How This Entrepreneur Got a Crumbling Brand on Track to Scale to $100 Million Brad Charron, CEO of the plant-based protein brand ALOHA, discusses restarting and refocusing a brand that was on the verge of collapse.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
My name is Brad Charron. I'm the CEO of the plant-based protein brand, ALOHA. We are a Certified B Corp which believes that healthy food can and should taste like really good food. Our mission is to help people choose a happier path to a healthier life by creating simple, nutritious food that everyone can access and enjoy.
What inspired you to create this business?
Our team playfully refers to me as the "Re-Founder" of ALOHA. The original enterprise, which I call ALOHA 1.0, launched in 2013 with big expectations. It was a "half superfoods/half food tech company." I don't even know what a food-tech company truly is. It was a wannabe "unicorn" focused on rapid growth; it was built on a shaky foundation that inevitably crumbled under pressure. After recreating the company from scratch in late 2017, I believe now more clearly than ever before — undergoing a brand, product and culture detox — that to make a real difference in the entrepreneurial world, you have to ensure you craft a sustainable business model. Nothing matters more than survival ("survive and advance" as coined from March Madness) and setting yourself up to be around for the long haul.
What was your biggest business challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?
I inherited a company that had gone without clear direction and focus for a long time. Its cost structure, product portfolio, staffing and infrastructure got too big, too quickly. As a result, it was severely in the red and largely dead on arrival. Therefore, I had to reimagine and rebuild it from the ground up, being careful with costs and transparent with expectations.
Equally challenging was attracting and hiring a team of like-minded "co-owners" who had the prior experience to win and the hustle/gut instinct to bet on themselves. After all, these great people had other good jobs and other good options. They didn't know that they wanted ALOHA in their professional lives until they realized how well they could help shape a company's emergence first-hand..and believed that I had the vision and execution plans to enable it. After 18 months of cutting back and rebuilding commercial and cultural muscle, we reemerged in mid-2019 with a lean, focused, scalable and sustainable commercial strategy — and a clear company purpose. We have doubled sales year-over-year- over-year ever since, and have done so profitably.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
I hate asking for money. It reminds me of asking my father for a few bucks at the hockey rink to buy extra tape or a new stick. I learned the value of "earning it myself" at a young age. Therefore, my personal rule is to avoid asking for cash until you really have a damn good rationale around why (a) you need it, (b) your plan to deploy it smartly will work, (c) you are confident it will truly add to shareholder value. Raising the most money with the highest valuation does nothing more than getting your name in the press. It doesn't mean anything for the business (other than putting a bullseye on your back) unless you follow steps a, b, and c above.
Operating burn is poison for a young venture. For me, if I did have to fundraise, I understood the burden it entailed and had (I hope) very good reasons for the ask. A word of advice: fundraising has to be about "changing the game" or elevating the direction of the business. If it's just a little money to keep you afloat a little longer at the beginning, so be it. But don't confuse that for buying you time to craft a sustainable business model. Money to bridge the sea is fine. Just ensure you know where you are building that bridge to go to.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
I lived and breathed ice hockey in Minnesota every year between September and July as a kid. As a goalie, I thrived being in the net, back against the pipes, opponents approaching from all angles. And though I dreamt of being an NHL goalie back then, I've come to realize that being an entrepreneur isn't that different (albeit a lot less sweaty…sometimes). A successful entrepreneur operates with what I call the "Goalie Mentality." Goalies live each moment with fundamental challenges inherent in entrepreneurship: forced to make real-time decisions with incomplete information, solve for probabilities and strategies outside of immediate control, navigate the mental and physical spatial isolation inherent in the position itself. Not uncommon for athletes, it was in the world of sports that I recognized my true self. It was goaltending that taught me to be comfortable with the unknown and gave me the skill sets to lead a team through hurdles, heartbreaks and victories. Being an entrepreneur isn't a title, it's a mindset. It's a mentality that takes training, dedication and a lot of hard work. When things get shaky and don't go as planned, I put myself back in the net and look at the big picture.
What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don't?
There are a couple of contextual things to note here. First, the market has shifted from a seller's market to a buyer's market, meaning the power now rests with the people funding businesses, not the entrepreneurs themselves. Second, inflation is rising and credit card balances are going up while savings are going down. As we sit here today, I believe that consumer confidence is hanging on but by a thread. And I'm an optimist! A storm is likely brewing and thoughtful business owners need to buckle up for a wild ride in the near term. To that point, they don't need growth at all costs. They need sustainable, thoughtful, and practical growth. If it's slower but has the ability to scale rapidly (and profitably) with the right market conditions, that's totally fine in my book. I'd suggest thinking like the tortoise and ignoring the hare.