As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Vierling of Tailwind Nutrition.
Jeff Vierling is the CEO of Tailwind Nutrition. Tailwind began with Jeff’s head in a trash can at the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race — a disappointing finish after months of training. Jeff tried every nutrition product available, but none worked well. Diving into scientific research, he found most products contained difficult to digest ingredients. The solution was to make his own drink mix, taking advantage of how the body fuels. It worked, and he quickly found himself delivering his product to athletes in parking lots.
Together with his co-founder Jenny, Jeff set out to help athletes reach their goals with simple, proven nutrition coupled with education, encouragement, and unexpectedly delightful customer service. Today, Tailwind manufactures and distributes nutrition products for athletes in all 50 states and 28 countries from their headquarters in Durango, CO. Recognition for Tailwind includes the Durango Chamber 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year, Governor’s Award for Excellence in Exporting, Wright Award Finalist, Colorado Company to Watch, and a Colorado Advanced Industries grant. After starting his career at Microsoft, Jeff was involved in several startups and civic projects in Durango prior to starting Tailwind. He is a graduate of Stanford University and has a 1000-Mile Buckle from Leadville.
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?
Mountain biking had always been my avocation, but after moving to Durango, CO, a friend convinced me I needed to sign up for a race and train for it. I’d never raced before but threw my hat into the lottery for the Leadville 100. It’s a 100-mile mountain bike race starting and finishing at 10,400’ in Leadville, CO. In retrospect, maybe I should have picked something easier for my first race!
Over 9 months, I trained as much as I could and felt well prepared going in. On race day, my legs felt strong, but my stomach felt awful. After almost 11 hours of feeling terrible, I crossed the finish line and made a beeline to the nearest trash can where I puked up the Muesli I had for breakfast 13 hours earlier. My wife and kids were on the course all day as my support crew, and my wife was kind enough to capture that trip to the trash can on a video that’s now on the Tailwind Nutrition website.
I was frustrated by having put so much time and effort into training, only to have nutrition let me down. I wanted to understand why I felt so bad and started reading research studies on how our bodies digest fuel. I realized many of the products I tried used ingredients that were challenging to digest, which made no sense when I needed all the calories I could get. So, I started experimenting with my own mix taking advantage of how the body absorbs energy, electrolytes, and water.
It worked well for me, and I shared it with other Leadville riders and friends in Durango. It was just my secret weapon, not a business at this point. Then I shared it with a woman I met at Leadville who had dropped out of 7 100-mile races because of stomach problems. A few months later, she emailed to say she’d felt great and finished the Shenandoah 100 and had broken down in tears as she crossed the finish line. That’s when I realized I could help people in a meaningful way, and Tailwind Nutrition was born.
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?
Don’t tell the health department about this, but in the early days I mixed Tailwind in a hand crank mixer. Our beagle Clementine would sometimes join me in the shop while I cranked away. I ran into a customer who mentioned he had bought one of our small packs in a local store and found dog hairs in it. Ew! He quietly exchanged it for another pack and continued to use Tailwind but wanted to let us know. The obvious take away was “no beagles in the shop,” but the deeper one was the kindness of this customer, who continued to support us even though we screwed up. I never wanted to disappoint a customer like that again.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I have a sneaking suspicion the only person actually working 4 hours a week is Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four-Hour Work Week, but I remember listening to it while skate skiing and slowly coming to grips with the idea I was an entrepreneur at heart. I worked for Microsoft and had been involved with several startups, but the book helped clarify that I really enjoy bringing ideas with a positive impact to life, building teams, and sharing what works. It was time to strike out on my own, though I’m still waiting for that four-hour work week!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Early on, my wife and I met with John Bresee, co-founder of Backcountry.com. He encouraged us to think about goals for the business 5 years out and what success would feel and look like on a daily basis. Not just financially, but what would customers think about the business? What would we be proud of? He was making the point that building a business is hard work and having a purpose beyond financial goals is key, not only for customers and employees, but also for founders and leaders to know their efforts have meaning. From the start, Tailwind’s purpose has been to help athletes achieve their goals, whether it’s a personal goal, finishing a race for the first time, setting a PR, or climbing the podium.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The idea of being a support crew for our customers came from my own experience at Leadville and knowing just how important a great support crew is. It’s one of our core values as a company, and it makes decisions really simple. Is what we’re doing making us a better support crew for our customers, our partners, our community, and each other? If the answer is “yes,” then I trust the business will prosper.
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?
My wife and I have two daughters and became empty nesters last fall when our youngest daughter left for college. That came to an abrupt end just before spring break as we scrambled to move both of them out of dorms and back home. One was far away, and a friend drove 2.5 hours to move her out and take her in for a few days while we arranged travel. We’ve been lucky to remain healthy, and the girls have adjusted to online courses and cancelled internships while awaiting decisions about the fall. It’s also been a chance to slow down and reflect, spend more time as a family, and reconnect with old friends.
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?
At the start of the pandemic, we heard from a number of customers and partners about healthcare professionals working 12+ hours shifts in hot and cumbersome PPE equipment. They were finding it difficult to get the nutrition they needed to stay energized and mentally sharp while serving on the front lines. We donated our products to dozens of hospitals across the country and launched a program in which we matched any donations made by our customers. In addition, we lowered our prices during April so that anyone could stay active and healthy using Tailwind despite the financial impact of COVID-19.
To date, the Hospital Support Crew program has donated over 11,000 single-serve packets to more than 100 hospitals, and customers have contributed more than $4,000 in donations. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to our team to stay busy and feel good about making a contribution during this time.
At the same time, races have been cancelled, shops are closed, outdoor activity is limited, and our international partners are struggling, all of which have hit the bottom line. Many of our customers have been affected personally and financially as well. We’ve shifted our messaging to emphasize being a support crew for our customers, helping them to stay active and motivated, and refocusing the energy that goes into training for an event toward setting and reaching personal goals and embracing virtual workouts and races. Events were key for introducing Tailwind, so we’re investing more in digital marketing to reach new customers and build our brand. Customers have responded with website purchases more than doubling compared to 2019.
As a food manufacturer, Tailwind is an essential business allowed to continue operating, but several employees have been out sick, and several more have young children at home. There is a lot of concern about leave, job security, and staying safe when at work. We shifted our office to work from home, instituted a flexible leave policy, and adopted best practices for safely operating the production and warehouse facility. I called every employee personally and shared what we were doing as a company, our intention to keep everyone’s job and pay intact, and listened to their concerns. We applied for and received a PPP loan which is helping us keep all employees on payroll, but I think the most important thing we did is be fully transparent about how Tailwind was being affected, what steps we were taking, and to engage employees in supporting each other and generating the ideas to carry us through.
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?
I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s normal to feel this way and to talk about it. We all need to be able to share what we’re feeling and stay connected. That’s true now more than ever. One idea I’ve shared is to find a way to support others during this time. Whether it’s picking up groceries for an elderly neighbor, making meals for a family with a sick family member, or making PPE, there are a lot of ways to help. It feels good to do something for others, and at the very least it’ll buy a few hours away from the news cycle. Staying active is another way to lower stress levels and reduce anxiety. It doesn’t have to be much — going for a walk or hike or even a YouTube workout if you’re stuck indoors can work wonders. Finally, don’t go it alone. We have a friend who’s using his extra time to take an online language class, another joined a book club. They are meeting new people and having conversations, even while remaining socially distanced.
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?
The heart of any sustainable business is helping customers meet their needs. COVID has changed many of those needs and priorities, which creates new opportunities. We’ve seen shifts toward online, pick-up, and delivery models, but also people are cooking more at home, changing the way they exercise (hikes and walks, biking, online classes), and of course working and learning from home. Some of those changes have been great, others not so much. Online learning as an example leaves much to be desired. Would a VR classroom allow for the kind of interaction and give and take missing from a Zoom conference? How can businesses connect with customers if they can’t do so in person? Will we continue to spend more time at home and in our neighborhoods with mass-scale events and travel limited? There are opportunities in just about every sector to reimagine how we do things.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
A lot depends on how long the pandemic continues, but trends like the acceleration of online shopping, more people working and recreating from home, and takeout and delivery are likely here to stay. I’m hopeful positives will emerge too like stronger connections with family, friends, and neighbors, greater time and space for reflection and activities that support our mental and physical health, and renewed appreciation and advocacy for the environment and beauty around us.
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?
Over the last couple months, Tailwind has focused on supporting our customers and front-line healthcare workers. We’ve used the down time to iron out pain points in our internal processes, gain more efficiency and flexibility in manufacturing and fulfillment, and upgrade our website and online assets. As the economy reopens, Tailwind is preparing for an increasingly online-centric business by investing in digital marketing and partnerships, and we’re diversifying into adjacent segments in addition to our core focus on athletes. We’re also introducing new products and services targeting personal and individual fitness markets that are growing during the pandemic. We’re sharing what works with our international partners to help them rebuild as well.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The pandemic is a big stress test for businesses and business models. Listen carefully to what it’s telling you. What strengths and positives have emerged? Can you extend those or find a way to monetize something you’ve done well? Be honest about the weaknesses revealed and address them. Are your customers still there? Did they migrate online? Meet them where they are with products and services they need. Flexibility and adaptability while maintaining your core values are the keys to thriving.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many variations on this, but Albert Einstein put it as “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Tailwind is a good example of the unexpected directions solving a problem might take you!
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