Amy McDonald: “Never. Status, Quo”

Taste: Above all else, taste is number 1. As I mentioned before, if your product doesn’t taste amazing, consumers aren’t going to come back to it and recommend it to their friends. This is one of the key components that originally drove our mission. Our founder’s mother couldn’t find a product that helped her sleep […]

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Taste: Above all else, taste is number 1. As I mentioned before, if your product doesn’t taste amazing, consumers aren’t going to come back to it and recommend it to their friends. This is one of the key components that originally drove our mission. Our founder’s mother couldn’t find a product that helped her sleep and tasted delicious.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy McDonald, an accomplished business leader with 25+ years of experience in the flavor, food ingredient and pharma/biotech industries. For more than 20 years, she has led multi-million-dollar global companies at the executive level. Before joining ALTWELL, Amy held leadership roles in various food, flavor and food/pharma ingredient companies including Quest International (now Kerry Bio-Sciences), Kerry, and FONA International. Upon graduation with a B.S. in Microbiology and a minor in Chemistry, she was recruited by Unilever/Quest and grew there through roles with increasing responsibility for 17 years. In her capstone role at Quest, she led overall P&L for the ingredients business in North and South American in seven product areas, as well as the global pharma business in proteins and pharmaceutical grade excipients. She was a lead member of the small team responsible for divesting the business from Quest to Kerry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Of course. Openly, I’m not sure there is anything too pivotal here. Overall, I’m a scientist turned businesswoman with a pretty normal life. I had a very normal childhood without a lot of drama or a major turning point that I can pinpoint. I really come from a foundation of great family values, with a bit of competitive drive mixed in. I am one of four daughters, raised by educators. My dad was a superintendent of schools and my mom earned her degree but stayed home keeping everything moving forward. Four girls, you can imagine she had her hands full. Education, athletics, and healthy competition were always prioritized in our household. I was a competitive swimmer, and to this day do not like to get up early in the morning after doing that forever. I went on to get my Bachelor’s in Microbiology and Chemistry, and eventually an MBA. I’ve worked in companies big and small- always with science as the foundation, inspired by my parents to always seek answers and remain curious. My best memories are family vacations even though they always had some educational slant (ask me how many President’s homes I have visited over years), and brutally competitive game nights. Carefully enter at your own risk any trivia contest with my family. I raised my daughter as a single mom, halfway across the country from family, while still building my career — and so far, so good on all accounts. As my family now lives all over the country, I cherish the times when we reunite for vacations, and still crave that little bit of fun competition that always brings.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

Passion and purpose drive great products, so “a ha” moments are key to pay attention to. In ALTWELL’s case, our founder’s mother was looking for a natural way to help her sleep. She tried other brands, but she couldn’t find any where she trusted the consistency and label, while also experiencing great taste. The family behind ALTWELL has been in the wellness industry for four generations, with extensive experience in food, beverage, and supplement innovation. They built a category based on products with trusted experience and great taste. It wasn’t too much of a leap to found a company to do it again, this time in . ALTWELL was born to help others seeking more balance, calm, and peace in their lives.

At ALTWELL, our mission is to help people live their healthiest lives naturally. We are built on a foundation of transparency and trust — from ethical sourcing, to the highest quality ingredients, great taste, and triple testing every product.

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?

I think some of my biggest “mistakes” were hesitating and not taking action. I’ve learned that perfection takes way too much time and energy. Just get on the field and go for it. You learn from your mistakes so even if you fail, you’re failing forward.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

As I mentioned, I look at mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. One misstep I’ve seen is brands jumping into the space before they’ve done extensive market and scientific research. You really have to roll up your sleeves and understand the landscape of your industry before you start selling and marketing.

Another oversight is underestimating the cost of commercialization. Not everything will go smoothly at scale the first time around, and there will often be costly trial runs. Anticipate this and make room in your budget and timeline to adjust your strategy.

Overall, the biggest mistake I see in the food and nutrition space is forgetting that taste is king. No matter its other value propositions, a product has to taste great for consumers to come back, buy again, and tell their friends about it. You can have the cleanest label, the best packaging, and the right price, but if the taste isn’t there, you won’t have a successful product. To avoid all of these missteps, the most important thing is to do your homework, find great partners to work with, and be open to pivoting as you refine your product and production process.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

First, do your homework — dive deep into the market research and science and learn all you can from experts in the field. Once you have laid that solid foundation, jump in and learn from experience.

Iterative learning has been essential for me in my career. I take time after each experience to pause, step back, and reflect, so I can learn from it moving forward. If I won in a situation, I ask myself, ‘What is the one thing I did differently from others that led to this success?’ If I failed, I ask myself, ‘What is one thing I could have done differently to change this outcome?’ This type of honest reflection is challenging, but necessary to become a successful entrepreneur.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

I would encourage them to come back to their purpose. Every time I face a decision in my career, I return to my “why.” I ask myself, “Does this directly serve my mission? Will this bring value to my customers? Does this align with the brand’s core values?” I would encourage them to first define their mission and core values — write them down, share them with the team and the consumers, and fully integrate them into the business. Then, continually come back to these values as you translate your ideas into a fully realized business.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

It can be challenging — and it’s not strictly necessary — to be an expert in everything, from development to label regulations, quality control, and sales and marketing. Great partners can support you to elevate your work, speed up your timeline, and in some cases, reduce risk. Still, I urge you to be clear on what you want and need to own yourself. It may be easy and tempting to turn product development or formulation work over to a third party, but what happens when you have to make a change? Are you always dependent on them?

For people who come into the food space from another industry, like fashion or tech, this can be especially challenging. Recruit food veterans to be by your side or partner with a renowned university lab or professor. There is no one way to do this; it’s about recognizing your own strengths and what areas you need support in. Be strategic and think ahead to what you need to own over time and where you can leverage partners to amplify your strengths.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I personally like having skin in the game. Nothing motivates you more than a sense of urgency around spending your own money — especially if it’s limited (isn’t it always for most of us?). Having said that, as your product scales and distribution broadens, many businesses need help to make that jump. Venture capital can be incredibly impactful at this stage. Enter any venture with your eyes wide open, and make sure your goals are aligned before jumping in too quickly. Ask the tough questions up front. Discuss and agree to timelines, ask the “what if” questions, and understand how an exit would work. This way, both parties are going in with clear expectations and goals.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

While I have my name on a patent, I didn’t do the filing myself, so can give little to no advice there other than to tap your network, get solid advice, and know what you are getting into when sharing your ideas with others through this formal mechanism. Sometimes patents can be helpful, other times, trade secrets can be the way to go. Do your research.

When it comes to sourcing suppliers, manufacturers and partners on the selling side- I think the same advice applies- think forward to your end game, do your research, choose to partner with other where your values align. And importantly, seek a win-win for all. Mutuality is key. Your network is likely full of people that can help — tap into it and ask a ton of questions along the way.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Purpose: I always come back to this quote from one of our founders Greg Pickett, “All great products are born from great purpose.” Your product should start with a “why,” a need to be filled — whether it’s convenience, health, better sleep, balance, whatever it may be. Your purpose can come from personal experience or a drive to serve others. As I mentioned, our mission was inspired by a direct need that the Pickett family observed in their own lives and wanted to fill for others.
  2. Passion: Launching a brand is tough, whether it’s an established market or an emerging one. Don’t underestimate the challenge and sweat equity you will need to put in. Make sure you have a true passion and a fire in your belly. If you do, the work will flow naturally.
  3. Partnership: It is essential to collaborate with great partners who you trust, from developers, to distributors, to advisors. From supplying to testing, we work with partners who align with our values. They are invested in long-term sustainable growth, possess a science mindset, and have solid financial and development strategies.
  4. Taste: Above all else, taste is number 1. As I mentioned before, if your product doesn’t taste amazing, consumers aren’t going to come back to it and recommend it to their friends. This is one of the key components that originally drove our mission. Our founder’s mother couldn’t find a product that helped her sleep and tasted delicious.
  5. Economics that make sense for you: The finances of your business have to serve everyone — the distributor, wholesaler, consumer, and you. This will be different for every business, so do your homework and really get to know the numbers inside and out.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

Start with a product you truly love yourself! When you launch a brand you believe in passionately, that will shine through to your customers. The first step is defining your mission, your “why.” Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What value am I bringing to my customers?” Always come back to that purpose throughout the creation, production, and marketing of your product. If you truly believe in what you’re selling and see it as a mission rather than just a product, you will stand out. Consumers can feel your authenticity and passion, and they will respond to it instinctually.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As a scientist, CEO, and single mom, my mission has always been to inspire women to chase their dreams. In every iteration of my career, I have worked to elevate other women in my field and create inclusive, supportive spaces where women can thrive. I believe that when women inspire and support each other, the world is a better place for everyone.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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 have always loved challenging the status quo, and a statement I find myself using a lot lately is “Never. Status. Quo.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the epitome of a amazing model for this, wasn’t she? Personally, I want to be part of a movement that inspires and empowers women business owners and entrepreneurs. I want to bring more women, especially women of the color, into positions of power and true impact, where they are the leaders, visionaries, and change makers. I want to see more diversity in C suites, where women prominent roles at the table. My goodness, we make a ton of buying decisions, don’t we? And aren’t we consumers ourselves. We should be there guiding and leading companies. It makes us all better. Overall, I’d love to inspire a movement to empower women to launch their own brands and to support them to get the resources, information, and capital they need for their businesses to thrive.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

The first person that comes to mind here, and I mentioned her earlier, is RGB. Wow, how I would have loved to meet her. She is the original “Never. Status, Quo”. I am grateful for all she has done and in awe of her accomplishments. Few others, male or female, have such amazing legacies. Her passing is mourned by all. If I had to name someone living, I would say Alecia Keys. She’s an artist, activist, collaborator, humanitarian, and so many other things. Her talent was discovered before she was a teenager, and she remains relevant and balanced today. She is both a strong businesswoman and a mother. What I also love about her is the sense of calm she brings to others, through song and through presence. You may recall, she has acted as host to several award shows in the last few years during times when our country had experienced breaking, sad news. She handled those events with a peace and poise like no other, and I admire her for that. She rocks the definition of modern woman and I love it.

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