To call John Roulac a rebel would be an understatement.
The passionate, strong-willed founder and CEO of Nutiva could have followed the rising tide of consumer interest in health foods and nutrition. Instead, he became a leader of the movement by identifying a host of new superfoods and launching a campaign to sway minds and pallets across America.
“Wherever there’s danger, there’s opportunity,” Roulac says. “So I picked foods that were either forgotten or maligned by political or economic forces. The idea of challenging long-held beliefs instead of the competition has served us well.”
Rather than peddling recognized health foods like blueberries and almonds, Nutiva has carved out a niche as a renegade innovator. The firm develops and markets products derived from taboo sources like hemp seed, which is classified as a drug by the Food and Drug Administration, and coconut oil, which was once denounced as an evil saturated fat by U.S. medical experts.
“We encountered resistance from the federal government right out of the gate,” Roulac says. “If you really believe in your mission, and you’re willing to endure a little pain, then you can probably overcome any challenge.”
Purveying products made from chia, red palm and goji berries has propelled Nutiva from a floundering startup to a bona fide player in the organic and natural foods industry with 115 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenues. It’s also cemented Roulac’s reputation as a brazen entrepreneur who isn’t afraid to pick a fight with the establishment.
Tapping into new products and changing customer mindsets can create vibrant, long-term growth and market share. Unfortunately, those lofty goals are often difficult to achieve.
Here’s a look at Roulac’s battle-tested strategies.
Be a product development leader
Promoting foods that have gotten short shrift has helped Nutiva develop a loyal following and stay one step ahead of the competition. After all, who doesn’t like to root for the underdog? Publicly challenging the bureaucratic elite also makes great fodder for a marketing campaign. So how does Roulac manage to pick winners?
“Most CEOs base their product decisions strictly on data, and that’s a mistake,” Roulac says.
“Naturally, I monitor the news and we validate trends by surveying consumers, but it takes intuition to anticipate what people will want to eat a few years before they do.”
Roulac initially looks for natural foods that have gotten a bad rap from the FDA or the medical community. Then, he searches for data and anecdotal evidence that refutes the experts’ conclusions.
Roulac began honing his research skills and intuition at an early age. He became a fan of natural foods at the age of 11 and started reading The Wall Street Journal at 14.
When he spots the right combination of factors, he seizes the opportunity.
For instance, data showed that coconut oil had been an integral part of the diet in Sri Lanka and many other tropical cultures for years. Curiously, people in those regions had lower rates of heart disease than people in the U.S., who followed the typical American diet.
So Roulac developed a line of products made from coconut oil and waged a public information war against the experts from Harvard, Yale and the American Medical Association. It makes you wonder how a fighter like Roulac picks his battles.
“Really, it comes down to wisdom,” Roulac says. “In this case, it was either fight the government and win or go to jail or go bankrupt, so I put everything I had into it.
“Naturally, once you get older and become more successful you tend to be more conservative. But, you should never lose your edge or give up what made your company great. Certainly you want to be reflective as you contemplate new products, but sometimes business leaders just need to double down.”
Predicting adoption rates and cash flow can be tricky for companies that stake their hopes on cutting-edge products and major policy changes. In those situations, intuition and a gut feel can play an indispensable role.
For instance, Roulac uses data and intuition to predict unfavorable swings in economic and social conditions that may stymie sales or slow the acceptance of a new product.
He’s also learned to hedge his bet by creating a flexible business plan. For example, he’ll proactively pull back on marketing and promotional expenses if he senses an impending economic slide. For the record, he believes the next recession will occur in 2016 or in 2017.
“We almost went bankrupt a hundred times in the early days,” he says. “I’ve learned to anticipate a shift in the wind and redefine our business strategy. Computers lack intuition. You need to be an intuitive decision-maker to develop impeccable timing.”
Build a broad coalition of support
It takes more than a passionate, lone voice to refute the opinions of medical experts — it takes a village. Roulac has proven that activist consumers will rally around a cause and join the fight if they are plied with compelling facts and information.
Roulac not only pleads his case to journalists, like a true modern day advocate, he uses a well-orchestrated social media campaign to create a groundswell of support for change.
“We’ve always looked at ourselves as educators as much as marketers,” he says.
“It’s easy to invite a conversation around the digital campfire if you say the right things.”
Eighty percent of the firm’s social media content is educational and thought-provoking while only 20 percent revolves around the firm’s products.
“I have a mantra: Never be boring,” he says. “If someone in the organic food industry is a bad player, I have no problem calling them out. Selling our ideas as well as our products has produced more demand than we can meet.
“We even filed a lawsuit against the federal government for classifying hemp seeds as heroin. And I’m not opposed to using guerilla tactics. Today, we work around government restrictions by importing hemp seed from Canada.”
The firm’s most successful post offers a do-it-yourself video for making hemp milk.
Other popular posts tout the virtues of carbon farming, the evils of Wall Street and the company’s efforts to support sustainable agriculture programs. Still others offer gardening tips or recipes.
“Today, every corporation is translucent,” he says. “How you handle a Twitter exchange with a dissatisfied customer or what people say about your company on Glassdoor matters. Companies need to be aware of what people are saying and respond appropriately.”
Don’t lose your edge or your values
Sustaining your culture and your competitive edge as your company matures is a huge challenge for entrepreneurs. Especially for persuasive leaders like Roulac who use their passion to influence others.
“Once you reach $50 million in sales you enter the valley of death,” he says. “That’s when a lot of entrepreneurial companies stall.
“I knew our success wouldn’t be dictated by my sales skills or my ability to pick the next superfood as we added people. Our growth would be sustained by our team and our culture. My biggest fear was that I would walk through the company one day and wouldn’t recognize anyone.”
Roulac heeded the advice of cultural gurus such as Ann Rhoades, co-founder of Jet Blue Airlines, and Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, to preserve Nutiva’s fighting spirit.
His key takeaway: Culture starts at the top.
“Anybody can put chia seeds in a bag,” he says. “It’s our values that set us apart. I had to do a better job of educating our employees on what we believe in order to sustain our culture.”
He revised and communicated the company’s core values which are community, purity, well-being and innovation. He also established a new mission: Revolutionizing the way the world eats.
Next, to make those values live, he redesigned the company’s hiring process and developed new selection criteria to ensure that new hires match Nutiva’s culture.
He no longer assumes that workers automatically share his passion for healthy eating. Every four to six weeks, an expert speaks to the team about nutrition and health issues and the benefits of organic and natural foods. He also reinforces his vision and values by financially backing causes such as sustainable farming and food activism.
“I reinforce our values by donating 1 percent of Nutiva’s sales each year to programs that support the advancement of healthy communities and ecologically sustainable agriculture,” he says.
And to make sure staffers develop a taste for healthy foods, an on-site chef treats Nutiva’s team to goodies made with the company’s products. Frequent treats and retreats support Roulac’s personal goal of fostering a fun work environment where employees feel a sense of purpose.
“Business is all about compromise,” Roulac says. “But there are some things that you should not be willing to compromise under any circumstances. CEOs need to figure out what those things are and communicate them to their staff. Because the things that you would be absolutely unwilling to compromise in any situation are your core values.” ●
How to reach: Nutiva, (800) 993-4367 or www.nutiva.com
- Stay ahead of the competition by being a product development leader.
- Incite change by building a broad coalition of support.
- Don’t lose your competitive edge or your values as you grow.
The Roulac File
NAME: John Roulac
TITLE: Founder and CEO
Born: Pasadena, California
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I founded five different businesses by the time I was 13 and I learned a number of valuable lessons along the way. For instance I learned how to be resilient when I picked local blackberries and sold them door-to-door. When someone said no, I learned that I just needed to knock on the next door.
Who do you admire in business? I admire leaders who reset the bar for everyone else. For instance, I admire Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia for being a staunch environmentalist and for his ability to influence the clothing industry. And Tony Hsieh for building a fantastic company culture at Zappos.com. And Seth Godin, author of “Purple Cow,” for being a great thought leader and teaching executives how to set their businesses apart from the competition.
What is your definition of business success? Even though Nutiva’s annual revenues now exceed $100 million, it’s ironic, but I don’t view myself as successful. I’ve been involved with the organic food movement for 15 years and our growth is a sign of success, but we still have a long way to go.
What is the best business advice you ever received? The best advice I ever heard came from Steve Jobs. He said to succeed as an entrepreneur you have to love what you do. My passion has helped me overcome formidable obstacles while navigating the road to success.
Have you always been an independent thinker? Yes, I was thrown out of the classroom when I was 11 years old for telling the teacher that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. I read something in the library that conflicted with the curriculum so I felt compelled to speak up.