Is your business on the brink of collapse? Are you entering a new quarter, staring down a slew of red numbers? As an entrepreneur, there’s always hope if you’re willing to put in the work and make the tough decisions. Brad Charron is a living example.
Charron is the CEO “re-founder” of ALOHA, an employee-owned and operated plant-based protein pioneer. Since joining the company in 2017, Brad has taken ALOHA from stagnation to rapid growth by restructuring the team, reformulating the entire product line, and putting his customer’s needs first.
As a result, ALOHA is now the fastest growing plant-based protein bar in the Natural Channel, Total US Food, and MULO, with sales consistently doubling year over year. Under Brad’s leadership, ALOHA also became a B Corp, committed to balancing purpose and profit for the collective good.
Q&A with ALOHA Refounder Brad Charron
We asked Brad about what decisions he made to resurrect the ALOHA brand and transform the business from busted to blossoming.
Q: Let’s start off with the toughest question. What’s your favorite ALOHA protein bar flavor?
A: It’s hard to choose, but my favorite right now is our Peanut Butter Cup flavor. It’s one of our newest in the lineup and was just named the “Best Protein Bar” of 2022 by Good Housekeeping. It’s also one of the 5 bars we currently have at Whole Foods and continues to be a customer favorite on aloha.com.
It actually started as a crowdsourced, limited-edition flavor, but people couldn’t get enough of it –it sold out three 3 in 3 months. I like the balance of chocolate and peanut butter; it’s the right amount of sweet without being overpowering.
Like all of our bars, it’s USDA Organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, and free of sugar alcohols. It has 14g protein, 5g total sugars, 10g of fiber, 10g fat, and 230 calories.
Q: You were a D1 collegiate ice hockey goalie. How often do you get back on the ice?
A: I grew up in Minnesota, an ice hockey mecca. I lived and breathed the sport September through July, with only August as a respite. As a goalie, I thrived on my own in the net — the chance to be the hero or the “GOAT” every time the puck came crashing my way.
I miss playing sunrise to sunset on iced-over soccer fields and crack-laden frozen ponds, but I still play evenings with the guys 3 times per week without fail.
Even though I’m multiple knee surgeries deep and well past my prime, I’m always game to strap on the pads. I also keep involved in training my 3 daughters, all of who are becoming quite impressive hockey players in their own right.
Q: What skillset carried over from being a netminder to a business leader?
A: I believe goalies and entrepreneurs share a lot of similarities and fundamental challenges–we’re forced to make real-time decisions with incomplete information, solve for probabilities and strategies outside of our immediate control–even the mental and physical spatial isolation inherent in both positions is, at its core, the same.
Goalies, like entrepreneurs, are challenged to combine deeply ingrained muscle memory refined through daily repetition with an innate, instinctual ability to alter the game in a split second.
As a goalie, I was training to be an entrepreneur before I knew what that even was.
Q: What brought you to ALOHA, and how old was the company when you joined?
A: In 2017, when I joined, a previous iteration of ALOHA had existed for 4 years but didn’t have a breath of oxygen left in it. For all intents and purposes, it was dead. At its core, it was a company with good intentions but poor execution.
To put it frankly, it was in the red and then some.
With a couple of like-minded investors, I saw the potential deep within, and we set out bravely–perhaps naively–with a crazy look in our eyes to try and see if we could make this Phoenix rise from the ashes.
We were ready and willing to go fearlessly into the unknown.
Q: What were the challenges transitioning from a successful corporate career to a startup brand?
A: One of the main differences between a corporate career and a startup brand is that at a startup, you’re so incredibly alone.
There’s no cavalry coming to the rescue. You have to know that going in, or you’ll be done for. I had to channel the goalie mentality to the nth degree.
All eyes are on you. But to survive, you have to design for the long haul because operating burn without sustainability is poison in the well. I recommend thinking like the tortoise and ignoring the hare.
Q: You’re playfully known internally as the “re-founder” of ALOHA. What does that mean to you?
A: The original company, which I call ALOHA 1.0, was, to put it succinctly, a wannabe unicorn built on a shaky foundation. It inevitably crumbled under unsustainable pressure.
But, except in a few smaller circles, people don’t really remember what Aloha was before. Beginning in late 2017, we redesigned the company from the ground up.
We gave it a major brand detox, and other than deciding to operate in one of the previous company’s product categories, everything was retouched, redesigned, and reimagined.
After 18 months of proving the concept to a “reasonable degree of scientific certainty”, we reemerged in 2019 with a clear focus, scalable and sustainable commercial strategy, and a compelling company purpose.
It’s really hard to start a company but let me tell you, it’s 3 times as difficult to restart one.
I take the role of re-founder very seriously and am proud of the title.
Q: What was the first decision you made as CEO that you think made a difference at ALOHA?
A: Product! Crafting new products that I was proud to serve my friends, my colleagues, and my family was the single most important thing we had to do–and the first thing we did.
We really were solving a consumer need; excellent plant-based options that met our holistic expectations simply didn’t exist. Consumers wanted organic plant-based food and beverages that tasted excellent. Really!
So, we went to work creating products for them: macronutrient rich, great texture and taste, backed up by 3rd party certifications that actually mattered to consumers. Being good is no longer good enough to win–neither is being great. You have to be excellent. You have to be the best in class.
And that goes back to the product. If the product isn’t excellent, 9 times out of 10, you’ll fail. The other time, you’re just lucky.
Q: Restructuring a team can be intimidating to a workforce. As a leader, how do you communicate that staff changes will benefit the entire organization?
A: Whenever there was a tough conversation that needed to be had, an old boss of mine used to start with the phrase, “buckle up.” He got straight to the heart of the matter, and I respected him for it.
As a leader, I believe it’s always better to pull off the Band-Aid quickly, say what you’re going to say, say it clearly, and then listen and respond with empathy and understanding. The message is the message. Period. End of story. But how you communicate it is totally within your control.
For the organization at large, what is critical is having a staff that trusts you to make fair decisions that are for the greater good of the organization. Trust can’t be bought, it has to be earned over time.
Q: One of the major changes under your leadership was reformulating the ALOHA product line. What does that entail, and why was it worth doing?
A: Reformulation and “rush” do not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they’re bitter enemies. Rushing any part of the process is a recipe for disaster if you care about developing something original, unique, and “better.” Just like a relationship, first impressions with consumers matter.
It sets the stage for everything that is to come. But designing in a vacuum is hard to do–understanding the motivation of your bulls-eye target customer is paramount to the end product design. I’ve worked in big companies where they use focus groups and all those mass market tactics used to qualify a decision; I would proffer that model delivers generalized answers to generalized questions.
What I really want to know is what consumers want for their birthday.
I want to know attitudinally and behaviorally what they like and don’t like. Look, there is still a role for classical consumer insights. When starting or restarting a business, however, going with your gut isn’t an awful idea if you feel you really know what your consumer wants. That is exactly what we did.
Q: The plant-based protein industry has grown increasingly competitive. What has helped differentiate ALOHA’s products and brand?
A: It’s not enough to just be a “plant-based” business anymore. Solely existing in the category won’t drive repeat purchases and won’t engender loyalty and affection. Nobody cares if ALL you are is plant-based.
You have to build a weather-proof structure around it, a structure that comprehensively differentiates versus the competition. Aloha isn’t a “one note” company. The consumer expects and deserves a holistically excellent brand. We don’t cut corners on product quality, taste, ingredients, or innovation.
As an employee-owned and operated company and a Certified B Corp, we have a little more leeway to do that, but the stakes are also higher. We have no choice but to listen very closely to what our customers want and deliver, again and again…and we have to be right. The pressure is on!
Q: Many new food and beverage startups don’t realize the complexity of the industry. Where should a new food and beverage business start to reach potential customers?
A: We exist in a digital world, so why not focus on a digital customer first? The first-party communication this allows can be exponentially more powerful and an invaluable listening tool as you start your consideration set.
Much to the chagrin of my team, I start off each day in our CX portal listening to the gamut of customers’ compliments, concerns, and feedback. I’ve been known to craft my own responses to consumers before my team has woken up–never going rogue but always being true to the mission and belief that our business is built on the promise of serving others.
My morning predilection likely excites and definitely scares the hell out of our team.
Q: How does ALOHA put the customers’ needs first?
A: By creating products built on a belief that healthy food can and should taste like really good food. We do that by creating simple, nutritious food everyone can access and enjoy. We act with integrity when no one is watching. We listen and strive to be better every single day, without ego or arrogance. We are continuously figuring out what flavors they want and creating them to the best of our ability.
We believe consumers deserve our full attention. We would be nothing without them, and they deserve to know that.
In 2020, we believed so much in what we were doing that we changed our corporate charter to become a certified BCorp. That action took our consumer promise to do better and be better to new heights.
Q: What advice would you give to a founder that is close to shutting their business? What can they do to turn it around?
A: If you’re on a ship and the sea is getting rough, what do you do? You batten down the hatches. Once all is secured, I would think long and hard about what you do better than anyone else and then double, triple, quadruple down on that.
You always want to rebuild a business from a position of (relative) strength, so if you spread yourself too thin, things have a tendency to crumble sooner or later.
You have to be single-minded in purpose; it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to make water move upstream or take 2 routes towards the shore at the same time. Focus, focus, focus!
Q: What daily routines help make you a better leader?
A: Some people get up and ease into their day, but I just start running–and I don’t mean literally because my knees are incredibly bad. I’m moving at the speed of sound 60 seconds after I wake up. In the first hours of the working day, I always talk to every member of my executive team, sometimes for a minute or 2, sometimes longer. The question I always end each conversation with is, “what can I do for you today?”
While my title is supreme, I work for them, pure and simple.
By the evening, I’m exhausted. Not in a bad kind of way…but don’t expect me to prop open a new business book on management (I don’t read them) or cook an exceptional meal (I can’t do it, except for scallops).
As an employee-owned and operated company, one of our philosophies at ALOHA is that nobody is too good for the work. And that includes me. I don’t have an EA or any support staff of any kind. My daily routine is different in substance each day but similar in style. I work for the team and will do anything to make them successful.
Q: What’s the next challenge you’re facing at ALOHA?
A: The next challenge is the same as the last challenge–grow sustainably, successfully, quickly, and thoughtfully. Our challenge is the same as any business–to meet or exceed your annual business plan. Our business plan design is modeled as “freedom to operate,” meaning we as the employees/management can set our own course.
It’s “manifest destiny” on the entrepreneurial continent”, as very few entrepreneurs like being told what to do and how to do it. As a small business, we have the same issues as others–limited resources, problems that exist due to lack of scale, including outweighed macroeconomic impact, and the inevitable daily hiccup just to keep things spicy. But we embrace the challenge and yearn for the opportunity to compete and win. Yes, we feel pressure. Lots of it.
The more successful we are, the higher the stakes keep rising. But tell me, a Premier League team that doesn’t feel the pressure. They do! Because if they don’t win, they get relegated. And Ted Lasso isn’t coming to save you. Ted’s not coming for me either.