Welcome back Erica Huss and Zoe Sakoutis! This inspirational pair made their first appearance on ideamix last year to talk about their juice cleanse brand, BluePrint, and their health-based podcast Highway to Well. Today they’re back to discuss their new venture, Earth & Star, a brand of organic plant based lattes with adaptogens. Always ahead of the curve on health trends, Erica and Zoe share the inspiration for their new brand, the health benefits of functional mushrooms, and how to make a successful partnership last.
Sam: [00:00:12] Whole Foods called functional mushrooms, used for centuries in traditional medicine, one of the top 10 food trends in 2018. In 2017, U.S. sales of mushrooms were almost five billion dollars and the global market is poised to grow to about 14 billion sometime between now and 2022. Enter Erica Huss and Zoe Sakoutis. Since 2007, they’ve been ahead of the curve in healthy food trends. Their first company, BluePrintCleanse, led to the juice cleanse craze and all the cold pressed juices we see on every shelf. Now they’re back with a new venture, Earth & Star, a company that uses functional mushrooms to help you find health in the most unlikely of places. As Erica and Zoe put it, the future is fungi. Erica, Zoe, it’s a pleasure to have you with us on the show today.
Erica Huss: [00:01:28] Thanks.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:01:29] It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sam: [00:01:32] It’s not often that we have the same founder team back for a second round. But you guys are to be, what are turning into serial entrepreneurs. And it’s super exciting to be talking to you on the eve of the launch of your second business together.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:01:50] Yes, we are just about to open up our doors. So we’re very excited. We’re back for more. I don’t know if we’re crazy or what our problem is but–
Erica Huss: [00:02:04] And it’s nice to actually be able to officially consider ourselves a serial entrepreneurs with a second product launched after our podcast and other various projects on the side. This one feels like we’re kind of back where we’re supposed to be.
Sam: [00:02:18] Fantastic. So this has probably been in the works for a while, and you two are close friends apart from being business partners. So what was the initial inspiration for the products that have now become Earth & Star? And how long do you have that in the works?
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:02:39] Oh, yeah go ahead.
Erica Huss: [00:02:41] We have had it in the works for quite some time. It’s been probably over, about a year and a half. I would say that we’ve been actively working on the project. But prior to that, we were both users of functional mushrooms for quite some time. And as you know, just true wellness seekers in our own right, as we’ve always been kind of constantly on the quest for, you know, new things that are interesting in the wellness food space or not specifically food, but beverage and even modalities and therapies and things like that. So we both were, you know, discussing the fact that we’d been using functional mushrooms for quite some time and feeling like, you know, we were definitely really pleased with the efficacy. And it was just the overall experience that wasn’t really quite meeting the mark for us. And we felt like, you know, functional mushrooms have obviously been around and used in treatments of therapies for centuries in other cultures and really just starting to make some headway in Western cultures in the last probably 20 years or so. But in the last five years, you know, we’ve seen some products in the marketplace that are definitely addressing the needs and benefits of what the functional mushrooms are all about. But still, we felt not necessarily executing as we would like it. And that just means delivering on not only functionality, but also real, you know, taste and crave-ability so that you can incorporate these products into your daily routine. And just the overall use case, the convenience factor wasn’t really there for us. And so we felt like, you know, this was kind of enough for us to put our hats back on and figure out how to bring a product to market that really checked all the boxes that we would like to see.
Sam: [00:04:31] Zoe, you do want to comment on that at all?
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:04:34] Sure, you know, I think it’s very similar to BluePrint in that it was a very organic discovery, finding something that is useful to you. You’re seeing results but it’s still sort of this fringy kind of new area. So in that way, it felt very similar to take something that, you know, only a handful of people, I think right now are actually using even those that have been around for so long and figuring out a way to bring something as powerful as functional mushrooms to the mainstream. So I think that’s kind of what we did with BluePrint and that’s what we’re looking to do again with Earth & Star is take something that can often be, you know, get lost in overly sciencey sort of language and perhaps is off putting just by nature of the fact that, you know, it’s mushrooms.And people are– it’s a very polarizing food. So finding a way to translate that and make it presentable you know similar to how we did it. BluePrint is the goal with functional mushrooms as well.
Sam: [00:05:47] What would you both say or what would either of you say are the key health benefits of mushrooms?
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:05:56] Well, first and foremost, you know, functional mushrooms are immunity boosters, more specifically, they’re immune modulators, and they fall under the umbrella of adaptogens, so your body kind of knows what to do with them, which is pretty exciting. So they all have that in common. And it’s especially timely now since we’re dealing with a very large immunity issue globally. So beyond that, each mushroom has its own sort of superpower, I guess you could say. So they’re very unique in their own way. Specific mushrooms have specific functions, like Lion’s Mane is a popular functional mushroom that’s used for focus. It’s amazing for cognitive function, focus, clarity. And then you have other mushrooms like cordyceps, which are great for energy. They sort of oxygenated blood, sex drive, there’s tons of white paper on this. So it’s all out there. That’s probably the most exciting piece about this. It’s like, it’s not snake oil. I mean, there is a ton of science to support all of the, you know, the functionality here. But chaga is another one that’s great for immunity. Some are antiviral. Some are specific to gut health. So they all have their own specific functions.
Sam: [00:07:32] That’s super helpful. Thank you. The food industry is a place that’s been dominated by trends. Some are dismissed or end up being ephemeral. Others are just downright wrong. How did you both navigate this landscape in making a product that, you know, I think we’ll be both long lasting and well received?
Erica Huss: [00:07:57] Well, I think I mean, it’s a fair point. And I think that, you know, I’m proud to say that we get to say that we I think both times with both companies have really been able to navigate the waters around what is a trend worth versus, and when you say trend, I mean, I’m thinking of it in more of the sense of like a fad, something that’s fleeting and passing, rather than something that has real staying power, which I think you could also say is a trend as opposed to a fad. But, you know, thinking of it in the more kind of negative sense, you know, with BluePrint, the opportunity and the task was very, very simple. It was you know, we’re not telling you that this is any kind of like magic bullet or some sort of super ingredient that, you know, is a proprietary secret formula. So much as we’re saying this is just fruits and vegetables, and we can pretty much guarantee that you’re not getting enough of them into your system. And when you drink a pressed green juice that has five pounds of produce in each bottle, it’s a pretty simple equation, right. And it’s very similar here. These are functional mushrooms. We didn’t, we have not done anything to them or manipulated them in any way to make them superpowered. They’ve existed in nature for, you know, centuries. And again, they’ve been used in therapies, primarily in Eastern cultures for, you know, for almost as long. So we’re very happy that there is actually so much science and history and data to back this up, because, again, we’re not asking anybody to make a leap into something that is still, you know, unstudied or unexamined. We’re really just, you know, we’re taking something that’s very basic and we are applying it to a format that makes it very easy for you to incorporate into your daily routine. And again, you know, we’re not even asking you to depart from your daily routine. We’re not asking you to add another pill or a powder or a magical tincture to what is probably already a very long list of supplements that you may be taking on a daily basis, as if you are a wellness minded person. We’re literally just saying, you know, you’re already drinking an oatmeal latte in the morning. Why don’t you swap it out for one that actually also has function? So it really, in my view, it really boils down to something that feels like very common sense. And it’s not, it doesn’t feel like we are pushing a, you know, something that’s fleeting or that might be revealed, you know, six months or six years from now to be completely fabricated.
Sam: [00:10:29] I think, you know, in a way that was the beauty of what you guys did with BluePrint as well, right? You took a concept that might have been forbidding or difficult or inaccessible for for other people, but made it made the delivery mechanism so easy that that there was sort of this change in consumer behavior or there was a kind of more and easy embrace of a product that actually made a healthful practice so much easier for us.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:10:59] Yeah, exactly. At the time, you know, with juice, it was right when I was a rough foodist. And so the only way to get sort of fresh and juice that was not either Tropicana or Odwalla was to go either to a really hippie health food store and, you know, wait an hour for someone to serve you up a juice from their juice bar. The only way to do a juice cleanse was to sort of remove yourself from your environment. And literally what I did was go on a, you know, a retreat on an island and did a very long cleanse that way. So exactly, it was really about making something that was so beneficial, super convenient and accessible for people. So they don’t just sort of, you know, hit pause on their life to participate in wellness.
Sam: [00:11:54] Fabulous. In our previous podcast where we talked about BluePrint, you both talked about another venture or so where the experience of fundraising for ERZO had been particularly frustrating because everyone sort of looked at you both and said, gosh, you know, you’re established entrepreneurs who built BluePrint. You’ll have no trouble raising money because of that. And yet nobody really wanted to invest. When you were raising for ERZO. How if you tackled fundraising for Earth & Star this time and what’s your experience been like?
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:12:35] It’s always so traumatizing to talk about it. Yes, it was very difficult with ERZO. You know, I think one of the main issues there was that we went out way too late and that product was such a heavy lift because it was, you know, you had to put so much into inventory and it was a bit risky. And, you know, it was very niche. It was potentially, I think, being perceived as a smaller opportunity. And so many people just said like, oh, we’re going to wait and see and let us know when you get some traction. But it was just very chicken and egg because we obviously couldn’t produce without the money. So we never knew. With this we learned that, A, we need to go out much earlier, which we did. Thankfully, we’re actually right in the midst of our raise right now. We’re doing a seed round. If anybody would like to participate.
Sam: [00:13:30] I have some takers for you.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:13:32] Oh, great. Yeah we’ll take them. I mean, we have sort of a nice network from BluePrint Days. We actually never raised money for BluePrint, but just from the process of exiting, we have a nice CPG network. But, you know, this is, again, a seed round. So this is not like institutional money. It’s a lower check size. But anyway, you know, with Earth & Star, we’ve been self-funded so far. I think we’ve paid a little bit more attention to how we’re telling this story. And I don’t know that we told the story as well as we are now with this product and the potential. But I think inherently it is just a different product. So we are getting different results in terms of our feedback from investors. You know with ERZO It was a very, you know, as a prenatal market to start, which again, I agree 2020 is– tells you a lot. But this is a very, very big market potentially. And we’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback so far from investors. So it’s really been like night and day, which is refreshing because I think Erica and I are both suffering from a bit of post-traumatic from that experience. And it’s I feel like every call we have with an investor now, I’m waiting for each call to end with, like we’re gonna pass. But you’ll have no problem raising money with your track record. And so that thankfully hasn’t happened. We’ve gotten, you know, a handful of verbal commitments already and, you know, the only conversations that end with a wait and see are those that are just literally too big to invest at this stage. So we’ll revisit down the road but I don’t know, I feel like we’ve been much more diligent this time around. I don’t know. I think it also just has to do with the fact that we are so excited about this product. I mean, we’re so excited about the space. And I think that really comes through with, you know, in these conversations with investors. And I feel like they get it as well. It’s just a space that, like, the timing is so perfect. It’s so it’s so topical. Obviously immunity. We didn’t plan on that. But it is something that everyone’s talking about. And with that aside, it’s just an exciting space, not only because of the functionality of mushrooms when consumed, but, you know, where mushrooms are going in general. So they’re there. They’re also having a moment environmentally, environmentally, because they’re proving to be like a solution to so many of our problems around climate change. And then there’s also, you know, in materials, so being a replacement for leather. There’s also a huge category around psychotropics, obviously, we are not selling the psilocybin. That’s not the type of mushroom we’re selling, but it’s a space that’s getting a lot of tension as well. So there’s just a lot of general excitement in this category.
Sam: [00:17:00] Erica, do you have thoughts on this?
Erica Huss: [00:17:04] I mean, I think yes. I second everything that Zoe said, and I think it’s also, she touched on it earlier, but it’s really a simple task. We don’t have to do a lot of explaining around this. And again, I think that the fact that we have so much data and white paper in this area to back up what we’re saying, it’s just much easier, I think, for a prospective investor to get their arms around what this is and what it could be. The broader market obviously is certainly beneficial there. And, you know, to be honest, I mean, we’re not the first mover here, which we certainly were with BluePrint. And in many ways, we were attempting that with our. So we’re not creating a category. This mushroom functional mushroom space already exists. And the good news here is that there have been some, you know, hugely successful brands out there already paving the way and doing, you know, doing a great job and kind of laying the groundwork and educating consumers and educating the investor community. So, you know, in some ways we have this advantage of actually now being the second or even third mover in a category that’s already well established, because I think, you know, one of the biggest issues we faced with ERZO, you know, people wanted to see proof of concept and we couldn’t offer that because we literally created something that never existed before. And that’s not the case here.
Sam: [00:18:25] Super interesting. The market for launching a new product has to have changed. And I loved what you both said about ERZO, you know, almost sort of being too early in the sense that you were creating a new category as you had successfully with BluePrint, whereas this is very different. And there’s sort of a market and you’re not the first movers in it that’s already out there. How are you thinking about scale for Earth & Star? And what are some of the market evolutions and changes that you observed since you guys built BluePrint?
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:19:07] Oh, there’s a few ways to answer that, I guess. But, you know, in terms of scale, we you know, we’re starting with. A product that is meant to replace your daily coffee habit or upgrade it rather. The idea is not that we want to be a coffee company. This is truly a functional mushroom focused brand. So we see this growing hopefully, you know, in all sorts of directions. And there’s no shortage of ideas when it comes to product line extensions. You know, do we think that this can be a hundred million dollar brand in five years? Absolutely. We, you know, we would be very happy if you know, the ready to drink coffee lines were just so successful that we’d never even have time to get to the rest of the product line extension ideas. But it’s all pretty exciting. E, do you want to add to the second part of that question?
Erica Huss: [00:20:18] In terms of scale? I apologize. I have to, like, take a little pause, a little bit of background noise here. So I’m sorry.
Sam: [00:20:31] No problem.
Erica Huss: [00:20:35] Sam, can you repeat the second part of the question?
Sam: [00:20:39] Yeah. I was wondering how you guys are thinking about scaling this business relative to the strategies you use for BluePrint. And, you know, in light of sort of market evolutions between then and now.
Erica Huss: [00:20:54] In terms of scale, especially compared to BluePrint, it’s really a totally different animal. I mean, the crazy thing that we still sort of marvel at when we speak about BluePrint was that we launched that brand before social media even existed. So Instagram was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Facebook was really, we predated Facebook by, you know, probably six months or so. And, you know, for the bulk of the time that we were really scaling up, it was something that, you know, you didn’t think of as part of building your business. It was you know, that’s what you use to find your friends from high school. So we’re looking at a totally different landscape in terms of reaching consumers and having, you know, engaging with them. And so, you know, in many ways, it’s a great kind of learning opportunity for us to be able to have all these new tools at our disposal or, you know, comparatively new tools at our disposal to really help get the word out. We built BluePrint based on word of mouth almost entirely, at least in the first couple of years. It was entirely word of mouth and press. And so now, you know, in many ways, social media kind of takes the place of word of mouth. So we will certainly be implementing all of the, you know, the strategies that you see successful companies using now in terms of tapping influencers, in terms of creating communities within these social media audiences and really engaging in a dialog. And, you know, again, the nice thing here is we have a lot of experience as a direct to consumer company, and that is really super applicable here, more now than it was even six months ago, because retail is certainly the landscape has changed dramatically in the last couple of months in light of the pandemic. So we are looking back at, you know, a DTC strategy again to say, OK, this is actually still a really terrific way to build an audience and to engage in a dialog with them and the. But then, you know, part and parcel in parallel to that is the fact that, you know, what is happening in retail right now is it’s very dynamic. And I think, you know, in some ways what we’ve seen with Covid is that retail is really probably going to you’re going to see a real kind of, you know, survival of the fittest here and brands and companies that are doing things that are authentic, that actually are really serving a good purpose in terms of, you know, boosting people’s opportunities for optimizing health are going to continue to succeed. And we’re going to really see a lot of the kind of, you know, the Me-Too brands or the ones that are very clearly selling snake oil probably fall by the wayside because there’s just no there’s no appetite for that and there’s no room for that in the space we’re really going to see. I think the fad is going to be a trend. So, again, we feel very confident and fortunate that we’re in a position where we are going to see an aggressive retail rollout and we feel like it’s going to be really meaningful because once again, we are offering something that is truly, truly beneficial.
Sam: [00:23:59] I think it’s super interesting, you know, you guys built, in my view, what was one of the first direct to consumer beverage brands. I mean, a lot of people talk about Dirty Lemon as having sort of created that model. But that BluePrint came, you know, far before that. So it’s pretty interesting. How are you thinking about competition and differentiation? As you said, you know, there are other players in the space. Some have been around a bit longer. At the same time, you guys have this incredible track record with BluePrint.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:24:35] Competition is always an interesting subject for us. It’s something very near and dear to my heart. The good news is that, you know, again, this is not a totally white space, like there are companies who have been educating around the benefits of functional mushrooms. But what we’re doing is taking advantage of the education that some of these companies have already done. Thanking them for that. And then sort of elevating or improving upon what they’ve put out there. So in some ways, we’re not creating a new concept. We’re just measuring two different kinds of lanes to create something that is unique. So we are the only ready to drink version of this. So everything that exists right now in the marketplace in functional mushrooms is a powder or a pill or, you know, a ground coffee, something you have to make. And it includes at least one step. So we have a few different points of differentiation. That is the biggest one right now. So conveniences is definitely something we hope is going to win the day. Tying it back to BluePrint, I mean, you know, again, we were the first movers, we created that category. But there was such a low barrier to entry, sort of it was a low barrier to entry in terms of, you know, startup costs. So everyone with enough money to buy a juicer and, you know, hand it out to their friends and family could potentially start their own juice company. And in fact, they did. But you know what we kind of worked really hard was figuring out how to scale it. And who we were most concerned about were the sort of bigger players like the Coke and the Pepsi once we scaled. We didn’t put a ton of money behind growth with BluePrint. Again, we bootstrapped it and we never did a raise. So we really did this. The slow and steady with that. And, you know, looking back, we think it was the right decision. But at the same time, the competitors who came in later are like the real players who had deep pockets, who were able to put money behind growth, really eclipsed the BluePrint brand very quickly and had much, much bigger exits than we did. And so that was a real learning experience for us and one that we’re applying to Earth & Star, which is, you know, there are a lot of benefits to being to being the second mover, the third mover, to putting a ton of money behind growth, to not being afraid of aggressively going after a big story, which is what we’re doing now. And, you know, with every competitor that pops up, I think we’re just gonna be excited about it because, you know, the ideas are, you know, rising tides lift all boats. I think it’s only going to help the space and help educate with everyone that pops up.
Sam: [00:27:53] Yeah, really well said. Erica, did you have anything to add?
Erica Huss: [00:28:00] No, I concur completely.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:28:02] I concur.
Sam: [00:28:04] That’s such a great phrase: I concur.
Erica Huss: [00:28:08] Well, I do.
Sam: [00:28:10] Last question, you guys. Entrepreneurship is nothing, if not a constant learning experience. And so what you were saying about learning from the BluePrint experience and watching some of the other brands that that, you know, did accelerate growth and did put a lot of money behind growth and in some ways eclipsed BluePrint. What are the most important lessons that you both feel you learned from your first experience that you’re applying here? Apart from that one, which was usually valuable?
Erica Huss: [00:28:50] I think a big piece of it that we carried over from BluePrint that we still employ. As you know, right now, we’re super lean as an actual organization. It’s just myself and Zoe, as you know, as members of the company. And we have really exercised the opportunity to outsource as much as we can, which is not to say that, you know, that is a strategy that you employ long term. But in the early stages, I think it’s really important to know kind of what your what your limitations are, what your skill sets are, where you have strengths, where you have challenges, and to surround yourself with the experts and the people who are, you know, smarter than you on uncertain, uncertain topics and certain verticals so that you can really get the kind of best of breed across all of the different angles of the business. And I think that it’s something that oftentimes entrepreneurs, maybe especially solo entrepreneurs, and I can’t speak to that for sure because I’ve only ever worked with a partner and very gratefully so. But I think that oftentimes people do you know, there’s an ego involved. There’s a kind of a school of thought that says, you know, I know this best. This is my idea. This is my baby. I’m going to be able to tackle all of this myself because, you know, it’s easier just to do it myself than it is to delegate. And I mean, I personally couldn’t disagree with that theory more. I think that it’s actually super important to be able to spread it out and relinquish control in certain areas and really be able to entrust to people that you surround yourself with. So that’s definitely that’s a big one for me.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:30:37] I concur. I think that there’s a lot of, you know, what is carried over the most that, you know, we saw was very effective with BluePrint was just like the, you know, the three P’s, the product, the people and the purpose. If you don’t have those things dialed and you’re not 100% confident about those three, you’re not going to get very far. So I think it’s yeah, it’s always going back to the product, making sure that, you know, you continue to improve upon it and understand that it is a work in progress and terror is quiet again. It’s very easy to get married to something and, you know, let that ego creep in there to say, like, no this is the only way. And not listen to consumer feedback. So that’s that’s a big learning and something that we have to constantly remember and then, yeah, and people again, we’ve surrounded ourselves with some really smart teams. We’re actually working with a lot of the same teams that we worked with from BluePrint, which is really, really great. And the purpose. Yeah. You know, I think it’s pretty important for us the end of the day to say, like, okay, are we putting something out into the world that is going to make it a better place? It’s actually improving people’s lives. It’s not, you know, damaging the environment. So I think with BluePrint, we learned that and we’re applying that here again to something that’s super important.
Sam: [00:32:27] Those are great lessons. Thank you for sharing those. I think, you know, as you were saying there, there was such a low barrier to entry with BluePrint or sort of entering the juice business. And in some ways, those barriers to entry have continued to be lower and lower across the board. And I think it’s why you continue to see so many new businesses being started up and many of them scale very successfully, to Erica’s point with just one or two people or just the founders, because it’s possible to outsource so much on a freelance basis now than than it ever was before. I think that trend, you know, only sort of accelerates with the after effects of the pandemic going forward. So, yeah, good lessons. Here’s something else you should know. Functional mushrooms aren’t a fad plucked out of thin air. Cultures around the world have used them in both food and medicine for centuries. And as early as 450 B.C. physicians in Greece mentioned mushrooms and Chinese medical texts have endorsed their use since 206 B.C.. The widespread use of medicinal mushrooms continues in Asia today. Over 100 varieties are used just to treat cancer, thanks to the Guardian, MarketWatch and BusinessWire for the data cited on today’s show. Erica, Zoe, we love that your products help us stay healthy in easy and unexpected ways. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Zoe Sakoutis: [00:33:57] Thank you so much.
Erica Huss: [00:33:58] Thank you so much for having us.
Get new ideamix content delivered straight to your inbox.