As Field Work Nutrition has just cruised past our first year open for business, I’ve been taking a little bit of time to reflect on the past few years, how we’ve gotten here, and what our first year of operation means to me personally. Call it a milestone, and maybe it’s just because I’ve been spending a lot of time this last month on the road going to events and meeting folks while sampling our product, but it’s as good of time as any to reflect on the past, embrace the present, and keep an eye towards the future.
I’ll start by saying this: The last year has been the most challenging of my life, most rewarding, and arguably most I’ve grown (or re-grown as you’ll see) as a person. People will tell you all the time how challenging it is to start a business. And you know what? They are right! But you really can’t even begin to appreciate it until you are in it. I assume it’s kind of like having your first child (which I am yet to do, so can only assume!)…people will tell you over and over again how life-changing it is, but you can’t even begin to comprehend until you have one. And as a side note, I was recently chatting with a friend who has a small business and also recently had her first child. According to her, the business is WAY harder…so there’s that.
To understand how we got here and the significance our first year, I think it’s important to understand a little bit more about me as a person and how I’ve spent the last 10 or so years. I grew up in Long Beach, CA (our current HQ!) in the 80’s and 90’s, heavily influenced by the culture at the time which was a beautifully mixed bag of everything you are probably imagining and more. I went to the public schools and was surrounded by surfers and skaters, gangsters and gays, kids on food stamps and kids with houses on the water. We were all influenced by the punk rock and hip hop scene that was so rife in our home town, and because of this, we all had at least some antiestablishment streak ingrained into our beings from the moment we began to form opinions about ourselves, society, and how we wanted to live life. But generally speaking, no matter who you were, if you were legit and stood for something (school, sports, music, art, whatever), there was a place for you.
I grew up an athlete. Sports in Long Beach had a natural way of bringing together all these different walks of life – if you were good at sports, if you were down for the team, and otherwise not a jackass, you were accepted, no matter who you were. The other area I excelled was academics. Both sports and academics were places I felt good because they were simple – if you worked hard and had some talent to build off of, you had success – a foreshadowing for small business…? There wasn’t a lot of middle ground with either, and actions spoke louder than anything else. But being good wasn’t the end all be all – we had plenty of kids we grew up with that were very talented, but put themselves first, and ultimately were handled in the park across the street at one point or another. This wasn’t officially condoned behavior by our coaches and mentors, but I think a part of them knew what was happening and still embraced a world where kids could work out issues on their own and come together stronger for it. I don’t blame them.
After high school was when I really got in to endurance sports. Right after my freshman year at UCLA, my dad died suddenly which threw me and the rest of my family for a pretty big loop. I had watched him go from a former collegiate swimmer in great shape, to a heavy drinker and smoker that ultimately fell victim to his own bad habits. This was incredibly tough to deal with as a young man, but this on top of the years of hard-nosed life lesson he taught me helped shape me into the resilient and self-reliant person I am today. He grew up poor white trash (you can’t hide from the truth!) in Long Beach and was a self-made man that worked his ass off and led by example. Unfortunately, he simply had some demons. His decline was also the impetus that made me commit to living a balanced, healthy lifestyle with an emphasis on good nutrition and staying fit. It thrust me into endurance sports, which deepened my interest in nutrition, and ultimately guided my career choices. So for that I am grateful.
Flash forward about 15 years and life choices and circumstances had landed me in a corporate situation where my early principles of independence, anti-establishment, giving all for the team, and hard working self-reliance were hardly embraced (they were certainly touted in theory and existed in small pockets, but not at all universally reflected in the organization). In corporate life there is a lot of peacocking and a lot of bullshit. Surprise! After a few years of having my ideas and efforts tamped down by politics, I had had enough. It was maddening.
So how did I get there? After graduating from UCLA I bounced around a bit looking for solid work. It was the midst of the Great Recession, and finding any meaningful work for a new grad was not easy. I left LA (well, was essentially forced out of my house, but that’s another story) to move up north to Davis, CA, in the heart of California’s fertile ag country – which coincidentally had a great bike racing scene as well. I was hoping to land a job doing something in sustainable agriculture, which I was very passionate about at the time and still am to this day (hence the Field Work Thunderbee – an homage to our food systems). Nothing doing there, I ended up leveraging my network back in LA and landing a job, taking me back down south. Along the way I ended up hooking up with a bike-racing buddy who had started a little nutrition company and accepted my help. He was a scientist and I was a budding marketer, and our skill sets complimented each other nicely. To make a long story short, we ended up selling that company (for hardly any money) to Herbalife, who brought us in-house to develop and market a sports-nutrition line. They paid us pretty decent paychecks – but that was about it. Though I was conflicted about the move for a number of reasons, ultimately decided it was the right thing to do and jumped in with two feet.
For a while it was fun. I had a steady, healthy pay check, got to travel all over the world, got to work with some of the best athletes in the world (particularly in soccer), and even occasionally scored a ride on a corporate jet. I developed multiple campaigns with Cristiano Ronaldo, the biggest athlete in the world, and generally did some pretty cool things along the way and got to see how “big business” worked. Things felt good despite the fact that I was battling an internal conflict about the whole thing and the downsides of corporate life were starting to take their toll after very little time.
I was never cut out to work in a corporate setting (not news to anyone who knows me). I didn’t like the fact that the core products Herbalife made were mediocre, particularly that they were made with soy protein. Not only is there a lot of conflicting science about whether humans should even eat soy in moderate to large quantities, and that it is the second most allergenic food on earth, it is a horrible monoculture crop that wreaks havoc on agricultural systems and is responsible for slash and burn farming in many places. It’s also heavily subsidized by the US government, making it cheap, amongst other things - see sustainable ag passion above).
Within a couple years the politics, bureaucracy, and overall nonsense of the corporate day to day had sucked most of the life out of me, leaving me depressed and causing a weird anxiety to creep into my life that I had never known could even exist before. I still feel this to this day, although it is subsiding day by day as we grow this Field Work community person by person. And on top of all this, the products and brand that I co-created had generated hundreds of millions of dollars of the revenue for the company and created more intangible value than you can really put a dollar amount on, all the while I saw no direct compensation for the work I did. This was all no bueno. (disclosure: there are a handful of guys and gals within the company that I hold in high regard as they try to make positive change).
So I had an idea, to create a product that I could proudly put my name behind, and build a brand and a community within the nutrition space that I felt spoke to me (and frankly, fit into a glaring hole in the industry). So I decided “fuck it, let’s do it.” I shared my thoughts with a good friend and industry colleague, and he immediately brought up my now business partner Jesse Kropelnicki and said I needed to get together with him. That with my nutrition industry, brand, and marketing experience, and Jesse’s technical background, nutrition expertise, and real world experience working with elite level athletes, we might be onto something good. We had a few phone calls and…wait for it…the rest is history.
So here we are today, Field Work Nutrition is just over a year old, we have a product that people LOVE and a brand that our community can relate to for one reason and one reason only – it is not some marketing scheme or grand plan developed in focus groups or picked out of 3 or 4 ideas presented by some fancy (overpaid?) agency – it is who we are and what we do. We created a product that we, our friends, and our fellow athletes wanted and use, and that we truly incorporate into the lives we live every day. Field Work Nutrition is not a middle finger to the big, stale brands in the nutrition industry. But our day to day actions are definitely fueled by the punk rock (and academic!) roots of our past. We are doing it our way, and we feel great about it. The PTSD of my corporate days is wearing away, and our little company that is self-funded, self marketed, and self-created is slowly growing thanks to everyone who has made it this far in this story.
So where do we go from here? We’ve got a lot more work to do, and we are truly grateful to everyone who has been a part of our journey this far. We have new flavors and new products in the works that we are excited to start rolling out and can’t wait to get into your hands. And let me be perfectly clear – yes, this is a business, and we need it to make money to survive, but if along the way we aren’t able to connect a bunch of likeminded people interested in living well, getting radical, pushing their limits, and taking care of their bodies, then we really haven’t accomplished much. We have grand plans of making this company an engine for good – not only helping to make individuals and communities healthier, but giving back in other ways as well.
If you are down with this and down with our cause, we welcome you with open arms to come along on our journey. If you see us out at the races, on the trails, at the beach, or anywhere else, come hang out and say “hey” for a bit. We are happy to have you as part of our familia and hope that our product is helping you achieve whatever it is you are trying to achieve with your health and fitness.
And hey, if we’ve accomplished anything in this business, at least we aren’t a statistic about how many operations fail in their first year…we made it! There are no corporate jet rides in my near future anymore, and to be honest, I never felt like a better person by sitting on a jet. Now I get to rent a twenty-six foot box truck and drive it over to our manufacturing facility with a buddy who is glad to be doing me a favor, pick up a product that we designed and put it in the hands of people that are stoked to get it. Trust me, this is A LOT more fun and satisfying than any corporate jet ride.
PS – some special shout outs to a few people who have made this first year possible. My fiancé who from day one has supported this idea, not so much as even questioning it. Jesse for seeing the vision and jumping on board, our graphic designer Bianca for literally bringing this brand to life, my family and close friends (especially Paul and Mike) for the support – you all know who you are.
We’ll see you out there.