There is a really good balance between feminine and masculine energy, and one should be able to move between each and recognize the need. Intuition is important, and keeping that in mind will help in situations where you’re faced with having to make “coin flip” decisions. Have ideas of where you want to go with your business while recognizing that there are some ethereal components to ideas, and letting them form may take you in a different direction than you originally thought; ultimately if it fits, do it. Lastly, honor your customers and consider there are no rote processes — you can create the business you want. You just have to go out and do it. As leaders of a young company, we are pushed to our limits, and it’s imperative to keep our team focused and agile, and feeling like they are supported and challenged. We are in agreement about how we want our teams to perform, how we want to challenge them, how we want them to feel, and understand their value as humans and representatives of LIX. We believe in creative, vibrant, cross-generational teams that aren’t afraid of a challenge and are able to compromise when needed. We believe in establishing and maintaining trust and ethics across our team, every step of the way. We consider our LIX family to be our employees AND customers.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirstan Sanders and Erin Hills Co-Founders of LIX. LIX a pet wellness company with a focus on products was founded in late November 2019, before the pandemic took hold. Kirstan and Erin met through a puppy adoption company, and joined forces to launch their own rescue that they ran together for years — as an addition to their “actual jobs.” Kirstan had experience in pet wellness through a company she helped launch and, though it was years ahead of its time, she knew she’d continue her pet wellness path at some point. Years later, after much time in startups, and in SaaS organizations working with customers in highly regulated environments like food and pharma, Kirstan and Erin decided to launch their pet wellness company and have the products focus on health, help, affordability, and accessibility across species. Kirstan knows the benefits, herbs, and extracts can bring to humans and animals, and she knew she could get this right by combining hers and Erin’s years of experience in business, rescue, and animals. Ultimately, business is art for Kirstan — she loves a good creative group of people who can gather information, create a lineup of products they fully believe in, and execute on a plan. The combined passion, creativity, business savvy, knowledge, and drive of the group at LIX, gives Kirstan great joy every day!
Erin Hills, Erin started this company with a longtime friend, Kirstan Sanders, after many years of working animal rescue and breed education together. A native of Oregon, full-time working mom and pet lover.
Erin has always had a passion for operational excellence and has proven her expertise over the past five years on the Senior Leadership Team, within the emerging cannabis industry. From implementing production and education best practices and SOPs to driving growth, Erin leveraged her focus, diligence, and structure to play an integral role in the company’s growth. Prior to her tenure in the cannabis space, Erin held senior-level positions within a number of companies, with direct influence in business development, marketing, financial planning, customer service, and operational needs. Erin has always had a passion for animals, wellness, and happiness. Being able to marry this passion and business acumen together is a lifelong dream!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
KS: It’s a roundabout story, but I’ll try to make it short. My business partner (Erin Hills) and I met when she adopted a puppy through a pit bull rescue group I ran about a zillion years ago. We ended up partnering and running that group together for a number of years, fighting breed-specific legislation, rescuing, adopting… wash, rinse, repeat. We had so many dogs come through our group over the years, and when we shuttered it due to life events (career, kids, marriage, divorce, etc.), we still kept in touch and ultimately reconnected “over weed.” That sounds a lot different than what it actually means — I was working for a software company, building out audit and risk management for cannabis clients on our platform, and needed some real-life experience from people, so I put out the ask to see “who knew all the things about weed,” and Erin answered. I was a little shocked, but we were chatting, then eventually worked together a bit and, as I was ending a consulting gig and chatting with her, said “We should start our own pet brand now. It’s time, and it’s necessary.” And, here we are! We started working together in late November 2019, and we launched LIX back in March. We feel so honored to be able to share LIX, and start curating a community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
KS: I sent someone a product sample I’m working on (a powder that is straight hemp), but it smells like weed and its little container broke. I hadn’t bothered with double-wrapping it because it was still in its own pouch, but her son opened it and asked why Kirstan was sending her weed. I didn’t, and it wasn’t.
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?
KS: Anytime you create a product, you go through some rather rigorous testing. I line up various ingredients and photograph the entire process, and the dogs are usually milling around. We had set up space and I turned to take a call… and the dogs hit the table and ingredients go everywhere… about 1,000 dollars worth of ingredients all over the place. Lesson learned? Multitasking isn’t the way. And dogs are smart.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
KS: Well, it’s an interesting question, and I think of what we do as more of a Foundership. There are a lot of people out there saying they’re C-suite, and Erin and I have both spent a number of years at higher level positions at different companies. C-suite to me is a natural progression of foundership, and when we’re out of this baby stage and into growth mode, we will happily change the title to C-suite, officially. For now, we were, and are, committed to a successful company with customers who are part of a community. We wanted to start and grow something more than a business, or a pet product. We want to build a company that customers are proud of — as proud of it as we are. So, the attraction is way outside a title — it’s a feeling, a process, a commitment to our best, every day.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
KS: We do EVERYTHING. There isn’t a time when we don’t know what is going on, or where we are, what we need to do, or when and how we need to assess the next steps. We work with the groups to draft strategy and build in correlators and indicators, so our management of the risks and strategy align. We use the data to make our decisions and create the processes to better represent our data in a way that’s useful and thoughtful. We build in operational excellence, and I’ve never met anyone who executes like Erin. NO ONE. And I’m old.
This company is everything to us, and we don’t WANT to do something “less than.” We are also not leaving our company or our products in the hands of someone who isn’t us — for now. We are leaving nothing to chance or fate. I also think that it depends on what type of community and culture one is working to build, which helps define what type of C-suite individual is needed, and at what stages. We have to be good at everything right now, and that will craft a better view of how and when to hire, and what effort type and experience level will be needed as we scale.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
KS & EH: Well, I’ll say “Founder,” not executive at this stage, but it’s a giant puzzle filled with knowledge and drive, that are the keys to the success of any company. So, we get to have the fun of learning every single day and knowing it’s ours to lose. Like everyone, we fail, and it’s still pretty damn amazing we have this chance to do something we’ve been focused on forever while offering ease and happiness to animals and their humans (our product is human-grade, after all).
What are the downsides of being an executive?
KS & EH: Attorney calls… and we love our attorneys. Also, some days it’s a bit of an exercise to go chasing ingredients that match our desired profile and needs. Sometimes, it’s a tough day to say, “This product has to wait,” even if we see a great need.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
KS & EH: Myth: Meetings are all day-every day, and we get to golf.
No. None of that. We are grinding every day. Meetings are necessary and focused, and attendees are well-prepared. At the foundership stage, well, at any stage really, there is NO time for lost or wasted time. That’s how life, in general, should be, too.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
KS: Well, we aren’t men, so we can’t answer that with absolute certainty. But I’ll give you our rundown of things we have come across: A lot of men in this industry, it seems, think that women can’t hold up or perform at a high level (pun intended). And that we either don’t have the savvy needed, or don’t understand how this industry was built, or maybe that we can’t understand the regulations. My entire career has been purpose-built around risk management and audit and finance. And Erin is an absolute sales and operational guru. We know how to get things done, and aren’t afraid to ask for help. Of course, we don’t know it all. We do have a solid plan in place, and for damn sure know how to operate in this environment.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
KS: Erin has vast experience with startups, growth, and expansion of businesses, as well as vast experience in cannabis and heading up operations and growth for a publicly-traded company. She heads up operations and sales and, thankfully, she’s full-time with LIX, all day, every day, EVEN in the midst of this pandemic. Her enthusiasm and savvy are contagious. So, for her, I’d say this is so much more exciting having our own thing, rather than working for someone else with a path that may not make sense. Erin also works with the finance, audit, and risk groups, as well as the executive levels in publicly-traded and privately-held companies around the world, and creates solutions with technology that streamlines and focuses the business and business owners on data and processes needed to perform at optimal levels.
With LIX, I manage the technology and finance and risk (Erin is part of risk management, too). I do product and blogging, and that’s my creative fun time. Business really is my “art,” and it’s an absolute luxury to be able to combine research and product and writing! I had no idea I’d like this creative side so much, because I’ve always done it, but not for business-related purposes. I’ve always created for my animals and had the “what if this, what if that,” mantra for so long. We both take the commitment to the animals, our customers, and our environment so seriously, and craft entire processes around that commitment. That’s a very different responsibility and commitment than we’ve been asked to have at companies run by others.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
KS & EH: Compassion and diligence. Commitment to oneself, the company, and one’s customers. Lead with service in mind. Grow your company and your employees thoughtfully. Don’t overextend your company. Drop the ego. Keep your commitments and execute, execute, execute, according to your plan, while also embracing change.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
KS & EH: There is a really good balance between feminine and masculine energy, and one should be able to move between each and recognize the need. Intuition is important, and keeping that in mind will help in situations where you’re faced with having to make “coin flip” decisions. Have ideas of where you want to go with your business while recognizing that there are some ethereal components to ideas, and letting them form may take you in a different direction than you originally thought; ultimately if it fits, do it. Lastly, honor your customers and consider there are no rote processes — you can create the business you want. You just have to go out and do it. As leaders of a young company, we are pushed to our limits, and it’s imperative to keep our team focused and agile, and feeling like they are supported and challenged. We are in agreement about how we want our teams to perform, how we want to challenge them, how we want them to feel, and understand their value as humans and representatives of LIX. We believe in creative, vibrant, cross-generational teams that aren’t afraid of a challenge and are able to compromise when needed. We believe in establishing and maintaining trust and ethics across our team, every step of the way. We consider our LIX family to be our employees AND customers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
EH: When I was very young, I had my first “real job,” and I was struggling with maturity and living a grown-up life. I was letting life challenges get in the way of my potential. Thankfully, I worked for a woman who saw my true potential, and when I was about to be terminated, she stepped in, took me under her wing and would not allow me to give up or fail. She was sympathetic to my struggles, but was equally hard on me and pushed me to see my own potential. I went on to work many more years, successfully, for that company and others. It was pivotal for me, and I strived hard in my career to do the same for others. Support them, push them, encourage them, so that they can have (and be) anything they want for a career. It gives me great joy to see people excel in their lives and careers. Today’s youth that are coming into the workforce, need this now more than ever from us, as leaders.
KS: Good Lord, so many. Without fail, my mom could bring clarity to any situation. She could take the “I’m not sure,” and turn it into a solid “yes” or “no” with a phrase like, “Well, 3 years will pass and you’ll be in a similar situation because you took a safe route, and that’s great if that’s your choice. If you choose the less familiar, it may play out completely different than you imagine or want, and the lessons learned along the way will shape you in an entirely different way than you can imagine. Make the decision — there isn’t a correct way to go. There are just 2 paths.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
KS & EH: We have fought breed-specific legislation for years and gone up against city councils, state attorney general offices, and regions or areas with legislative bias, so people could keep their pets. Through rescue, we’ve placed so many dogs from some really really bad situations, into the most fantastic homes, meeting so many wonderful people along the way. It’s pretty great to realize how many true friends we have through our rescue endeavors, and we know LIX will help the animals. It’s a metamorphosis for us.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Labeling requirements are no joke. You can’t just write what you want.
- You must be highly specific and direct with what you want for your product.
- You can find any facility to produce it, and you must make sure they adhere to your standards.
- The term “highly regulated” is an understatement.
- This will be the most fun, most rewarding, and most focused work you’ll ever do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
KS & EH: Commit to the environment as it sustains us, and be willing to push limits to create sustainable eco and climate-conscious products that people can grow into (and not need to grow out of), that are affordable, both in cost to customer and cost to the environment. And make a commitment to foster creativity in production to keep that loop of ideas of betterment flowing. Create and develop the framework for a community of customers and peers, and incentivize people to add to, or continue, the journey of commitment and giving back.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
EH: “Not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path.” — Unknown
I have had many storms come along throughout the years, maybe more than most for my age. And a few felt as if they were a tornado of destruction on my life. And although we cannot avoid these storms, we can take pause to see what the lesson is, and/or what has cleared for us in the process. But we must be present, open, and willing to evaluate and listen. I have learned to constantly re-evaluate, pay attention to the detail of the message, remember everything happens for a reason, be willing to turn it over, and remember this too shall pass. Case in point: my latest “storm” led me to LIX!
KS: “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I’ve loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” — Sarah Williams
When I’m faced with hurdles or disenchantment or uncertainty or fear, I now know that the consequence is beautiful and the journey incomplete. I can take a few big deep breaths, calm my system, regroup, and go.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Barack and Michelle Obama — the epitome of calm, cool, balanced, and dedicated. They’re articulate, focused, accessible, and brilliant.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much.