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Jesse Merrill: “Build a team of A-players”

Build a team of A-players. Make sure that you surround yourself with folks who have the same passion to win as you do, who fit seamlessly with your company culture, and partner with highly-skilled people who compliment your strengths. Passion is key — if you bring in a low-energy individual that isn’t fighting as hard as you […]

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Build a team of A-players. Make sure that you surround yourself with folks who have the same passion to win as you do, who fit seamlessly with your company culture, and partner with highly-skilled people who compliment your strengths. Passion is key — if you bring in a low-energy individual that isn’t fighting as hard as you are, that will lead to resentment, and stalled growth. However, passion alone is not enough. You need passion + purpose. Passion without purpose is a waste of energy and will lead to frustration. If you bring in a cultural misfit, that will create a toxic environment, which will zap energy, love, and spirit across the broader team. You need to surround yourself with people that you love to be with — people who invite open collaboration and vulnerability. This will build trust. When you have that, the sky is the limit. You can do anything. You can take risks. Risks lead to breakthroughs. Breakthroughs lead to change and change leads to growth. Lastly, don’t bring in redundancy from a skill-set standpoint. This will also stall growth and not allow you to get fresh perspectives on the business from folks that live outside of your wheelhouse. Some of my best ideas have come from teammates with unique skill sets that compliment where I play. This also allows you to be more holistically impactful, as other teammates will rise to the occasion in areas where you struggle.


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 Jesse Merrill. He is an entrepreneur with 10+ years experience across the food and beverage landscape. Specializing in startups and marketing, Jesse has been a part of several exciting brands, including musician Moby’s tea company, teany, Honest Tea, and ACTIVATE Drinks. Jesse was the head of marketing for Honest Tea for 5 years and played an integral role building the brand up through the Coke acquisition in 2011. Jesse is now the Co-Founder & CEO of Good Culture, a disruptive mission-driven cultured dairy company, that created loads of buzz when they shook up the cottage cheese category in 2015. Good Culture is now in over 11k stores, and is one of the top selling brands in major accounts like Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, and Target. Jesse lives at home with his wife, 3 kids, dog and cat in Orange County.


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”?

I grew up 45 mins north of Manhattan, in Rockland County, with two sisters, one older and one younger, and two young parents that were obsessed with nutrition and way ahead of their time. I was frequently made fun of for eating veggie burgers and avocado sandwiches on whole wheat bread (not wonder bread!), well before the masses knew what a veggie burger even was! My mother worked as a chef for nutritionist, Gary Null, and pushed our family to appreciate the power of real food. Growing up, I pushed back on eating the forward-looking meals that my parents put in front of me and I definitely preferred pizza, soda, and candy! But, the real food environment that I grew up in definitely had an impact on me and was certainly a springboard for my current obsession with health and nutrition.

For a good portion of my childhood, I was committed to becoming the next Tony Hawk. I skateboarded all day, every day and loved the thrill and adrenaline that accompanied a high-intensity skate session. Though I never became a professional skateboarder, I still grab my old board and go for a skate from time to time to destress and connect to my youth.

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

We saw that the cottage cheese category desperately needed a facelift. Cottage cheese was an overlooked nutrient-dense superfood that had more protein and less sugar than a Greek yogurt, but it lacked relevant innovation and brand appeal. The cottage cheese products on shelf were loaded with additives (including chemical preservatives, gums, carrageenan, and other highly processed ingredients), mostly came in large outdated tubs with little to no flavor variety, and most were sourcing their milk from confined animals that did not have access to pasture. We saw an opportunity to bring life back to a very sleepy 1.1B dollars category that was larger than yogurt in the 70’s and help change the food system for the better in the process.

On a more personal note, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a “chronic” inflammatory bowel disease. My doctor wanted me to live on harsh drugs for life, to help manage my symptoms, and made it clear that I would never actually cure the disease. I pushed back and asked if diet modification could have a positive impact and offer an alternative therapy. The answer was a resounding, “No”! He said there was absolutely no correlation to diet. I immediately dismissed this, met with an integrative doctor and committed to a three-year diet where I ate nothing but real foods that helped to reduce inflammation in my body. The diet consisted of animal protein, cooked veggies, fruit, and cultured dairy (mostly Good Culture cottage cheese). Within 2 months of living on this diet, all of my symptoms went away without taking any drugs. 3 years later, my colonoscopy showed no sign of UC. It was as if I never had the disease. That said, I’m a big believer in food as medicine. Our mission is to make healing real foods available to the masses without hurting our planet or our animals. This guides every decision we make.

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?

Thinking that the perfect concept samples that I made in my kitchen, could easily be replicated with a manufacturer. You can certainly get value from a great kitchen sample, but know that mirroring that sample, when run through manufacturing equipment, will be incredibly challenging and will take a lot of trial and error and perseverance.

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?

Trying to do everything on your own and not being open to change and adaptation.

The power of many is incredibly important. You are much stronger with a team of A-Players. Push hard to surround yourself with the best and brightest at an early stage. You have to quickly identify your strengths and weaknesses and then delegate appropriately. This approach will help you to make less mistakes, me more impactful, and grow faster.

You may think you have the best idea in the world, but you must be willing to adapt and change as you learn more about what’s working and what isn’t. The entrepreneurs that refuse to change are the entrepreneurs that get stuck and growth stalls. “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often”

However, as you look to change and optimize, you must never stray from your core values or your mission, as that should always serve as your north star. If you do this, you will create a lasting brand that resonates and tells an authentic story.

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?

Make sure that your idea is solving a real need in the marketplace.

Conduct scrappy consumer research to ensure your idea is resonating with your target audience.

Make sure you can make it and get it to the marketplace with healthy margins.

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?

This is typically driven by insecurity and fear. Don’t let fear crush you! Once you have uncovered a pain point in the marketplace, go after it with complete conviction. Believe you can win, stare adversity in the face, and charge the mountain.

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?

This probably differs from category to category, but generally, I’d recommend partnering with a smart manufacturer that has internal R&D resources to help with your initial product development work. Get a small production run under your belt, introduce your products to a targeted audience, obtain consumer insights, and then optimize as needed based on your learnings. You can always hire a consultant down the road to help with optimization efforts. This will be more cost-effective, will keep you intimately involved, and will help drive a tighter relationship with your manufacturer.

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 believe it is best to bootstrap for as long as possible. Prove out your concept in a targeted area with one retailer, one area, etc. and then build out and go wider strategically. Once you have a healthy business with proven traction and you want to scale, I’d look for smart partners that will offer strategic value above and beyond a check to help you grow more effectively.

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?

  1. Get a solid lawyer, that plays in your vertical, that will protect your IP. Make sure you have IP protection built into your manufacturer agreement before any development work begins.
  2. Source trusted raw ingredient suppliers that have a proven track record and ingredient transparency.
  3. Look for a long-standing manufacturer that makes like-products that perform well in the marketplace, has small batch capability, doesn’t require major capex to make your products, has a culture that focuses on quality, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit, and has competitive prices and fair agreements.
  4. You need to identify strategic retailers that align with your target consumer, where you know you have the best chance of success, and meet with them to gauge interest. Once you win the authorization, you will be able to find the appropriate distributor that supports that account. Once you have retailer interest, you will be able to generate buy-in at a distributor level.

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. Make sure your products are solving a real consumer need and keep your mission and values at the forefront of every decision you make. If you create a niche product that only resonates with a narrow audience, it is unlikely that you will create a scalable brand. For example, when we created Good Culture, we did extensive testing with consumers to make sure that our products were solving a real pain point. In our case, there was a barrier to the category based on taste, texture, lack of real food ingredients, and stigma. We solved for that with the Good Culture proposition/brand. Make sure that your consumers understand the “why”/your purpose. Consumers will become loyal, fierce advocates if they believe that you are making a positive impact and building something that is about much more than profits. We overcommit to our values by hiring and firing against them and using them as a filter for every decision we make.
  2. Build a team of A-players. Make sure that you surround yourself with folks who have the same passion to win as you do, who fit seamlessly with your company culture, and partner with highly-skilled people who compliment your strengths. Passion is key — if you bring in a low-energy individual that isn’t fighting as hard as you are, that will lead to resentment, and stalled growth. However, passion alone is not enough. You need passion + purpose. Passion without purpose is a waste of energy and will lead to frustration. If you bring in a cultural misfit, that will create a toxic environment, which will zap energy, love, and spirit across the broader team. You need to surround yourself with people that you love to be with — people who invite open collaboration and vulnerability. This will build trust. When you have that, the sky is the limit. You can do anything. You can take risks. Risks lead to breakthroughs. Breakthroughs lead to change and change leads to growth. Lastly, don’t bring in redundancy from a skill-set standpoint. This will also stall growth and not allow you to get fresh perspectives on the business from folks that live outside of your wheelhouse. Some of my best ideas have come from teammates with unique skill sets that compliment where I play. This also allows you to be more holistically impactful, as other teammates will rise to the occasion in areas where you struggle.
  3. Be open to change. You may think you have the best idea in the world, but you must be willing to adapt and change as you learn more about what’s working and what isn’t. The entrepreneurs that refuse to change are the entrepreneurs that get stuck and growth stalls. “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often”. However, as you look to change and optimize, you must never stray from your core values or your mission, as those should always serve as your north star. If you do this, you will create a lasting brand that resonates and tells an authentic story. We have adapted our portfolio several times since launch to ensure we are delivering products that our consumers want, not only what we want! COVID has also accelerated our thinking around simplification. Simplifying your portfolio, focusing only on the most productive products, reducing complexity, and opening up resources has rarely proven to be a bad idea.
  4. Be focused and say no to opportunities that you are not ready to support. The power of no is meaningful. It is very hard to turn away from opportunities to scale faster, but if you are not ready and you go too wide too fast, you will pay a hefty price. Create proof of concept in focused areas and then scale strategically in the right regions and right accounts. This will help derisk the business, will burn less cash, and will provide the appropriate amount of time to listen to your consumer, optimize, and win. We certainly had our share of mistakes and learned the hard way in some cases, but these learnings have also made us much tighter operators.
  5. Make sure you have a healthy P&L with a clear path to profitability. As they say, “revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, and cash is king”. Don’t launch a business that is margin challenged with heavy operating expenses. Hoping that things will get better down the road is not a good business plan. Finding margin in later years is no easy task — it will always be a fight! Bootstrapping the business and running lean for as long as you can is a great way to build your business. A healthy P&L will allow you to do this effectively. Make sure that you have enough cash/runway to keep the business going with adequate support, without the need to continually raise money and dilute shareholders.

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

Be authentic and have a consumer-first mindset. Love your consumers! If you build authentic connections, based on a foundation of true love, you will create deep impressions that disrupt. You need to really commit to this. Using a filter of love is a very powerful tool to ensure you are always making the best possible decisions that will build a sustainable brand with relevance. In the words of Gandhi, “where there is love, there is life”. You want your consumers to not only believe in what you are doing, but to care about what you are doing and to ultimately act. This will happen if you stay true to your values and mission, drive extreme transparency, and push harder every day to make products that make the lives of your consumer better.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As mentioned, our mission is to make healing real foods available to all, without hurting the planet or our animals. This mission informs every decision we make. We take that very seriously and fight hard every day to create an agriculturally productive ecosystem that mimics nature’s ecosystem. Our current food system is severely broken. The majority of US dairy cows are confined, which creates both an animal welfare and environmental problem. To create a vibrant ecosystem with healthy soil that holds more water and sequesters more carbon, you need to rebuild soil organic matter. That said, we are fighting hard to build a supply chain that sources from regenerative ag farms, with a focus on planned grazing, where animals are strategically moved across the pasture to create more productive land. Healthier soil grows more nutrient-dense foods that heal and leads to lower net emissions. Regenerative Agriculture will also create a healthier economic model for our farmers, as they reduce inputs, pull out cost, and increase yields. This holistic approach to agriculture will help bring in a younger generation of farmers (keeping the small family farm alive and well), improve animal health and welfare, and help protect our planet. It is so refreshing to see so much support behind this critical movement from consumers and companies.

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.

As previously stated, we’d make Regenerative Agriculture the standard for all dairy farms, resulting in healthier animals, healthier people, and a healthier planet.

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.

I’d love to spend time with Michael Jordan and Phil Knight. They have both inspired me to never accept a good enough mindset. “Fight to win, don’t fight to not lose”.

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