Light Bulb Moment with Irena Todd

September 1, 2022

(highlights from Episode #10 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

Check out the latest lessons from our Gutsiest Brands podcast as GutCheck’s Chief Revenue Officer, Jess Gaedeke, sits down with Irena Todd, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Fresh Monster and Mighty Mutt. They talk about leading with empathy in building a brand and company culture, the ongoing challenges female founders face, plus how to ride the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship without getting sick. 

Irena formerly worked at Unilever, where she was in charge of brands like Axe Hair and TRESemmé. Earlier in life, she was a UN interpreter sent on peacekeeping missions after the war in Yugoslavia. Through her experiences as a founder and as a mom, Irena has learned many lessons about being a gutsy entrepreneur. Here’s what she shared with us… 

Takeaway #1 Empathy Starts from a Personal Place

Irena started Fresh Monster with her co-founder almost eight years ago after failing to find a good hair care product made of natural ingredients that was safe for kids. “That was the light bulb moment,” Irena shares, “in part because of this personal need. Leveraging their backgrounds at Unilever, they “understood what it would take to build a product that’s both natural and safer for kids, but also delivers on all the personal care needs that the kids have.” This is where empathy starts – when our own experiences and needs inform our decisions and aspirations.  

Takeaway #2 Empathy Goes Beyond the Superficial

Traditionally, kids’ hair care products have been packaged with princesses and superheroes on the front. But is that what kids and parents want and connect with? “We really wanted to break through that,” says Irena, “and think about what is special about kids in that stage and how we can connect on a more authentic level.” Fresh Monster’s solution? Well—monsters. “When you look at our monsters and packaging, they’re imperfect and cool. They have five eyes, they have glasses, they’re gender-neutral and race-neutral. We really wanted to make sure the kids can imagine themselves regardless of what they look like,” says Irena. “That was our way of saying, ‘Hey moms, we see you. Hey kids, we see you.’ This is our way of putting a brand out there that truly connects beyond the superficial.” 

Takeaway #3 Don’t Be Afraid to Pave New Paths

When Fresh Monster was accepted into the Accelerator at Telluride, Irena and her co-founder packed up their families (five kids and two husbands) and headed to Colorado for five months. They were excited to pioneer a new personal care brand for kids, but weren’t willing to compromise on having their families with them even though people told them they were crazy, and surprisingly, the program was happy to accommodate. Irena remembers, “we had to make some adjustments to our lifestyle. We had a nursing room, and we had little play mats. Our kids came with us, and they continued to be part of the journey in part because the products are made for them. We always enlist their input, and they’re always our first testers.”    

Takeaway #4 – The Advent of the Co-CEO

When Irena was starting Fresh Monster with her co-CEO, many investors wondered how that would work. But after looking at other co-CEO scenarios at the time (like Whole Foods and Warby Parker), Irena and her co-founder decided to step into the CEO role together. “We felt like doing this together was critical, in part to support each other and in part, because we brought equal but different strengths to the team,” Irena says. “We tried to figure out: what are the best practices around how you structure this, so there’s not a lot of overlap, or there aren’t issues down the road? I would say the secret sauce is just having clear lanes on top of the obvious trust and respect for each other.” 

Takeaway #5 Why Women Make Great Entrepreneurs

“I think female founders often have a very rigorous and grounded perspective on their businesses,” says Irena. She points out that male founders often have sky-high aspirations for their companies, which is necessary to an extent, but it’s being grounded and shooting for business longevity that makes a successful brand. “I’d also say women multitask a little bit better. And there are so few [female founders] that there is this really tight community. That’s not to say that male founders don’t have the same amazing networks as well, but it’s certainly been fuel for us.” 

Irena‘s Best Advice?

“There are a couple of things. One of them is just to jump in and figure stuff out. [Be] daring and bold in tackling things you don’t know about. The other one is and I think applies to a lot of entrepreneurs there’s going to be so many rollercoaster rides. You know, the highs are high, and the lows are low. Learning how to ride those without getting sick on the rollercoaster is really important.” Irena recommends remembering that it’s a long game and to keep going through the middle, as playing it safe doesn’t bring success. 

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Jess and Irena’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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