This is a marathon. Don’t get discouraged, progress takes time. Success has certain non-negotiable elements and endurance and persistence could be the most important. You are in for the long haul, that’s what you signed up for.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Folkson.
Folkson is the founder and CEO of Nightfood, Inc., a company focused specifically on nighttime snacking for better sleep quality. Over 85% of Americans snack regularly at night, and the most popular choices are both unhealthy, and disruptive to sleep quality. Pioneering the nighttime nutrition category, Nightfood gives consumers delicious snack products formulated by sleep experts with ingredients and nutritional profiles for better sleep.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Going back as far as college, I started to notice patterns in my sleep based on what I would eat (or drink) the night before. Identifying these patterns back then was really the foundation for what would come years later.
I remember discovering a new brand of nutrition bars that I loved, but that came with an immediate inability to fall asleep at night.
Despite the impact that what we eat or drink at night has on our sleep being such an obvious thing (as anybody that’s ever had a hangover can attest), there was surprising little research on the topic. I was also surprised to find there were no nighttime specific snacks out there. There was nighttime cold medicine, there was decaf coffee, there were nighttime teas…but no snacks. If those products had existed, I would have just become a customer and gone on with my life. But they weren’t out there
From that, I identified the massive opportunity where sleep and nutrition intersect. We now know that over 85% of consumers snack regularly at night. Of course, what we eat at night impacts our sleep. And the most popular nighttime snack choices are all both unhealthy AND sleep disruptive (cookies, chips, candy, and…of course, ice cream).
Now global food and beverage companies are talking about the importance of better nighttime snacking for the consumer, as we pioneer this exciting new category.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Honestly the most interesting things that have happened are going on right now, and I can’t talk about them because Nightfood is a publicly traded company.
However, being an “industry outsider”, I can tell you that the process of developing an ice cream brand and product line was an amazing experience. The time we spent at the R&D lab nailing down final formulations, flavors, what a blast!
And it was such a proud moment for me to have my wife and two young sons at the plant the morning we started our first ever production run. Nick and Ben had just turned 6 and 9. Having them there, and us being able to sample from brand new pints right off the production line, that was such a proud moment for me, one I’ll never forget. I’m sure lots of kids have dads that have made built a successful and impressive hangar business, or ball-bearings or something really boring. But my two boys have a dad who started an ice cream company, and I love seeing how proud and happy they are when they get to tell other people about that.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Nightfood was on the market for several years with snack bars. I always wanted to eventually do ice cream, but thought we needed to wait until the bars achieved a certain level of popularity.
But, in 2018, with the bars not yet having really connected with the marketplace, I decided to launch the ice cream. We knew ice cream was extremely popular as a nighttime snack and that regular ice cream is a pretty poor snack choice before bed because of all the fat, sugar, and calories.
We launched the ice cream in 2019 and immediately won the Product of the Year award and the World Dairy Innovation Award for Best New Ice Cream. We were featured in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and many other outlets and started securing distribution in major supermarkets.
I believe the tipping point was when we decided to switch from bars to ice cream. That allowed us to meet the consumer where they were at — they were already eating ice cream so we simply found a way to give them a better option, without forcing them to switch to another snack format to get the unique benefits Nightfood delivers.
My big takeaway from that whole launch was to approach all decisions more from the viewpoint of the consumer — make it easier for them to do the same thing in a better way, rather than requiring a major change in behavior. Focusing on consumer behavior and consumer needs will always lead you in the right direction.
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?
We had a meeting coming up with a really big supermarket account. My flight out of LGA was 5AM (Yikes) on a Tuesday morning. Monday night I called our broker to confirm he had the samples of our ice cream all ready to go. “Samples?? I thought you were bringing them!” he told me.
We were trying to close our biggest account to date, we couldn’t show up with no samples.
I remembered we had just recently landed placement in a store about an hour from where the meeting was. Good thing I was on the 5AM flight instead of the 6:30. The broker picked me up at the airport, we drove straight to the store, bought a cooler, some ice, and a pint of each flavor they had (it was only four, not the entire line), and hustled to HQ for our big meeting.
The ice cream was really soft at the meeting, and we had to explain why we only had a few flavors. But the buyer loved it. That’s how we landed our biggest account to date. They took seven flavors, and the rest is history.
Lesson learned? Always double-check the samples (and everything else).
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Ice cream is the #1 pregnancy craving. We recently became the recommended ice cream of the American Pregnancy Association, to give expectant moms a better way to satisfy their ice cream cravings. Just last month we launched the first ever ice cream flavor dedicated to pregnant women, Pickles For Two, which has met with great reception. After a year on the market as a sleep friendly snack, we learned that Nightfood was a great option for pregnant women who were trying to make healthy choices
Establishing ourselves as the official pregnancy ice cream is an ongoing process that we think will pay huge dividends for the future, both for the company and for expectant moms everywhere.
Nightfood allows expectant moms to enjoy something that has less calories and sugar, but more calcium, more protein, more fiber, and other ingredients that and won’t cause heartburn or disrupt sleep, and in fact, with ingredients for better sleep. This was exciting for us because of the size of the market combined with the opportunity to truly do something good for women. Good sleep is a real challenge during pregnancy. That initiative has been both productive and altruistic, and we are beyond thrilled that it is a game changer in the night snacking market and pregnancy snacking markets.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
Here are five important lessons I wish someone told me and I would tell a new CEO:
- This is a marathon. Don’t get discouraged, progress takes time. Success has certain non-negotiable elements and endurance and persistence could be the most important. You are in for the long haul, that’s what you signed up for.
- Surround yourself with experts — you can’t be the best at everything, and that’s not even in your job description. You’re judged by what you get out of your team. Build a great team, and then empower them do what they do best.
- Whenever doubt creeps in (and it will), bring your focus back to your vision of the future, and that will provide clarity and confidence for next steps
- Find balance — take care of yourself and your relationships. This does NOT diminish your passion or your mission, but it WILL give you the energy and strength you need to see things through.
- Deliver on your brand promise. I create and launched a brand that delivers sleep-friendly snacks to consumers. Our promise to the customer is that Night food will deliciously satisfy their cravings while providing nutrition for better sleep. To fulfill this promise, I built a team of leading medical sleep experts, nutritionists, OBGYNS (for our pregnancy initiative) and the relevant advocacy organizations to be part of our strategic decision making in product development and marketing. That’s what we needed to do to ensure we fulfill the Night food brand promise. Customers and other stakeholders will immediately know if you don’t deliver on your value proposition and it will be game over. Do whatever it takes to meet that obligation and you’ll be moving in the right direction.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burn out rarely happens when you believe in what you do. If your heart isn’t in your work that burn out becomes a matter of time. Find a mission or passion you love or value at a deep level so the tedious and mundane parts serve an obvious purpose. With our 24/7 global communications environment, our work days are not carved into universal increments. It easy to lose sight of boundaries so you must set your own and stick to it. Set a stop time, set a bed time. This year we have all worked remotely from our homes for an extended period so there are no longer any physical barriers between work and our families and home activities. You must be deliberate about setting boundaries. Most importantly, when you’ve identified your “why”, burn out is much less likely.
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?
It’s funny because he’s now a friend and valued member of our team, but before I started Nightfood, and long before I met him, the work of Dr. Michael Breus was inspirational. In his books, on his blog, and in major media outlets such as WebMD, Huffington Post, and other media, he directly addressed the two-way relationship between nutrition and sleep. Dr. Breus wasn’t just a sleep expert but somebody who understood consumer behavior and their thinking in how they approached sleep problems on an emotional level.
Known as “America’s Sleep Doctor”, he was well known for his down to earth advice and charismatic bedside manner in helping people through their sleep challenges. He’s a sleep rock-star, best-selling author and has been on all the major TV outlets countless times: The Today Show, Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz, Oprah, CBS Early Show, The View, CBS This Morning, and more. So, to me, he was a sleep celebrity…sleep royalty.
When I was finally able to connect with him Dr. Breus was very welcoming and a powerful supporter of the Nightfood mission. In addition to his expertise, he provided credibility and assurance that we were creating something that would have serious impact for consumers. Ultimately, he joined the Nightfood Scientific Advisory Board and helped with our ice cream formulation. But I remember doing our preliminary research thinking “If only one day we could get this guy on our team…”.
Had we never met, and he never joined our team, I’d still be grateful to Dr. Breus for affirming in our early years that the need existed for a sleep-friendly snacks.
In addition to Dr. Breus, our scientific team includes Dr. Lauren Broch and Dr. Michael Grandner, and all three of them have been extremely helpful. While the Nightfood brand is playful and light-hearted, our experts make sure we deliver on our brand with products backed by nutritional and sleep science.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Hopefully that movement has already started. In the recent years since I started Nightfood, we’ve seen many of the largest food and beverage companies in the world declare that nighttime snacking is an area of attention and focus. From Nestle, to Mondelez, to Kellogg’s and Pepsi/Frito-Lay, this is something that the largest consumer goods companies in the world are now starting to think about.
The result in the coming years is that people will be able to enjoy all their snacks at night without sabotaging their sleep quality and their next-day energy levels. That then leads to increased unhealthy snacking in a vicious cycle.
We have a sleep crisis in this country that is not yet being taken as seriously as it should. This is resulting in poor health, lost productivity, and general irritability. I always saw Nightfood as the early pioneer in the obvious next wave of food choice — what we call “sleep-friendly”.
It’s not enough for the snack you choose at night to just be healthier…if you’re snacking at night, which most people are, choosing sleep-friendly options can literally change your life through better sleep.
How can our readers follow you on social media? I’m fairly active on LinkedIn (the only Sean Folkson on there), and on Twitter at @seanfolkson
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.