Balanced Hustler: Meet Julie Sawaya and Ryan Woodbury, Co-Founders and Co-CEOs of Supplement Company Needed
Being an entrepreneur can seem glamorous. We own our schedules, build our companies based on work we love—and sometimes we can even work beachside. But the glamour is second in command to the hustle.
The hustle is what really defines the ups and downs of the entrepreneurship journey. And to shed some light on the work it takes to build a business, I’m interviewing fellow entrepreneurs who are ready to get real about their journeys. I’ll ask them how they manage to balance the hustle with the passion of what they do, and they’ll share what they had to overcome to get where they are today. It’s all in service of inspiring, supporting and illuminating the path for you, and we’re calling it the #BalancedHustler.
What do you do when you notice that your personal nutritional needs aren’t being met by the food you eat, and the available supplements on the market aren’t working as well as they should? If you’re Ryan Woodbury and Julie Sawaya, you start your own supplement company to fill in that gap. The duo launched Needed in 2017 to meet the nutritional needs of individuals and to build communities around education about nutrition. They’ve already secured investment and officially launched their first product in May 2019. We sat down to chat with them more about why they felt they were the best pair to fill this market hole, and how they use research, expert opinions and nature to formulate their supplements.
Fast Facts: Julie Sawaya and Ryan Woodbury
When did you launch Needed?
We started Needed in 2017 while we were at Stanford’s business school. After 2.5 years of product R&D and community building, we launched our first product on May 1, 2019.
In one sentence, tell us why you started Needed.
Food alone wasn’t enough to meet our needs, and existing supplements had too many trade-offs, so we created supplements that work better in the body and in your life.
How much did you invest to get the business started?
We raised a total of $2.15 million in a seed round that closed in 2018.
How did you get capital to start?
We raised a small amount of capital out of the gate and put that capital towards what mattered most—product development and user testing—forgoing salaries for more than a year. Once we had a proven product and path to market, we took a lot of meetings with angel investors, family offices and a few institutional investors. It really does take a lot of nos to get to the yeses. We feel really grateful to have the support of an incredible group of early backers, including Sekhmet Ventures, _able Partners and Finn Capital Partners, with deep consumer health and wellness experience.H
Are you growing your business to sell? Or this is your dream job and you want to be doing this in 10 years?
We are in this for the long-haul—we have a five, 10 and 20 year plan for Needed, and are committed to seeing it through!
How many hours a week do you work when you started verses now?
We both came from work environments where 80 to 90 hour work-weeks were the norm. We still work really long hours, but as entrepreneurs we have greater flexibility than we used to around where and when we work (so we can hit a favorite yoga class even on busy days!).
How many employees do you have?
We have a dedicated team of five, but we collaborate with a much broader network of health practitioners, scientists and researchers on a daily basis.
What two business goals do you have for 2019?
- Meeting the needs of our core evangelist customers and health practitioners, one need at a time (starting with our Omega-3 product, and moving into other products this fall).
- Grow our movement for thoughtful nutrition and broader nourishment through a community that integrates practitioners and real families. We’re doing this today in several communities in California, and are excited to expand geographies in the latter half of this year.
How Julie and Ryan Balance the Hustle
Your company started out with omega-3 supplements—why begin there? What hole did you see in the market, and how did you think you’d be able to meet the need?
We started with omega-3 for three reasons:
- Omega-3 is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies. As many as 80 percent of pregnant women are deficient—that has repercussions for future generations.
- When we tested our nutrient levels, we were both very deficient ourselves (Julie due to her vegan diet, Ryan due to genetics and other environmental factors).
- Existing options for omega-3 supplements were hugely underwhelming in terms of how they work in the body (15 to 20 percent absorption, verses 90 to 100 percent absorbed through wild salmon), and the experience of taking them (big pills or strong tasting liquids are hard to take, cause burp-back phenomenon). Add to this the fact that most fish oil on the market is rancid, contaminated by toxins like mercury, and unsustainably sourced—we knew a better option was needed, so we created it.
More broadly, there’s a huge gap in the market for products that are nature-first, clinically validated, trusted by experts, and yet easy for a consumer to incorporate into a daily routine. We are addressing that gap. We design our products to work better in the body, so that they are highly absorbed, and to be easily incorporated into our consumers’ daily routines.
Our products are trusted and vetted by expert practitioners and consumers alike, because they truly work. Very few nutrition companies can say the same. For example, our first product is an omega-3 powdered supplement that is backed by 10+ years of research and development in partnership with leading scientific experts on nutrient delivery, and more than a year of real-world testing in the lives of our practitioner community and their patients.
You’re aiming to be the family pharmacy of the future. Tell us what the means in practice, and what you’re hoping to expand to in the future.
The family pharmacy of the future delivers clinically validated, natural products to manage health preventatively, along with the expert-backed education that’s needed to empower families to understand their nutritional needs at every stage of life. As the family pharmacy of the future, we do the work to formulate products from the ground up with collaboration from health practitioners that span the wellness and medical paradigm (doctors to doulas). We do the work through clinical research and “real-world testing” to prove our products really work.
This is a big departure from both i) the current medical paradigm that’s focused on treating symptoms rather than underlying conditions, and ii) the nutrition space that too often prioritizes i) one-size fits all solutions, ii) what’s trendy over what’s proven, and iii) what’s quick to market (white-labeled products) over real innovation and meeting real consumer needs.
The serious science underpinning our products enabled us to start a conversation with a diverse community of health practitioners, from eastern to western, modern to ancient. Through our practitioner community, we’ve been able to “real-world” and clinically prove that our products are very differentiated. And, the insights we gather from these practitioners — about their own needs as consumers, and the most common needs they see with their patients —fuel our ongoing product and educational development. This expert and consumer collaboration is the first step towards building the family pharmacy of the future!
Each of your batches is clinically validated and verified. Why was that an important part of the process, and how did you decide to make it mandatory? What additional funds does that require, from a start-up perspective?
Proving that our products work through clinical validation and batch-testing is incredibly important to us, our community of health practitioners and our customers. The supplements industry gets a bad rap because too few companies do the work to really prove that their products work, and that the ingredients and efficacy are what they claim them to be.
We’ve taken a fundamentally different, more thoughtful approach to making supplements, taking no shortcuts along the way. It’s not the cheap or easy way to make a product, but it’s the right one.
You’ve received more than $2.15 million in funding thus far. Walk us through the steps you took to secure that.
Prior to raising our seed round, we secured a small amount of initial funding from an angel investor who believed in us as co-founders and our mission to bring better science to the consumer space, long before we had a product ready for market. Our early conversations were focused on the science and technology we were developing, and our vision of translating the best of nature, science, consumer and health expert insights to build a new type of family nutrition brand.
Did you run into any discrimination or roadblocks, being two female founders? Tell us about your experience.
It’s hard to say whether we faced any uphill battles as women founders, since there’s no counterfactual to look to. It probably helps that from a gender perspective we have “founder-market fit,” in that women make up to 90 percent of family health decisions, and many of the nutritionally minded health practitioners we work with are women.
There’s a lot of positive momentum towards closing the gender funding gap, from accelerators, to co-working spaces, to conferences and more. We’ve leveraged these resources, and sought out other women founders for their advice and shared experience. We are proud to have both male and female investors who champion our mission and us as founders.
Being in full-on start-up mode, something has to give. What do you let go of when you’re really busy and what remains a must for your personal health/sanity?
We both learned during our very demanding early careers in finance that the fundamentals of nourishment—nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, movement and relationships—are essential to our wellbeing. They are all equally important, but they aren’t always equally in balance.
On busier days or weeks, we may forgo our morning yoga routine, or sleep a few hours less than we’d like, or cut back on seeing friends. But, we find that that’s usually okay in the short term if our fundamentals of nourishment are otherwise in place.
Why the focus on nourishment over nutrition? What’s the distinction?
Nourishment encompasses nutrition (the food we eat, and supplements we take)—but it’s so much broader than just biochemical nutrition. From our community of practitioners and real families, we know that just meeting nutrition needs alone is not enough for a broader feeling of being nourished. To feel truly nourished, we need meaningful connections to the people, beliefs and work that we care about, and adequate time for reflection, movement, sleep and rest.
We think one of the best ways to empower real nourishment is to bring together our community to interact meaningfully with one another. We believe strongly that we can all learn from one another — whether it’s bringing together a doctor and a doula, or a naturopath and her patient — each of us has something to offer and learn. Our experiences of nourishment are all unique, yet interconnected. And, we are finding that talking about nourishment begets more nourishment in a very powerful way.
Julie and Ryan’s Advice to Entrepreneurs
What do you want to leave our readers with?
The relationship between co-founders is akin to a marriage. Take the time upfront to ensure you choose a partner who shares your personal and professional values, your work ethic, your commitment to growth and honest feedback, and to the mission you are going after. This is equally, if not more important, than finding a co-founder whose skills and experience complement your own.
Like any relationship, our partnership takes work. But, thanks to our shared intentionality and effort, it’s also a huge source of strength as we build our company and team together.
What failure have you learned most from? How did you overcome it?
We are formulating products from the ground up, translating real science from a laboratory into a scaled manufacturing process. It’s been no easy feat, with a lot of learnings, unsuccessful test runs and setbacks along the way. We were able to overcome these challenges because of the ingenuity and perseverance of the amazing team of scientists we’ve partnered with.
In retrospect, the manufacturing challenges were a blessing in disguise. We used the extra time to form a deep community of health practitioners and real families, getting to know their nutritional needs and challenges intimately.
What is your number one piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
As you’re growing your company, don’t underestimate the importance of investing in your growth as a leader. We’ve been very intentional about “owning our own growth.” For us, this means dedicating the time for regular feedback, creating individual and shared learning goals that we help each other stay accountable to, and working with a leadership coach. This upfront investment has been invaluable, as our roles as leaders get increasingly complex as Needed grows.
What does being a #BalancedHustler mean to you?
Being a #BalancedHustler means finding nourishment in the work that we do, and harnessing nourishment from other areas of our life to more fully show up for the mission, team and community we are building.
Want more inspiro and tactical advice from female entrepreneurs? Check out our full #BalancedHustler series.