Christopher Jane Of Proper Good: “Forget the vanity metrics”

‘Forget the vanity metrics’ is something that comes up almost weekly these days. The amount of people who think ‘money raised’ and ‘employee headcount’ are impressive things to lead with is quite mind-boggling to me. With more capital raised comes less ownership, and with more employees comes more payroll and complexity. Now of course both […]

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‘Forget the vanity metrics’ is something that comes up almost weekly these days. The amount of people who think ‘money raised’ and ‘employee headcount’ are impressive things to lead with is quite mind-boggling to me. With more capital raised comes less ownership, and with more employees comes more payroll and complexity. Now of course both these things can be fantastic in the right growth path, but in and of themselves they are not.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Jane, CEO and Co-Founder of clean food brand Proper Good.

Christopher Jane grew up on the south coast of England, earned his finance undergraduate degree in London and then moved to Bozeman, Montana. He then was a co-founder of Montana Mex, a clean-label condiment company that launched seven products to thousands of grocery stores. After a number of years he stepped away to do his MBA at Stanford where he came up with the idea for his newest food brand Proper Good, which launched direct to consumer in April 2020 with a focus on 90-seconds meals for keto, plant-based, and other diet and lifestyle needs. Outside of all things consumer products, Chris is an avid snowboarder, one-wheeler, yoga sculpt enthusiast, and kitten fosterer.


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?

I have been entrepreneurial since age 11. As a teenager I made pocket money buying and selling phones on eBay, selling cold water on a hot beach, and then in the later teen years organizing concerts for local bands.

At age 18 I found myself traveling the globe while playing online poker professionally. This stage of my life allowed me to control my own schedule, learn real-time decision-making and critical thinking, and enjoy complete flexibility of time and income — all qualities which I would later rely on to help me succeed as a Founder.

After a few years, I decided my poker-playing time had come to an end, and I returned to England to study finance and investment banking in London at the Henley Business School. After graduating in 2012, I moved to Montana where my sister, Jennifer, was living at the time in Paradise Valley. While in Montana we became two of five co-founders of a food brand called Montana Mex, which offers a signature line of clean ingredient sauces, seasonings, and cooking oils. We felt passionate about offering good-for-you products that make it easier for people to cook with flavorful and clean ingredients. Montana Mex grew a great deal from its humble start at a farmer’s market stall, and after six years we were sold to thousands of stores nationwide including Whole Foods, H-E-B, Albertsons, and more.

I then took everything I learned from my poker and startup days and decided to pursue my MBA at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business (GSB). In the world of entrepreneurship there’s a tendency to be ‘go-go-go’ as there’s always something to do, and you’re always trying to move the ball forward, with usually very little time to actually stop, think, reflect, and regroup. The MBA allowed exactly this change with time to research, strategize, and discuss with peers, which are all very valuable uses of time and helped prevent just going through the motions of work, work, work. After exploring all options for my next step, from taking interviews with consultancy practices and other career track firms, to venturing on multiple trips abroad to Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, the UK and more, I felt I had fully and deeply explored all potential paths for the next stage of life.

In my second year of the MBA I decided I wanted to go back into entrepreneurship and, as I had thoroughly enjoyed the natural foods industry, I started exploring there. According to ResearchAndMarkets.com, the global food delivery industry is set to surpass the 160 billion dollars mark by 2024, and the direct-to-consumer space is growing at an outpaced rate. But despite that enormity, there is still a lack of focus on keto-friendly, plant-based, and other lifestyle meal delivery that is affordable and clean. So in 2020 I decided to start a new food brand, Proper Good.

Along with my sister, co-founder and creative lead, Jennifer Jane, we’ve set out to embrace a market that’s demanding convenient 90-second meal solutions for dietary preferences, and together we’re taking the shelf stable ready-meals space into the premium arena where it’s never been before.

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

Proper Good is the only premium shelf-stable meal company for at home, work or on-the-go. The brand offers 90-second meal solutions with options accommodating keto, gluten / dairy-free and plant-based diets. All meals are made with clean and functional ingredients, shelf-stable to take on-the-go, and delivered direct with recyclable packaging.

After launching in 2020, the brand surpassed the 1,000,000 dollars sales mark in its first year with more than 150,000 meals sold and thousands of five-star reviews. This year the brand is seeing 300% growth in sales and increased usage of its subscription offering.

Proper Good has also built a foundation for very nimble and efficient manufacturing with a customized data platform showing real-time product market fit. This allows for continuous recipe micro-iteration based on real-time feedback from 10,000+ consumers, many of whom include essential workers like nurses, truck drivers, and consumers who work nights and long shifts with limited access to healthy foods.

Proper Good’s packaging allows workers to store their unopened meals at room temperature (no need for refrigeration or freezing) which means they can keep the pouches at a nurse’s station, break room or right with them on the road and eat quickly versus stopping for fast food or junk food. Additionally, Proper Good’s packaging (cardboard topper, box and envelopes) are all widely recyclable, with a zero-cost recycling return program offered for the pouches. The brand has committed to becoming Climate Neutral Certified in 2022.

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 we look back on our first year of business, one of the funniest but most impactful mistakes was right at the core of a product. We launched with just three meat-based soups to see the market reaction, but we made a major blunder with an ingredient. In our Chicken & Mushroom soup we used the herb Thyme which we felt added a nice savory note and went well with the rest of the flavors, but we had failed in our research and testing to notice that Thyme is an incredibly polarizing herb… you either love it, and it adds the desired taste, or you hate it and find it so bitter that it ruins the entire meal and makes it inedible. We were in the unusual situation of launching a product, and all the unknowns that come with that, to then find plenty of five-star reviews to celebrate, and plenty of one-star reviews demanding refunds. Of course, through our follow-up and customer interviews we then discovered the challenge with Thyme, and needless to say we removed it from the following production runs of that and all items! This was a key learning moment for the company which resulted in updating our product development and pre-launch testing process, but it’s also one we can laugh at on reflection knowing we launched a product that by design would polarize people.

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?

Mentors come in many forms, and I’m lucky to have a network covering the spectrum from public company CEOs to individuals that bootstrapped a startup, grew scrappily for years, and ended up selling to a major company. This breadth of experience — from on the ground day-to-day knowledge right through to running large and diverse multinational companies — gives an enormous base of learning for me to tap. As Proper Good is still only 16 months into the market, the majority of focus is on tactical day-to-day items, as those have a real impact on the monthly business. I’ve found one of the most useful things to do with mentors is put a large problem in front of them and see how they can help… whether that’s just creative thinking, a story from their experience, or a contact they may be able to introduce us to. Putting a real-time problem in front of them usually sparks great thoughts and helps strengthen the relationship.

We also consider our customers as mentors, as at the end of the day we want to make things they want to buy and that they enjoy eating, and do it in a way that they find easy and seamless. So whether that’s our active customer Slack community, our monthly surveys, going through every single one of the 4000+ reviews, or sampling a pre-launch item to a core group, we actively seek customer thoughts on product, website, and communication to make a better experience for them.

We’ve been very fortunate to have major food sector investors take notice of Proper Good, including founders of well-known national food brands, Stanford professors, an NYC venture fund and accelerator called XRC labs, and a number of other funds have come on board to provide financing for growth and mentorship as we grow.

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?

Innovation doesn’t have to mean a new invention per se — it can come in many forms. From new ways to sell things, communicate the value, deliver, to helping people share. An innovation can occur not just at the founding stage for the core company idea, but in every micro-decision that makes you stand apart from the competition in a positive way. Look at how some companies use SMS 100 times better than competitors. Some have peer-to-peer sharing that blows away the competition, some have unboxing experiences that increase social sharing, and some do none of these things. In the real world very rarely does ‘the best idea win.’ It’s usually more that the good idea with the best execution and the best team wins. This continuous-improvement mindset across every detail, from a website button color to product contents, is where true consumer delight can win.

So in my mind, incremental innovation is very rarely a bad thing, but yet has enormous implications and brings enormous opportunity. Chobani didn’t invent yogurt, Casper didn’t invent mattresses, Warby Parker didn’t invent eyewear, Bumble didn’t invent dating apps, and Allbirds certainly didn’t invent shoes, but yet tremendous positive impact was created by these founders with a keen eye for improvement and second-to-none execution.

It’s also important to consider the disruption viability for you as a founder or individual, as this is going to consume 90% of your life once you start. So do you have the knowledge, resources, time, and team to execute on the scale of your vision? For example, finding and executing a new way to sell and ship mattresses is going to be a lot more feasible for 99% of founders than having an idea for a new type of jet engine.

The flip side of this is trying to force a macro-level change — the way a whole industry works. In my industry, the broker/distributor/grocery world has not changed in fundamental design in 50 years, is a scale tipped away from the brands, and brings enormous time and cost inefficiencies. However, trying to change this overnight with a new idea is an uphill battle that may not be winnable, as every stage of this chain is incentivized not to work with you, but to actively work against you. Some would say this system has ‘withstood the test of time’ but I argue in a world that changes so rapidly there is no such phrase. The challenge is disruption has no industry buy-in, and that is an incredibly tough spot. It’s certainly possible, just harder, more capital-intensive, with more battles and so on.

Let’s take Ridesharing as an example. This concept clearly benefited the consumer (quicker, easier, safer, cheaper, etc.) but took the value entirely away from the city munipals, cab drivers, cab companies and almost everyone else involved in the value chain. The level of capital, expertise, and time it’s taken to make ridesharing viable, from fighting every state and city regulation, to building entirely new ways of doing things from the technology to the ‘employee or contractor’ discussion is enormous.

In summary I would say a product innovation is often far more tangible and achievable, while an industry innovation is a much larger task with far wider stakeholders. But as always with greater challenge comes greater reward, so both are achievable for the right team. If the answer to the simple question of ‘does this benefit the consumer’ is yes, I struggle to find a disruptive innovation that is bad.

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

  • Early on in our first food brand, Montana Mex, one mentor said ‘are you a brand or a manufacturer? You can’t be both.’ That opened my eyes, as initially I thought all companies who make things make them all by themselves. While this can be true, it’s almost never the case, as they’re totally different skills sets. A brand focuses on product innovation, sales, marketing, customer communication, etc., while a manufacturer focuses on regulation, production operations, equipment and so on. They are entirely different skill sets, and to do both increases complexity and cost right from the start. Almost every large brand I can name doesn’t make their own product. Of course, they develop the product and recipe, control all ingredients, quality control, etc., to ensure it’s to the brand standard and guidelines, but the actual physical expense to build is usually outsourced, at least at the start. This allows you to focus on less items, and focus usually brings improvement as you can do less but do it better.
  • ‘You’ll get 99 no’s before one yes.’ This is true across everything from fundraising to showing people your initial idea. Having this mindset will help you set up your headspace for what’s to come. Having a thick skin and being resilient is fundamental to success, as creating something new is an uphill battle. The reality is it’s very easy to say why something will fail. Take any business, from Airbnb to Outdoor Voices, and it will take not two minutes to generate a list of 10 reasons why it won’t work. Also, unfortunately most people default to this ‘failure analysis,’ as opposed to defaulting to why it could work. So being prepared for that will help you build the mindset needed. One crucial piece though is not to dismiss these comments as nay-sayers — instead take notes, collate them after 50 meetings, analyze the comments and patterns, and don’t be so naive to think ‘they’re just wrong.’ You must have a defendable, logical and explainable reason as to why they’re wrong, and if they aren’t, they may have just saved you a lot of time.
  • ‘Forget the vanity metrics’ is something that comes up almost weekly these days. The amount of people who think ‘money raised’ and ‘employee headcount’ are impressive things to lead with is quite mind-boggling to me. With more capital raised comes less ownership, and with more employees comes more payroll and complexity. Now of course both these things can be fantastic in the right growth path, but in and of themselves they are not. Why not lead with ‘our new product launch and retention metrics show we’ve solved the issue we had six months ago. Now we can truly be profitable within X time, and we’re looking to test more things before we expand and raise an investment to do XYZ.’ That’s actually interesting and impressive. What’s more impressive to most people is: a 100-person business that’s one year old, raised 12M dollars in venture capital, burning 500k dollars a month in overhead, and hoping to find product market fit once it hits critical mass, or a three-person business, bootstrapped, making 500k dollars a month in EBITDA? The problem is the latter is not sexy in the traditional startup sense, but I argue it needs to be much more normalized as Unicorns are literally that ‘mythical creature’ for 99.99% of founders.

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

Given we’re only 16 months old, we’re truly just getting started. We chose to launch to market with a focus on innovation in packaging, ingredients, distribution channel, and design, but that’s just scratching the surface. I can’t share too much yet, but we’re building Proper Good to be the next Campbells or Progresso, built for the modern consumer that cares about what they eat, delivering 90-second nutritional value across breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our customers trust us and know we stand for quality, delivering a zero-friction experience for all their meals needs.

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?

Joel was my Stanford professor. This book focuses on management, with dozens of stories about customer success, building happy teams, managing people, inspiring creativity and so on — things most people wish they knew how to do, with some great snippets of advice and actionable examples you can take to your own business.

This is for those interested in food and beverage or CPG industries. It’s a fantastic story from ‘idea’ to ‘exit’ for Honest Tea, one of the most successful beverage stories of the prior decade. You’ll notice a continuous improvement and micro-iteration approach led that them to disrupt one of the largest categories in the whole market (sugary drinks).

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

‘Act as if you’ll die tomorrow, plan as if you’ll live forever.’ This to me strikes the perfect balance of living in the moment, enjoying what the world has to offer, and focusing on living in the now, as tomorrow is not guaranteed. But it also conveys at the same time having an eye for the future and making sure if you’re luckily enough to have one that it’s a good one. Often people over-index on either side… living for now and spending beyond their means or not saving anything for the future, or doing the opposite where they plan everything for their retirement and forget they’re living now. I find both of these to be problematic so trying to strike a balance is key in my mind.

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 would encourage the largest companies to lead the charge in sustainability and for consumers to demand this. I find there’s a mis-match in startups vs. industry leaders. For example, go to your average farmer’s market or small local store, and consumers will continuously ask a startup every nuanced question: is every piece compostable? Do you only source locally? Is it zero-added-sugar? How diverse is your workforce? Is it all organic? Meanwhile, they have no care that 99% of the grocery store products are in plastic with no recycling programs, made with very cheap ingredients and crammed with sugar and salt. But the startup is the tiny local team that had an idea and wanted to try and execute on it, likely with no resources or experience, meanwhile the conglomerates have 10,000s of employees and billions in yearly sales. Why are we expecting startups to be able to check every single box but applying no such standard to where we spend most of our money?

How can our readers follow you online?

They can follow the brand by looking up @eatpropergood on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Readers can also look me up on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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