Made in New England: Meet Catharine Arnston of ENERGYbits
When local corporate powerhouse Catharine Arnston’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, she read dozens of books on healing through whole foods. Her research eventually led her to the discovery of the powerful effect of algae, a naturally vegan, vitamin-packed superfood. But her interest didn’t stop at helping her family: Catharine wanted to get this information out into the world, by making algae fun, sexy and approachable. A couple years later, ENERGYbits was born, offering up both spirulina and chlorella algae tablets in energizing, bite-sized “bits.” We got in touch with Founder Catharine to chat about converting skeptics, clean sourcing and growing your company with integrity.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
C.A.: I wasn’t planning on it; like lots of things, the Universe has ideas you don’t even have yourself. I have an MBA and was doing corporate work when my younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s now cancer-free, and at the time she was recommended an alkaline diet to help heal. They didn’t tell her why or what it was, so I researched it. Essentially, it was a plant-based diet while also eliminating acidic food, because when you go through chemo, it’s really rough on the immune system. In the process of researching, by the time I got to my 20th book, I realized this is too powerful and had to get out in the world. So I figured I’d help get it out there! (Fun fact: Catharine took her company to Shark Tank to spread the word.)
Once I became a Certified Health Coach, I learned people knew they needed to eat healthy but it was too much work, they had no time or it didn’t taste good. They needed something fast, easy and green that didn’t taste green. So I started digging into the science of algae, and thought “This is it!” It has 1,000 times more chlorophyll than any other green, it’s more nutrient-rich than any other food and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. The only thing wrong was that people didn’t know about it or just thought it was pond scum and too weird. I decided I was going to make algae fun, sexy and for people!
R.K.: How did you start spreading the word and actually developing a product?
C.A.: I hunkered down for two years, and had to believe that everything I was researching was true. I found out how I could import it into the U.S., contacting different people. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I did things really small. I’d get labels and tins in quantities of ten and would just sell them to my friends out of a knapsack in my health club. Then I built a website and I’d write my own press releases, and we slowly started growing through social media and PR. I’m a closet scientist and also very creative—I love giving lectures and making algae sexy!
The running community and athletes loved our product because it gave them a lot of energy, so we started setting up tables at a bunch of races. That’s basically how we still grow; we’re just a little more savvy about the way we reach out to community!
We’re not in traditional retailers yet because we need to stay focused on people committed to eating a clean diet, but that’s not the mainstream yet. We have about 150 retailers but many of them are practitioners in the wellness or chiropractor space.
R.K.: Where do you source the algae?
C.A.: That was a big part of my research. Algae is mostly grown in Asia since it’s where the industry started. It’s part of the seaweed family but algae is grown hydropincally in fresh water not the ocean, so there’s no issue of toxicity from the ocean.
I had to look through different suppliers, and learn about their water supply and standard of quality control. The company we work with is from Taiwan, which has very high standards of quality control; they use triple-filtered water, which is super important because algae absorbs whatever is in the water.
It takes about a month to grow, then we air dry it instead of using flash heat, so it’s still a raw food. We also don’t use binders; all we do is press our powder into tiny tablets and we call them “bits” because they’re literally bits of food. Once that’s done, they’re tested to show no pesticides, chemicals or metals. They’re given the Taiwan organic seal, but to assure people they are pure, I have an FDA lab in the U.S. test them again! That’s one of the reasons why we’re one of the only companies endorsed by practitioners. I know when people buy our product, we’re really making a difference in their health.
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
C.A.: I’m doing this to make a difference in the world, so my choices were always to be sure we’re doing things in a way best for customers and kindest for our team. Sometimes that costs a lot of money because I’m not pushing! I’m still open-hearted but I had to learn how to sell and figure out a distribution model. I also had to learn to be a good manager, and learn to be realistic about what could be done while managing people in a thoughtful way.
I also wanted credibility with the science community, because at first I’d get an attitude from people not knowing about it and thinking it was “Snake Oil.” I’d show them that algae actually wasn’t new, it was just new to them. To get their understanding and buy-in, I had to deep dive into the science and pull out nuggets to show them the facts, with studies to prove it. Now I’m invited to speak at science conferences because they’re seeing I’ve done my homework!
Another challenge is that we’re totally bootstrap, so it’s been really hard. I had to understand this was going to take a long time and do it while staying alive through customer sales. Thank goodness we’re finally at the pivotal moment where I’ve had eight years of preparing all the research and have everything to show people. We’re ready now, and I’m eager to start growing and possibly look into taking on a strategic investor.
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
C.A.: Honestly, it’s actually been harder because people here are very conservative. Most of our customers are in California, Texas or Florida where people are outdoors more and adopt healthy dietary suggestions a lot faster. One benefit of being here is since it’s been so difficult, I’ve had to work extra hard so now I’m ready for national growth. If it had been an easy win by starting in California I would not have been as prepared. I love converting cynics!
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
C.A.: I think we need a media incubator. New products get found through press and media attention, and yet most startup companies can’t afford to hire a PR agency so it’s a double-edge sword. You can only go so far with social media. Obviously the PR agency has to be paid so I don’t know who would fund something like this. Ultimately, it’s visibility and awareness that’s the challenge!
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
C.A.: I started my business because of my younger sister, so none of this would have happened if she hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. From there on, my biggest role model has been Daniel Lubetsky from KIND snacks. I’ve met him, and love that he wants to make a difference in the world and keep his ingredients clean. To me, he’s an extraordinary individual; he’s my true north.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
C.A.: I would definitely like to be nationally distributed through health food stores and other wellness professionals. I would like the brand to be recognized nationally as one of the healthiest food groups, and build a whole community around healthy eating. What excites me is millennials are reading the food labels and learning the fewer ingredients, the better. Algae is a whole food, it has one ingredient and it’s not processed. We’re aiming to remove any stigma or weirdness around it so it becomes as accepted as quinoa or chia seeds!
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
C.A.: First, know why you want to do it and if your reason for doing it comes from your heart and it’s truly a passion, that is the most important thing because you’ll build your company with integrity. It’ll keep you going through the rough periods. Give yourself a long lead time knowing that it’s one step at a time. Don’t expect perfection from yourself or your product, and don’t take comments personally. Anything not working is meant to help you improve; it’s not a personal attack. When you grow your business this way, eventually you have to succeed! Also what you end up with is usually never what you started with, and be okay with that. It’s a journey.
R.K.: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
C.A.: People who are driven by a purpose, and want to make a difference. That’s the most important thing for me, because they care about the customers. The compassion is important.
Want more Made in New England? Check out our full series coverage.