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Eric Ji Sun Wu is the co-founder of Gainful, a personalized sports nutrition system transforming the way every body can lead an active lifestyle. Gainful’s flagship products are Personalized Protein, Hydration, and Pre-Workout.
Can you tell us a bit about your backstory? What led you to this particular career path?
As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved sports. Growing up in Southern California, there wasn’t a single day that I wasn’t outside — whether that meant playing soccer, swimming, BMX biking,or hiking SoCal’s incredible trails. Being active was never a means to an end, and it wasn’t a choice. It was simply the only way I knew how to live, and I don’t think that will ever change for me.
Sports, of course, were a huge part of my life. In fact, I met my co-founder, Jahaan, when we both made our high school soccer team freshman year. As athletes, we were constantly surrounded by teammates and friends who would finish practice or a gym session and immediately down a protein shake from the local convenience store. For me and Jahaan, the protein shake habit never took hold. That’s because it was clear to us that none of our friends had the slightest idea as to why they were chugging those artificial, sugary protein drinks. Vaguely, it seemed like they wanted to be fit and perform like their favorite sports stars. But, even as teenagers, it seemed silly to me and Jahaan to put any product in our bodies simply because we saw “real athletes” doing it.
Jahaan and I continued playing soccer in college — he at UC Berkeley and I at Georgetown. Remarkably, the feeling we had around protein shakes didn’t change at all, even as we got more serious about our own fitness. The friends and teammates around us began dabbling in pre-workouts, creatine, and other supplements. The brands seemed to get more obnoxiously macho by the day, and the ingredients remained just as shady and unpronounceable as they had been in high school.
When I stopped playing soccer competitively and finally decided to give the world of protein powders a try, it was my senior year at Georgetown. From the instant that I walked into my local supplement store, I felt completely overwhelmed. Staring at a floor-to-ceiling stack of industrial-sized tubs with crazy names, bodybuilder muscles, and holographic labels made my head spin. Moreover, trying to decipher the ingredients and nutrition facts only made matters worse. That day, I went back to my apartment and began researching and buying raw ingredients on Amazon. I began mixing up protein powder formulas in my basement, testing them out on myself and my roommates.
I eventually wound up finding a protein blend that really worked for me. The ingredients were simple, but — for the first time ever — I really understood them. I knew why they were there, and I knew they were right for me. Best of all, I felt good. I called Jahaan to tell him about my little side project. Jahaan was finishing up a full ride at Berkeley studying chemical engineering and computer science. He was, and still is, the smartest guy I know. So, when Jahaan became incredibly excited about my college side project, my gears began turning. He told me that personalized nutrition was the future, and that my side project could absolutely be a fully-fledged business. One thing led to another, and we ended up joining forces. Before I knew it, we were participating in YCombinator — Silicon Valley’s hottest startup accelerator with an acceptance rate of 1% — alongside some of the greatest tech startups in the world.
If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be running the world’s first personalized sports nutrition company, I probably would have laughed. Even during the peak of my (not so notable) sports career, I didn’t know the first thing about performance nutrition. At the end of the day, though, I’m convinced my naivete has been a big reason for Gainful’s success to date. My decades-long distaste for protein powders — and sports nutrition in general — is why I was able to approach personalized nutrition as a completely blank slate. It’s why I’ve been able to put myself in the shoes of the customer that represents the true billion-dollar opportunity in this crowded category of sports nutrition: the everyday athlete who just wants to trust that what they’re putting in their body is right for them.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Personalization touches our lives in so many categories of products, from razors to fashion to shampoo — even your dog’s dinner. Direct-to-consumer brands have done a great job of bringing much-needed personalization to so many products. These brands have also done well for themselves, with more than a few billion dollar valuations. Gainful is the first to bring personalization to sports nutrition — a category that needs personalization more than any other.
That’s because there’s nothing more intimate than the products that you put in your mouth and swallow, and that’s what supplements are. Moreover, these are the products that are supposed to make you feel good, look good, and perform at your very best. It’s almost unthinkable that, up until this point, people have been trying to choose and use these products by walking into their local supplement store and grabbing the shiniest one-size-fits-all product off the shelf.
Lastly, what Gainful is doing is making elite-level personalized nutrition accessible for everyone. The members of Gainful’s Science Advisory Board also happen to be the sports scientists, doctors, performance researchers, and nutrition experts that feed and fuel everyone from NBA Champions to Olympic gold medalists. We rely on our science advisors to bring their expertise to the product formulations and algorithms that power Gainful’s Personalized Protein Powder, Personalized Hydration, and Personalized Pre-Workout (with more to come). With a Gainful subscription, every customer also receives complimentary, unlimited, 1-on-1 access to a Registered Dietitian, who is there to answer any fitness or nutrition-related questions they may have. The science is there, and it’s being used by the world’s best athletes. If you talk to any elite professional athlete, they’ll tell you that everything they receive is personalized — from their training, to their recovery, to their supplements.
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?
When first starting Gainful, I’d constantly experiment with new ingredients to create various protein powder blends. To sweeten one of the initial blends that I developed, I used an extremely powerful (and extremely artificial) sweetener called sucralose. To give you a sense of how potent this stuff is: sucralose is over 500 times sweeter than simple white sugar. In the ultimate rookie move, I effectively “eyeballed” the amount of sucralose in each serving using a kitchen spoon, then invited all of my roommates and friends to my living room for a “taste test.” As you can imagine, it didn’t go over well, and the results of Gainful’s first taste test were effectively useless.
This silly mishap, along with more than a few others, did end up teaching us an important lesson: working with experts is often worth the investment. In those early days we tried to do everything ourselves first in order to save money. From flavor development to manufacturing, shipping, and packaging design — we had a stab at it ourselves first, often with less-than-ideal results. Investing the energy and capital into finding the perfect people to help with all of these things have allowed us to scale the business and avoid rookie mistakes.
The silver lining? Jahaan and I have naively, masochistically tried our hand at every job in Gainful’s history and that has allowed us to recognize quickly when someone is the real deal. We’re blessed today to have partners and team members who are much better at doing their jobs than we were. Gainful is now 100% free from artificial sweeteners, artificial flavorings, and artificial colors (and we have been this way for years). No more sucralose around here!
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?
Two of my personal mentors are Ann Crady Weiss and Dave Weiss. Ann and Dave are two of the most magnetic and compelling entrepreneurs that I’ve ever met, and it just so happens that they’re also life partners and co-founders of Hatch, a startup that makes smart hardware devices for new parents.
While in college, I had the opportunity to complete a fellowship with True Ventures, an early-stage VC based in San Francisco. As part of my fellowship, I worked at Hatch, where I was immediately inspired by Ann and Dave’s uniquely dichotomous, but highly effective leadership styles.
At the time, Hatch had just raised their Series A, which is a milestone that Gainful was able to cross this year. I loved watching Ann — a successful, serial entrepreneur — hire a world-class team, delegate responsibilities, and set a vision for the future. I was equally impressed by Dave’s management style. Dave is highly technical and radiates a quiet, thoughtful confidence that empowers his team to relish the tough problems and learn by doing.
Apart from leading Hatch as CEO, Ann is also a partner at True Ventures. Ann brought me to pitch meetings where I was able to sit on the investor side of the table and learn “from the inside” how venture investors size up opportunities. One of the greatest impacts that Ann had on my life is a tiny piece of offhand advice that she may not even remember.
When I first began working on Gainful in college, I came across a competitor that purported to sell personalized supplements. I called Ann to let her know the sad news that my idea wasn’t as original as I had thought, and asked her whether I should give up. Ann’s answer was immediate and final: “No, who cares?”
There are plenty of great startup ideas out there, but none of them become great businesses without relentless execution. Often, the best ideas are being chased by multiple talented entrepreneurs.
Since that phone call with Ann, more competitors have come and gone. Some of these competitors have had impressive founders, big-name VCs, and plenty more PR. Gainful has continued to quietly outperform, while sticking to what we do best — creating the world’s best personalized nutrition and care deeply that we help our customers reach their goals.
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?
Nutrition, fitness, and supplements are particularly plagued by brands that chase the newest, shiniest thing. Our industry is particularly full of disruption, with more negative disruptions than positive. Pseudo “experts” are quick to capitalize on every new fad diet. Ingredients are demonized just as quickly as they’re touted as miracle foods. Decades of reputable research and fundamental nutrition principles are ignored in favor of “get fit quick” schemes.
The human body is complex, and perfecting performance nutrition for every individual is even more complex. That’s why the sheer amount of misinformation and noise in this industry is particularly harmful for the average person.
If Gainful can bring even a little bit more transparency and science-based guidance to this market, we’ll have done something positive. In a way, we’d prefer to be the anti-disruptor. Our goal is to not to reinvent the wheel, but instead to arm our customers with all of the ingredients they need — and none of the ingredients they don’t need. By pairing simple but science-based personalized nutrition with simple (but truly expert) advice from our Science Advisory Board and Registered Dietitians, we know our customers will reach their goals much faster than they ever could have with any number of potentially dangerous crash diets.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
FOCUS. There are many ways to build a successful startup, but none of them happen if you don’t focus on what matters. And, in order to figure out what matters, all you need to do is…
…LISTEN to your customers. Remember who you’re building the product for. Get on the phone with them and learn what makes them tick. Understand their needs, their goals, and their day — not just for how much they’re willing to pay for a product. This is why we meet regularly (both virtually and in real life) with our customers. It’s why the first step in any relationship between Gainful and a new customer doesn’t start with a credit card, it starts with a diagnostic quiz where we ask them about their nutrition, their needs, their lifestyle, and their goals.
Lastly, CARE deeply — not only about your customers, but about your team. Growing up playing sports, teams were always my family. I want everyone that joins Gainful to feel as though they’ve made the defining decision of their professional life. Jahaan and I take it very personally (more personal than most) that every person with a desk at Gainful feels challenged and fulfilled, and feels like Gainful is a place where they can make their mark both on the company, but also on the world. We’re immensely proud of the caliber of people that we’ve been able to hire, and even more proud of the culture that they are helping us build.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
2021 was a huge year for Gainful with the launch of Personalized Hydration, Personalized Pre-Workout, Matcha & Cinnamon Toast Flavor Boosts, and our line of Performance Boosts (Creatine, Collagen, and Fiber). 2022 is shaping up to be even more groundbreaking. In short, everything in sports nutrition deserves personalization. At Gainful, we’re singularly obsessed with launching the world’s best-personalized nutrition products — and we’re pretty frequently the first to do it too.
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?
I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Pollan’s writing since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The way Pollan wrote about the amorphous and arbitrary ways that we define “nutrition” in this country and the fantastically complex American food system showed me just how difficult it is to oversimplify any recommendations when it comes to the highly emotional topic of what we eat.
There are few things more difficult than telling people what they should and should not eat (politics and religion are really the only two things that come to mind). On top of this, supply chains are wildly complex, with so many businesses, organizations, and individuals involved.
However, the way that we eat has such an immense impact on our well-being. It’s an interesting problem that I’ve tried to tackle in my own way through Gainful. We have to constantly remind ourselves that our job is both to give honest nutrition advice AND create delicious, effective products that we know will make our customers’ lives demonstrably better. Thankfully, we’ve never had to make a compromise on either side.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
While I don’t have a specific quote, an important life lesson that I learned at an early age from my parents was the value of hard work. As immigrants from China, my parents instilled in me a work ethic that has become as important to my own identity as anything that I do outside of work. While they are both naturally very entrepreneurial people — my mom’s dream was always to open her own coffee shop and bakery — my dad’s dream was a Chinese-inspired burger shop, though now I think they’re both quite enjoying retirement. Despite these dreams, they never once strayed away from their relatively routine positions at big companies. They worked hard at the same companies for decades because they knew that level of stability was what would help them earn enough money to put me, their only child, through school with no student loans.
I’m acutely aware of the privileged position I’m in to have been able to start my own company after graduating from college with such an incredible safety net. I will never take that for granted, knowing that my own parents effectively deferred their entrepreneurial dreams to let me have mine. All I hope is that I can repay their sacrifice through my own hard work.
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.
I don’t need or want to be a person of great influence. While I do believe in the power of massive, tidal wave movements, I believe the world is more effectively changed through the coalescence of billions of tiny, thoughtful decisions by everyday people. People who don’t think of themselves as part of a movement, and who don’t move from the will of some single influential individual.
In my opinion, people make more sustainable, meaningful decisions for themselves when they are simply presented with options and they’re able to make a decision that best benefits them and the people close to them.
For that reason, instead of inspiring a world-changing movement, I’d rather my legacy to be giving people a reason to care just a little bit more about what they’re putting in their bodies. Hopefully, Gainful is playing a part in this.
I want to urge people to take a moment to think critically while they’re shopping online or in the grocery store. Read the fine print, and consider the products you wear on your body, fill your home with, and — most of all — put in your body. Make sure everything you buy is something that you can love and support, not just with your wallet, but with your brain and your heart. If everyone was 1% more thoughtful about doing this, I think the world would be a remarkably better place to live.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@gainful on instagram
linkedin.com/in/ericjswu on Linkedin
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!