This episode of the Startup Savants podcast features Alisa Pospekhova, who talked about her experiences founding Kindroot. Kindroots or adaptogens are herbs that boost the body’s natural defenses against chronic stress. Pospekhova describes her journey as a part-time entrepreneur — she still holds her regular job — and discusses some of the obstacles she has had to overcome. The Startup Savants podcast shines a spotlight on innovative entrepreneurs and their ventures.
What is the history behind Kindroot?
“I was like your typical sick child. Every cold, every flu, I was always in the hospital, and it was always respiratory-related … It quite honestly just got to the point where I was like, ‘Enough of this. I need to do something about it.’ It was my mid-thirties I really started trying to figure out the root cause … So I went on this whole holistic journey of healing inflammation and just healing some of my immune deficiencies. Of course, a lot of it had to do with taking different herbs and vitamins and really supporting the body in being able to fight off whatever that was happening, and I felt incredible … But whenever I would try to introduce it to my friends, they were like, ‘Okay, no kidding, I’m not going to take this. This is absolutely awful.’ That’s really where it all began.”
What are adaptogens and why are they central to the Kindroot product line?
“Adaptogens, they’re a special class of herbs and mushrooms, and their primary function is to help balance your body. What’s beautiful about that is that we all might have different reasons. Two people might not be able to sleep, but one might not be able to sleep because there’s one deficiency, and the other one might not be able to sleep because their cortisol levels are too high. They can both take adaptogens and adaptogens will work differently within their body to balance them out. They will cool down some of the heat aspects, or they can actually like rev things up.”
What conditions might adaptogens be able to help with?
“They really are great because a lot of the things that we’re experiencing today in our modern lifestyle is because of stress, and that affects our adrenals. It affects our pituitary gland, everything. Taking adaptogens in specific combinations can really help support you lower the stress or the way that your body’s able to cope with it. That is why I think there’s such a revival and such an interest in all of these herbs that have been used for thousands of years. I don’t want to say forgotten because there’s a lot of other cultures that have continued to use them.”
You had problems outsourcing manufacture of the products. What were they?
“That was a big challenge to solve … I knew the product needed to be made. I knew the blends. I understood the ingredients, but then I ultimately needed that final piece of somebody who’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going to mix it all together, package it, get it out.’ Yeah, I probably spent about six months researching different pharmaceutical companies, candy companies, lozenge companies, and calling and emailing all of them. Looking back now, I understand, I get it. It’s a more complicated product to make.
There’s such a failure rate with startups that I thought I had an amazing idea, but they were probably getting 20 calls a day from all these other people that thought they had great ideas. I was just hearing either a ‘no’ or I was hearing, ‘Okay, but the minimum order is going to be 3 million units’ or something that I couldn’t even wrap my head around. There was, quite honestly, a point where I was like, ‘Well, maybe it’s just not going to happen.’”
How did you manage to clear this hurdle?
“I had to shift my thinking, which is what I think you always end up having to do in a startup environment. I was like, ‘Well, why do I feel like I need somebody else to make it for me? It’s going to be really hard, but I could actually make it myself.’ I completely switched the route, found a candy scientist, found an herbalist. Then, we just really essentially started working on figuring out a non-scalable small batch way of launching it with a commercial kitchen. I ended up, essentially, getting a mini degree in lozenge-making and production and CGMP guidelines and all of that kind of stuff. But ultimately, I think it was a very, very important experience because I now know my product inside and out.”
Not being able to hire a contract manufacturer proved to be a blessing in disguise, right?
‘I actually think that would’ve been a completely wrong move because, quite honestly, since then, we’ve re-tweaked the formulations. I’ve changed the packaging here and there. I think that I would’ve had to order so much inventory that I don’t even know what I would’ve done with it. Quite honestly, I actually feel like that would’ve been probably detrimental to the business.”
How do you balance a 40-hour work week with running your own business?
“I don’t know, quite honestly, that I keep that balanced. I think that one thing that works is just being extremely organized. By organized, I mean my fun is scheduled. Everything is scheduled in, and I can’t deviate. I think that as long as I’m regimented and like, ‘These are the things I need to get done today, these are the things I get done tomorrow.’ Then, I have the time to still incorporate some of the fun activities or things that make me feel good. I think that’s important because I do think the first year, I was so hyper-focused that I neglected myself, and I felt that burnout. I was like, ‘This just isn’t real. This can’t go on.’ I think it’s being organized.
Then, I think the second thing is that — where it actually feels like it helps me — it forces me to be hyper-selective with things that I do. There’s a million cool things that you can do for a brand or for a business and I just really have to make decisions of like, what’s going to move the most. I also think I’m pretty quick to abandon things that I feel like they’re not working. I make decisions pretty quickly to move on. I think it’s just a very disciplined way of running a business. I think that’s what’s needed now while I self-funded. Then, eventually, obviously, there’ll be a point where I’ll be able to focus on it full-time.”
When might you start looking for outside capital?
“I think … having a large partnership with a mass retailer, because at that point it doesn’t just take inventory. It takes awareness, it takes merchandising … I do think that at some point, there will be, hopefully, Target coming in or Whole Foods coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you national distribution or even international expansion.’ To me, that would be absolutely the reason — and the right reason — to take money, to take funds and expand.”
What was it that finally pushed you over the edge to start Kindroot?
“I think with Kindroot, what made sense was, it was an industry that I felt really comfortable in. I’ve spent a lot of years working in health and wellness, so I knew how this world worked. It was a product that I felt like I was really, really passionate about. I just felt like I could do it. I truly was like, ‘I think I can pull this off.’ Without necessarily needing co-founders and a lot of outside forces coming in. That, I think, was the pivotal thing where, previously, I had an idea for a travel website and it sounded really cool, but I was like, ‘Who’s going to actually code it for me? How am I going to do it?’ This I really felt like ‘I can do it.’”
Your products appear to fit in more than one category — both supplements and lozenges — how do you explain that?
“I think I am still figuring out where exactly we’re at. I think the beauty of being a new form or product is that we are very unique and I think people who get it, get it, and there’s no substitute. I would say the same has been for a lot of our retail partnerships where retailers say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing really like this. So, hey, we’ll bring you in.’ I think that’s been beautiful. I think on the flip side, we have to do a lot of education with consumers to understand because they’re like, ‘Wait, so you’re like a lozenge, but you have stuff in it. But what about ashwagandha? Why is it good?’”
What would you say about product positioning?
“There’s all of these talking points that go into it. We’re figuring out exactly what our positioning is still and how to talk about it to the consumer. But I think the base of it, if you look at the product, it’s actually pretty simple. Lozenges already exist. Herbs already exist. It’s an innovative product, but it’s actually a quite simple innovation. I think my advice to anybody who’s thinking about a product is, it doesn’t have to be super revolutionary. I think a lot of times we feel like you have to invent an Uber or whatever it is, but really you can just make a tiny little tweak to something that’s existing that solves a very particular need, and there you have it.”
So, an aspect of product positioning may be refashioning and rebranding an established product?
“Yes. I would always say, ‘Look at an industry that hasn’t been innovated in.’ For me, it was lozenges. I remember standing in a CVS aisle and looking at the same three brands that I’ve been buying for 20 years. I was like, ‘It’s interesting. Nobody seems to want to do anything in here.’ That to me was like, this is an open space for me to come in and do a few simple tweaks and have a product that’s very interesting. Don’t worry about things like market share that they keep on talking about because if I were to look at the pie chart and say, ‘Hey, gummies are huge. I need to make a functional gummy,’ well, I will have 200,000 competitors within that.”
How do you decide when to add new team members?
“I just keep going with it until there’s a point where I can’t anymore, and that is when I bring in help. I’ve done that with shipping the product by myself until I’m like, ‘Okay, well, I can’t really do pallets out of my own house.’ Now, I bring in a 3PL, right? Doing all of my content for social media until it’s too much, and then I brought in a video editor. That is just generally my philosophy. I just do it. I try to scale to the point that I can and then I bring somebody in.
I would say the idea of bringing somebody into the business, it’s still open, and that might still warrant and justify. I would say, for example, if there is a time to, or when that time comes to fundraise, that is not necessarily a particular skill of mine, and I know that, so that would actually be a potentially good opportunity for somebody to come in with a really strong finance, fundraising background who can help manage that side. That can be a really, really big piece of the business.”
Entrepreneurship can feel really lonely, especially when you’re in the founder’s seat by yourself — how do you contend with this?
“Entrepreneurship is being in one of those haunted houses. You willingly walked into it, and you know there’s stuff that’s going to be coming at you, but you’re like, you don’t know when and where, but then you’re excited being there, and there’s a certain adrenaline going. Absolutely, I think that the highs of entrepreneurship are probably like the most elated feeling I’ve ever felt. Sometimes it’s even for the simplest things. You get a retailer and then you get a second PO reorder and you’re like, ‘All right, people are actually buying this. This is cool.’”
You talk regularly to other entrepreneurs, right?
“For me, I’ve been lucky to meet other early-stage entrepreneurs. Ultimately, I usually have, probably, a weekly call with one or the other, one of them, and we just talk, call it like little therapy sessions. We just spend 30 minutes each just unloading and coming up with solutions and problem-solving. That has actually been just the most incredible network for me. It’s interesting because I feel like some of them became my super close friends within three months because I think just that bond of building a company really, really unites you.
I would say that is probably the biggest advice that I would give to anybody … find other founders at the similar stage that you’re at, that are spending the same amount of money, so you’re going through the same type of problems, and really build a really strong network of them.”
The guest on this episode of the Startup Savants podcasts has been Alisa Pospekhova, founder and CEO of Kindroot. Pospekhova reminisces about the long, arduous route to getting her startup off the ground. The company provides health-conscious consumers with adaptogen lozenges that help the body de-stress. Pospekhova describes her journey as a part-time entrepreneur and discusses some of the obstacles she has had to overcome. Listen to more episodes of Startup Savants podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts for more startup stories, entrepreneur advice, and industry insights.