Be Audacious. Push a big vision early and never shy away from it. I was resolute that Athletic Greens would be a bold product that combines several other products like a multivitamin, pre and probiotics, a multimineral, an immune booster and others. I also needed it to be extremely high quality with a no compromises approach to ingredients. Several advisors told me the model wouldn’t work, but I held to my bold vision and we found a strategy that works for us.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Ashenden.
A native of New Zealand, Chris is an entrepreneur, health and fitness expert, investor and world traveler. He is the founder of Athletic Greens, the original essentialist nutrition company. Chris is passionate about health, happiness, personal growth, and leadership in an entrepreneurial setting. Chris’s own wellness journey strikes right at the heart of Athletic Greens’ belief that you can’t achieve your best self without nurturing your body through proper nutrition.
Athletic Greens’ mission is to empower people to take ownership of their health, one healthy habit at a time. Athletic Greens Ultimate Daily contains more than 75 carefully selected ingredients and makes it easy to cover your nutritional bases every day. Athletic Greens delivers the equivalent of a daily multivitamin, a prebiotic, a probiotic, a greens powder, a mineral blend, an adaptogen blend, an immunity booster, and more — all in one delicious drink. And it’s not static: it’s an ever-evolving experiment to deliver the ultimate functional food bundle. The company is currently on iteration 52 of their core product and will soon launch number 53.
In Colombia, Mr. Ashenden founded the Da Alegria foundation, which works with Athletic Greens and local foundations to provide nutritious meals to children in marginalized communities. In 2020 Athletic Greens supplied over 1 million meals to children in need globally through Mary’s Meals, Urban Light and Da Alegria.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with health & wellness, particularly in the area of nutrition. It’s partly driven by the fact that I’ve suffered from recurrent chronic gut health, immunity, and sleep issues. In my twenties, I went to dozens of regular doctors and nutritionists; no one could help. By 2008 I was completely fed up, so I went to a medical clinic in Arizona that specializes in hard-to-solve situations and had every test you can think of. They discovered that my micronutrient levels were in the bottom 8th-12th percentile of the general population. Despite eating what I viewed as a healthy diet and supplementing a lot, my body was barely absorbing enough nutrients to survive. The clinic’s solution was a 100 dollars per day supplement regimen, customized to my blood chemistry, which had me swallowing 50–60 pills every day.
I quickly realized that most of what I thought I knew about nutrition was wrong, and that there has to be a better way to cover my nutritional bases every day. I went back to the drawing board on what made great nutrition and learned about gut health, whole food, phytonutrients, absorption and bioavailability. I took a truly holistic approach.
I’m an essentialist so I like simple solutions to complicated problems. I couldn’t find anything out there that did everything I wanted to do in one simple solution, so I formulated Athletic Greens with the help of expert formulators, naturopaths, and doctors. I was literally creating this all-in-one nutritional powder to solve my nutrient absorption issues and replace my pill regimen. I was customer number one. My parents were customers two and three. But I quickly realized that this product worked for everyone’s health needs and that there was a large market opportunity to deliver this concept of nutritional insurance.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One thing I’ve learned is that entrepreneurship is never a linear path and it’s hardly ever smooth. As someone who’s started a number of companies, I’ve lived through the highs and lows. The path compels you to learn about yourself, work through adversity and hopefully emerge a more complete person.
Prior to Athletic Greens, I had set up a real estate venture in New Zealand based on a popular US model, but I foolishly never understood the legal nuances within my home country. I wound up getting hit with litigation and serious fines.
A separate business collapsed in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. By 2009 I had lost all of my investors’ money. Worst of all, my parents lost their life savings from investing with me. They are my true champions, so this was devastating, My parents were so supportive and only ever said that they loved me and knew I would succeed again. But I couldn’t hear it. The entire situation sent me into a dark spiral. I began a long battle with depression, alcohol abuse, loneliness and the feeling of being totally overwhelmed at the task in front of me.
At this point around 2010, I was depressed, in debt 5 million dollars and living on a friend’s sofa in New York City. I was trying to get Athletic Greens off the ground and I just realized that I had to establish a sense of ownership over everything — my legal concerns in New Zealand, paying back my investors, succeeding in my new company and finding happiness in my life.
Ownership is a foundational concept for me because it’s ultimately the only way to solve the big challenges life throws at you. And that’s what happened. I set hard goals to pay back my investors, grow Athletic Greens in its early days and structure a life for myself that is based on happiness. I got to work and, in a way, I haven’t stopped working on the business and on myself since. I paid back every penny I owed my old investors and any fines I incurred. I’d never want to go through that experience again but there’s no question it’s helped shape the trajectory of Athletic Greens. So much of how we shape our customer experience, our employee experience and our social mission is driven by a deep desire to build a life based on happiness. It is hugely rewarding to act in service to our stakeholder audiences, delivering value and building trust and relationships to last decades.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
By achieving small things every day and finding a big enough “why” to keep going over the long haul. I told myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to never give up.
On the practical side, I made a “happy list”. It was in two parts. I had a physiological list — things like exercise, sun exposure (especially on the face), hot and cold contrast, eating extremely well, and sleep. I did everything on that list every day. Then I had a psychosocial list — activities like going out salsa dancing, dinners out with dynamic friends, at least one phone call or interaction every day with someone positive.
To get past the overwhelming pressure of the insane business task I had in front of me, I simplified my life and changed the pressure on myself. I told myself that every day was a successful day as long as I hit my happy list and did one thing from my business to do list.
With a big enough “why” I believe you can overcome any challenge.
In my darkest days I had several massive, overwhelming goals — I had resolute commitment to pay everyone back, to make Athletic Greens a beautiful do-good business that truly added value to our customer’s lives, to rebuild my health and relationships, and give purpose to my life. But I realized that all of those goals were really about happiness. I became extremely focused on that “why” — to be happy!
In fact, my mantra “100% Focus on Happiness” was so integral to everything I did that for the next eight years I had it on our website, on all our products and signing off every email.
Of all the decisions I have made in my life, I am most proud of how at the very very bottom, I focused on what I would be most proud to build, and what would make the most difference to people’s lives.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today the business is outstanding. Athletic Greens is the most recommended daily nutritional health habit in the world, and we have hundreds of thousands of customers that turned to our product to get through a very difficult year in 2020. That brings a lot of joy to the team and me.
Looking back with how we got here, it’s clear that the concept of ownership I’ve talked about helped provide great focus and clarity. In the early days, there’s so much you can do that’s distracting and likely not helpful in growing a sustainable business — partnership opportunities, new product ideas, industry folks that want to bend your ear. So instead of getting distracted, we focused maniacally on making a top-rate product backed by an amazing experience for our subscribers.
And basically, since Year One we’ve received amazing feedback from our customers. I would hear from people who said this product changed their approach to health or empowered them to go do these amazing things — like one customer who rode his bike to the summit of the highest peak in Colorado in his mid-70s . That positive feedback loop gave me the conviction to keep moving forward even when the entrepreneurial journey throws so many obstacles in your path. I am grateful to have a beautiful business and amazing customers that I am extremely passionate about.
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?
With Athletic Greens, remember that I was customer number one, my parents were customers two and three. I had an obsessive commitment to product quality, to putting more amazing nutrition in one serving than had previously been done, and without compromises.
As a result, I had completely overengineered the product at launch and the initial production run was done with absolutely no clear plan how to market or sell it. This is an absolute rookie mistake.
When I first tried to launch Athletic Greens in the US, I had some very successful advisors who looked at what I was trying to do and said that it is never going to happen or work; I had so overengineered the product and, as a result, our margins were shockingly bad. Their advice was to dumb down the product, lower the product quality, take heaps of stuff out of it, or else double the price.
I refused. Instead, I obsessed over how I could innovate to make the whole thing work. That drove an innovative Direct With the Customer (DWC) subscription business model where I placed the direct relationship with our customers at the top of our list of priorities and focused around developing a key daily nutritional habit that served our customers.
Now, if you ask what customers love us for and what has driven all of our success…. The quality of our product, the sheer amount of amazing nutritional content, our premium no compromises ethos, the daily habit that adds so much value to their lives… and our commitment to our relationship with our customers!
The lesson — as founders we frequently have insights on ways that we can truly impact the lives of our customers. So, listen to your advisors, but especially as it relates to your customers… FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have a customer obsession and this desire to truly take care of our customers permeates everything we do and I am very proud of the team and culture we have built around it.
In the early years successive hurricanes had hit the southern US. Many regions were cut off and had limited access to fresh food. Members of our customer happiness team proactively figured out which of our customers were in zip codes that might be affected, contacted them and paused their subscription charges, and instead sent them free care packages including extra months supplies of Athletic Greens, shakers, and plenty of protein powder so they could eat in a pinch.
As a founder, this makes me incredibly proud to see our team going the extra mile to make our customers happy and cared for — it’s an honor to work with these rockstars!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Make your own health, both physical and psychological health, “non-negotiable” priorities.
That means that the first items to schedule into your calendar every week are your times off work, your exercise, your meals and special moments with family and friends, interfacing with people that can help you, some self-love time, time in the sun, time in nature. A disciplined focus on getting good nutrition, exercise and especially SLEEP, is really important.
Hitting these every day will allow you to show up more in your work, and serve your customers the way you want to. This will revolutionize your calendar and present to you the times that you can be working. That limitation on work hours in service to your non-negotiable priorities is actually quite freeing. It focuses you to be more resourceful in your approach to work, what you sign up for and how you approach challenges. Don’t buy into the myth that more hours equal more output — life doesn’t work like that.
As a final step, set clear boundaries. Turn notifications off for every app and every device. Only go in when it is an allocated time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I cringe whenever I hear someone say they are self-made. There is no self-made. We are all a product of our talent, our environment, our desire, and the people around us who help make things happen.
I truly believe people can only succeed with strong mentors.
My first and most important mentors are my family. I was phenomenally fortunate to have parents who brought us up telling us that we could be and do anything we wanted in our lives, as long as we were willing to put in the work. Their phenomenal support through some very difficult times will always be the thing I am most grateful for.
I’ve also had a number of extremely helpful and patient mentors in the business world. For instance, one amazing mentor to me is a gentleman named Keith Cunningham. I met Keith when I was involved in property and he identified something in the first few minutes speaking to me that was reflective of a psychological approach that wasn’t serving me.
I had walked into that first session thinking I would talk about financing or raising money. Instead, he listened, asked great questions, then read out loud to me the Marriane Williamson poem “Our Deepest Fear” from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech. It is one of my favorite pieces of writing and speaks in some way to the entrepreneurial journey, the internal struggles and the great enjoyment in bringing others along for the ride. He had me crying pretty quickly and that push encouraged me to really step up and fill the shoes I was capable of filling and do it unapologetically. My trajectory changed significantly that day. I am extremely grateful to Keith.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There are three key parts.
First, I am delighted to be a part of a business that directly empowers the lives of our customers and improves the world. I am extremely passionate about the principle of health ownership so seeing our customers take ownership of their health and then use that to drive other accomplishments is incredibly powerful.
Second, I’m proud that Athletic Greens carries a social mission to provide nutrition to those in need. We support charities around the globe and I personally started Da Alegria Foundation (which means “Give Joy” in Spanish) to help marginalized children in Colombia, a country that’s very close to my heart. Up until now, we’ve been mainly focused on providing food to kids getting education support from charitable foundations in poor neighborhoods where our meal might be the only real one, they get all day. We’re continuing to grow our social mission to identify where we can provide maximum nutritional impact for those in need.
Last, this journey has made me a happier, more complete person. In my own way, I like to think I bring that positivity and good intentions to the daily interactions in my own small orbit of friends, family and co-workers. The world is difficult but you make it easier for others just by showing up and being kind; giving joy to someone else is the biggest thrill of them all.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be Audacious. Push a big vision early and never shy away from it. I was resolute that Athletic Greens would be a bold product that combines several other products like a multivitamin, pre and probiotics, a multimineral, an immune booster and others. I also needed it to be extremely high quality with a no compromises approach to ingredients. Several advisors told me the model wouldn’t work, but I held to my bold vision and we found a strategy that works for us. Now we’re the most comprehensive daily health habit in the market — it’s a key differentiator and a reason why our customers love us. Despite this, my biggest wish is that I had set a bigger, more audacious vision earlier in the process.
- Hack away at the unessential. This is a key tenet of both life and business strategy. I’ve had numerous times when we got distracted by short-term wins and low-value issues. The key element of strategy is saying NO to nearly everything, so you can focus on the few things that compound your winning vision. As an entrepreneur, it’s important to continually reinforce this lesson. Focus on what really matters.
- Constantly Optimize for Talent. As a leader, a key element in fueling growth is surrounding yourself with people smarter and more experienced than you in your key areas of need. This can range from “rockstars” up and down the organization to the mentors who provide ongoing guidance. In the early years of the company, I often felt like I had to handle all the big projects and make all the key decisions. It was a mistake. I wish I had surrounded myself with a team of true professionals early on. As good a team as possible, as early as possible. I thought I couldn’t afford them, but in fact it’s the best investment you can make in your business. Hire Amazing Talent as soon as possible.
- Be in the reorder business. This is so simple yet it can’t be emphasized enough. Business success is built on truly adding value, solving your customers’ problems and building loyalty for the long haul. The best brands are those that create such a great product and experience that their customers are excited to go on the journey with them. There is a saying “Be the value you want to receive in the world” — start by obsessing on the value you provide to your customers.
- Ask Better Questions! The right question can change everything. As an entrepreneur, my favorite questions normally start with “how can we……?” It is the quality of the questions that will dictate the quality of your life and the success of your business. Always seek to ask better questions, seek to find those who will help you ask better questions, and set time to think about the questions and the answers — this is so important that I schedule “thinking time” every week into my calendar.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
We are already very excited to be part of empowering a movement… Health Ownership! I’m a firm believer that if people have more education about their overall health and nutrition and understand how to optimize for better health outcomes, they’ll be able to unlock a happier life powered by good health. Take ownership of your own health and go build a spectacular life!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@christhekiwi and @athleticgreens
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me!