On Wednesday, September 20, Kat Cole, president and COO of Athletic Greens, spoke to 19 CEL Venture Accelerator students via Google Meet about her entrepreneurial journey and fielded questions about her path to becoming a global entrepreneur by the time she was 20.
What is Athletic Greens?
Athletic Greens (AG1) is the fastest-growing nutrition company in the world. It’s one product (a vitamin powder) and it’s only sold in one place: online. Sometimes AG1 has pop-ups in wellness centers or boutique stores, but their bread and butter is the online market. AG1 is a very simple product yet a massive company; a global (across 36 countries), climate-neutral (most employees are remote with no central hub) e-commerce company, a 12-year-old company. Cole started with AGI two years ago and was hired mostly for her background.
A quick rundown of Cole's early life
Before joining AG1 as its president, Cole was the COO of Focus Brands, a multi-franchise company that has over 5 billion in sales and not only deals with restaurant chains and brick-and-mortar food stores (Schlotzsky's, Carvel, Cinnabon, Moe's Southwest Grill, McAlister's Deli, Auntie Anne's and Jamba brands) but also has frozen foods, bakery, spices, etc. She led a lot of those efforts.
When she was 31 years old, she took a job at Cinnabon during the recession. The brand was beloved, but the business was in trouble. Her job was to turn around the franchise business and launch new businesses (new products and innovations, i.e. nontraditional expansion that helped them grow and generate business and revitalize their brick-and-mortar look). With her help, Cinnabon made different products inspired by the original, massive cinnamon bun to help grow revenue. It was a mature brand that needed to be updated and modernized within today’s market.
Growing Up as a “Worker”
Growing up, Cole worked various jobs to help support her single mom and two sisters. She says, “It was cool and made me feel grown up, but it was also essential for what my family needed.”
When she had trouble paying for college, she decided to put it on hold so she could continue to work. At the age of 20, she moved to Atlanta. “I was VP of a company at the age of 26.” Because she told herself she always would, she went back to get her master's in international business (on nights and weekends). She has been an angel investor to over 70 early-stage businesses. She has a passion for health and wellness. Her life is filled with a lot of work around entrepreneurship and lots of time spent being healthy (she loves the outdoors with her family, as well as being an ultimate athlete).
Student Question: Who is the target market for AG1?
It’s “quite broad,” she says. “AG1 is a comprehensive nutrition product, a full stack multivitamin, probiotic, and nutrition supplement. Before you can detail who is your target customer, you have to articulate the problem in their lives and understand how your product is meeting their needs. Can they afford or can they see the value? Then yes that’s my target audience. Athletes (20+) end up being in our target market and older people (45+) who lack nutrition, need this in their diet, and can afford it.” Beyond that, she explains, her market has to be willing to shop online and subscribe to the product. “I like to attack this question by starting with the problem. This affects your marketing strategy, your marketing channels, and it will affect your content,” she said to a wide-eyed audience of students. She finds content that can relate to people who are her end customers.
Student Question: What are some of the key traits that you look for in an entrepreneurial team when taking them on to invest or as a mentor?
Cole says frankly, “Resilience and grit. There’s a saying that ‘ideas are cheap’ and you need someone to do the work.” She explains that any seasoned entrepreneur wasn’t “big-time” from the beginning. She looks to see how gritty can a new business person be when things fail. They have to keep going and stay positive to keep going. Are they more obsessed with the customer rather than their own idea? “You can’t let your own idea get in the way of growth and change,” she says.
Fun fact: the first Cinnabon had raisins in it and half the customers didn’t want raisins. They didn’t have enough revenue to make both, so they decided to take the raisins out of the recipe even though the founder was upset because he loved raisins. “He knew that he had to take out the raisins to make the business grow and make his customers happy,” Cole recalls.
Student Question: What was Being on the TV Show “Undercover Boss” Like?
”It was awesome. I don’t know if I would do it again now, but will say it was super fun and it was hard work.” She explains that the show was real, unscripted, and they filmed for 15 days at 15 hours a day. That’s how long she was on camera and it was cut down to 42 minutes. “What you’re seeing is like what you see on social media — clips cut down to make it the most dramatic, cut together different days with different reactions to make me look like a dramatic person,” she remembers. But that’s what makes the show compelling. “It was very good for business, it drove sales, and the business benefited from me putting myself out there.” She concludes with a lesson in being “on camera” that the idea of what we see on social media or TV is not what the reality of a show is/was/actually happens.
Thanks to Kat Cole for kicking off our Upper School entrepreneurial speaker series this fall. We are looking forward to hearing more life lessons and infinite tips of wisdom from those who have lived through successes (and failures!).