Paul Janowitz of MANTRA Labs: “Hire for resourcefulness and drive — not experience or skills”

Hire for resourcefulness and drive — not experience or skills: It’s great if you can get all 4, but I will take the former Marine, or kid that worked two jobs during college over pedigree anytime. You can acquire skills pretty quickly, but drive and a “can do” attitude, not so much. I want the person that […]

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Hire for resourcefulness and drive — not experience or skills: It’s great if you can get all 4, but I will take the former Marine, or kid that worked two jobs during college over pedigree anytime. You can acquire skills pretty quickly, but drive and a “can do” attitude, not so much. I want the person that says, “Yeah, I don’t know how to do that, but hand that over buddy. I can Google anything and put in a few hours tonight and I will figure this out.”


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Janowitz, a serial entrepreneur and investor who has launched, invested in and sold companies ranging from technology to consumer packaged goods. He is currently the Founder and CEO of MANTRA Labs (https://gomantralabs.com/) — a better-for-you nutrition brand with a social mission to improve mental health resources. Mr. Janowitz is an active investor and board member who focuses on mission driven businesses. He is one of the founding investors and mentors of SKU, an Austin, TX based CPG accelerator where he has helped launch many household brands including EPIC, Siete, Austin East Ciders and more. Mr. Janowitz lives in Austin, TX with his wife where he also lectures at the University of Texas and enjoys daily trail runs and helping aspiring entrepreneurs.)


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My backstory reads more like rough manuscript or winding road — which means I like trying new things, normally get over my head and then work like hell to figure it out. At 45 I think I have finally figured out that pattern and that is what gives me purpose, and also drives my wife crazy. I started out with an undergraduate degree from UT Austin in Government and Economics and took a job at The Gallup Organization. I had no idea what the job was, I was just excited to have a job coming out of school. So my wife and I move out to California (yep, we got married at age 20, I dropped out of school for a year and roofed, then went back to school and double- majored and finished in 2.5 years — like I said, “a winding road”). It was a great job with amazing people, there was no better place to learn market research and human behavior than at The Gallup Organization. Alas, I decided to go back to grad school at UT and during that time my Gallup client from Intel started a new innovation firm and I joined him and helped grow that for a few years. Then an opportunity came up to really focus on school and work part time running a branding department at an ad agency. So we sold our new car, bought an old Volvo, refinanced the house, and I dove into school and brand consulting.

Then I struck out on my own and created a market research and innovation consultancy as I finished up grad school (I was in the PhD. program and did all the courses, but after we had our second child I decided to “drop out” with my masters so I could actually see my kids). Those early start-up days were long! Once a week or so I would pull a 24- hour shift at the office to catch up on billing and operations, drive home in the morning, have breakfast with the kids and then head back in. My wife was a true partner in the venture and did an amazing job on the home front and with the children while I was on the other side of the world doing focus groups, probably too often.

I started with some wonderful interns (because that is what I could afford), who turned into employees and we grew from there. These were fun times, like building an airplane while flying it — we just faked what we could and assumed whatever else came along we could figure out with a bit of the old Google, hustle and extra hours. Eventually after several boom and bust cycles that were filled with laying off friends, tears and beers; we built a software platform for engaging a brand’s customers in co-creation to create better products and services. That really took off and we pivoted from being a service-based business to be a software-based business (SaaS platform). We sold that company to a PE firm in 2016.

Oh, and during that time of running the company I had some friends that were starting up SKU (back then called Incubation Station). We were the first CPG-focused accelerator and it was a blast working with, and investing in, all these passionate founders creating new categories and better-for-you products.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

There is a great analogy I read about the entrepreneur based on a Chinese proverb I believe. There is a man riding a tiger and everyone that sees him says, “Wow, look at him, he is so strong and so brave!”, but the man on the tiger is saying, “I can’t get off this tiger I jumped on, because if I get off, it will eat me.” There is no better analogy for being young, unfunded and striking out on your own. Come to think of it, it feels the same way even at 45! Some days you wake up, or some nights you can’t even sleep with what feels like an unbearable list of things to do and an emotional roller coaster that just won’t quit. Add to that the imposter syndrome (you have to always smile and cheerlead even when you don’t feel it), the real possibility of going to zero and the fact that investors, family and employees are counting on you — well that gets hard quickly, and does not quit. The highs are amazing and the lows are soul testing. Brad Feld, a prolific investor and start-up advisor, has shared some amazing thought pieces and data around this that are worth looking up: Entrepreneurs have significantly higher rates of depression and other mental illness than the general population. Some of this is probably systemic — those of us that chase emotional edges are more drawn start-up life and the emotional roller coaster, and the roller coaster of a start-up contributes to bouts of anxiety and depression.

All that is to say — any start-up has hard times and some amazing times. What makes it worthwhile for me personally is working hard at something worth working hard for with good friends, breakfast tacos, tons of coffee and Friday patio beers. It does not get much better than that. I also laid everything on the line in those early days, there was no savings (and I don’t come from money) — we mortgaged or sold everything and maxed credit cards. I don’t recommend it, but that seems to be the journey. I had two young babies and a loving wife — failure just was not an option. The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was letting me know I was capable, you just need to put in the work, figure it out and put one foot in front of the other. As I tell my kids — “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I look at hard times and start-ups the same way — we are capable, it is not failure until you give up. And, giving up is way different than the business failing — a business failing can be a huge success if you learn, and grow from it.

To go full circle to my current venture — MANTRA Labs. I took about a year off after leaving my last venture and was pretty bored and honestly depressed without much direction. I was drinking too much coffee in the morning and too much bourbon at night — not a bad day, but not good when you string too many in a row. I looked for a healthy morning beverage and clean pre-workout to get back in shape. At the same time my wife was having a bad bout of insomnia. I looked online and at the stores and found nothing that was a simple, clinically-backed, and in an all natural system to address these key day parts. I figured, how hard could it be — well that was the first mistake, and a lot of fun! Oh, and then right when we finally had all the research done and were ready to start production and launch — COVID-19 hit! That made everything 10x harder — from sourcing ingredients, to getting boxes made, to meeting with retail accounts.

This time around, I am all in again so that stress is there. However, I have learned to self-regulate my hours a bit more, to listen to my wife more, to check my ego more, to hire experts that I can learn from and to trust the process — you can only push that rock uphill so fast — but I am finding ways to speed it up every day. We also have an amazing physical product that has a true health impact on our customers. The reviews that have come in from those suffering from insomnia where our product has helped, and the feedback about the energy we are giving busy parents now working from home, and now doing school and more has just been awesome and keeps me going. Our social mission also drives me. My wife and I both came from families that suffered tragically from mental health issues. Our goal is to save others from that by destigmatizing mental health and elevating the conversation around it — because talking saves lives. We also donate one percent of every single dollar we make to mental health organizations that are doing life-saving work. I am driven by the fact that for every dollar we sell we do more good and every marketing message we do that promotes mental health means someone may ask for help.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Let me take my latest venture in CPG for this one. I have a friend who I will leave nameless (he will know who he is when he reads this). Let’s call him Mike. Well, Mike took over a struggling CPG brand and helped nurse it back to life and it grew quite well. But every time I talked to him something was always going wrong — from packaging, to their 3PL to a retail display. I told him lovingly that he must be the common denominator and to stop messing things up, put in some processes and relax. I realize now after being on this side of the fence the common denominator is CPG! You don’t own many of the means of production and have half-a-dozen partners in the business all producing parts independently that have to all fit together perfectly.

So, as I started down this road, I found myself calling him several times a week saying, “Hey, you know how you totally messed up XYZ and said it was not your fault, well I just messed up XYZ and I swear it is not my fault, but it certainly looks like it!” An example? We worked super hard on getting custom shipping boxes made that fit our custom packaging and some high end custom stainless-steel water bottles (the use of “custom” three times in this sentence should be a warning). I measured everything, sent pictures to all our vendors and so forth. All was perfect. As this was COVID I could not visit any manufacturer or our 3PL warehouse. Well, everything gets sent into the warehouse and I email them detailed packaging instructions. I get a call back saying the water bottle does not fit! I can’t figure out why. Then they send the picture — each water bottle looks great, but from the factory they come nicely wrapped in paper and then are put inside their own shipping box — I did not count on that extra half inch! So, now for all our shipments we have to instruct the warehouse to actually unbox the nice water bottle and put it in the box — not a big deal, but we are wasting packaging, which I hate and as anyone in the industry knows, you pay for each water bottle to be unboxed, so our costs went up before we even shipped our first order.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I may have covered this before, but I think we have three things that make us stand out. First — and this has to be first — our products work and produce meaningful health results for our customers. I just believe in (and it’s one of our mantras) “truth in nutrition”. You have to make stuff that works. Secondly, is our story. We were looking for clean sugar-free hydration, a better pre-workout for our high school son and something to help my wife with her insomnia. We found nothing and knew we could do better. We scoured the world, went deep in the research and spared no expense. We simply built a better system by not taking shortcuts, letting science vs. profits drive the ingredient decision and being fanatical about being natural and good for your body AND mind.

Last — and I would have said this should be first a year ago — is our social mission. We donate to mental health causes, partner with mental health organizations, and promote mental health in our marketing. That means so much to us as discussed before. But, why did this go from first to last? I heard an interview with one of the founders of Warby Parker. He was super clear that it was product — service — mission and in that order. Without an amazing product you don’t have a long-term business, without incredible customer service you won’t grow and without those two your mission does not matter because you won’t be big enough to have an impact. Product and service are your cost of entry to do good. You need all 3 like the 3 legs of a stool.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Dude, it will be there tomorrow and probably nothing is an emergency. I tell myself that every night — typically too late at night when I start creating more mistakes than I am “fixing”.

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 could do an entire interview on this! As you can probably tell my wife is an integral part of this start-up and in supporting my previous ones. I feel a huge loyalty and debt of gratitude to anyone that works with me. I have some weird insecurity around it — why the heck would someone work for me when there are all these other amazing companies they can go to? I know I treat people as partners and always have folks put their families first, but still I am just really humbled when someone shares such a significant portion of their life with me (and not in a humble brag sort of way, more like wow, thanks!). Many of my previous employees have become dear friends, fellow investors, and worked with me on multiple start-ups. These folks are clutch and I will always be indebted to them.

OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Great question. A “good” company to me is one that has its operations down, everything from cash flow to scaling processes. A “great” company is one that feels like a movement that people want to be a part of. Something that signifies what you stand for. The easy example there is Patagonia.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Don’t be Enron: Meaning don’t be the “smartest one in the room”. If you are, you have hired poorly. You need people around you to call out your BS and say when the emperor has no clothes.

Hire for resourcefulness and drive — not experience or skills: It’s great if you can get all 4, but I will take the former Marine, or kid that worked two jobs during college over pedigree anytime. You can acquire skills pretty quickly, but drive and a “can do” attitude, not so much. I want the person that says, “Yeah, I don’t know how to do that, but hand that over buddy. I can Google anything and put in a few hours tonight and I will figure this out.”

Family first: Employees can’t be engaged at work if they can’t take care of their families and have freedom to do so.

Trust and don’t be cheap (two interrelated items) — and know you will get screwed here and there: Some people hold tight reigns over hours, expenditures and contracts. I find that time is best focused on creating good vs. worrying about the downside. I have gotten more upside over this approach than any downside. Just know you will get screwed here and there no matter what. So, nickel-and-diming contracts and vendors is not worth it, nor is worrying if a client owes you an extra 500 dollars on a 50,000 dollars order — instead build goodwill that you can cash in later for a whole lot more.

Don’t let processes wag the dog: Put in templates and processes so everyone can focus on adding incremental value above that. Don’t make the business be in the process business because it makes you seem larger or more together. You want to look (and feel) like you are operating in a flow state (use the processes to give you this space).

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

I think we are seeing the outer limits of unfettered capitalism and the notion that shareholder value is the highest good and truth for a business. The next generations (and I will even say mine) don’t want that and we are burnt out. Burn out comes from chasing something that has diminishing returns — money. What does not have diminishing returns is purpose and passion. If you want to be happy, do things for others. That is the single scientific underpinning of happiness — at least from what I can tell from reviewing the scientific literature on happiness. Since we spend more time at work than anywhere else, it only makes sense to have your company do good things for others so that you and your employees are happy and engaged.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Take a break. Really, just step away — and if you can’t do that you now know why your business is at a stand-still — you are the blockage. So, for a few weeks step away — cut your pay, hire others with that money, Also, ask yourself why you are in business. Maybe the reason has changed. You can always step away and quit. If you don’t, it is a choice (I struggle believing this daily!). But understanding your life and how your choices empower you and having that power lets you see things differently and you might just get unstuck if you take that time off!

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I will go back to eating an elephant — one bite at a time (I am a vegetarian, so this example is sort of a poor one, but I will go with it). Just take it one step at a time. And, as a small(er) business you can do things the big ones can’t. See where you can zig where the rest zag. You might even be able to go big and take that risk now while others are being more cautious. Always protect your downside (you can’t win if you are not in the game), but look for new opportunities for asymmetrical returns or countercyclical parts of your business.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Two things. Hiring and firing. They are both equally critical and hard, and they are skill sets you have to develop.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Consumers buy stories and the products that support those stories. Those could be your story, the product’s story or even the consumer’s story and how this product fits in to their life. And keep it simple — simple to read, simple to understand, simple to buy.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Nordstrom is the classic example here. They would drive to drop off shoes hours away and accept returns that were not even from their store. Maybe they did these things a few times, but they received a lifetime reputation and millions in revenue from these stories. Another way to put this — do the right thing. What if it was your mom or kid that was the customer? Just do the right thing, I don’t think that needs much explaining for most people; we just lose sight of it in all the business jargon and desire for profits.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

I will reiterate, do the right thing and don’t be cheap. You have to start with that as your base. Then think about what actions you can take that would get someone to tell others — what would make you tell others? Have fun with it — see how whacky or off the wall you can go for your customers. Spark some joy in their day and yours. That will vary by industry and brand, but there is always opportunity to make a human connection that can be meaningful for your customer and company.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Yes, definitely a concern in these polarized times and the prevailing cancel culture. I think if you were to look at social media across the board, it has done more harm than good. Yes, Twitter has helped spread dissident news from oppressive regimes, families have connected on Facebook and Instagram can be fun. However, we are seeing the flipside of those platforms with many of their creators expressing alarm at the underlying business model — that clicks and attention and behavior change are the revenue stream open to the highest bidder. This has created isolation, depression, body dysmorphia, influencer culture and other unintended consequences. We need more people and brands on social media putting good into the stream with positive messages and positive body images. Knowing we would have to engage in social media was actually one of the things I had to overcome — I did not want to be on a social media platform — in order to launch this business. So, we decided — yes, we needed to be where the people were, but that we would try to be a force for good in those channels and spread positive messages wherever and however we could. We also have to stay fairly narrow andin our lane as we won’t engage with trolls or any negative banter online. So far, so good! We also launched during COVID, so we kind of had no choice as many retailers were putting the brakes on accepting new products into the store, leaving online social as a key channel.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

That is a tough one. We all make our own unique mistakes, but not understanding cash flow seems to be what kills a business. You can’t win if you are not in the game. Know your cash flow, protect your downside and then take iterative, calculated risks. One step at a time.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. 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. 🙂

Talking saves lives. This is super important when it comes to mental health and suicide. But it also saves lives in general. The biggest “mistakes” and regrets I have all come from not having the difficult conversations that needed to happen. So, reach out and talk.

How can our readers further follow you online? Linkinedin.com/pauljanowitz , @paul_janowitz and @gomantralabs

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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