Monday, March 21, 2011
Interview with Gordon Gould, SmartyPants Vitamins
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
What do children's vitamins and social media have to do with one another? In the case of SmartyPants Vitamins (www.wearesmartypants.com), it's at the core of the company. Gordon Gould, the co-founder of SmartPants, talks about the company and how it's applying what he learned founding ThisNext and from a long experience in the social media market to the consumer products goods area--what he describes as Brands 2.0.
First, talk about what SmartPants Vitamins are?
Gordon Gould: SmartPants is an all-in-one gummy vitamin. Our first product is for kids, and is a super-premium product which is unique, in that it combines a full multivitamin, eco-friendly Omega-3s from small fish sources, for nutritional and environmental reasons, with 100 percent vitamin D, a key nutrient that 75 percent of American kids are deficient in. There's a real need for what we're doing, and we're super committed to a high quality product produced here in California. We give it to our own kids. The reason we made it, is we were looking around to give nutritional supplements to our kids, who--even though we worked on them super hard to eat their veggies and fish--are, in reality, kdis, who won't always eat them. It's very difficult to get the RDA of various nutrients through diet alone. Plus, nutritional supplements are a great business opportunity, and an opportunity to build a brand and do some good. Every time we sell a bottle, we make a matching nutrient grant to someone in need.
Your background is Internet services – how’d you decide to instead sell what seems like a more traditional product?
Gordon Gould: I've been doing social media and digital media for some 16 years--a long time. As you know, a lot of what is involved in social and digital media is figuring out how to build brands, and help brands reach an audience in the interactive world. I've been doing that, and building the tools and networks for those brands for a long time, but I wanted to try my hand at an actual, physical product. I saw that there was a real maturation in the marketplace of the toolsets, and the cultural willingness to embrace products online. However, I saw that the people building traditional products were still not familiar with the social web. There was a real opportunity for me to arbitrage the last decade and a half of my experience in the Internet, and apply that to a products company, and to get some real competitive advantage.
For example, some of my biggest competitors--such as Flintstones vitamins--have been around for 40 years, have virtually no web presence, and a PageRank of 2. None of our competitors have a Facebook presence, and few even sell direct. I felt that given people are moving more and more to online shopping, and that for products like gummy vitamins, which parents will be giving their kids to eat, an ingestible, they want to research those products online. I knew how to build compelling content online, and to spread the word online. I felt we could really tell a brand story, about our depth of commitment to quality, the environment, and a product that tastes really good. We're able to build out a brand story, which is not possible when you're just dealing with store shelves at Whole Foods.
All of our competitors are focused on being on shelves, and they don't get the web in any meaningful way. We feel we've build, from the ground up, an internet brand. We're building our distribution online, building a direct relationship with customers, and it's something both super fun to do and has a clear business model and product. We've got a very defensible position, as a result.
It seems like you've almost created a hybrid between an Internet company and a consumer products company?
Gordon Gould: I like to think of it as Brand 2.0. The first generation of brands were build using SuperBowl ads, but I think the next great brands will emerge online. If you look where people are spending their time right now, and if you look at how they buy products, a huge percentage are researching online before buying--around 86 percent. Having a strong presence online and strong, positive word of mouth in a relevant audience is a real competitive advantage. Our revenue source comes from selling a product, but our brand creation, and the asset we're building is really the mindshare of the web-savvy, mommy bloggers, and the millions of moms following them and Facebook groups online. Yes, we have a physical product and a crossover, but it's not just slapping a web site on a consumer products good. That's not how we think about it.
Has it been difficult having to deal with a physical product?
Gordon Gould: Yes. It turns out that it's very easy to make a crappy vitamin, but it's very difficult to make a high quality one. You and I are from a web background, and usually, when you run into problem--if you're not asking for something unreasonable like artificial intelligence--there is always a way to write some software, or put together a workaround to deal with the issue. In contrast, when you're making a vitamin, there are certain things that just don't go together. For example, if you put fish oil with copper, you oxidize the copper, and that's that. It's molecules, and chemistry, and that's just the way it is. Those were challenging to solve, and are now solved and we've got a great product. It was also interesting to go through an FDA approval process. And then, there is the back end logistics, things like managing inventory. I have never had to deal with moving items around before, which is quite interesting. Fortunately, my partner and co-CEO Courtney Nichols, has a background in that. She was the COO of CLEAR, the airport passenger security firm, and is super great at brand building and also the actual operations side. We're a good pair in that regard.
Your last venture was venture backed--how about this time?
Gordon Gould: We have some angels. I'm speaking to you from our world headquarters, which is also my living room. We live in Venice, and our back house is sort of our operations center. We're working out off of my dining room table. It's definitely the classic bootstrap in that regard, we're definitely not living large. We will be doing a venture round. There are VCs interested in this area -- you might have seen Bonobos, which just raised $18M for doing men's pants online. I think VCs are seeing that this is the next way to create and build brands, by launching them online, even though they are physical products.
What are your biggest challenges, and what are you planning next?
Gordon Gould: We sell on Amazon, and interestingly, one of the things we found out was that there is a lack of information out there about that. It surprises me, but which I think will ultimately prove to be a competitive advantage to us, is there is a relatively paucity of information out there about effectively promoting your products on Amazon. If you want read about SEO, there are probably 30 million pages on the web about that. However, if you try to find something good quality about how to build traffic on Amazon, through internal intra-Amazon SEO, how to position yourself on Google's searches on Amazon, and how to get into product feeds--there is very little information, relatively speaking. A lot of that information is obtuse. Coming from a web background, spending 16 years in it, I've found it's really difficult to find information--I can only imagine the difficulty of people who are used to shipping products to supermarkets, and the problems they have. They might not even know how to ask the right questions. Our example, is we launched January 3rd of this year--just a couple of months ago. There are 664 products in the children's vitamin area. We went from a brand new brand, to the top 10, and number 1 for a number of days on Amazon. We're really trying to leverage that, and get ahead of the game on Amazon. We're crushing it in our category, and are expanding into new categories, and will be launching new products around that. We're learning more about how Google Shopping works, and looking to dominate there. And we're looking to build more content and a community around what we're doing. It's really exciting, and we're fired up.