Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
What’s up guys, my name is Stuart Kam and I founded ATH in 2012. We’re a sports nutrition company based in Honolulu, Hawaii that prides itself on creating the best tasting all-natural supplements designed for athletes in niche sports -- mainly Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, and Surfing.
I had originally started the company after coming home from a short stint playing professional baseball and returning to my true love of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We started in my garage and now we’re the number one plant-based PRE workout and do over $250,000 a month in revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I first started ATH when I realized the need for all-natural supplements that actually taste good. Back in 2012, there weren’t a lot of healthy options for athletes, like me, that cared about what they were putting into their bodies.
Supplements either had a load of synthetic ingredients or they tasted like dirt.
So I decided to start mixing my own.
At first, I had no intention of creating an actual company. All I wanted were all-natural supplements that tasted good and helped me recover after training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
At the time my dream was to compete full-time and have a way to pay for my training.
So I decided to order 50-pound bags of raw ingredients and mixed the first batch in my kitchen. To help pay for the ingredients, I took it to the gym to see if anyone was interested. My training partners were, and the beginning phases of ATH were off the ground.
The early days of ATH included hand-packed single servings
Once I began selling out, I realized I needed to find a contract manufacturer. Mixing the ingredients myself became too time-consuming and I couldn’t keep up. I also knew that if I wanted to turn ATH into an actual business, I needed to work with an FDA-regulated and certified manufacturing facility to produce my product.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our first batch of POST, produced by our contract-manufacturer, was called 31 Muscle Recovery.
I wasn’t happy with my career at the time, so I left, went all-in with ATH, and used my credit card for our first batch of products.
I had been studying sports nutrition so I knew what type of product to design, but I didn’t know anything about the manufacturing process. Ie: how to source the ingredients, get the required certifications, and how to adhere to FDA regulations.
Discovering online business groups where other entrepreneurs shared their tactics and experiences was revolutionary for me.
So I sent a US-based contract manufacturer our initial parameters, the macronutrients, and micronutrients that we were looking for. I also sent them the ingredients we wanted to avoid. We didn’t want any artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavoring.
From there they got a good understanding of the type of product I was after and were able to formulate an initial post-workout powder that met my requirements.
I did have to go back and forth a few times to align our interests. Manufacturers are typically interested in making the manufacturing process smoother by using flow agents called excipients. I wanted to use excipients as little as possible and if we did, they would need to be natural excipients.
Of course, that was easier said than done. We hadn’t even done a single production run yet and on top of that, it wasn’t common to use natural excipients back in 2012.
Once we got past those hurdles, our formulas were rather simple and easy to manufacture. After all, I wanted our formulas to be simple and efficient while using whole foods as much as possible.
Till today, POST is still one of our best-selling products.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The first production run that I placed was for 250 bottles.
I had financed that run entirely on my personal credit card and moved back in with my parents to cut my expenses.
Even though I had a Business Administration degree with a focus in Entrepreneurship from Oregon State University, I had very little practical experience in bootstrapping a start-up.
I had always built websites and knew how to program so I did what made the most sense to me, which was to build a website and sell my product directly to the consumer.
Other than giving free protein to influential training partners in return for promotions on their social media accounts, we had zero budget for the launch. I put all my efforts and money into building the product, that we had nothing left for launch day...which was a problem.
“If you build it, they will come” or so they say.
We launched to zero sales.
I learned quickly that no matter how great our product was, it didn’t matter if we couldn’t market it correctly.
Over the next few days, sales started slowly trickling in, but mostly from friends and family. Definitely not enough to ease my worries about going all-in and maxing out my credit cards.
Through sheer grit and determination, we cracked $30,000 throughout our first full year of sales.
What kept me going was the fear of failure.
I was all-in, I couldn’t even quit if I wanted to. I needed to pay down my credit card debt.
I remember thinking that if we could just do $3000 a month, I’d be able to generate $1,000 of profit with the margins we had. Which was just enough for me to survive on by living at home and on a bare-bones budget.
My sister called me one day and tried to convince me to stop the business.
She was a successful New York City lawyer that “didn’t want to see me go homeless.”
I didn’t take her advice.
The only two things that kept me sane were being able to train Jiu-Jitsu and my spouse.
We experienced slow growth year over year, $90,000 in year 2 until I finally discovered online business groups where other entrepreneurs shared their tactics and experiences.
It was revolutionary for me.
I literally read the forums day and night, while networking with other entrepreneurs to soak up their knowledge. On top of that, realizing that other entrepreneurs were going through the same trials and tribulations as I was, was a huge psychological boost.
I started to realize that we were becoming the “classic 10-year overnight success” and there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the beginning, what allowed us to scale was focusing on things that DIDN’T scale. I know that’s a contradiction, but here’s what we did:
I wrote handwritten notes to all our customers, I emailed customers after they placed an order to personally thank them for their order and asked them to refer us to a friend.
At the time, I couldn’t afford to hire a customer service team. Which meant that I was on the customer service team. I personally solved customer issues and even delivered local orders to save on shipping costs and get the product into their hands faster.
Customers loved how I was directly involved with them.
These small, un-scalable efforts were exhausting but allowed us to be scrappy enough to acquire new customers and build a cult following.
I remember USPS once lost a customer’s package (a recurring theme I realized once we began to scale) -- it was a Sunday and I knew the customer was going to have to wait another week for his replacement to arrive. I decided to pack up the order, drive it to his house, and left it on his doorstep.
He was so surprised that we hand-delivered his replacement, especially on a Sunday, that he still orders to this day.
We focused on customer experience by actually giving a damn.
I was personally invested with each customer -- if the quality of the product was not up to standard -- I took that info back to our contract manufacturers to improve our product.
It was extremely difficult and costly to do so. Because we were so small I didn’t have much leverage with negotiations.
One time we threw out an entire batch of hemp protein because the flavor wasn’t consistent, which our contract manufacturer refused to compensate us for. This was something we couldn’t afford to do, but I was unwilling to compromise our quality and reputation.
A screenshot of our early YouTube channel days
We tested out a bunch of different acquisition channels including podcasting, building out a YouTube channel, content marketing, SEO, and influencer marketing.
What kept me going was the fear of failure.
All of those channels showed promise but required too many resources to be scalable. We finally settled on paid ads as our main acquisition channel.
Although extremely expensive, paid ads provided us with a faucet of traffic that we could turn on and optimize. We studied everything we could get our hands on to learn more about paid ads.
We built out ads, created lead gen funnels, designed landing pages, all to optimize our customer acquisition.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Fast forward to today, we continue to focus on our customer experience and put their needs first.
Our entire product line is going through the BSCG, Banned Substances Control Group, certification process to ensure there are no banned substances in each batch.
We’ve continued our acquisition efforts in paid ads while optimizing our retention channels such as email, SMS, and push.
Our biggest project right now is building out a 5500 square foot training center in the heart of Honolulu that acts as our content marketing center and doubles as our fulfillment center for Hawaii orders.
Outfitted with state-of-the-art strength and conditioning equipment, the training center features a cold beverage dispenser to serve our flagship product POST to Hawaii’s top athletes.
The ATH Training Center will be used to bring all content production in-house: recipes, workouts, and events.
Building our brand authenticity is a core competitive advantage that we have at ATH. Not only was I an athlete, but all ATH employees were athletes as well and we still are. We live the lifestyle that we portray.
Next up for the training center is building out a kitchen to film recipes using ATH products.
Our strategy with the training center is to improve our marketing efficiency and generate more organic traffic.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Over the past 9 years, I’ve learned that business is about solving problems.
Nothing worth having comes easy.
If you can embrace the grind and consistently adapt, improvise, and overcome, you will be successful.
We preach about finding a way to accomplish our mission of building healthier athletes.
I could go down the list of missed opportunities, bad partnerships, initiatives that went wrong. But our perseverance is what has made us successful.
Through it all, we’ve always found a way to get shit done.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
There are millions of methods, but a few principles.
We’ve tested out our share of different apps and tools over the years and I believe that it’s not necessarily the tool that is the key to success, but instead the strategy you make to accomplish the goal.
I’ve seen numerous companies constantly switching systems to chase the carrot’ which ends up costing them a lot of time and money.
But here’s what we’re currently using:
Shopify - No-brainer e-commerce content management system. Pretty affordable to get started with a base website. Unless you’re selling something that requires a ton of customization, I’d recommend it. As we grow, we do have plans of getting off of it to provide more customization.
Email Marketing - Klaviyo - Get it. 37% of our revenue is driven by Klaviyo. Our customer behavior is stored in Klaviyo and allows us to get creative with event triggers, such as abandoned carts as well as creating re-order flows.
SMS Marketing - Postscript - We’ve tested a bunch of different SMS marketing platforms and Postscript is the most feature-rich of them all. They also tie into Klaviyo which allows us to have a consistent experience. We’re seeing CTR as high as 17%.
Reviews - Judge.me - Reviews are a big part of communicating with new customers about what to expect from our product line. We have email flows that are triggered after a purchase requesting customer feedback and reviews.
Landing Pages - Gempages - We do a lot of custom landing pages including inbound quizzes to help customers find their ideal supplement stack. We’re currently using Typeform and Gempages to accomplish this.
Typeform - allows us to recommend specific supplement stacks based upon our customers’ activities and nutritional needs. We’ve seen great success using this as a lead generation strategy and Typeform makes it a breeze.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The last book I read was The Hard Thing About Hard Things by tech entrepreneur Ben Horowitz. I’m currently reading What You Do Is Who You Are by the same author since building our team and culture is at the forefront of my mind.
I regularly listen to eCommerce Fuel’s Podcast. They also have an amazing forum of other 7+ figure eCommerce brands where they share insight and strategy. A great place to network.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
If I was to advise on how to build your business, I’d say the most important thing is to be always expanding your knowledge and network.
It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
Oh and one last thing, one quote that always stood out to me is especially true: “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”
Stick with it and grow at your own pace. If you’re around in 10 years, you’ll probably be looked at as the classic “10-year overnight success.”
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
It’s funny because we’re always looking to hire hungry, motivated team members. In fact, we place it right in our source code:
We figure that if you’re curious enough to look through our source code, we may be able to find a spot for you.
Right now we’re looking for a Controller - Finance, and a Creative Director.
Go here for the latest job postings.
Where can we go to learn more?
The best way to get a hold of us is directly through our website at athorganics.com. I’m always happy to connect with other entrepreneurs for brand collaborations: [email protected] is my direct email.
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