even if that means I have to be more patient with how the business grows.
Herein lies the duty of journalists, to inform the public of new research. When studies began to come out that proved cigarettes were carcinogenic, the public had to be informed through reporting, and the same is happening with the food industry. Then the public can make an informed decision to stop buying a product, or invest in a different one.
There's a responsibility of capital, too, in a way. I posed that we could make a cookie, and that cookie might fly off the shelves, but I think capital that has a respect for financing something which may take a little bit longer but will be better fore the consumer, is therefore going to be much more successful in the long term. Capital that is less fashionable in short term thinking, with eyes on the long term is very, very important. That's a key piece to the puzzle. At some stage, all of these small businesses need capital, and they need capital to really dig into what this business stands for and what that means in the long term. Similar to journalism, where you could be writing articles on celebrities and maybe get more views, but what good would it be serving in the long-term?
Or listicles: 10 new ways to apply your makeup [Laughter].
But worth more in the end, you have a better connection with the consumer. This question always comes up to me personally, because as you know, you really do have to work up a lot of self motivation when you're building your own thing, and knowing you're doing good by either your consumers or your readers certainly helps the process. The one thing that I always come back to is the confidence of knowing I could not conjure up enough self motivation to do what I do, if I didn't feel like I was doing something positive for those people I get to meet and talk to every day. That concept alone is the motivator. Knowing that I have to feel awesome about what I'm creating, because that's what keeps me going.
A wonderful note to end on. Well I look forward to seeing more Bundle Organic Juices and Teas as you move on and thank you for your wise words on entrepreneurship John!
Thanks Tracy, anytime. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Editor's note: This interview was recorded in summer 2016 and edited & transcribed at a later date.
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