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 Jesslyn Rollins.
Jesslyn is the CEO of BIOLYTE, the IV in a bottle. After being approached by her father, anesthesiologist Dr. Trey Rollins, about his new product — which had been developed as a remedy for his wife, battling breast cancer at the time and suffering from severe dehydration — she started selling BIOLYTE out of the back of her Toyota Highlander, and became the director of sales, then chief sales and marketing officer and ultimately, CEO. Since then, BIOLYTE has grown into a multi-million dollar business.
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?
I grew up in Atlanta and attended The Lovett School, before moving to Charleston and attending College of Charleston. I transferred to the University of Georgia and graduated from there in 2015. I started my career at ISG Partners as a recruiter before getting a job at The Laughing Skull Comedy Lounge as a ticket sales associate. One day, my dad approached me with a product he developed: BIOLYTE, and the rest is history.
You could argue that BIOLYTE was dropped into my lap, and I had zero training for what I was getting into. But, I don’t see it that way at all. I think everything: my education, theatre background, recruiting job, communications degree, all trained me for what I do today. Even my general personality: charismatic, obsessive, passionate, hardworking, and simply the things that I like: human development, leadership, connecting with people, performing — all fit into what BIOLYTE allows me to do on a daily basis. And I freaking love it!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Savannah Distributing is a family-owned beverage distribution company that covers the entire state of Georgia. Back in 2017, it would have been massive if we landed this account, because they could have gotten us into thousands of retail stores. But back then, BIOLYTE was only in a handful of retail accounts — why would they want to take us? We didn’t have any “proof of concept.” Knowing this, I did my research to see what I could possibly do to get a leg up. I figured out their CEO and every CEO before him had attended UGA, and were all UGA SAE’s — the school I attended and the fraternity my dad was a part of. I saw this as my way in.
I only had two weeks to prepare for this meeting, but in that time span, I drove up to Athens and visited every convenience and independent grocery store I could find, trying to sell BIOLYTE. I spoke at a few fraternity chapter meetings along with this, and by the time I walked into the meeting with Savannah, I had 15 new accounts under my belt — and a 900-bottle order from SAE.
Against all odds, Savannah saw promise in the brand and verbally committed to a four pallet order — the biggest order to date, by far. Unfortunately, over the next few weeks, they had to back down their order and eventually told me that if I could get in Kroger, they’d take it — but if not, they had to pass. I put everything I had into my Kroger presentation.
I showed up with a rolling cooler, cold BIOLYTE and printed copies of my presentation. I met with Randy Walters, head of the all-natural division for Kroger in Atlanta, and was shaking like a leaf. After I was done, I thought I had bombed — he had not tried the product or smiled during my presentation. I was shocked to hear him say, “Okay, so here is where we are going to put BIOLYTE,” and proceeded to list out hundreds of Krogers in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
I asked him afterwards what sold him on the brand, without even trying it. He told me he turns down water companies 99 percent of the time, but simply loved my passion and enthusiasm. This was our “big break!”
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?
As a seller on Amazon.com, you have the capability of creating promo codes so people can get a discount when buying your product. In the early days, I simply wanted people to try BIOLYTE, so I created a code for 100 percent off. We used this for specific, high-profile people or businesses.
Over the next few months our Amazon sales really started to climb, and we were like wow, this thing is really taking off! It wasn’t until we started to get orders for 100+ cases at once that we started to wonder why.
Apparently, when I went to create the code, I clicked “public.” This code was on our public Amazon profile for three months — we gave away probably $20,000 worth of BIOLYTE for free. I should have been fired, but because I was the only person in the company… I wasn’t. It still gives me hives.
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 would thank every single one of my teammates that are in BIOLYTE today. Their talents and skillsets have all contributed to our success. But the person I’ll choose to call out today is Kelly Harrah, BIOLYTE’s first ever full-time employee. Kelly started as BIOLYTE’s Logistics Manager and has worked his way up to Director of Logistics.
If you placed an order with us in 2017, I sold, packaged, shipped, delivered and invoiced you. I was doing most of those jobs pretty poorly, but my worst area was shipping and logistics. People were missing orders, things weren’t showing up on time — you name it, I messed it up. Kelly was my contact at a local logistics company in Canton, Ga. We started working together, and he would bend over backwards for BIOLYTE — when a drive would get stuck on my family’s farm property, where we housed the product, Kelly would drive over, get in the truck and move it himself.
Once I was in a place where I could, I asked Kelly to come work with me — and he did. He worked alone for the first few years out of my family’s barn warehouse — to paint a picture, his office was in a tent with a tarp around it and we called it the “yurt” — ha!
He has the most incredible work ethic I have ever seen — I truly worship him. He is the reason BIOLYTE ever got off the ground.
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?
You need three things to be successful on an executive team: gas, brake and glue. You need gas to move everything forward, brake to make sure you’re not recklessly speeding down the road, and glue to hold everything together. If you only have gas, you’ll speed into a brick wall. If you only have brake, you won’t go anywhere. And if you only have glue, you’re just stuck together for no reason. Having diversity and a balance of traits, skill sets or backgrounds will help your whole organization stay healthy and moving in the right direction.
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.
Something simple that I think could help: admitting when you don’t know the answer to something or when you make a mistake. There is a lot of pressure for the leaders in our country to always be right. But, admitting when you need help, opens the door for more qualified, knowledgeable people to come in and help guide you. I believe this could help people feel more trusting of others, and less pressure to be “right.”
Plus, people love helping people. They want to be valued for what they can bring to the table and ultimately contribute to the bigger picture. If we say, “Hey, you matter and no one can do this like you. Could you please help me out?”, people will respond to that positively because they recognize you value their talents and that they mean something to the big picture. It’s not about being the same or the smartest at all times, it’s about using our differences to help move us all forward.
What this means for BIOLYTE is that when I have a problem with budgeting, for example, I don’t try to figure it out on my own — I pass it to Matt, our CFO, and he writes a proposal of what we should do, I review it in private and we go over it together. I put my best minds behind the issue — the people that are working in it day-to-day — and see how they recommend solving it.
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?
An executive is a 50-foot bomber where other roles in leadership are 15-foot bombers and SEAL Team 6’s. They are all vitally important to getting the job done, but an executive tries to see all the moving parts from a higher level. This ensures all of the parts are working independently and together.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
1) There is a right way and wrong way to be a CEO.
False. You have to play to your skillset and then hire around you in the areas you’re not so good at. That way you can get back to focusing on what you’re good at. This will ultimately propel the business forward and fire your people up.
2) You need to be “THE BOSS” — be authoritative.
Being an authoritative, my way or the highway, figure doesn’t look good on most people. It doesn’t come naturally for me personally, and many people, and like animals, others can smell it. I’ve run into a few instances where I’ve tried to be this person, and my teammates didn’t respond well to it at all. You need to be the leader that works best for your team.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I cannot believe I’m in charge of recruiting for BIOLYTE, and I actually love it. I got my first job as a recruiter straight out of college, and if you had told me back then that it would be the backbone of my future career, I would have thought, “Oh no… where did I go wrong?” I never would have thought I would do this for my own company, but here we are.
Presumably not 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?
A lot of times, the higher you go in a company, the more people you have to manage. But for a lot of people, that sounds pretty terrible. They like to manage their own destiny and only be accountable for one person: themselves. If you’re like that, I don’t think an executive role would be a good fit.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
First, I would say to build internal structures that revolve around your company’s core values.
A company’s core values are the heartbeat of their organization — they say who you are and who you are not. You may have a few core values that are similar to another company, but as a whole, they are never the same. For that reason, I can’t speak to what would work for your exact company, but I can say that once you figure out what they are, use them to be a guiding light for how you build your company.
For example, one of BIOLYTE’s core values is “Family.” In each of our meetings, we save the most time for a section we call, “Issues.” This section is where people can express where they are struggling and what they have questions about. This helps us flesh out issues, work together to solve problems and maintain an open, honest environment. We want people to lean on each other like family, and setting aside time to discuss our internal issues helps us achieve this.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We’ve created an amazing product that does a lot of good. If someone is past their breaking point — whether they have had too much sun exposure, become really dehydrated, over-exercised, or come down with a stomach illness — our product can work wonders. What we are trying to do is, “bring the IV bag home to people who need it most.” That hasn’t been done before. It’s through this creative, out-of-the-box approach that I believe we are on our way to making a massive impact on people’s health.
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.)
- There is no right way or wrong way to be a CEO.
Everyone is different — and so are all of our businesses and teams. Like the myths I mentioned before, there is no “guide” to being the best CEO. You have to learn what works best not only for you, but for your team. I learned the best leadership style for me is what comes naturally — being understanding, creative and a tidal-wave of energy.
2. Play to your strengths, and hire for your weaknesses.
I am what we consider “glue” in our organization. My number one job at BIOLYTE is to create the most enriching environment possible for our people. This comes down to gaining the trust of each and every one of my teammates, building structures that best support our people’s needs, and hiring top talent. For years I thought it was my job to come up with strategy and poke holes in agreements and proposals. No — that was a brain drain for me, and frankly, it wasn’t helping anyone in the company. Play to your strengths.
3. There are many different forms of leadership. Pick the one that’s right for you.
You can lead out front, by example, through relationships, or by serving others. There is not one type of leadership that is better than the other. They are all very powerful in their own right. It is more dependent upon who you are dealing with, and what type of skill set you want to lean into for a given situation. For example, I have someone on my team that is a visionary with 20+ years of experience. He doesn’t need me to “lead out front.” He is already in front of me! With him, I focus more on servant leadership. Questions like, “how can I help?” and “what can I do?” are going to be much more beneficial for him. I’ll lead out front for other team members that don’t particularly want to make decisions without getting the green light.
4. Your team members don’t need you to be “perfect”: Stop trying to be someone else.
I’m a big patriot, and really love and respect the founding fathers. George Washington is one of my favorites. He was known for being like a “marble statue” — calm, collected, and unwavering. That’s what made him such an incredible leader. At one point in time, I was trying to embody him, and was doing a pretty crappy job at it. I was on the phone with my friend, Caroline, and I told her I didn’t know why I couldn’t be more stoic like George Washington. Why could I not hide my emotions better? And she replied, “George Washington, f him. Jesslyn, people respect and like leaders that are honest and trustworthy. Stop trying to be someone you are not. They’ll like you more for it.” It was great advice, and right then and there I tried to stop comparing myself to other leaders and tried to find a leadership style that was more me.
5. Your team members don’t need you to be “perfect”: You’re allowed to have a bad day.
In Q1 2021, I was planning a wedding and gearing up for a new flavor roll out. I was being held together with dental floss and gum. In our 10-minute morning huddle, I had a sharp tone and a few of my teammates thought I was mad at them. I have since found that it was better for me to tell my team that I’m having an off day than for us to have a distracting miscommunication. This mindset also takes the pressure off my shoulder’s to be “perfect.” They can handle it.
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.
Gosh, there are so many great causes in the world and a bunch that I’m personally invested in. But the one that I can’t wait to do with BIOLYTE is an idea I have called, “BIOLYTE and Belly Laughs.” Right after my recruiting job, I worked at the Laughing Skull Comedy Lounge. While my stand-up comedy career didn’t go anywhere (ha), I still never lost my love for stand-up comedy. I would love to have a partnership with a comedy group or a comedian where some of the best comedians come in and perform for breast cancer survivors and patients. All the proceeds would go to an oncology center or charity. Laughter and joy have such healing properties, and I would love to bring a little bit of joy to people’s lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The greatest illusion is that life should be perfect.” — The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy.
I can get pretty nitpicky when it comes to the details. My teammates say that I like to go to “tinker town” a lot. Plus, I can be really hard on myself — the way I act, look and so on. This quote reminds me to stop putting so much pressure on myself to make things “perfect.” In the end, being “perfect” isn’t a real thing and striving for it will steal my joy right out of the moment. Simply being who you are is powerful and unshakable — like a palm tree in a hurricane.
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.
Jim Gaffigan. I think he could make my “BIOLYTE and Belly Laughs” idea come true.