As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Wiesehan.
Justin Wiesehan is the CEO and Founder of HA!, a “Healthier Alternative” snack production company with the mission to empower people to lead better, healthier lives.
Fed up with empty-calorie snacks that did nothing to benefit him or his family, and unimpressed with the taste, texture, and nutritional value of the so-called “better” brands, Justin set out to create a snack that wasn’t just delicious, but also nutrient-dense, packed with plant power, and gluten and GMO-free. In 2021, he had his “HA!” moment — and a Healthier Alternative was born.
Justin previously co-founded an alternative nicotine delivery products company in 2010, with e-vapor and non-combustible nicotine items sold in over 70,000 retail locations including Walmart, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and Dollar General. In 2017, he switched gears to create healthier alternatives to popular products. When launching HA!, Justin leveraged his decades-long experience in consumer products and retail to manage all aspects of the business — from sales and marketing to operations to research and development.
Justin lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and four children. When he’s not snacking with them around the kitchen table, Justin likes to golf and coach his kids’ sports teams in the meantime.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? How was the concept of HA! Snacks born?
As a self-proclaimed “snackaholic,” chips were always part of my day. As I began focusing more on a healthier lifestyle, I realized that the chips and snacks I was eating were full of empty calories and artificial ingredients. I was following a pretty strict ratio of protein, fats, and carbs, and the chips would throw off my numbers in a bad way! This led me to search for better alternatives that were already on the market. And I tried them ALL! I was left completely unsatisfied with both the taste and texture of what I found on the market. Eating better options just for function didn’t satisfy my salty, crunchy cravings.
So, I did what any normal person does (HA!), I set off to create the product I was looking for.
The product had to have protein, complex carbohydrates to sustain energy, and healthy fat, but most importantly, the flavor and crunch had to deliver the same or better experience of traditional snacks and chips.
I figured if I could deliver the taste and texture experience while also delivering on key nutritional benefits, HA! could really be a healthier alternative for the masses!
It took around six to eight months of research and development (R&D) to get everything to hit, but once we had it, we went to market to test it out. After a few months of selling online and working with consumer groups, we received feedback from over 1,000 people. Back to R&D. After those iterations were made, we launched version two, which is what is on the market today.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The hardest time was the beginning. You go out with this idea, and you think it’s great, but the market ultimately makes the decision. The biggest thing I had to realize was that R&D samples are much different than the mass-produced commercial product. I went into the first production run, and the product that came out was nothing like the samples. It took us a full day of running product to dial it in. I wasn’t expecting that. I remember sitting in the hotel room that first night and asking myself, “What the hell am I doing?” But like most entrepreneurs, the process is the journey, and it takes a lot of grit. I went back to the facility the next day, and we got it right.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I believed in my why and the product too much to stop. I didn’t come this far to only come this far! HA! exists to empower people to live healthier lives. Our snacks are a small part of that journey, and I hope to continue to empower people and provide products they can feel good about snacking on and satisfy their cravings at the same time.
So, how are things going today? Tell us about your and the brand’s success. How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We are growing like crazy. HA! really only launched about five months ago (July 2021), and the response has been great! If you don’t have grit, resilience, and the humility to learn, you won’t make it. Our success is because of our customers. I constantly lean into our customers for feedback (good and bad) and continue to make adjustments based on that feedback. At the end of the day, your customers make or break your business.
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?
Branding! HA! I know that sounds funny, but it’s true. Your brand has to speak to people. Our former brand, Macro Snacks, spoke to me because I was “macro counting” at the time, so it made sense to me. However, I soon learned that 66% of the people buying my products had no idea what macronutrients were. They were buying our product as a healthier alternative to traditional snacks and chips. Lightbulb! We rebranded to reach a broader audience and be more appealing, approachable, and fun. And it worked.
What do you think makes your company, HA! Snacks, stand out? Can you share a story?
I think it’s the simplicity of the brand. We aren’t trying to push a diet or lifestyle on anyone like some companies or brands do with their “healthier” products. We are here for those looking for an alternative to traditional snacks and chips. We deliver the taste and crunch consumers are used to, but with no artificial ingredients and no empty calories. Taste and convenience is what wins in this space, and I think we have that in spades.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Remember why you started, and approach every day like it’s Day 1.
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?
There are a lot. I am lucky enough to have many great mentors and advisors. Pat Muldoon has been a great mentor to me. Pat is the ex-CEO of Detour Bar and now consults for many of the leading CPG brands in the better-for-you space. Pat has a completely different personality than me, so we compliment each other well. He always knows the right questions to ask me and comes with 110% energy every time we talk. He really knows how to fire me up.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our snacks are more expensive than typical chips on the market. We use better ingredients, so it’s hard to compete, pricewise, with Cheetos and Doritos. I understand this, but I also understand the need to give people access to better options, even if they aren’t necessarily able to afford it. With that in mind, we donate snacks to local food banks in Charlotte every year. This allows us to reach people that would otherwise not have access to our snacks.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s going to take more time and more money than you think — like 2–3x more.
- As the founder, you must be the №1 salesperson in your company. It’s your job to open the first 100 doors of distribution.
- Fundraising is a full-time job, and to be successful at it, it needs to be treated as such.
- Pay yourself first. This isn’t selfish, it’s necessary. If you can’t survive, your company won’t either. If that means not paying contractors to do a job, then figure out how to do it yourself, and pay yourself that money.
- Create the product you want to see in the world, but iterate based on what the market is telling you. You must be adaptable and willing to change and leave ego out of the equation. Your why should remain, but small tweaks and changes are necessary for success.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder?
I try to stay in the present as much as possible. It allows me to not get too high or too low. Seeing the lows as learning opportunities is important. If something didn’t work, or you get a “no” response from someone, it’s important to take a step back and figure out what you could have done differently or better. As for the highs, I take those and celebrate, because it’s important to celebrate wins, but then get back to work!
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Educating people on the true cost of eating bad food. BigFood reminds me a lot of BigTobacco in the way they market to consumers — and kids. Artificial ingredients, high sugar, and empty calories all have a cost. Few understand this.
How can our readers further follow your work and HA! Snacks online?
You can find me on LinkedIn, which is where I am most active. Follow HA! on Instagram and TikTok: @ha.snacks.