As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anne Carlson.
Anne Carlson is the Founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, the industry-leading producer of sustainable dog food & treats using insect protein. Anne was named 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Food and Beverage category by the American Business Awards for her work on Jiminy’s. Prior to Jiminy’s, Anne was the VP of Market Intelligence at Big Heart Pet Brands where she led Shopper Insights, Market Analytics, and Strategic Projects. Anne previously founded Secant, which she then sold to IRI, and has also worked for Accenture, Diageo, and Seagram’s. She holds a BA in Political Science, Economics, and Mathematics from Washington University in St. Louis, as well as an MBA from NYU. Currently, Anne lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband (Eric), daughter (Boothe), and two pups (Tuco & Timber).
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I take a step back, I can see I’ve somewhat followed a familiar narrative. I’ve worked in the consumer-packaged goods industry for my entire career. Started in consulting, moved into industry, and then started a couple of companies. Then came a crossroads and a desire to do something better with the realization that my life from that moment on should have a purpose. Specifically, I took my experience and combined it with the inspiration of insect protein to start Jiminy’s. It’s my gambit to make the pet industry better by introducing sustainability on a large scale. Hopefully, this story has a happy ending!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, it’s funny now, but back then, it felt more like panic! In early 2019, our warehouse team did an inventory and realized they had placed boxes from our first production run of treats behind the newer product. They’d been shipping the new product before the older product was gone. So, I get a phone call telling me we’ve got all of this product that is close to its expiration date. Trying not to panic, I brainstormed with my husband (who works with me on Jiminy’s) and we came up with the idea of just getting those treats into people’s hands so they could see how much their dogs liked the product. We thought a giveaway on social media would be a great solution!
We immediately launched the giveaway and we’re watching it really closely at first because if (and back then it was a question of “if” and not “when”) it got to 1000 units, we’re shutting it down. We gave away about 50 units on the first evening, and then about 150 more the next day, so I’m thinking we’ll just run it for a few days. The next day I’m at an offsite meeting and I get a text from a colleague telling me our website’s down. “OH NO, THE GIVEAWAY!” and sure enough, it had exploded. It was “she told two friends and they told two friends, and so on, and so on… “ There was so much activity that our website cried uncle. Several thousand units later — and don’t get me wrong, we were really happy people wanted our treats — we had dodged a social media bullet. It’s powerful stuff.
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?
There are so many people who have helped me on this journey, it’s hard to single out just one! When my last company was acquired and I started thinking about what I would do next, I worked with an old colleague who had recently changed careers to become a leadership coach. Tim (Ressmeyer) had a great approach and pushed me to really think about what the right next project would be to pursue. During our discussions, I shared that I planned to work on a passion project when I eventually retired. Through our discussions, I came to the realization that there was really no reason to wait until retirement! I decided then that I would be happiest and most fulfilled working against problems that I was and am passionate about.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Now that’s an easy one! I started Jiminy’s to combat climate change. This was the goal from Day 1. Our vision and purpose are still the same. We make sustainable pet food and treats using insect protein. Our products nourish pets and promote long-term stewardship of the earth. And our mission is to be a positive force for change, making sustainable and humane choices while mindful of the bigger picture.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
There are two things that I try to do when times are good and even more so when things are difficult. The first is to always make decisions based on our purpose — it’s our North Star. Knowing your purpose actually makes decisions easier as it removes potential distractions.
The second is to be open and honest with the team. They need to know where we are heading, why we are heading there, and what challenges lay ahead.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Sometimes I do ask myself why I signed up for a problem this big. If I made a treat using, say, beef, no one is wondering why I’m using that protein. It’s not a factor, yet climate change is the existential problem of our lives and traditional proteins are a big producer of greenhouse gases. My motivation stems from that. On a personal level, my daughter isn’t sure she wants to have kids because of the environmental uncertainty and I can’t honestly give her assurances. That’s an awful predicament. My parents had no such predicament with me and it isn’t fair. So, no, one can’t give up.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think a leader needs to paint a picture of the future and then activate it.
You need to be able to paint an inspirational picture of where we are headed. Imagine we’re 15 years in the future. Your house has geothermal heating and cooling, we’ve stopped deforestation, the bee population’s healthy, 75% of the food your family eats is sustainably sourced, diapers are biodegradable, and the ocean is free of plastic. Sounds pretty good — and pretty tangible — right? Envisioning where we are heading is important — you can get excited about this vision even if we acknowledge that it might be simplified right now. We’ll work through the details as we go, but there’s the blueprint.
Next comes activation — how do we get there? A leader must help connect the dots — how the actions we take will move us toward the vision of the future. I’m a big fan of cause and effect and I think we can do a much better job of relating how one action will lead to one outcome.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
This relates to transparency as you should help the team see that every small step towards the vision is positive movement. Celebrating each step forward is important. It makes the forward progress visible.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicate that difficult news as early as possible. If you look at the team, customers, business associates as partners you have an opportunity to work through the issues together. Sometimes a solution or workaround can come from an unexpected source, so you shouldn’t close off avenues.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Stay flexible. It’s never easy to navigate a quickly changing environment. The best we can do is stay flexible while never losing sight of your purpose /your “North Star.” You might need to change the approach, but your end goal should remain consistent. Heck, you probably will change the approach. As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast.”
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be patient. This can be hard. Most everyone wants to be an overnight success but it’s crazy to make choices for your company based on this hope. We believe sustainability and pet health is worthy of the long game and we want Jiminy’s to be in it from start to finish, so I’m making decisions that won’t jeopardize that outcome.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Growing their team quickly in anticipation of huge growth. We all want to grow quickly, but are you really ready for that big team and the big payroll that goes with it? There’s nothing worse than having to lay people off (especially when they’re doing a great job). It feels terrible and it’s a bad signal to the industry. I’d rather have the team in place really prioritize and wear multiple hats until I’m certain it’s time to expand the team.
Expanding product lines to have “more stuff” to sell. This can give sales a bump, but it will also add complexity and could potentially distract focus from the core business. Keep the focus on what you have and use that to zero in on continually making the product and the messaging better. We’ve tweaked our bags several times, swapped out a biscuit line for a soft & chewy, and realized nutrition should be a bigger part of our message.
Learn from the mistakes and successes. You’re going to have both and it’s important to keep looking for insight — particularly with a product that’s out of the box. I really don’t have much of a road map to follow, so the guard rails I’ve avoided and those I’ve scraped (thankfully not many) help give me a sense of where to continue driving.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
First off — is there another level beyond simply turbulent times? Because I think we’re there. We went into COVID-19 selling through three main channels. It quickly became apparent that things were changing dramatically. The question that we had (and still have) is how long will these changes persist? Since COVID-19 seems to be the consequence of an unsustainable sourcing of protein, we’ve been the beneficiary of an awakened consciousness on how we obtain our proteins for ourselves and our pets. People want to do good. They want the best for their pets. Jiminy’s sits comfortably at that intersection and I don’t think either desire is going away.
We’ve embraced social media from the beginning as a way to reach consumers and tell our story and have since doubled down on the approach and it seems to be working for our online sales.
Strange times can also call for a different approach. One recent example is we’ve embraced an online approach to reaching our retailers. Typically, at this time of year we’d be meeting distributors and retailers at the big pet trade shows (e.g., SuperZoo). Now they’ve all been canceled. So, we’ve created a “Virtual Trade Show” just for Jiminy’s where it feels as if we’re there together. It’s the trade show, but without the travel, crowds, achy feet, cost, and (best of all) there is no COVID!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Follow your “North Star”. At one point we tried a recyclable bag, but it didn’t work. The color was off, the print was blurry, so our product wasn’t as appealing to the eye. Our North Star isn’t making recyclable bags though, it’s making a treat that combats climate change. Clearly, we needed to present Jiminy’s treats in their best light to consumers, so we went back to our original material. We’ll revisit a recyclable bag as they’re important to sustainability and they seem to be getting better rapidly.
- Articulate your Vision of the Future. I’ve refined it as we’ve gone along, but it contains the same ideas from the start.
- Map out the road.
- Be Flexible. Nothing ever happens in a straight line. We had a recipe that we developed for our treats and, in our first test run, our co-packer forgot to put one of the ingredients in the treat. Well, we tested the treat with the dogs just for kicks, and they absolutely loved it. Instead of sticking to the original plan, we went forward with the “mistake” and used the forgotten ingredient in our next treat.
- Have Confidence. You’ve gone this far — trust in your strengths. Be self-aware and know when to ask for help.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There is no Planet B. We have to take care of the one we have.” Richard Branson
Finding and sharing ways to take care of this earth has become my passion. With Jiminy’s, we’re working on a solution that has real impact, but I’ve started a side project that gives me a forum to share other ideas as I learn about them. It’s called “The Climate Change Diet” and the premise is that we can all help to fight climate change by making better choices each day.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If they haven’t had enough already, there are so many ways! There’s always new news on the Jiminy’s website — www.jiminys.com — as well as Jiminy’s social media accounts: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn
And finally, my side project The Climate Change Diet is on Instagram.