For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darby Jackson. Darby is the Co-Founder of Après, a protein-based replenishment beverage designed for the modern health and wellness consumer. Après is a first of its kind beverage designed with organic plant protein, MCTs from organic virgin coconut oil and electrolytes from organic coconut water. As a former health coach and personal trainer, Jackson struggled to find the perfect post-workout snack to recommend to her clients. All of the protein products on the market screamed ‘bulk and biceps’, had a terrifying ingredient list or were too inconvenient to consume on-the-go. The brand’s mission is to help consumers give back to their bodies with the right ingredients so that they can move forward and own whatever comes next.
What brought you to this specific career path?
Prior to Après, I had my own health and wellness coaching and personal training practice in San Francisco. It was very clear to me that there was a misalignment between true wellness and body image expectations. To that end, I made it my mission to help clients repair their relationship with food and their body in an effort to help them be truly healthy and happy. The practice expanded quickly as I became the go-to health coach on KTVU Channel 2 and began consulting for several fitness startups in Silicon Valley.
Soon thereafter, I met my Co-Founder Sonny McCracken. Sonny and I were very aligned on the fact that there was nothing post-workout for the modern consumer. Everything from a protein perspective was either geared towards men, bodybuilders or had an ingredient list I didn’t feel comfortable recommending to my clients. Despite rapid growth in wellness and boutique fitness, there wasn’t a post-workout protein drink that spoke to this consumer. There was a massive void in the post-workout protein category, so we decided to fill it!
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your company.
Après is the cleanest shelf stable protein product on the market, which is why it took us nearly two years to make. Our combination of ingredients, which include organic plant proteins, MCTs from virgin coconut oil, and electrolytes from coconut water, along with its shelf stability, make it the first of its kind. As pioneers in our category, we had an uphill battle from day one with our formulation. Our formulation team likes to say that we were working on the edges of food science! We went through 200+ iterations on the formula and then even had it turn to foam during our first major production run. This was all before we’d even launched! As former athletes, Sonny and I are not strangers to hard work and grit. So, after our first product run completely flopped, we regrouped and were off to the races yet again!
Sonny and I have also both sacrificed a lot personally to build Après. We both invested personally in the first round. For me, that meant selling my home and putting some of that cash into the company. For Sonny, that meant cashing out his 401k to help get the company off the ground. After that, we didn’t pay ourselves for our first two years and even now, barely take home a paycheck. Entrepreneurship definitely isn’t glamorous!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were hard?
I’ve always been highly motivated, sometimes even to a fault. As a young adult my goal was to make the US Women’s National Water Polo team and play in the Olympics, and I was willing to make major sacrifices for it. I missed prom, my high school graduation and multiple other major life events to get to practice and play in tournaments around the world. I’m no stranger to hard work and discipline. In fact, over the years I’ve had to learn to give myself time and space away from the grind. It’s easy for me to work myself in to the ground only to find myself exhausted and underperforming due to a lack of self-care.
To that end, since starting Après, I’ve had to learn to balance my drive with time to check out and live my life. Having grit and drive are paramount when building a company but self-care and giving back to your body are just as important!
How are things today?
Fantastic! It’s very clear that we are filling a need in the market. We have 600+ 4.9 star ratings on our site, our repeat purchase rates are best in class, we open almost one new boutique fitness studio per day and we are starting to expand our retail footprint quickly in Southern California. We were also recently featured in Forbes, Oprah Magazine and Vogue. 2019 is going to be a really big year for us!
Share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?
This certainly wasn’t funny at the time but I look back on it now as a huge learning experience and something I can laugh at. One of our very first pitches was in front of a very well renowned female VC in San Francisco. She was someone I’d looked up to for years and now we finally had the chance to pitch her! Instead of delivering the pitch of my dreams, I fell flat on my face. I stumbled over my words, had trouble articulating our vision and couldn’t answer more than half of her questions. Let’s just say, she never got back to us after that!
Despite the meeting being a total fail, it was actually a big win for me personally. I immediately went home and wrote down all of the questions that she’d asked me and then how I’d properly answer them. Over the next week, I practiced answering those questions with my husband so that I’d be crisp, clear and concise for my future pitches!
What do you think makes your company stand out?
In many ways, Après is creating a category. If you think about the protein category, for years it’s been dominated by old-school products for men that promise more bulk and bigger biceps. Demand for protein products is growing and actually expected to double from 2015 to 2022. That’s not because NFL players are drinking more protein. It’s because a new lifestyle athletes are beginning to incorporate protein in to their routine. This consumer needs something different from both an ingredient and positioning standpoint. We believe that we’ve set ourselves up to be the perfect solution for this new modern health and wellness consumer.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”
Your recovery time is just as important as the time you spend working. My blessing and my curse is that I’m an incredibly hard worker; I always have been able to work for hours on end and knock out my to-do lists. Over the years I’ve had to learn (the hard way) that working 16-hour days is not the answer and generally causes me to exhaust myself and lower performance in the days that follow. Prioritizing family time, getting in a workout and taking vacation time is critical for my success (sanity!) and the success of the business.
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 you get to where you are? Can you share a story?
I follow quite a few “expanders” or people that I look up to that have served as major sources of inspiration for me over the years. The first is Brendan Burchard, an author and motivational speaker. I heard Brendon speak at The Bulletproof Conference in Pasadena almost 4 years ago and will never forget a message that he hit home with the audience that day. He said, “high performers don’t have energy, they create energy.” What he means by this is that you are the power plant for your own energy and are therefore responsible for making it. Don’t play victim to what you feel might be a lack of energy. Instead, do what it takes to generate as much energy as possible. This means focusing on a healthy diet, exercise and wellness routines that make you show us as the best version of yourself.
Another woman by the name of Lacy Phillips from To Be Magnetic has really helped me learn to find a voice in my work. As an introvert, I struggled early on to find the courage to speak up and follow my intuition, especially in an industry that is dominated by men. Through courses with Lacy, I’ve learned to be confident in my voice, articulate my thoughts and stand up for what I believe in.
It’s certainly a process but surrounding myself with expanders like the ones I mentioned above has helped me grow tremendously on this wild entrepreneurial ride!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s clear that as a society we still have a lot of work to do around body image and the expectations that are set for women, especially. My mission in my health coaching practice was to help clients heal their relationship with food and their bodies only to realize through Après, that this relationship is even more strained than I initially thought, particularly in the protein category.
For years, people — especially women — have been told to exercise more, eat less and drink liquid meal replacements to look their best. It’s created a culture of negativity and anxiety around food that makes us feel like we aren’t enough. Instead, at Après we practice our brand ethos which is to cultivate self-love and empower the individual to replenish and give back to their body. To that end, it’s been really beautiful to build a company with a mission that aligns so deeply with my personal one.
What are 5 things you wish someone had told you before you started your company.
Take breaks. It’s ok to leave the office early, plan vacations or take it easy one day. The first three years at Après were total insanity and it took toll on my body and brain. From day one I was going full force, with all of my energy, but it exhausted me to the core. For a while, I wasn’t showing up with my best foot forward. Instead, I was just focused on keeping my eyes open. Looking back, I wish I’d approached this more like a marathon instead of a sprint. Now, I know how important it is to prioritize my health.
Entrepreneurship is not sexy. Instagram is really great at glorifying everything, especially the lives of successful entrepreneurs that you look up to. What it doesn’t show is the gritty behind the scenes stuff that it took for them to get there. I sling 12-packs of Après out of my car every day, I stock grocery shelves overnight at our retailer locations, and I wake up at 6am on weekends to deliver product to studios. It’s not a glamorous life to start, but it’s definitely a fun, wild ride!
Talk to everyone. Especially as a young entrepreneur, it’s important to immerse yourself in your community and build a tribe of mentors around you that have done this before. Right now, I say yes to almost every single networking event, I grab coffee with someone new almost every week and I’m constantly reaching out to expanders (people that I admire) via Instagram or LinkedIn.
Build a solid foundation with your Co-Founder at the beginning. I have an incredible Co-Founder in Sonny and am grateful for the hard work we’ve put in to communicating with one another from day one. Communication and being on the same page with your business partner is critical for your businesses’ success. We have a set one-on-one meeting every week on Friday’s to check in on each other’s personal lives, get stuff off of our chests and get an overall pulse check on our sanity.
Think about your personal finances and talk to a financial advisor. Businesses always take longer to get off the ground than you think meaning, it will be much longer than you think before you get anywhere close to a decent paycheck. Talk to a financial advisor before you get started so that you understand what your personal needs are while building your business. The last thing you want is to be struggling personally while also sinking all of your time and energy into your business.