On building research driven wellness products and founder training with Linda Ellison, founder of kaü HealthFeatured

I spoke with @DrLindaEllison, founder and CEO of kaü Health, an all women, 75% WOC biotech company that applies pharmaceutical level science to supplements. kaü does clinical research, testing and development for immunity, vitality, longevity, wellness and beauty products. Their first product, kaü IMMUNITY BUILD, provides 19 concentrated, complete and optimized hospital-strength, medical-grade amino acids to help trigger the growth of new, youthful functioning cells for strength, youth and beauty. Prior to founding kaü Health, Dr. Linda led investment for a family office based in SF and LA, investing in health, wellness and beauty technology. Before working in finance, Dr. Linda was a Public Health Systems Managing Director at the United Nations and also a lecturer at Harvard University, where she received her Masters and Doctorate degrees. During her time as a graduate student at Harvard, Dr. Linda taught classes at Harvard College and also worked at Planned Parenthood’s Boston Clinic. Dr. Linda shared her advice on building the startup founder mentality, product building, brand strategy, hiring, learning, and wellness. On building the startup founder mentality: Dr. Linda worked inside the Planned Parenthood clinic and worked on-site at remote UN health clinics all over the world, where she adapted to fast paced, chaotic environments where she had to think and respond quickly. At Harvard, Dr. Linda enjoyed time to think, develop new theories, and learn but realized she did not feel as energized by her work in the research and academia world. All her life, Dr. Linda has been a hands-on worker, jumping in and getting things done. She exercised this execution ability at Planned Parenthood where she would go in early and wipe down the counters in the break room, make fresh coffee, do filing, stuff mailers, or answer phones before starting her work day as a chaplain. She did not just show up, do her job, and then leave but rather she did other things that she did not explicitly “need” to do, but that made a difference. It put her “on the team.” People around her could see that she was engaged. This same type of mentality, drive, and work ethic is vital at a startup. She used to visit early-stage portfolio companies as part of her role on the investment team of a family office. She would show up a little early and see if she could do anything to help. Once she walked into an office and everyone was scrambling around at a breakneck pace; they were scaling faster than anticipated which was fantastic but also meant that the “chore chart” the team had on the wall had not been taken care of in a couple of weeks. There were bags of garbage piling up; there was a sink of dirty coffee cups; and the team was on their very last roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. She took out the garbage, washed the cups, and set up an ongoing delivery of toilet paper and snacks. She hired a cleaning service and scheduled them to come in weekly. All of that took her maybe 30-45 minutes, and none of it was “her job.” “When people see that you care about them on a human level and that you will jump in to help them achieve their mission, it goes a long way. Jumping in and being hands on with portfolio companies and up for helping with every task including chores meant that if something went sideways, I was a trusted person they’d call for help.” She was the first one they asked for advice. She was the one who got the good news first and also the bad news first. They saw her as part of the team, not just another investor. As a holiday gift, they made her a T-shirt that said #1 Cup Washer. On hiring for her team: Before Dr. Linda takes anyone on full time, she hires people on a short term project or contract basis. “I want to see: Does this person demand things, or do they pitch in? Do they jump in and help with whatever needs doing, or do they constantly say, “that’s not my job”? Do they figure things out for themselves or are they always interrupting someone to ask for play-by-play guidance?” “At a startup in the early stage, everything is your job in terms of all the little things that need to get done.” Dr. Linda wants people who take the initiative and will do these things without being asked and independently pick up the skills for new, unfamiliar tasks. She looks for people who are “cup washers.” She looks for the self-starters, the people who figure things out themselves the best they possibly can, and are excited and motivated to do that. On product building: Dr. Linda focused on developing products for years before she worked on building her brand. She was and still is relentless and obsessive about product perfection. She was shocked to find out that many people in the industry thought she did things in reverse order. She kept getting told, “you’re doing things backward”. It turns out, most consumer product startups begin with the branding. They develop their look, tone, brand pillars, all that before they have a perfected product. In contrast, Dr. Linda wanted to know she had a product that was absolutely perfect and actually worked, first and foremost. On branding: Dr. Linda found there was a huge scientific, data-driven piece to branding with extensive A/B testing. “Branding is not just a matter of the creative team coming up with a few concepts and letting you pick the one you like best. You can do that. But, you also can take it a step further and test out all the branding options on consumer groups, gather the data, and make a decision based on the numbers.” Brand agencies can be incredibly expensive both upfront and in equity payment, especially for early stage startups. An alternative is to work with freelancers in different areas, such as copy writing, photography, and design. While this does take more work integrating all the different pieces together, you can frequently get the same quality of final product for a small fraction of the price. On marketing: “kaü primarily grows through word of mouth and has not yet done paid ads or media. People love the product because it works, so they tell their friends, their sister, their mom. They post about it on social media, and they blog about it. kaü has become a bit of a cult brand.” They have been featured in Forbes as “trailblazing” and have been written about in Vogue as “the best collagen.” On continuous learning: Dr. Linda schedules time to read every morning and every night like she schedules any other meetings, and she sticks to that schedule. She listens to podcasts and audiobooks whenever she is going anywhere, whether by walking, driving, or flying. She alsos watches a lot of YouTube tutorials. For everything. Need to fix your plumbing? Your Vitamix? Don’t know how to make a P&L? There is a YouTube for that. On wellness advice: Dr. Linda underscores the importance of simple things that make a big difference. Her top tip? Sleep. Go to bed and really let yourself rest, rejuvenate, and recharge. She also is a proponent of hydration. Keep your entire system hydrated so it can function smoothly. Beyond that, a little known fact is that supplements, for the most part, contain ingredients not listed on the label. In the supplement category, companies do not have to list everything, the government does not issue the “facts panel,” the art department makes it and anything can get listed or left off the list. kaü tested the composition of 35 supplement brands full SKU catalogs. Nearly everything on the market contains the plastic compound that makes yoga mats and athletic shoe soles squishy. The majority of supplements also contain wood pulp, which is what sawdust and wood chips are made out of. Both of these are fillers so that it looks like you are getting a lot of product in a jar; they both extend the volume. Both can be advertised as vegan, gluten free, GMO free, fat free, sugar free--which is true, a yoga mat is free of all those things but that doesn’t mean you want to eat it every morning in your smoothie. Testing also showed that supplements with an augmented flavor, color, or smell have more chemicals than active ingredients. Be aware and be wary of what you are ingesting. Plastics, pulps and chemicals stay in your colon for years and build up causing everything from bloating to colon cancer. On advice for her younger self: Dr. Linda underscores the importance of positive self-talk. “Just because someone you loved and trusted said something terrible to you does not make that thing true. Just because someone treats you badly does not mean you deserve that sort of treatment. That is about them, not about you. Do not take it personally. Do not betray yourself by thinking you are deserving of anything short of all the happiness in the universe.”
This is so inspiring to read and learn about Dr. Linda mentality. And it's superb to see and celebrate the success of another, among many, female entrepreneur! Thank you @jessicali for sharing :)I do have one question in my mind when I read this though, and it's actually I question I have in mind for a long time but still haven't been able to think it through. For a hands-on mentality like Dr. Linda who tries your best to help in anyway possible and even doing cup washing - how do you maintain the belief that you are doing the right things with the right approach without being taken lightly? I do feel that as part of a team everyone should take ownership of tasks even if it's not "his/her job", however whenever engaging on those tasks many people will just assume that's the limit of your capability / your job tasks actually are them.. I know it's a right thing to be hands-on and help out in whatever way. But the dilemma of not letting this curtails how other perceive my capability is something I don't seem to be able to solve yet. Any advice? @DrLindaEllison @jessicali & everyone in Elpha :)
Hi @juliachan - great question and would love for @DrLindaEllison to chime in as well. A few of my own thoughts:1. This mostly applies to early stage startups (i.e. this would definitely not be relevant for someone working at a Google or Facebook - I doubt any employees are dish washing there haha; I know they both have very elaborate cafeterias and everything else). By being an early employee at an early stage startup, you naturally have leadership, agency, clout, influence, some good title, ability to do all kinds of work (menial and not), so your title, coverage, experience, impact, etc. is very broad and frankly as broad as you would like it to be. 2. In mid-sized organizations, this is a way to build trust with other people when you are just starting. In my experience, you never start off doing the glamorous tasks unless you come in with decades of experience as some C suite person. But after you build that trust, people in an organization with good culture will see your grit and ability and reliability and give you higher order tasks.3. If people do not see it (assuming good intentions and they are just busy with other things), I would mention it deliberately at a 1:1 (you do not have to wait for performance reviews) with your boss. Keep a running list of all the things you did and what you think your achievements show about your skillset and value and share that with your boss and ask for different projects to be able to apply and realize this value. 4. Do an intentional split for yourself. Look at your calendar and note down the time it takes to do each task. Make sure you are not going much above your threshold of more tedious vs. rewarding tasks. 5. Get more people to advocate internally for you. A lot of the more menial tasks improves everyone's life, so chances are you are creating value for a lot of people. Develop allies just through water cooler talk and building rapport with other people within or outside of your team. Have them vouch for you to your boss or other relevant decision makers. 6. I have been at companies where the manager utterly fails to recognize talent, and it is really unfortunate. Hopefully these are rarer cases (not the norm in the world) but I feel like it is more common than one would think or hope, even if not the majority. In these cases, I have started job hunting very early and switched as soon as I could. Hope this helps!
Thank you Jessica, that's very helpful! Love your approach with this.
Jessica gave a great answer and I second everything she said! Very briefly I'd echo her and say: Go ahead and pitch in *if you are working at a beginning-stage startup* that is likely understaffed and everyone is working 24/7 boots-on-the-ground to make everything run (that's when someone needs to take a second to wash the cups and take out the trash and people should be taking turns, including founders, CEO...everyone), NOT EVER at a "startup" that is now a full-fledged company and hires people to do these tasks. When you do something to pitch in *ALWAYS* ping your supervisor or the person most senior to say something along the lines of "I noticed all the available cups were in the sink and I stayed late to wash them so we all have fresh, clean cups. I thought you'd like to know there is a clean cup for you in the morning." This is signalling that you take initiative, you care about the welfare of the team, and you are willing to go the extra mile. All of this will likely stick in that person's mind and be remembered when there is a position to fill or a project to delegate. You don't want to stay in a toxic situation where someone takes advantage of you and doesn't value your work and your worth so if you do extra work to be helpful and don't get recognized for it-- time to start looking elsewhere for a fit that will adore having a hard worker who cares and takes initiative. Be a team player, but not a doormat. EVER.
Thank you both of you, thanks for showing me how to be an advocate of myself when I do somethings good!
What great advice (again). Thank you @DrLindaElisson! As an aside, your product, kaü Immunity Build would be amazing if we could add ~2 grams/kg protein and give it to presurgical patients to improve their surgical outcomes. Nestles and Abbott make Immunonutrition formulations specifically for presurgical patients- expensive, unnecessary ingredients ect.
Terrific post. Well done @jessicali. Thank you for sharing @DrLindaEllison. Jumping in and doing what needs to get done is a great way to break down barriers between leadership and staff. If “I” can do the dishes, any of the team can do it without it being demeaning or “not my job.” I love the concept of trialing people on a project to experience the chemistry and whether there is mutual respect. The last paragraph is so very helpful. Working on this after removing myself from a toxic situation.
All excellent points, thank you so much for the read, @ellenflanagan :)