As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Winston.
Chris Winston is the founder and CEO of Cavere, a consumer products startup specializing in natural air and fabric care. The initial product launch for Cavere was a naturally derived face mask cleanser which pioneered a brand-new category made necessary by the COVID pandemic, and the company continued on by making odor eliminators with the natural disinfecting power of lemongrass oil. Chris lives in the California Bay Area with his wife Jennifer & 3 children and enjoys going to Northcreek Church in Walnut Creek and ski trips up to Tahoe when not working.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Despite working for Fortune 500 companies most of my life, I have always had an entrepreneurial bent. Right after joining P&G out of college, I started a small water ice business (think Italian Ice) with my roommate. While at Clorox, I also participated in companywide innovation contests, making the finals twice. I then worked in start-ups such as ThinOptics and PE-backed J.R. Watkins (which was run as a start-up from a resource standpoint). In every case I only dipped my toe into the water of true entrepreneurial life until I left my job and steady paycheck to start Cavere.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’d say without a doubt it was having someone say they saw a commercial on TV for Cavere. We recently were accepted into Amazon’s Launchpad program, and one of the benefits is that if you send in a 30 second video, they would air it on their IMDB platform for free. I received word before Thanksgiving that they accepted the video but couldn’t tell me where/when it would air. So, during Thanksgiving break I turned on the IMDB streaming app and looked at what was available. Honestly the options were pretty boring — you get what you pay for, right? So, I watched an episode of Supermarket Sweep with my 15-year-old daughter. She couldn’t stop cracking up watching the corny late-80’s dynamics in the game show. We saw a few commercial breaks, and the commercials airing were your traditional big-brand professionally ones you’d expect to see on regular TV. After one episode I couldn’t bear to watch anymore and forgot about it. However, a week later while meeting with a business associate, she said that one of her team members who worked on my account saw it! Wish I could have seen it myself, but was happy that someone else did!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
None of my mistakes were funny — they were all very painful and expensive! However, I’ve learned a ton in the process: from the complexity of selling a consumer-commodity via Amazon’s FBA process to making a product that doesn’t require federal EPA registration but still does at the state level. In both cases I went in thinking “I’ve got this” only to find out I really didn’t. The bureaucracy of both Amazon and the EPA were very disabling and time consuming to push through. However, I was able to persevere through both challenges and launch products to Cavere’s consumers.
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 about that?
I am a big relationship guy, and my previous business relationships are what have made Cavere possible. Ray Turkowski at Kaufman Container helped get packaging in the heart of the pandemic when it was impossible to find. Dave Goldberg at Apex believed in my vision and manufactured the first batch of product. Bridgette Koziol at Bell Fragrances helped formulate a truly great product. But my biggest help-mates have absolutely been Marci Soulakis-Orr who runs marketing and Sarah Mason who represents Cavere on Amazon. Both Marci and Sarah were friends from my days at ThinOptics, and Cavere would not be what it is without them!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I am very much against labels for people. I don’t look at others in terms of their visible diversity elements, as I treat all people the same no mater their race, etc. I do strongly value diversity of personalities, as every visionary person needs an analytical helper to ensure they don’t go off the reservation. I also have a mantra of “assume good intent” from all, which helps me pause and ensure I understand someone who has a different communication style vs. assuming they are being a jerk, etc. A diversity of personalities and ways of working ensures a strong team that will be able to run a company well.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think it’s as simple as trying to not label people. So many people are rushing to declare labels on others: Democrat/Republican, Oppressor/Oppressed, Vaxer/Anti-vaxer, etc. And rather than sitting down with the person to understand their perspective we blast them on social media about being on the “other side”. If instead of firing accusations and labels we focus on understanding others, I think there would be significantly more peace in our country. We may still disagree, but we can agree to disagree.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The biggest part of the role (and biggest challenge for me) is the multi-functional responsibility. This is especially the case when running a start-up. Early on, I was in charge of every function. As someone who has spent most of his time in operations, I’ve had to rely on others via outsourcing to help with finance, R&D, sales and marketing. This can get expensive for a small company.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The lie of having “made it” as soon as you get to this level. It’s extremely high pressure, and candidly there are days I long for my roles of the past where I was responsible for less. It only gets harder the higher you ascend in your career.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I wasn’t prepared for the frequency of rejection. From Amazon bureaucracies that prevented the sale of products to the numerous retailers that said no thank you, it’s been tough. I expected to have success on Amazon and use that as an example for retailers to say yes to carrying Cavere. However, most retailers just look at Amazon as the enemy and don’t care to carry something that is already there. So, to answer the question specifically, I expected the job to be a multi-functional leader and found it to be more of a sales gig. And one that requires thick skin for sure!
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I still don’t know if I am cut out to be an executive?!! While I was working for larger companies, the focus was always on the rat race: how quickly you can get promoted, keeping track of when others get promoted, etc. Looking back at it it’s extremely exhausting and not terribly rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed getting more responsibility and compensation, but in the end, it only served as a platform to want more. That’s why I moved into smaller start-up companies, and ultimately started my own. I didn’t aspire to be a CEO, but to create something that would make a difference. I think that’s the right mindset vs. “if I only get to executive someday, I’ll be happy”.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I go back to the “assume good intent” mantra, and look for the positives with people instead of the negatives. I also encourage people to connect directly with each other in conflicts. Nothing erodes a culture quicker than talking behind people’s backs. In one of my previous roles, I could tell my manager had a problem with me. Rather than avoiding him and hoping it would go away, I confronted him and asked what was going on. It wasn’t a pleasant conversation, but at the end of it our respect for each other grew. From that point forward, our relationship was very good. Short term pain enabled long term gain.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It’s not live yet, but we are partnering with +Purpose, which enables cause-based investment directed by the consumer. Simply make a purchase from our website cavereproducts.com and we’ll give you a percentage of your purchase to invest in the cause of your choice. It’s not just a promise of a random donation — the shopper actually chooses which cause to invest in, and then Cavere sends the investment to the cause (via +Purpose). We’re thrilled with the partnership and can’t wait for it to go live!
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s cliché, but it really does take money to make money. Developing a great product means nothing if you can’t tell people about it. One of our biggest challenges is to just get the word out — we have a number of products online and all are over 4 stars on Amazon. So clearly people like the products, but we need to spend more to get the word out!
- Cashflow is king. (Yes, another cliché). The more sales we have, the more we can drive money into advertising. But we also have to pay the bills for our fixed costs making cashflow balance a huge challenge.
- Starting a company is REALLY hard. I mentioned it earlier, but unless you have good capital backing, you’re going to have to execute functions that you aren’t totally comfortable with. Meaning that I’ve had to get crash courses in accounting (via QuickBooks), CRM marketing (via Klaviyo), etc. I yearn for the days when there will be enough revenue to hire functional experts to help with this work!
- There will be days when you question yourself. I have had many moments of self-doubt, and I constantly have to go back to my faith for encouragement. Staying the course can be difficult when you spend a ton of money on an initiative that results in a zero ROI. Having the vision of the long term is critical.
- You need to have the support of your family. They are there to encourage you in the down times, and celebrate with you at the heights. In particular, my wife had to move into a full-time role with our church so that we could have health insurance. Without her sacrifice, there is no way I could have started Cavere.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Find out what you love to do, and then do it. When I look back on my numerous corporate roles, I discovered that I really didn’t like most of them. I always had a desire to start my own business but was quick to make excuses. Now that I’ve finally done it, I wished I did it sooner.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have to go back to what I’ve said a few times already: “assume good intent”. If we would all do this, there wouldn’t be nearly as much fighting, political backstabbing, arguing, etc. And if you assume good intent and someone hurts you, let them know in a graceful way so that you can work it out together and privately. You’ll come out earning each other’s respect and be better for it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’m a big fan of Mark Cuban. He is so incredibly business savvy, but he also seems to care about those he works with. He was a big part of my first [small] stock market gain when I began investing. I purchased a few shares of Broadcast.com (which he started) prior to it being acquired by Yahoo. Unfortunately, I did not own enough to turn around and purchase an NBA team with the earnings. In fact, I believe I lost all of the profits shortly thereafter on eToys.com. Easy come, easy go!