This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Health and wellness have always been an integral part of Marc Washington’s life, both personally and professionally.
Prior to founding his own business, he spent most of the past two decades working in executive positions across a range of successful health, wellness, and fitness companies. His career started at the Wonderful Company, a multibillion-dollar enterprise that owns multiple food and beverage brands, including Fiji Water and POM Wonderful. After nine years there, Washington served as president and chief operating officer of Beachbody, a nutrition and fitness company; and he served as CEO of Irwin Naturals, a supplements maker and leading producer of soft-gel herbal formulas sold in over 90,000 retail outlets.
Fortune recently spoke with Washington about his new company, prebiotic wellness brand Muniq, to learn more about the startup’s first year in business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and plans for the next year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: The wellness industry is hotter than ever, but it’s also crowded. What inspired the launch of Muniq? What makes it stand apart?
Washington: My little sister, Monica, inspired me to launch Muniq. To describe Monica, she was full of personality, warm, inviting, colorful, unique, and hilarious—even inappropriately so at times! Unfortunately, like so many, Monica struggled with various aspects of her health, including her weight, diabetes, and blood pressure. She tragically passed away due to complications during childbirth five years ago. Monica is my inspiration for why I created Muniq: to help others dealing with similar health issues like she did, by empowering them to take back control of their lives. I always wished Monica had better solutions to manage her health. Helping others truly transform their health and lives is my tribute to Monica’s legacy.
Although there are a plethora of products, services, and brands in the wellness space, I actually don’t think of our space as being “crowded,” at least not in the traditional space. There is an insatiable (and growing) demand, desire, and even urgent consumer need for effective solutions that can enable people to live healthier lives. Consider the magnitude of serious underlying health conditions that affect so many of us (such as obesity, diabetes, heart health).
For example, nearly 10% of U.S. adults are living with diabetes, and another 35% are pre-diabetic. That means that nearly half of the U.S. adult population have elevated blood sugar levels and declining insulin sensitivity. So despite the plethora of health and wellness options available, we have not as an industry or society been successful in addressing these major public health epidemics. So I would argue there’s never been more of a need for more effective health and wellness solutions to help address these health challenges.
Which leads me to how Muniq stands apart from other wellness solutions. I created Muniq to help people address these prevalent underlying conditions and regain control of their health and lives. We leverage the best of science by following an evidence-based approach to product development more typically seen in biotech and therapeutics. This is how we create such transformative and effective products that are proven through scientific research to transform your health in a targeted way, and our solutions work through your gut microbiome which has been proven to be the control center for your health.
Although we have a strong scientific foundation, Muniq is an intensely consumer-driven brand exemplified by solutions that are not just effective, but are also convenient, approachable, and even enjoyable. I believe our unique approach to transforming health by addressing critical health conditions, with solutions that work through your gut, in a way that consumers can easily incorporate into their everyday lives, is how we will have a lasting impact on public health.
Our first line of breakthrough products are balanced nutritional shakes powered by resistant starch, a unique class of prebiotic fiber, designed to promote gut health, balance blood sugar, and satisfy your hunger. Very few products on the market include much (if any) resistant scratch, which has the power to be a game-changer for many individuals looking to take control of their health.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in the past year? What surprised you the most?
Looking back over the past year, one of our most significant challenges was actually self-inflicted by me! Within one month after launching the company, we had successfully developed a working prototype of our balanced nutritional resistant starch shake. Our head of research and development—a Ph.D. and nutrition scientist—was elated after creating a product that we knew would deliver the targeted functional benefits in such a short period, and he believed we were close to “launch-ready.”
However, I set an almost unreasonably high bar for our shake. Functional effectiveness was a necessary, but not sufficient condition. In addition to delivering on the promise of transformative health benefits, our shake needed to be decadent and delicious—even more so than any external benchmarks that didn’t provide the same functional benefits—and to top it off, it had to contain zero sugar. I felt it was critical for our shake to be convenient, smooth, and enjoyable so that consumers would want to incorporate it into their everyday routines and benefit from the longer-term transformative effects. So we spent the next year working diligently with our sensory and flavor expert partners and conducted rounds of consumer sensory testing to optimize the sensory profile of our shake, while not sacrificing the functional health benefits.
The coronavirus pandemic has also certainly been another significant hurdle to face, as we officially launched Muniq in the midst of this. One of the biggest challenges of launching a new brand during the pandemic has been figuring out how to break through all the noise, as the noise level is extremely high. More importantly, this pandemic has had such a devastating impact on so many people, especially Black and brown communities, who already suffer from vast disparities in health outcomes and socioeconomic status. We aspire to be a solution to help so many people regain control of their health, especially those who need it the most, which include minority communities. The pandemic has made it even more difficult for those who need the most help to readily access the needed medical care and solutions to help improve their health outcomes.
Despite these challenges, I’ve been surprised and inspired by the resiliency of our initial customers, many of whom have chosen to prioritize and invest in their health despite the various challenges presented by the current environment and the newness of our brand. Our customers have expressed how empowered they feel in taking steps to stay in control of their health and mitigate the heightened risk associated with their conditions, which is more important now than ever.
What kind of feedback have you received from your customers? Was there anywhere you found you needed to make adjustments?
I’m so glad you asked this question. One aspect of my career in health and wellness that I am most appreciative of is helping people fine-tune their health, and then witnessing the indescribable impact that can have on their health, and more significantly on their quality of life. Positively impacting someone’s life by increasing their hope and happiness is like the ultimate high for me, and this is what inspires me and keeps me excited about what I do every day.
It’s very early days for my business as we just launched Muniq recently. However, I’ve already been blown away by some of the incredibly encouraging feedback we’ve been receiving from our early customers. The initial reaction from customers is usually along the lines of “I cannot believe this shake is so healthy for me and has zero sugar, because it’s absolutely delicious!” This is such an important aspect of our product, as I believe that the biggest hurdle keeping people from sticking with healthier decisions is that they usually aren’t easy or enjoyable. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your taste buds to make healthy choices. Creating enjoyable and effective products is the path to helping people make healthy changes that last.
Another common theme we have been hearing is how filling our shakes are. Most consumers are happy to report that Muniq shakes keep them feeling full for four-plus hours, which helps them avoid cravings and unhealthy food decisions.
What is most exciting is that we’re already receiving anecdotal feedback from customers about the promising improvements they are already seeing in balancing their blood sugar levels, which is the primary functional benefit of Muniq shakes. What’s great about Muniq shakes is that the functional benefits are quantifiable based on measurement of blood sugar levels. The benefits of most nutrition and supplements are typically measured based on a feeling or belief system. The early feedback we’ve gotten from consumers has confirmed what we know from research and internal testing that we conducted prior to launch. However, it’s incredibly uplifting to hear from our customers about the progress they’re making in achieving their health goals with the help of our product.
Fortunately, we haven’t needed to make adjustments to our product offering. We have taken proactive steps in advising customers to start slow when introducing Muniq shakes into their diet in order to help their gut adapt to the efficacious dosage of resistant starch prebiotic fibers in each shake.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a much stronger and more concerted effort on social media to encourage consumers to support Black-owned businesses. At the same time, there is the worry that while this might offer a much-needed sales bump during an economic downturn, non-Black consumers will not commit to this effort in the long term. What can other members of the business community do to amplify and sustain support for Black-owned businesses?
This is a topic of great importance to me, especially as a founder and CEO of a Black-owned health and wellness business. I appreciate the broad public denouncements of racism and social injustices, the acknowledgements of the structural inequalities that exist in our society, and the expressions of support for the Black community and Black businesses.
However, so much more is necessary than words in order to address the systemic disparities and inequalities that persist in our society and business community today. What matters significantly more than well wishes and well-intended posts, are intentional efforts and commitments to action that will last beyond the current news cycle. I am concerned that so many that have made expressions of support will recede back to business-as-usual in the near future without making any actual changes.
One step that I think is important for all of us is to conduct a cultural audit of our companies to shine the light on any racial biases (even if unintentional) in our business practices, processes, organizations, suppliers and partners, boards, etc. Conducting a comprehensive audit can provide awareness and clarity about where your company “really” stands in the areas of diversity and active support of the Black business community. This can help provide helpful direction on the most effective and tangible steps your organization can take to make progress.
I also believe it’s important to commit to intentional actions based on results of your company’s cultural audit including setting measurable goals with specific targets. Assuming your organization was sincere in its social media posts supporting Black communities and businesses, then it’s important to walk the talk by taking specific actions that will have lasting impact.
I don’t believe companies necessarily need to overhaul their entire mission and corporate priorities to have a positive impact. Even taking small but meaningful steps can lead to positive change, such as establishing a target for diversifying your supplier base with Black businesses. Only through intentional action can we create lasting impact that will help move us in a direction toward a more equitable business community and society.
As the pandemic goes on, consumers’ purchasing habits and practices are going to change. Will Muniq need to adjust its business plan for the immediate future?
I’ve never been more driven to help people regain control of their health than I am right now. The pandemic has increased the urgency and desire for consumers to be more proactive in managing their health, especially those suffering from prevalent underlying conditions, who face heightened risks.
For example, people who are living with diabetes are experiencing higher hospitalization rates and mortality rates from the coronavirus. I am particularly passionate about addressing the vast disparities in health outcomes for minorities and Black communities, who are disproportionately impacted by underlying conditions, which is a critical step toward achieving greater equality in our society. So the pandemic has only amplified my company’s purpose and reinforced our mission going forward.
From a channel standpoint, our business plan has always been focused on launching as a direct-to-consumer brand in order to establish deep and meaningful relationships with our customers. We also are focused on providing educational resources and tools to help people manage their health through our content and website.
Certainly some consumer habits will adjust over time as the impact of the pandemic recedes. However, I believe many of the effects of this pandemic will persist over time, in particular as it relates to health and wellness. I anticipate consumers will generally continue following a more proactive and intentional approach to managing their health going forward. Given all of this, I do not anticipate material changes in the business plan for Muniq in the near term. The prevalent health conditions we are targeting (including blood sugar challenges and insulin resistance) were incredibly prevalent issues prior to the pandemic, and will continue to remain a priority for so many even after the pandemic subsides.
At the same time, how does a shutdown of this nature affect the future of the business, from product development to raising capital?
Despite facing some difficulties during the pandemic, our business has not been impacted nearly as much as so many others during this shutdown. We were able to shift relatively seamlessly to working remotely, which I realize is a privilege that many do not have. Although I greatly miss the face-to-face interactions with my team working in the office, there is no doubt that remote working arrangements will remain significantly more common as compared to before the shutdown, as many businesses and employees have figured out ways to remain productive without being physically present.
As a DTC health and wellness business, we haven’t faced the steep declines experienced by many businesses whose demand has dropped dramatically due to their specific industry sector or dependence on physical retail channels. I do believe that the change we’ve seen in consumers transitioning to digital commerce during this shutdown will largely remain in place even post-pandemic.
As essential nutrition businesses, our supply chain partners have mostly operated without significant disruption during this period. However, we are continuously managing our supply chain in order to avoid potential future disruptions due to the extended shutdown.
This shutdown is having a significant impact on innovation and product development cycles, though. Many product innovation cycles have been extended, deferred, or outright canceled in the wake of the shutdown. As an example, we work with clinical research professionals and scientists who previously had clinical studies underway, many of which will need to be completely restarted post-shutdown in order to obtain “clean” results, despite many of them having been in process for years. In addition, many companies have been forced to cut R&D budgets in order to conserve cash during this critical time, which also negatively impacts the pace of innovation.
Looking beyond the post-pandemic era—which could be anywhere from a year to a few years from now—how do you plan to grow Muniq and what do you want the business to look like five years from now?
I created Muniq as a platform brand that creates solutions to transform your health through your gut microbiome. Our initial products are focused on improving gut health and blood sugar control. We are already actively developing future product platforms that target other prevalent health conditions which can also be significantly improved through your gut.
My vision for Muniq in five years is that we will offer consumers a suite of products that are targeted to address a range of health conditions, offered in a personalized way for a consumer based on his or her individual needs. Our products will share a common theme of transforming your health through your gut. Scientific research has shown that your gut is the control center for your health, affecting the function of almost every system in your body. I anticipate continued breakthroughs from ongoing emerging research around the gut microbiome will enable new methods to effectively modulate human health through your gut. This will enable Muniq to remain at the forefront of transforming health and addressing critical conditions.
Although we are currently focused on building our digitally native business through direct-to-consumer channels at present, in five years, I anticipate we will have expanded into an omnichannel business to provide consumers multiple ways to access our life-changing products.
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