"Being a great leader and a great manager is really hard"
As a kid, Gautam Gupta struggled with his weight. At 18, he knew he had to make a change. He made a significant adjustment to his diet and started to exercise. He lost 70 pounds. That journey also awoke in him a passion for making snacking healthier. He founded NatureBox with the belief that people should be able to snack confidently, knowing that are eating real food with real flavor.
We spoke about his healthy-snacking passion, what he’s learned as both an entrepreneur and the leader of a growing organization, and what it takes to run a startup. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Why are you doing this crazy thing?
“I started NatureBox about six years ago really because of a personal passion around food and nutrition. Up until the age of 18, I really struggled with obesity, until I was able to completely change my dietary behavior. I lost 70 pounds in six months through diet and exercise. For me, NatureBox was the combination of what I thought was a great business opportunity, and more importantly something that I could be passionate about. We've built the company around making healthier snacks taste better, more delicious, and have bolder flavors. At the end of the day, we try to make healthier eating a bit more fun.”
In five years, what does NatureBox look like?
“I think for us we've always thought of the company as a multichannel and multicategory brand. We feel like NatureBox, the brand, could build the type of awareness and trust with the consumer, so that the consumer would buy our products not only from NatureBox.com, but from any place that they buy snack products today. About two years ago, we started selling our products in brick-and-mortar retailers like Target, and for the past year we've expanded into Safeway, Sprouts, Costco, other retailers as well. We're going to continue that expansion. We feel like there's a big opportunity to expand beyond snacks. As we think about the next several years, that's one of the things that's going to be on our mind, and that's the destination that we hope to reach.”
What is the biggest obstacle?
“As a startup, there are many different things that we have to do from an executive's perspective. The biggest thing for us is we have to continue to hold a very high bar for the product that we deliver to the consumer, and we have to continue to be innovative about that. The world of snacking is changing really quickly, not just in terms of what consumers want, but dietary preferences, allergies and dietary restrictions. We have to be rather forward-thinking when we craft the new products that we're launching. At the end of the day, because we're such a small brand, we have to do product innovation better than anyone else. I’d say that's the constant challenge in our business: we have to continue to deliver a great product.”
What have you learned about leadership?
“Being a great leader and a great manager is really hard. I think that it takes a lot of time and energy to develop those skill sets, but at least for me, what I've focused on is trying to be transparent. What I find is that often it's really about transparency, so I try as much as possible to be just that. I send a weekly email to our employees simply about what's on my mind. We also share meeting notes from our executive staff meetings with the company, as we try to be really candid about what's going on. We have to trust that the team that we've hired are capable individuals and trust that these individuals are ones who are going to see these challenges as something not to run away from, but something to run towards, and see these challenges as an area where they can make an impact.”
What have you learned about what it takes to really connect and motivate people on your team?
“Our staff has a core value: Be Bold. Which truly just means saying what is on your mind and not being afraid to hold conviction in your beliefs. That is biggest thing in terms of connecting with people; I try to be really clear about my point-of-view, but that doesn't mean that I can't listen to another person’s opinion. I think so much of leadership is the fact that people want to know what's on your mind, but they also want to be heard. And so, we try to do both here. We try to be transparent about what we think, but also create many opportunities to just listen and hear people and understand their point-of-view.”
How do you make time for yourself? How do you carve out time for self-care?
“I think I could definitely use some help there, but I think one thing is that I do truly enjoy the work that I do and working with the team. For me, even the challenging days are fun, and I feel like I'm learning and able to add value. So, I'm probably not the best role model for balance. I've been really fortunate to work on problems that I personally believe in and enjoy working on, and the mission of NatureBox is something that's really meaningful to me. It doesn't feel like work to me.”
If you could go back in time, to any point in time, and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
“I’d say a couple things. One is that it's all about the people. I think throughout my career, both with NatureBox and before, I have felt like we've had a great team, or that I've worked for great leaders and great managers. Because of this I've been happy throughout my career. It's all about the people and the quality of the people that you surround yourself with. The second is that there shouldn't be a fear of failure or of trying something. I think that often as you get further into your career, you tend to have a negative bias towards trying something new or doing something that could fail. It is really important to keep in mind is that there's nothing to be gained unless you step out onto the ledge.”
Would you do this again?
“Yeah, absolutely. You learn so much going through this experience. Often you find yourself just sitting there thinking, 'Well, what if I did this again, but didn't make the mistakes that I made the first time?' I think every entrepreneur thinks about that in the back of their mind, in terms of the future and all that they've gained out of the experience. For me, I would absolutely do it again.”
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Elliot Begoun is the founder of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow and become investment ready. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.