Albert Matheny was a college athlete when he noticed the disconnect between nutrition supplements and farm fresh ingredients. To solve this problem, he used his food science background to startPromix. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Albert shares how he differentiates his products in a saturated market and what his ideal tech stack includes to optimize for subscriptions, communition, and reviews.
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From registered dietician to successful business owner
Felix: The idea behind the business all came from your own personal need. Tell us more about that. What was that?
Albert: Short story was I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. I was into athletics my whole life, and ended up running track and field at the University of Florida. During my time there I studied exercise physiology and food science. I graduated with an undergraduate and graduate degree in exercise physiology, kinesiology, and a degree in food science from nutrition.
I continued that path and got my licensure as a registered dietician. I really wanted to understand every aspect of food nutrition and its role in human performance. I competed in the USA triathlon for a bit after that. I was serving a need for myself and then started working with some teammates and it grew from there.
Felix: Tell us more about the first creations that you were making. What were you making for yourself exactly?
Albert: Florida it’s the home of Gatorade. Gainesville is a relatively small town. It’s got a great set of sports teams and then Gatorade is like a big beacon out of Gainesville. I was always inspired by Gatorade, it’s a good example of where people fit in the direct to consumer landscape.
Gatorade’s now part of PepsiCo, so they’ve definitely changed their formula and different things over the years. They focus on different aspects of their business. When I looked at the ingredients that are in their products I thought I could do a better job in utilizing what I knew from the science side.
One of my professors had actually been at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, so I tried to basically make the new version of Gatorade initially. It was a carbohydrate type beverage. I was an endurance athlete, so I was really focused on that market. Then protein was another thing. There were other proteins on the market, but nobody had that clean of a formula.
My concept was: why is what I cook for myself at home different from what I take when I’m competing or my supplements. I basically took the same ideas you have around what makes a great product from a farmers market, and applied that to supplements.
Felix: It started off as a project for yourself. You said you also had teammates, were they also trying it out as well?
Albert: At first if you’re trying something new you give yourself, you tweak it a little bit till you’re like, okay, this is not bad. That’s basically how it started. I brought it to practice, had people try it to see what they thought. From there we were using it and other people started using it and then I just said, well, I think I could turn this into something more than just for me and my friends.
Don’t underestimate the “simple” things
Felix: What did the evolution from a personal use product, to a business look like?
Albert: When I first started out I didn’t have a lot of business mentors in my life per se, but I had read some books and I was of the philosophy that I really wanted to work in every position within the company in order to know how to run a great business.
When I started I set up my own production facility from the ground up. I walked into a local coffee roaster and said, “Hey, if I go through all the applications and procedures and set everything up properly can I run production for my products in the evening?” They had the same packaging equipment.
I didn’t know how else to do it. 2011 was a completely different landscape. It’s much easier to launch products now, there’s tons of co-packers and all these different things out there for people to resource. The internet’s a lot more developed in terms of finding companies and things. That market has boomed recently, but when I started out it wasn’t something that you could just Google.
That’s how it started, and that has really helped me. One, when you build something from the ground up and you’re actually packaging the products yourselves you learn all the aspects of it. Not only from how to do it right, but what can go wrong and the costs involved.
Felix: What were some of the key learnings from that experience that you decided to apply moving forward?
Albert: Yeah. I mean, there were some practical learnings like the basic side. Anyone that is an entrepreneur going into business–whatever you’re selling–you just learn some things along the way. You start to realize there can be a lot more complexity to things, the things that look simple such as why a box is sized in such a way or a bag is like this.
You run into problems with the type of packaging materials you’re using. The ecosystem that exists now wasn’t there, so I was looking for coffee bags and things. Now there’s tons of suppliers that specialize in protein bags and containers or whatever you need. I learned a lot from the manufacturing side of things, but then a bigger picture too is realizing the time it takes to do those different aspects, thinking how to do it at scale.
When you’re working all the different roles you start to break down, okay, where’s my time going? Am I spending all this time shipping products or in packaging? How can I outsource this and start to focus on what’s next and how to grow? You really learn by doing and you start to see where your time went, and if you want to grow the business, where your time needs to be focused. If you’re just doing repetitive tasks that aren’t really scaling then you’re going to run out of hours in the day.
A key philosophy in business: Wear all the hats at least once
Felix: You mentioned that you wanted to be someone that can work and understand every position, what other roles did you take on to make sure you had a better understanding as you were building your business?
Albert: If you really want to make something unique or different, I’d try to break down every component and ask yourself “why?” Even today, I don’t want to make a product that somebody else could easily replicate. I want to make sure I’m offering something different. It’s the best product on the market for that consumer or whatever it is.
Felix: How do you make sure you stand out and differentiate yourself in the market?
Albert: That’s a great question. That is something I’ve seen over the years–and I think you see it in everything–the market evolves. Obviously, if you’re going to stand out, you have to have a special product in some way. When I first started on the market I can genuinely say that when you said grass fed whey protein in 2011 nobody knew what that was. Grass fed was a term that was pretty delegated to things like farmers markets, and you would go to mainstream grocery stores. That was not something that was a focus back in that time period.
Over the years that became more mainstream and it’s almost table stakes now for a premium protein product to have some identity around sourcing, ethics or production. As far as differentiating, just constantly evolving and saying, “how can I make this product better?” You can look at that from a lot of different angles, from an ingredient side, from a production side, packaging, shipping, even environmental impact. Always keep in mind, where can I improve in all the different aspects, customer experience, whatever it is.
Felix: When you see all these ways to make your product better how do you know which ones to focus on?
Albert: People have different takes on this, and I love to read about other entrepreneurs’ success and try to learn from them. People go two different routes. You either go “I know what’s best for the customer” or you go “I’m going to listen to the customers and build what they want.” It’s really a mix. The most successful products I’ve had have been something that I really believed in.
For me it’s easy because I’m really passionate specifically about what I’m doing. I care about these products, so I’m always paying attention to things, reading things, and being aware of where health trends are going. I think about where the ball is going to be next and why does that matter? I don’t listen so much to the consumer feedback, because if you’re trying to get ahead the consumers aren’t even asking for what is next–they don’t know it’s an option.
You need to look at different industries and say, wow, that’s really cool what they’re doing in, let’s say furniture. Ask yourself, “Can I apply that to my industry, why isn’t what I’m doing doing that?” That’s how I’ve approached trying to stay ahead. Focus on what you really believe in, what you’re passionate about, and then learn from other areas and try to iterate in a way that no one is even asking for.
Follow trends outside your industry to spark innovation
Felix: Do you have any examples of evolutions that you’ve made in your business with this mindset of looking forward and innovating?
Albert: As far as where to look for inspiration I really do try to look outside of whatever industry you’re in, look outside of there. It becomes an echo chamber. I would say rarely are big brands doing the new things. You certainly see that in a big way in the marketplace in terms of big brands buying little brands because the little brands are doing something more niche or innovative or different.
You are betting on what seems like a small addressable market. When you start to think about the bigger business picture of things is the total addressable market or TAM. If you’re trying to address the biggest market you’re probably not making something unique. The innovation occurs when you identify what will be a new addressable market, who are these people? They’re going to want something. You create this thing and then it–in some ways–creates a market.
Obviously, if you totally create the market, say like an Uber or something then you’re a genius. Awesome, you’re probably crushing it, but I think there’s a lot of ways that you can just say, all right, well, what’s something I can do to take this up a notch? Look at what’s available and say, how do I take this thing that’s a 10 and make it an 11? It doesn’t have to be something more premium, it can be an innovation in a different area.
Looking at your business and saying, if it’s this T-shirt maybe it’s not about buying the more expensive material. Maybe it’s like how are you shipping the product that’s different? How is the customer experience different or the social experience or whatever it is.
Look at other industries. T-shirts are a great one in terms of the market. A lot of people can make T-shirts, so if you are differentiating yourself it’ll more likely be a brand thing or a component of your brand that really makes it stand out. It can be something really small that seems niche, but if you’re going to gain traction initially and not just spend tons of money on marketing you should be niche, that’s how you’re going to get found.
Don’t be afraid to go after something that you really believe in. If you do a great job with it you’re going to get found that way, you’re not going to rank number one on Google the first day but if you do something that’s unique somebody’s going to find that.
Building a brand baked with integrity and an authentic story
Felix: Can you call out some improvements that you’ve made for your brand that you feel has separated you the most from the competitors?
Albert: One thing that I’m working on everyday, but is really a little bit about what I try to bring to the brand, is I’ve spent my whole professional life in nutrition. I have a gym in New York, I’ve trained people for 10 plus years, I studied all this stuff for many years and I’m an athlete as well. I really do try to live and breathe it and stay up on everything that’s happening.
For me that’s a point of differentiation for Promix. I can bring that to the table while interacting with customers. I still answer customer emails. I still help people with their nutrition. I know that other brands out there are not getting that level of customer service or personal attention.
Shout out to my partner Devin. He is an athlete and just a great community leader. He and my other buddy, Chris, do a great job interacting with a really authentic community. They go out and reach out to trainers and work with people with high integrity. It’s a real partnership. They value the brand, because part of the differentiation has been finding individuals that really represent our brand well with high integrity. If you can create a brand that people want to be associated with it’s going to tell an authentic story.
“If you can create a brand that people want to be associated with it’s going to tell an authentic story.”
Anytime I’ve tried to say, can I scale this in an impersonal way, can I hire an agency to do this or do that, you’re going to get a pretty generic response. Especially in a market like nutrition products. It’s fairly simple to get started with a nutrition company, similar to a T-shirt company, for example but to stand out is difficult.
If you just take white label products, white label services and everything you’re not going to have success. You really do need to address your business from those initial core points all the way up the chain. If you can find really great people to work with then you can start to scale it, but definitely do everything yourself initially so you get a sense of it and you have your hand on it.
The secret sauce: Distinguishing your brand from competitors
Felix: You mentioned that one of the best ways to innovate and to improve the business is to identify these new addressable markets. Can you say more about that? What do you look for?
Albert: You have to look outside the industry that you’re in, whatever that is. You have to say what’s already going on in your industry is exactly that. It’s already happening in your industry. Someone that is in your market is already doing something if you see them do it. You need to synthesize for yourself what is happening outside of there that hasn’t happened in your industry and say, “I’m going to bring that to my industry.”
If it’s nutrition–maybe you’re somehow connecting telehealth, you look at a company like Hims who has done an amazing job. Their marketing was amazing, they’ve obviously done extremely well. Maybe you look at that and say, “hey, no one is doing that in beauty, can I take some learnings from Hims and apply it to beauty in a certain niche of the beauty market?”
That’s a really cool way to meet other entrepreneurs and have great conversations. If you’re functioning in a different market you just have a different element. It’s a different world or a different echo chamber of like, “oh, everyone’s doing this in hair care products.” Then somebody from the nutrition market might be like, oh, that’s a great idea, I’d never thought about that. Then you can innovate in that area.
Felix: Once you’ve identified these different ways to innovate or differentiate how do you make those differentiators clear to distinguish you from your competitors?
Albert: A big thing is simplicity. I’ve learned that over the years. For anyone that is good at a certain area–whatever it might be–if you’re good in the gym or the classroom or you’re a good sailor, a great soccer player. Whatever it might be. Language and skills around that are really second nature to you.
If you’re talking to other people in those same areas everything seems obvious, but I think in the marketing side if you identify some unique propositions that you have for customers or unique values that your brand has and then make those really, really clear and simple. Don’t try to highlight too many different things.
It’s like consistency in something like McDonald’s. What you can learn from them is they’re definitely not the best, but they’re really consistent. People know what they’re going to get and they know what McDonald’s is and what that stands for and what your brand is. That’s a huge thing. If you identify something that’s unique about your brand that needs to be central and core to your brand, and make that the message that customers hear and they know, “okay, Promix stands for no artificial anything.” It’s a simple, digestible thing that speaks to a lot of different values.
Using Amazon to validate–and then drive customers to–your site
Felix: Outside of friends and colleagues, how were you able to gain traction in your early days?
Albert: This was back in 2011, I’m sorry if I don’t know the exact launch date of Shopify, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. I wasn’t on a Shopify store and Amazon was our main channel. That was a great place to learn, and I think it’s still a great place to learn. There’s no doubt that I prefer selling on Shopify, the connection you have with your customers there and everything is amazing, but as far as market learning, if you’re going to launch a Shopify store you can learn a ton from Amazon. It’s like a search directory for products. If you have a product idea and you search it on Amazon and you don’t see it there, maybe that’s an interesting thing to pursue. It can validate a market idea.
If you can see on Amazon that there’s demand for this by reading reviews and you can see people obviously don’t like an aspect of it, then you improve on that. Early on I got traction on Amazon because I was niched and people were searching there.
Amazon–even more so now–has such a large set of eyes on it that if you can earn customers on Amazon, if you can get their attention, validate a market, those customers may end up buying from you directly because a lot of people prefer to transact directly with the shop. Maybe you’re offering them more personalized service or just a better customer experience. Initial traction for me came from being in a niche market on Amazon where there’s a high volume of customers getting a brand established there.
You definitely don’t want to be just another brand on Amazon, you need to have your own brand because ultimately you don’t own that customer set. If you can get traction on Amazon and then build a brand that lives outside of just a transaction on a website through a social community then you’ll be able to transition that momentum over to Shopify and then really grow a business.
Felix: You get to build the relationship on these marketplaces first, and then eventually they seek you out. Is that what you’re doing today as well or are there other methods that you’re using to bring in new customers?
Albert: Nowadays we’ve gotten a good amount of traction on both platforms. We still work with both, and there’s different reasons people like one platform or the other. Amazon is just really convenient for people. Shopify gives you that direct relationship with the customer. Customers sometimes value that a little bit more than their convenience or they might have other reasons to buy direct.
Nowadays we’re really focused on the brand outside of the sales channels. We know that people fall in love with the brand or understand what the brand is about–understand what problem it solves for them. Typically that’s happening through social media where they see people that are thought of as leaders in that space. Be specific about the area that you’re in.
“Just working with some social creator that has a ton of followers isn’t going to move the needle for you the way you think it might.”
Just working with some social creator that has a ton of followers isn’t going to move the needle for you the way you think it might. They need to have–and this may be obvious–but they need to have the audience that is going to buy your product. That’s an area where I’ve been fortunate. I work in the nutrition and training industry and so all my friends are these people. If we work with them they’re people who we have a good relationship with, and the people that follow them are following them for their fitness and nutrition content. They believe what they’re doing and they follow them. If they make a recommendation then it does convert.
Using setbacks to optimize and inform your strategy
Felix: We spoke briefly before about how working with the wrong people can really set you back. Do you have any insight or experiences on this?
Albert: One thing I mentioned earlier was definitely if you try to just outsource things, you don’t really know where you want to put your focus and energy, and you’re trying to solve a problem but you don’t really research it for yourself and think, “okay, does this really matter for my business,” then you’re going to end up spending not only a lot of money on things but just a lot of time.
To work with an agency, for whatever it might be–if it’s ad creative or anything like that–it takes a huge amount of time, and that’s time that you’re not putting into something else. Make sure you’re doing the basics and try to do as much as you can. Get somebody in to work on it, yourself if you can, or work with someone individually. In the world of marketing you can spend a lot of money, but if you aren’t really driving the boat you’re not going to get the results you hope for. I’ve never seen that work out.
Felix: What are some of the experiences you’ve learned from working on the wrong project?
Albert: Here’s a basic rule of business that I would say is, the dream business is having one SKU and you just sell a ton of it. That’s the dream. Every time you add a new product, you add complexity to your business.
If you have success with one thing–especially early on–you should really try to make that thing more successful, because very few people have hit after hit. If you end up having a hit and you’re like, “wow, people are really liking this, it’s going really well,” 100% I would say focus on doing more of that. Take that and run with it as long as you can. Don’t just go wide initially. Just because you made an awesome hat doesn’t mean your customers want a shirt or that you can make an awesome shirt.
That’s the beauty of the internet, the scaling aspect. If you have something that is really connecting with people you should 100% focus your time and energy on that instead of saying, “I’m going to try and service all these needs from the customer.” From my own experience I’ve taken something that’s a passion of mine but is not squarely in my differentiated skill set. I made chocolate bars at one point. They’re amazing chocolate bars, people love them, but am I the best person to make chocolate? Is that really a differentiated point for my brand? Is that really something my customers want, do they think of my brand as Promix the chocolate brand? I don’t think so.
You have to have an unbelievable amount of scale before you go wide like that. I would say stay narrow if something’s working, really run with it, and just stay in the areas where you’re like I know I can do this better than anyone else. If you can, if there’s any opportunities, especially early on with perishable products or whatever, you can get burned really quickly on shelf life. It’s great if you can put all that in your head and think about how much it costs to store something. Is this product going to go bad? Am I going to have a loss? You really do have to account for all that stuff early on, so don’t go bigger earlier, just build over time if you can.
The case for prioritizing depth over breadth in product development
Felix: It’s an interesting approach: doublinging down on one success rather than trying to expand or add to the product line. How did you decide on this strategy?
Albert: Understand the kind of business person you are. A lot of people are creative or passionate about something, and that’s why they get into it, but, like you said, you may really just like to make products and do different things. If you keep that mindset and you don’t evolve it you’re going to run into the problem of going wide and not focusing on what’s working.
For some people, that might mean you need to find a partner or someone that has a different mindset that comes in and says, “Well, I’m just very analytical, this is selling really well, why aren’t you just focused on this, why are we trying to do a new product? It should just be all energy here.” That’s especially important from a basic economic standpoint when you’re a newer brand starting out, unless you took in funding.
If you’re growing and you’re growing fast you’re probably investing 100% of what you made back into your business and going wide. Another thing to think about is if you go wide you’re not going to have a quick cash flow cycle, which does become very important.
Say you’re selling a ton of one unit. You’re putting 100% back into that, maybe you have a little bit left over and you’re like, I want to try this new product. The new product is probably not going to get a huge velocity like that first product did. Now you’ve tied up that cash. Your other product’s going faster and now you just spent that little bit of extra cash that you could have doubled down on, on your other product.
That’s something to look out for. I’ve definitely made that mistake. As far as what I have done to focus on doing more of what’s working is just limiting myself. Saying, “hey, you just have to remind yourself every day if you’re a creative person don’t go wide, how can you improve what is working?” Maybe you can’t improve the core product itself, but maybe you can know every part of your business and look at other areas.
We just made a packaging update that I’ve been working on for almost a year and a half. It’s a 97% plastic free package. That was an area where I said, “I’ve made the best product, it’s a simple, clean protein, how can I make this better?” I’ve dabbled in different packaging things and I knew I could innovate on a new package. I wanted it to be something that no one else was doing.
Maybe it’s for your business package, maybe it’s you calling customers, maybe it’s you sending them a note or you have an amazing website or you crush it on social media. Whatever it is, if you’re doing something that’s working, focus on it and then see where all the other parts in that chain that the customer touches you can improve upon.
Boil down touch-points and simplify messaging to optimize your website
Felix: Talk to us about some of the changes that you guys have made to the website that have had the biggest impact on sales.
Albert: Definitely simplicity. It’s the same message as the physical product side. Think about your digital product. People are increasingly less focused, and they want what they want quickly. They need to understand what you’re about, especially if they’re a new customer, immediately. That’s even more important if you’re trying to run ads or anything like that.
The immediate awareness of what you’re offering, how it’s different. If you just think about how, you have word of mouth and you and I are talking and we’re like, wow, have you tried these shoes, they’re awesome. Then you go to the website, maybe you’re a little bit more engaged because your buddy Albert said, “Hey, Felix, these shoes are great.” You’re willing to spend more time, and maybe the website’s not perfect because it’s some new brand and you poke around and you finally get a product.
If you’re advertising and there’s no strong referral like a friend of a friend, if you don’t get what the product is immediately and how it’s different and better you’re going to bounce. With the website it’s been refining the message and making it very clear about what you’re offering to the customer. You need to break down your website from different touch points–copy, to images, to overall user experience and how the site is organized. I have a hand in all that stuff. Shout out to Juan, Sunny and Ryan, who are amazing. If you can improve any of those points it makes a difference. Maybe you took some photos a while ago, if you can improve those photos, it’ll make a difference.
It doesn’t mean you should invest tons of money early on. I certainly did not. I fully bootstrapped the business, and I certainly didn’t have great photos when I first started. It was me taking photos and cropping out the background and things like that. As you grow your business or if you start out with a very limited selection of products, put a lot of effort into all those touch points because it makes a difference.
Make your value proposition very clear–your story, what you’re selling, who you are, what it is– and then just try to take all those things that are like, hey, this looks good to, hey, this looks great from copy to organization, etc.
The game changing web feature this brand built into its site
Felix: One of the main things that stood out to me about the site was the protein calculator. Tell us about where the idea for that came from.
Albert: That was one that I had been working at with a SEO firm. They had been giving me all sorts of recommendations. From a purely technical perspective if you have no background in web design or anything like that, but if you work with a reasonably good developer, they probably have some sense of SEO. This was a completely non agency generated idea. This was something that we took from a separate industry.
As a trainer and a dietitian the number one question I had people ask me was like, “Oh, what do I eat, how much protein do I need?” I identified protein as a huge thing, and this is not sales, this is totally as a dietician speaking without selling any product goals. If people understand and intake the correct amount of protein they generally are going to have better energy, they’re going to feel better, they’re going to eat “better” throughout the day.
I saw a huge need that needed to be addressed, that I could address uniquely with my skills. I just built that from the ground up, and it’s selling really well. I also love to educate people. That goes back to what is something that you or your brand can do that other people can’t? That’s an area that I know well, so I just needed to say I’m going to showcase this. It wasn’t like I had a big plan around it, or I had been like, oh, this is going to be a huge driver. It was very specific problem solving of something that I’d seen repeatedly with training clients and thought, “hey, I think this would be helpful for people.”
Ultimately, if you are trying to think of products or ways to improve things, if you can look at something and say, “I think this is really going to help people.” It’s probably going to sell well too and really help your business. If you apply that framework to things like, “does this really help solve a problem for people?” Especially nowadays–think about the internet–it’s got to solve problems quickly. If the protein calculator can say, “hey, Felix, this is how much protein you need.” And be specific, don’t water stuff down. I definitely made that much more in depth than I thought people would care about. I just wanted to put everything I can into making this as good as I can and as accurate as I can and not water it down.
You think about big brands and they try to do a one size fits all. Again, know that it’s okay to get specific–there is a big enough market for you. If you do whatever, if you’re making shoes for tango and that’s all you do, that’s not a small market. You can be really specific.
Go with tried-and-true when it comes to your tech stack
Felix: What kind of apps or tools do you rely on to keep the business going?
Albert: The same idea with where do you get ideas for how to make innovative products. If you look at other brands in or outside your industry it can be really helpful. Go to other brands, and you can look at what other apps they’re running, that has been really helpful.
The best thing I did was think about brands that you actually transact with and you’re like, “Why do I like this brand or what are they doing?” Just look at what apps they’re using. One of my favorite apps is called Segments. It’s a more advanced app. And I’m certainly not the most data driven person out there, but if you have people on your team that are good with that, Segments is a great app, and shout out to John at Segments, it’s a great company. They actually care. They’ll talk to you and help you through your stuff.
Klaviyo. We had MailChimp for a few years and then getting someone that can actually help you build out Klaviyo. If you’re running your business, and you’re a small team–which I think most people are when they start out–know where you’re good at things and know where you’re not. I’m not going to be coding something. Can I write a copy for an email? Yeah, but do I know how to manage all these apps to their full potential? No. A lot of the apps can do some amazing things, don’t be afraid to bring people on for that.
The Shopify reviews app is great, it works like a loyalty rewards type program. Smile is one that we use that I’ve liked but when you think about bringing some stability to your business if you’re in the business of a recurring type subscription like a loyalty program or subscription type app is super helpful to give you a baseline and from projecting production volumes and things, but really to build loyal consumers.
If you have aspirations for your business in the future, whether it’s to continue to grow or you’re trying to eventually sell it to someone, the subscription component is something that you can’t ever start early enough. It’s a great base that people care about.
Felix: What’s next for Promix? Where will you be focusing moving forward?
Albert: In general, finding balance in life. That’s a really broad answer, but I think if anyone is building their own business you should be fully involved and you should probably spend an inordinate amount of time on it. Finding a balance and working with really great people who you enjoy working with, you will have better results if you really enjoy working with them and they’re on the same wavelength.
I really do try to improve Promix everyday. I want to be the best out there in the industry and touch wherever the customer touches.