Please read Bloomberg’s article first – http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-10-26/how-musclepharm-went-from-swole-to-twig
Firstly, I didn’t want to write this article. Despite regularly writing content to increase my authority in the sports nutrition CPG industry, I have no desire to ride the “coat tails” of a major publication to get views. Those that have worked with me or know me personally would describe me as someone that “puts his nose down and executes in the background while others can take the credit for successes.” This is basically the definition of what I did during my time at MusclePharm. As many of you know, I worked at MusclePharm from the middle of 2011 to the end of FY2012. During those 18 months, the company grew from around $17M to $80M. (Note: I am not saying that I was the sole or even major reason for this hyper growth. I can say with 100% confidence though that I (along with a talented and passionate team) worked as hard and as smart as I (we) could during this time to make sure MusclePharm would be successful.)
Secondly, if you are looking for an article that is going to bash MusclePharm and its CEO, this is not that article. If you were looking for another one of those articles, type MusclePharm search terms into the Google machine and you will be pointed to some buzzword heavy articles from people that never spent any time in the organization or industry…
So, how did MusclePharm define success in 2011-2012? I spent countless hours (both during the workweek and weekend) in the CEO’s conference room going over this exact question. The vision was grand but simple; be the “first mainstream supplement brand.” This is what attracted me to MusclePharm and sold me to leave a finance-focused manager-level role at Microsoft. The problem was, in my mid-twenties, I did not have the experience in business to ask the follow-up question of “how are we going to do that?”
My understanding of the “how” was to stand out as “The Athletes Company.” MusclePharm would be the anti-bodybuilder company (this wasn’t “sexy” or a strategy like it is today back in 2011) and focus on “real athletes” like NFL, NBA, MLB, and UFC. We would be a “marketing machine” (again not sexy…) that was intensively OCD about our brand management. If a vendor had a distorted banner, a misaligned message, or a different product render, we would be on them like they were breaking the law. We understood back then that consumers were starting to use the digital channel and social media to find CPG brands. This made us intensively focused on making sure our brand was managed properly by all e-commerce partners. **As an example of how crazy we were…employees were not even allowed to talk about MusclePharm on social media because we did not want misaligned brand messaging out in the public!**
The thought was that this intensively focused brand management would be used to create a brand equity so strong in the future that we would be able to pull back on marketing/advertising/sponsorship expenses. The plan was to use a similar growth strategy to Amazon and technology start-ups in that we would focus on top-line revenue first and profitability second. As anyone that can read financials would attest, this was indeed the successfully executed strategy. Could we have grown less aggressively and turned a profit? Definitely, but that wasn’t the culture of MusclePharm and what made us such an exciting story and place to work! As CEO mentions in the article, he is “your normal CEO visionary guy that just sees shit differently.”
As a small, passionate, and loyal team in 2011-early 2012, we trusted our CEO’s vision of “seeing shit differently” because that was what was making us grow. Unfortunately, in mid-2012, I started to have two major doubts in this vision. I was working diligently on two major projects at the time; getting our warehousing in-house from Integrity Nutraceuticals (now Capstone Nutrition) and also learning how to get our new ERP system (Netsuite) to produce analytical reports and dashboards that would be useful to the CEO/CMO decision making process. This latter project lead me to having full access to the system and all of its modules, including accounting. As a rewind, my undergraduate degree is in accounting, so to say I have a pretty decent understanding of the financials is an understatement. I will not go into any “excessive expenses” detail past what we mentioned in the Bloomberg article but I will say that it left a bad taste in my mouth at the time.
Though this bad taste was in my mouth, I didn’t worry about it. The team was nearly all mid-twenties to early-thirties in age and we didn’t have the experience-level in a hyper growth business so we were trying to hang on as best as possible. We worked extremely hard to make up for this and we were all executing on a vision that was wildly successful. So, “work vacations” and heading out to golf/drink was not odd because we needed to recharge the batteries outside of us beating up our bodies at the MusclePharm gym. In hindsight, I still don’t fault anyone for that because the culture and growth was fueled by this work hard mentality that needed to be satisfied by relaxing equally as hard.
What made me most doubtful in this vision of becoming the “first mainstream supplement brand” was the quickly deteriorating environment of intensively focused brand management. In mid-2012, we grew our sales team from basically 1-2 people to about 10+ in a few weeks. These “sales reps” were not held to the same standards as the original team. This created a massive amount of different voices and messages being spread throughout the market. Though these small details didn’t seem to matter to those that I mentioned it to in the company, it made be extremely nervous. I knew this lack of oversight was growing and it was at a all-time high. As a result, I started to pay close attention to the fan social media engagement and our smaller vendor’s comments. I did this because I knew this was where the trends would show up the fastest. This comprehensive listening strategy lead me to think there might be some small holes in the boat.
Instead of quitting at that time, I asked the CEO if I could take control of the lowest part of brand management (grassroots marketing) because I believed I could make the biggest impact in “filling the holes in the boat.” This grassroots marketing effort was going to rival Red Bull and it would have spanned both domestically and internationally to make sure the right things were being told to the end consumer on an intimate level. The result, a finished grassroots marketing project that is still not launched or ever seen in the sports nutrition CPG. I left the company before it was launched and decided to take a VP position with a competitor brand.
In conclusion, what do I think about the article, MusclePharm, and CEO…
Working at MusclePharm was the most intensive business learning experience I have ever had in my life. It is a major reason why I am as successful as I am in the sports nutrition CPG industry now. I thank the CEO for giving me as much trust and authority to lead, manage, and execute on major business functions and projects in his company. Were we perfect back then? No. Would you have done a better job than us back then? Probably not.