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Zevia’s Paddy Spence: “Sugar budget”

Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, has said “you’re not the CEO of your family,” which is one of my favorite quotes. Seth has identified the Achilles heel of so many leaders — that we think our success in one specific area makes us experts at life — and counsels that we instead try and be better listeners and […]

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Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, has said “you’re not the CEO of your family,” which is one of my favorite quotes. Seth has identified the Achilles heel of so many leaders — that we think our success in one specific area makes us experts at life — and counsels that we instead try and be better listeners and teammates.

The concept of being “1% better each week” is one that I’ve learned from athletes I’ve worked with. Very few people can succeed in any field based on talent; instead, it’s grinding work and gradual improvement that help us evolve to be our best.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paddy Spence.

Paddy Spence is a 28-year veteran of the natural/organic industry, having served as Kashi’s first head of sales and marketing before founding SPINS, the leading market research firm for the natural products industry. Cutting out sugar 19 years ago led him to purchase Zevia in 2010, a line of zero calorie sodas with no artificial sweeteners. Zevia has grown rapidly and is now distributed in more than 30,000 retail outlets across the US and Canada.

From 2005 to 2009, Mr. Spence was President of Levlad, a personal care manufacturer known for its natural brand Nature’s Gate.

In 1995, he founded SPINS to introduce sophisticated marketing information services to the rapidly growing health and wellness industry. Spence served as the company’s Chief Executive Officer for eight years, tracking the sales of more than 300,000 natural and organic products, before selling SPINS to private investors in 2004.

Prior to founding SPINS, Mr. Spence served as the first Vice President, Sales & Marketing for the Kashi Company from 1992 to 1995, a manufacturer of natural cereals based in La Jolla, California. He has also held positions at Harvard Business School’s Division of Research, the Center for Leadership and Career Studies at Emory University and United Parcel Service’s International Marketing department.

Mr. Spence holds an A.B. magna cum laude from Harvard College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters and is an avid athlete, having completed over 40 triathlons and trained in martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, Shotokan Karate and Muay Thai kickboxing.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

From childhood, I was interested in operating a business. My first job was a newspaper delivery route when I was 10, and in junior high I started a landscaping company with my best friend that we operated through high school. We got connected early on with the local gardening club, and from that point on, had a steady supply of clients who needed assistance weeding, planting, etc.

During this time, I was also becoming interested in nutrition and active lifestyles. My mother was a natural foods shopper, and so I thought it was normal to have homemade granola and yogurt for breakfast, or steamed tofu for dinner. In the late 1970s, the study of sports nutrition was becoming popular, and I was exposed to dietary supplements like bee pollen and brewer’s yeast. In addition, my family was active, and I competed in a range of endurance sports, including triathlons.

In 1992, when I received my MBA, I was eager to learn the key skills and attributes required to grow a business, and so I combined my interest in health and nutrition with my desire for small business experience, and joined Kashi, a startup cereal company in San Diego, California that had, at the time, seven employees and 3 million dollars in annual sales. In that startup environment, I was able to test and learn and better understand what product attributes allowed health foods to effectively cross over into mainstream retail outlets.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Excess sugar consumption has created a global public health crisis, and we are watching younger generations grow up consuming much more sugar than their parents. The World Health Organization recommends that people consume a maximum of 50 grams of added sugar per day, yet a single serve bottle of sugary soda alone often contains more than 70 grams of sugar. The introduction of the “Western diet” has led to increased rates of obesity and diabetes globally, and indigenous populations exposed to this diet have developed similar health issues to their counterparts in the developed world, within the span of a generation.

Amidst these challenges, my company Zevia is seeking to change global public health by providing zero calorie, zero sugar, naturally sweetened beverage alternatives. Since almost half of added sugars come from beverage, simply swapping out sugary beverages for Zevia can cut your sugar intake in half. Furthermore, we’re addressing the sugar consumption challenge via carbonated beverages, a product category that is accessible to people of all income levels. Carbonated soft drinks are one of the least expensive consumer products, even less expensive in most cases than bottled water.

The combination of a disruptive product line (zero calories, zero sugar, naturally sweetened), that tastes great, and is also affordable to all income levels, is a compelling proposition that I think can have a material impact around the world.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Sometimes we all can get a little wrapped up in our own personal mission and lose sight of the fact that others aren’t quite as far along, and the results can be a little awkward. I remember at Kashi, one of my big ideas was to combine the value pricing of a warehouse club, like Costco, with natural foods. So I created a 3-pack of Kashi cereal, for “only” 9.99 dollars, back in 1993. The problem was, Kashi was a tiny brand that few shoppers had heard of, so the “buy more at a great price” pitch didn’t really resonate. We spent a lot of time cutting apart those shrink-wrapped boxes by hand, so they could be sold individually…

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My mother Claire, who has been my greatest inspiration and mentor, first taught me that being a good person is far more important than being successful, and that has been a core value of mine ever since. There have also been a number of other individuals who have shaped the way I approach the world. First, my junior high school teacher, Richard Gill, who introduced me to studying Latin, which I continued for 9 years, ultimately earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. He showed me that even ancient texts in a “dead” language could be relevant to how we think and interact in today’s world.

Then, in my first job after college, I was fortunate to work for Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, now Associate Dean at Yale School of Management. Jeff and I studied corporate cultures and leadership, and in working with him I gained an appreciation for the unique attributes that shape the corporate culture of great companies. We spent a lot of time studying UPS, where I had worked through college, and the egalitarian culture of UPS appealed to me in particular. At that time, prior to its IPO, UPS was one of America’s largest private companies, and virtually all of the senior management team had begun as hourly employees. One of the UPS corporate mottos was “owned by our managers, managed by our owners,” and that focus on employee ownership has been a core principle for me ever since.

Lastly, Jeffrey Ubben, founder of ValueAct Capital, taught me to maintain my convictions, even when things were difficult. Watching Jeff patiently manage challenging investments and guide them to success was a great lesson, and taught me that it’s critical to remain calm, even in a crisis.

And on a daily basis, my wife Jerra is my most important mentor, as my partner and sounding board. Nobody can be successful by themselves, and so it’s critical to seek support from a mentor or partner.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I view disruption as a positive, but only if the net impact of the changes is beneficial. And for many disruptive practices and activities, particularly in business, there is often a short-sighted approach that misses the bigger picture.

For example, plastic as a packaging material for beverages was once viewed as a positive disruption. Today, with hundreds of billions of plastic bottles going into landfills each year, I don’t view that as a positive disruption. Similarly, we can look at innovations from fracking in the energy industry, to the rise of the “gig economy” based on millions of contract workers, and in many cases these innovations are merely shortcuts to greater profits, not practices that provide a net benefit to society.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, has said “you’re not the CEO of your family,” which is one of my favorite quotes. Seth has identified the Achilles heel of so many leaders — that we think our success in one specific area makes us experts at life — and counsels that we instead try and be better listeners and teammates.

The concept of being “1% better each week” is one that I’ve learned from athletes I’ve worked with. Very few people can succeed in any field based on talent; instead, it’s grinding work and gradual improvement that help us evolve to be our best.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Over the past 28 years, I’ve been fortunate to be involved with businesses that are creating better for you alternatives in foods, beverages, personal care and dietary supplements. Going forward, the topic of access is critically important to me: Zevia has shown me that healthier alternatives can still be affordable, and so I want to continue that journey of making better for you products available to shoppers of all income levels.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

As a Classics student, I read Homer’s Odyssey in ancient Greek, and it’s still one of my favorite books. The whole concept of the story is the multi-year journey for Odysseus to return home after the Peloponnesian War, and the lesson is that no amount of time or distance could reduce Odysseus’ focus to return home to his wife. Within that account of his return, we see a hero who relies on his mind, not physical strength, to get through his struggles.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father-in-law Philip Tauber’s maxim “Action alleviates stress” is one that I cite frequently, because it’s human nature to freeze up in challenging or stressful situations. Instead of taking time to worry about the task or challenge ahead, I prefer to jump into the cold water and just start swimming!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My movement would be for each person to do a food journal for a week, and document every food and beverage you consume, then create a plan to reduce your sugar intake. At the suggestion of my wife Jerra, I did this in 2001, and learned to my surprise that I was consuming 250 grams of sugar per day, or 1,000 calories from sugar, all from products that were natural/organic. Since then, we’ve created a “sugar budget” in our household, and that practice has changed our family’s lives.

How can our readers follow you/your company online?

You can learn more about Zevia at www.zevia.com.

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