As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing James Brennan. James Brennan brings a successful track record of 20+ years building brands and businesses as co-founder of Liveli, a wellness brand that began with a line of nootropic brain health supplements offering support for focus, energy and sleep, and expanded to offer a range of CBD products. After multiple successful ventures in real estate and hospitality, Brennan found his calling in the wellness consumer packaged goods (CPG) space, co-founding Suja Juice and Kopari Beauty as well as watch company, Original Grain. His success, however, is also defined by his dedication to philanthropy. Brennan believes in the power of giving back and uses this success to make a difference in his community — locally and globally. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of San Diego and currently lives in La Jolla, California with his wife and four children.
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?
I grew up in Rockaway Beach in Queens and left New York out of highschool to come to the University of San Diego and start building my career out on the west coast. My career kicked off in hospitality around 2003 — my team and I were the first to bring bottle service to San Diego with SideBar, and it was all downhill from there. We opened up a few more spots over the next few years before the 2008 recession knocked us to the ground. I was close to declaring bankruptcy several times, and during that rough time is when I started to pivot my career and get into consumer products. I co-founded Suja Juice, which really got going around 2012, and started learning more about DTC businesses. During this time I also got involved with Original Grain, a sustainable wood and steel watch brand, and co-founded Kopari, a natural coconut-based beauty brand. It’s been a wild ride, and all of these incredible learning experiences have led to my latest love, Liveli, a wellness brand that has most recently launched a line of nanopowder, full-spectrum CBD products.
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?
Let’s be real, no mistakes are that funny — they all suck in the moment, but they do give us good stories to tell. The biggest mistake I made early in my career was back when I was cranking away with my hospitality group and everything was on the up and up. I wound up doing a project in Hillcrest, San Diego, which is known for its active gay community. My goal was to create a mega club that would bring everyone in the community together, no matter what or who they identify as. Now, I was a straight male with a wife and two kids at the time and in hindsight, I was in no position to individually make this global social statement to mesh worlds together. Looking back, I should have spent more time trying to strategically understand the demographic I was targeting and what exactly I was trying to accomplish — and probably consult people with different thinking patterns and beliefs than my own. I was wrong to assume that just because I had some business experience I could create anything I wanted.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer. I read this before I had my hospitality group in place, but I think it really translates well beyond the restaurant and hospitality industry. It goes into basic business practices and has served as my ultimate guide to servicing and caring for other people. To this day I carry learnings from this book with me and integrate them into my businesses. I also ironically read The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz, right before this pandemic began, and it has become somewhat of a playbook for me through this trying time that we’re all trying to navigate through right now.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Growing up, I went to Xavier Jesuit highschool in Manhattan where the philosophy was to become a man for others, and this has been the single most guiding notion throughout my life. Social good has always been a common thread in all of my business ventures. With Suja Juice, we started this on a cause collective model, giving a portion for every juice sold to different causes. While my team and I were building Kopari, there was a big typhoon that hit the Philippines, where our coconuts are farmed. Many of our farmers lost their homes, so we put together a plan to build 20 homes, which we did over the course of a year, and it has since been named Kopari Village. We plan on building another 20 homes in the near future. With Liveli, I mentioned we recently launched a line of CBD products — during this pandemic nonetheless — so it was unquestionable that I needed to focus on supporting the needs of frontline essential workers. Ten percent of all of our sales right now are going to DirectRelief.org to support COVID-19 efforts.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Don’t trust your gut, obey it. You have to be self-aware in order to understand what your gut is trying to tell you. No matter who you are, we all have that hidden sense and intuition, and if you are in-tune with yourself you’ll be able to run with this and accomplish great things.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Personally, my wife and I have been struggling a bit with dealing with our parents. And I don’t mean this in a complaining way — we cherish our parents, but they come from a very stubborn generation who don’t necessarily listen all the time, which can be both frustrating and scary especially in these uncertain times. They don’t like being stuck in the house all day and they are the ones who need to isolate most. I’m doing my best to look out for them and take care of them, but they like being self-sufficient and don’t always welcome my assistance easily. I really feel for my daughter right now, too. She’s 14 and was just starting to spread her wings and learn about life, and now she’s basically confined within her bedroom (struggling with the demands of her own parents — ha!). Between homeschooling, mealtime and family relaxing time, we do our best to just be there for eachother and be patient with each other as we all juggle these new roles and responsibilities this time has brought.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think with business, it’s all about managing cash flow and survival right now. Pivoting is not an easy thing to do — in fact, it is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in business. We’re doing discounts and deals, which is not normally something we’d do on a regular basis, in effort to address these challenges. It’s hard because we’re being forced to make decisions that don’t feel good, but adaptability is crucial in order to survive — and we’re learning each step of the way.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Turn the TV off — I don’t mind a little Netflix, but turn off the news. If it’s important enough, you will hear about it anyway. But the news is there to suck you in and get you addicted, and most of the time it only ends up tainting your wellbeing and keeping you up at night.
- Which brings me to my next point.. Sleep. Sleep is hands down the number one thing you need to stay focused and keep your immune system functioning strong. The stress of the times has made sleep a little more difficult these days, to which I recommend taking some milligram dose of CBD. I wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of CBD. I have everyone in my family — from my kids to my parents — taking a dose, and it’s helped each of them.
- Exercise. Get outside and move. Take a long walk, do some jumping jacks, go for a run — just make sure you are moving your body every single day. It will not only help make you feel better, but it will ultimately help you sleep better at night — which brings me back to square one!
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
When the 2008 recession hit, there was a span where I was going to my attorney’s office every Monday trying to decide if I could survive another week or if I should declare bankruptcy. I thought I was a goner. And everyone thought the world was over. But then the opportunities started to open back up again — there will always be opportunities out there, no matter how defeated and low the world feels. I think of this time right now as the great equalizer. This pandemic has granted us all the opportunity to take risks and look at a better way of doing things — whether it’s through new services, products or initiatives, there has never been a better time to seize the moment.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I can’t speak on behalf of other people, but for me, I finally feel I understand what work life balance truly is. I’ve learned what’s most important in life and I have such a deep gratitude for that that I won’t let myself forget when these times are through. I think we’ll all move forward with a different outlook. From young kids to grandparents in their final stages of life, I think there’s an overall deeper appreciation for what is truly most important in life, and the only way to move forward is to keep this front and center in both our minds and behaviors.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
My priority is going to be laser focused on making sure every business model is sustainable and built with profitable growth. Productivity is also front and center. I’m learning that we can get more done with less, and that some of our old ways of doing things were just straight up inefficient (the amount of meetings that could have been emails…)! Now that we have been forced to streamline the way we do things, we’re seeing that there are more effective models to drive productivity.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The key is to reevaluate. Reevaluate your “oh shit” plan. Reevaluate your business model. Reevaluate your partners and your investors. Did they do the right thing when the shit hit the fan, or did they disappear? Or even worse did they try to take advantage of the situation? No one had a model for what we’re all facing right now and we’re all braving the storm together. After this is all said and done, I think people really need to evaluate what the worst case scenario could be, and make a plan for how they can get through it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You’re only as successful as the people you surround yourself with.” This has been my favorite quote since I was a young kid and my father first said it to me all the time. Team, leadership and executionism is everything. People are what drive experiences — and successful people are the key to growth. My runner up favorite is, “this too shall pass” — no explanation needed.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can reach me on LinkedIn.