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 Joel Kocher.
Joel Kocher, Co-Founder and CEO, founded Humann, a functional nutrition company, utilizing patented science from the University of Texas Health Science Center, in 2010. The company has been named to the Inc. 5000 list for seven consecutive years, won the Nutrition Business Journal Science Award in 2016, and has also been named to the Austin A-List of top startups in 2015. Mr. Kocher holds a B.S. in Marketing from the University of Florida along with completing executive programs at both Stanford and Wharton, respectively. He is an avid sailor, distance paddle boarder and adventurer.
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?
It’s a little unusual! I spent 25 years in high tech, the vast majority in senior leadership positions. Amongst other roles, I was the #2 executive behind Michael Dell in its ascent from less than $100 million in revenue to the Fortune 500. After leading a few other public tech companies as CEO, I was feeling like “been there, done that.” So, I decided to become an entrepreneur and with a few co-founders, started Humann in an entirely different marketplace.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Ha, that’s easy! All entrepreneurs have at least one of those! We were conducting product focus groups with physicians and target consumers prior to the initial launch of the company into the market. Our cardiovascular health product incorporates tech that is based on a molecule that was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine called Nitric Oxide. Yet not a single physician or consumer had ever heard of it. Stunned, I decided at that moment that we should not launch the company, as the education of physicians and consumers would simply take too much time and capital to achieve. Obviously, I changed my mind the next day after talking with our great team, but we did make the decision to delay the launch for a year until we developed a diagnostic test strip. Best decision we ever made as that strip was key in our company being able to gain early traction.
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?
Of course, but it’s a short story! My funniest mistake was thinking that with all my years of tech experience that this would be easy!
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 say Lee Walker, who was the President of Dell when I joined the company as a VP. Lee believed in me and gave me the opportunity to step up and run most of the business very early in my tenure. That’s an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for!
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?
We try very hard at our company to keep it simple. As best as a company can, it should simply reflect the market for which it serves. Beyond that, diversity hiring adds exactly that to a company, diverse ideas, diverse strategies, diverse opportunities and more. This goes far beyond just a diverse executive team as we believe each of our team members has a significant value to add to our company.
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.
Listen. Everyday. People will give you the signals. Leaders lead. People have the option whether to follow.
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?
I believe a CEO must deliver two key things for the business. First, a compelling vision that has longball legs. Second, function as an effective Chief Talent Officer because without an effective team to execute the vision and strategy of the company, you are going nowhere FAST. As a CEO, you are who you hire. So, hire the best and let them do what you hired them to do. Give them what they need to win. Resources, capital investment and personal growth opportunities.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That’s easy. CEO’s have the all the answers. Simply not true. Effective CEOs learn how to find the right answer from that strong team I referred to above. Essentially, they learn how to learn.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am an old warrior, but this is my first rodeo being an entrepreneur. I frankly did not think it would be so challenging to get to scale. We’ve done it, but it took more effort than I had anticipated.
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?
No, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. No different than not everyone is cut out to be a doctor. You should probably not be a CEO if you are not prepared to analyze and make very tough decisions. The types of decisions that mean life or death of a company and knowing that others depend upon you for their livelihood is a big responsibility. Perhaps one of the biggest in our society.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Provide an environment where people can grow. Everyone strives for the advancement of career and income. Pay attention to them. Provide learning and growth opportunities for them every single day. Our weekly staff meetings are run by every single member of our team, regardless of their position and on a rotating basis. It’s a little scary for some, but an amazing opportunity for personal growth by every Humann.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our company is working every single day to help change the trajectory of human health and be a force for good in the performance of the human body.
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.)
- What got you here never gets you to the next level, and there are several inflection points you will face as you drive your company towards scale. It’s almost as if you must reinvent your company several times on the journey from inception to scale. Brand matters more than you think, so take the time and effort to give your company a name that will stand the test of time as well as the unpredictable evolution of your market. The name of our company originally was NeoGenis Labs because we wanted our science to be taken seriously. It was a key point of differentiation in our strategy. But times changed, and with it the consumer. Food forward became the primary market force, so a name with “labs” in it simply wouldn’t play. Consequently, we had to endure the expense and effort of a rebrand in 2016. Our customers love our current name, but it was tough starting over from a brand recognition standpoint.
- The people you start the company with may develop a radically different view of the company’s road to success and may choose not to or be incapable of adapting to the strategy as the company grows and evolves. Entrepreneurs know this storyline well.
- There is a reason that “scale” and “holy grail” rhyme. Without scale, you cannot compete if a bigger player steps into your lane. Reinvest your profits and run like hell because the startup graveyard is full of companies who simply got the market they innovated, stolen by a deep pocketed elephant. We have weathered this phenomenon but only because we gained the scale to compete by the time they woke up — in other words, the market we had created now mattered.
- Adapt or die. We have all heard it. Consequently, making “adapting” a core competence of the company is a necessity if you intend to sustain your hard-earned success. Make it the centerpiece of your corporate values. And hire to it! You are moving too fast to train everyone how to do it effectively. Today, “adapting” is our most critical core value. We pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt in a closed loop cycle. Our management operating system thrives upon this cycle and it’s a major difference maker in being what I call a “sustainer.” We are proud to say we have never posted a fiscal half that was not a record setter in revenue. We have posted strong sequential growth over 21 consecutive fiscal halves despite numerous macro shifts in our market. As an example, we grew 70% during 2020 when Covid was raging and for one reason — our team consists of highly competent adapters!
- Learn what I call the talent ratio. It’s the rhetorical mathematic ratio of total company talent to revenue. When the revenue growth is at hyper levels, the game is largely to keep the total talent ahead of the growth. Otherwise, a declining Talent Ratio will bring your growth down FAST. I learned this principle leading hyper-growth tech companies. Hire the best. Keep the key talent growing faster than the revenue growth rate if you want your company to sustain high rates of growth. Either our President or I, if not both, are a part of the interview team on every single hire, regardless of position. We want the best. Show me a team of great people and I will show you a great company. Show me a team of mediocre people and I will guarantee you that it will be a mediocre company with mediocre outcomes in financial and market share performance.
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.
At Humann we have already begun our movement, that movement is the chance to change people’s lives through the discovery and implementation of products using Nitric Oxide. After all, it wasn’t named the miracle molecule for nothing. Our mission and our products have the power to change people’s health for the better and that’s a movement we are excited to continue sharing and pursuing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never rest on your laurels.” Those laurels are always more fleeting than you think. NEVER ever take your foot off the gas. Do more. Do new. Never quit pushing your personal envelope. That is the reason I became a first-time entrepreneur at age 55!
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
With no offense intended to anyone, I would rather have that lunch with an aspiring young person who possesses a passion to achieve what they are being told by others is impossible!