Unicorn Brand with Tracey Halama

November 17, 2022

(highlights from Episode #14 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 Tracey Halama, CEO of Vital Proteins, a Division of Nestlé Health Science Group. They talk about the Midwest work ethic, why more women should be in leadership, the importance of a growth mindset, and learning from failure. And yes, they do talk about Jennifer Aniston. 

Vital Proteins is a nine-year-old “unicorn brand”, and the first product in the ingestible beauty space. Tracey describes the two important functions of her work as CEO: “I help my teams grow to become better leaders and teachers. And I create products that help people feel and look better.” Here’s a glimpse at how she does just that… 

Takeaway #1 Be Your Own Customer 

After injuring her shoulder in a CrossFit competition, Tracey struggled with everyday tasks that used to be no problem. Around the same time, she connected with an old friend at a networking event who had a business idea that he wanted her input on, and urged her to try the product. “It was a pretty annoying injury for me because I traveled a ton. And every time I’d get on a plane, I’d have to have someone else help me with my bag. And after taking Vital Proteins for two and a half weeks, I went to reach up and get a platter for dinner, and I realized that I had mobility in both of my shoulders. And I wasn’t doing anything different besides taking Vital Proteins.” After that, Tracey became an “avid fan” of the idea, and her journey with Vital Proteins started. Tracey uses her own life-changing experience with the product to make brand decisions. “We really leveraged our own experiences as consumers. We always think from a consumer mindset first and foremost.” Believing wholeheartedly in your product is a sure way to get others to believe in it too.  

Takeaway #2 Sometimes Going Backward Is the Right Path 

Instead of following the traditional path for launching a new CPG product, the team decided to take a different approach. Tracey says, “We always used to call ourselves a digital marketing company that happened to sell CPG products. We wanted to be digital first. So initially, we didn’t go into retail.” Instead, Vital Proteins launched on their own website and Amazon, and used consumer feedback to lead them to their next steps. “We really felt like we tapped into that consumer by deploying digital tactics. And once we figured out who our consumer was, then we set up our distribution strategy. So, it was a little bit of a backward approach.” But Tracey had good reason for sticking to this strategy. “We wanted to build the brand first. We wanted people to be educated and activated consumers. And then, once they were activated, they would go into retailers to buy our products. It was definitely a different mindset. Retailers weren’t familiar with that approach, but they loved it because people were coming in saying, hey, where’s the Vital Proteins? So they didn’t have the onus of building the brand. We had the onus of building a brand. 

Takeaway #3 Always Learn from Failure

It’s no secret that failure is a great way to learn. And Tracey took advantage of that in the early days of Vital Proteins. “Fail Forward was our motto. We were okay with failing. I had experienced failure a lot coming from the tech world. And that’s what the iterative agile development cycle is all about – finding the point of failure, then learning from it, then reiterating, and then finding the point of failure. So that was a process in how we approached the company. We were fine with failure. We learned from it.She reflects on an early example of having to change the Vital Proteins products in order to successfully pitch and sell them into Target stores.We had to reformulate our products and our flavorings to make it more appropriate for Target. So that would be a big inflection point in taking a risk and being okay if we failed.Being the only brand in the ingestible beauty category allowed them the freedom to fail until they became the wildly successful company they are today.  

Takeaway #4 – Align Leaders with Consumers (Hint: They’re Women)

Tracey remembers regularly being mistaken for an executive assistant when she first entered the corporate world in the 1990s. But that was then. Now, Tracey believes that “providing space and providing a career path for females is so important. For me, it’s all about paying it forward because if I pay it forward for the current generation of leaders who will eventually become CEO, then that next generation is going to pay it forward for my daughters.” Tracey knows it’s smart to have women in leadership because “when you think about CPG brands out there, the majority of products that are purchased are purchased by women – whether it’s groceries, beauty products or even garbage bags and paper towels from Amazon. So fundamentally, I think that modern companies should have leaders that look like consumers. Again, we go back to that consumer-first mentality.” 

Takeaway #5No One Has a Playbook

When it comes to her position, Tracey admits: “no one gave me a playbook on how to be a CEO.” But despite the lingering imposter syndrome everyone has, Tracey knows she has the background to draw from for her leadership. “I was a pretty good Chief Revenue Officer. Crossing over into general management as President, and now eventually as CEO, you’re still making sure ‘do I have the wherewithal? Do I have all the data that I need in order to make the best decision for the company?’ At times, you second-guess yourself, but I’m really working on that empathy aspect of being a leader.” Tracey is always learning and progressing as a leader. “I think right now, people crave authentic leadership. They want leaders that are accessible. They want leaders that are not afraid to fail. Leaders that are real people.” Don’t be afraid to lead as your authentic self. No one else has a playbook either. 

Tracey‘s Best Advice?

“Don’t be afraid to take risks. If you’re really going to succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to be courageous, and you have to not be afraid to fail. Failure can be a catalyst for growth. If you use failure and adversity wisely, you’ll be wildly successful.

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Jess and Tracey’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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