GT Dave @ GT’s Kombucha
In this interview, Nathan Chan sits down with GT Dave, Founder and CEO of GT Living Foods. GT discusses how he built a $1B empire from his bedroom and his journey of being the first seller of Kombucha in the United States.
In this interview, GT Dave discusses how he first began selling Kombucha, entering the market with a completely new category of product, and the challenges he faced in educating the market on what his product was.
GT Dave is a firm believer in passion before profit, and his integrity and commitment to health shine through as he discusses his childhood and nutrition, how Kombucha helped his mother through medical issues, and the proven benefits of Kombucha.
With a personal net worth estimated at $1Billion, GT Dave’s journey will inspire you to follow your passion and begin building your future, today.
- How GT Dave found an interest in Kombucha and how he began marketing it
- Launching his company from his bedroom, and selling his product using his Dad’s Amex card
- The challenge of entering the market with a new product and how he went about educating others on an unfamiliar health beverage
- How GT Dave helped Kombucha to become the global trend it is today
- GT Dave’s commitment to passion over profit, and what health means to him
- The importance of validating your product and communicating with consumers
- His key advice to those who are just getting started, and the questions you need to ask yourself
Full Transcript of Podcast with GT Dave
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
GT Dave: Well, I got my job in a very unusual way. I was just a young lad. I was about 15 years old, and I honestly didn’t think that I was getting ready to start a career because I think I was too young to know at it at the time. But what happened is back in 1995, my parents had been making and drinking this pungent tasting tea, now called kombucha, for the last couple years. I thought it was very weird. I wasn’t drinking it myself, but it wasn’t until it helped my mom with her breast cancer that I was almost forced by the universe, if you will, to give it a chance and give it a try. So I started not only drinking kombucha, but then shortly after that started making it. I started making it. And I really just wanted to share it with the world. That’s kind of how I embarked on this journey that I’ve been on for the last 25 years.
Nathan: Yeah. Crazy. So from a research, it sounds like you have an incredible story, and there’s some really interesting things I would love to talk to you about because you have a different kind of approach on building a business, especially around funding and there’s a tonne of different things. So I’d love to just start with you started making it when you were 15 and started drinking it. How did you come up with the recipe? How did this idea of kombucha come around? Did you guys coin it or… Yeah.
GT Dave: No. Actually I am far from the first person on this planet to make or drink kombucha. It’s been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The first time kombucha was reportedly consumed was in 221 BC. So a very, very long time ago. But to answer your question, the way I got into it is that my parents were very big into health and wellness. They raised me plant-based, and I was exposed to so many different types of unique and nutritious foods and beverages out there and kombucha was one of them. So as I mentioned, because it helped my mother with her breast cancer, I just wanted to share it. I didn’t see it as a branding opportunity, as a category creating opportunity or anything of those things that subsequently happened almost as a happy accident but certainly unexpected.
So again, therefore, I didn’t even know I was even starting a business. I was just a teenager, a young gay boy, to be honest, that was struggling in school, was being bullied, was failing all my classes, and I wanted a second chance. And in many ways kombucha gave me that second chance to do something with my life. So I kind of grabbed the bull by the horns as they say and never looked back.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s crazy. So 25 years ago you started sharing it. What did that look like? You were just going to markets, like farmer’s markets and selling it, or did you start the brand there? When did you start to really get into the commercial side of things?
GT Dave: Yeah. I mean, it really was a sequence of events over the course of call it the first five years that eventually put me in the position of more of a traditional sense of a company or brand. So the way I got started is, again, because I was so young, I just kind of lead from the heart. So I started making the kombucha myself because I fell in love with it. I started to experiment with different ways of making kombucha because previously the way my parents were drinking it is they were arguably over-fermenting the kombucha, which was causing it to be very vinegar-y and very difficult to drink. So in my mind, I thought, “All right. Well, if I can maintain the potency of kombucha but also make it more palatable, then that’s kind of magic, if you will.”
So I started to play with the recipe, created what is our current recipe today, which is this very potent, very pure but also very palatable kombucha. And then what I did was I designed my own label on my dad’s IBM computer and went to the local health food’s store that my parents would have me shop at ever since I was a kid, so it was very familiar and it was a natural fit. And the store back then is actually a very popular store now here in Los Angeles. It’s called Erewhon. So Erewhon is like the leading edge, bleeding edge of health and wellness here in Los Angeles and Southern California. So they were the first store to sell my product. Back then there was just one location of Erewhon. Now they have about I think four or five.
And then from there as I said, every six to 12 months, I’d continue to grow up and therefore my brand, company and products was growing up with me. So to be honest, my first label had zero branding. It was a black and white label with just kombucha as the name of the product. No flavour because there was no flavour at the time. It was just original. Ingredients, nutrition facts panel, company address with a telephone number because I don’t even think I had email back then, and that was it. But every so often I would learn more and I would iterate or improve or elevate not only my packaging but also the messaging around the product. And it was a nice kind of organic way of growing up in a business sense.
Nathan: Yeah. Interesting. I’ve got here as well from my research that you started this company off the back of your dad’s Amex. Is that correct?
GT Dave: Yes. I mean, because I was essentially a one-man show making this kombucha in my parent’s house while still being essentially a teenager in the house, I didn’t really have… And this was I think certainly a huge blessing and benefit is I didn’t really have my own overhead. I wasn’t paying rent because I was a child in the house, and most of my expenses initially my father gave me his credit card that I would use and go to whether it was Home Depot to buy the industrial racking I needed to build out my fermentation room, or whether that was to buy labels or bottles or caps and all that kind of startup raw materials and packaging that one needs to get going. But then honestly I only really needed my father’s support maybe for the first six months because what I did is I saved every single penny of every sale of every bottle and I wasn’t really paying myself. And because I didn’t have an overhead, I was essentially having mostly pure profit. So I would save that money and then reinvest it in the company in months or years to come.
Nathan: Interesting. So you’ve been working on the brand for 25 years, and I’m curious as well you guys are the category king when it comes to kombucha. Back then was anyone else selling kombucha?
GT Dave: No. Believe it or not, there was no other brand in the kombucha space when I got started. That was in my ways a blessing because I didn’t have to deal with any competition. But to be honest, it was actually more of a challenge because then the entire burden of educating the consumer as well as the retailer and the buyers within the stores was all on my shoulders. So that’s why for the first two or three years I didn’t really expand too quickly as far as expanding my distribution into other stores. I stayed in Erewhon and a handful of other local natural food stores in the Greater Los Angeles area because I really wanted to go super deep in my relationship building with the stores and subsequently the consumers. Because again, kombucha wasn’t those things, and it’s still. But kombucha’s not one of those things that you just have a cute ad or a cute slogan and then people buy it. It’s not as transactional as water or soda or juice can be. It really is this story, if not this conversation that you have to build and maintain with everybody that you work with and everybody that’s interacting with you. So that was my philosophy and continues to be, to be honest.
Nathan: Interesting. So yeah, that is something tricky in the sense that kombucha’s a well-known product now. Everywhere you can go you can buy it. But you’ve had to really educate the market of what it is, why people should purchase that over something else. I’m curious when you talked about the story and the education, what were you doing to really… Is it on the label or how do you sell a product where people don’t really understand and it’s just totally different to anything else out there?
GT Dave: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. It really is more information that a label can hold. So for the first five years, and honestly even the first 10 years, I relied heavily on in-store sampling because with that opportunity I was able to personally or even with the help of my mother at the time, personally interact and engage with the consumer. And usually what my approach was is I would first talk about the history of kombucha so people knew that this wasn’t a fly by night snake oil or placebo or bogus product because there is a lot of those back in the day, like with SoBe and Snapple. They all had kind of like these fairy dusted types of products where they would put echinacea or other herbs in it. But there was really no nutritional value to them. So the consumer was very suspicious of what you said to them.
So whenever I would talk about kombucha, I’d always talk about its history. I’d always talk about how it’s made, and I would use things like yoghourt and miso and kefir and apple cider vinegar as examples of fermented foods that we all know in the health and wellness industry are basically bullet proof legacy ingredients that everybody knows how healthy they are, and then I would talk about the health benefits of what kombucha does. And I would never really make any claims. I would always say that kombucha, like many things in this world, lots of water, lots of sleep, lots of exercise. That when used in conjunction with the healthy lifestyle, you notice a dramatic and remarkable change and improvement in your health.
Then what I would do is I would cut to my personal story as well as my mother’s story. So what I shared with people firsthand is I said, “Listen, I’m young,” because I was 15, 16, 17 years old at the time. And I would say, “I thought I was healthy. I was plant-based, raised a vegetarian, exercised, all that stuff. But when I started drinking kombucha, it gave me a new form of health. I would get sore throats, gone. I would get sick, gone. I would get tired, gone. I would have indigestion or bloating, gone.” So that was really my firsthand testimonial of sharing with these new potential consumers that kombucha could really change their life, even if they think they don’t need it.
And then of course with the biggest selling point and the most inspirational aspect of my story and my early beginning was of course my mother because my mother success with her breast cancer was really remarkable. The doctors gave her a very bleak diagnosis. They said she probably wouldn’t live more than 12 months, and my mother obviously completely defied that kind of prophecy and became a cancer survivor. And even during her, because she did have surgery and chemotherapy, and even through her treatments, which a lot of times can end up killing the patient, kombucha played a significant role in keeping her strong and resilient.
So the long and the short is I was essentially sharing those personal stories with people to inspire them, and because it was really coming from the heart and not from a really cool slogan or really cool ad, people felt connected not only with the kombucha that I was offering but as well as me and my company and my brand.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s great. Great advice because I think it takes time. That idea of the overnight success because when I know of kombucha, and I even see it when they talk about gut health, it’s one of the things there. You see it there. So you’ve really helped popularise the product, and I’m curious you’ve been doing this for 25 years and people would look at yourself and your success like thinking that it might be an overnight success or like it’s crazy you guys are just blown up or whatever. But how long do you think it really took to become a mass market brand or a category king and really take the market?
GT Dave: Yeah, I would say it was probably about 10 years of a run from 1995 to 2005 to really eventually hit our stride, know who we are, know who we aren’t, really master and hone in our voice and our messaging, and really know who our audience is and how we could connect with them. Now having said that, there was a big difference from 2005 to 2010 in the US because in my mind, the first half of my company’s history was, as I said, partially me growing up but in many ways I think it was also the consumer growing up. Because there was a dramatic change from 1995 as far as what the response and point of view that the consumers would have to these types of raw fermented products versus 2005. People were a lot more educated, a lot more sensitive to what’s in the ingredients, sensitive to how it’s made, how it’s packaged, things of that nature. And then from 2005 to 2010, you started to see even more of this awareness of good, clean food.
So I guess the point I’m trying to make it really was a culmination of a lot of different things. It was my own personal path and journey and evolution, as well as the consumer and their understanding and education of the importance of good, clean food and what that looks like.
Nathan: Yeah. Interesting. So one thing that’s really interesting, and please correct me if I’m wrong because you can do research and stuff. I don’t know how much of this is true or not. But you guys have over 40% market share in the kombucha space. Is that correct?
GT Dave: Yes, it is.
Nathan: Yup. And I don’t know. You’re estimated to be doing around $300 million per year.
GT Dave: Well, I don’t honestly talk about sales, so that’s the only part that I’ll, if you don’t mind, I’m going to leave you on the dark on.
Nathan: That’s totally fine.
GT Dave: I mean, our market share is a little subjective, to be honest, but as far as our revenue, we keep that private just because honestly, and this is going to sound silly, I don’t want anybody listening to think that I’m doing this for the money. So whether I’m making $300 million or $300, my path is the same.
Nathan: Yeah, I really respect that. Yeah, I just had to ask because I’m trying to give the audience the scale of what you’ve done and your accomplishments. Maybe we could talk about what are the biggest challenges you guys have now? What kind of volume in products are you moving? I’d love to hear about that. What are the challenges you face now?
GT Dave: Well, there’s a variety of challenges. As they say, more money, more problems or the bigger you are, the harder you can fall. So if you don’t mind, I can just give you a variety of somewhat random examples.
So fortunately making our product has not been a challenge, and I think the reason for that is because I started in my opinion the right way. I started making my product firsthand with my bare hands. I was able to study it and work out all the bugs and find out how to make it great and how to avoid making it bad. So that was really the first five years, which is I think also reason why I was very slow and steady with expanding my distribution. So I really wanted to understand my product because with something like kombucha, it’s not like a soda where you just mix together some ingredients, bottle it, and it’s fine. Kombucha’s a lot like a plant or even a form of agriculture where it’s always evolving. There’s seasonal variations. There’s even flavour or quality changes from one batch to the nother. So you really have to study your batch and even study it after its been bottled because it’s still a living product and it can still change.
So fortunately I don’t want to say I’ve mastered it because it’s always a work in progress. But I think I have that pretty much down where I think most of the challenges I should say come into play is that one is making sure, and I think this is something that a lot of businesses and a lot of entrepreneurs face over time, is as you grow your business, and I’ll use the somewhat silly analogy of raising a child. You raise the company and the brand and it goes through different phases of its life. At a certain point, it’s essentially ready to grow up and be its own adult, be its own entity. And what you need to do, but I think a lot of entrepreneurs sometimes forget to do this or get distracted with other stuff is stop and ask themselves, “Is this company, is this brand, is this product… Has it grow up to be everything I want it to be? Does it still have the DNA and the qualities that I raised it with?” And the reason why I think this is important, and you probably are thinking, “Oh well, this is so basic. Of course, everybody does that.” But in reality, most people don’t because they get so caught up in the rat race.
One you achieve a form of success, you always, and I’m guilty of this too, always set the bar higher. So you’re always looking at how can I beat last year’s sales? How can I increase profitability? How can I capture more market share? How can I expand distribution? And in doing that, you sometimes forget that you might’ve stepped off your path. So I think it’s important to constantly check yourself, and that’s what I’ve done and continue to do because it’s so easy to get caught up in the success. In many ways success can be very intoxicating, and it can almost distort the way you see yourself, the way you see the world, and certainly the way you see your products. So I think it’s important to do that recalibration frequently.
So that in many ways is a challenge. It’s something that you have to make a conscious effort to do almost on a daily basis because everything you do, you have to ask yourself, “Does this feel right? Does this make sense? Am I staying true to myself?” And in this day and age where there’s such an immense amount of innovation and content out there and there’s so many people almost yelling and screaming about, “Look at me! Look what I’m selling! Buy me! Look at my product,” that you almost feel encouraged to participate in that behaviour, which in many ways is not a good thing because it just becomes this yelling match. So it’s really finding very thoughtful ways of maintaining your relevancy but not getting caught up in this rat race, and most importantly, not losing your identity.
Nathan: Interesting. One thing that I also find quite fascinating is you guys have accepted no outside funding, and you’ve also turned down various huge acquisition offers.
GT Dave: Yes. Which I know some people were thinking, they’re like, “What an idiot.” Well, the truth is first of all on the investment side is similar to what I was saying earlier a second ago is that I think every brand and every entrepreneur sometimes struggles with maintaining their path and staying true to who they are. And in my mind, that becomes even more difficult when you have someone else in the picture. It’s a lot like a marriage and that’s why sometimes marriages end up in divorce is you sometimes join forces to start a household or raise a family and there’s differences of opinion that can sometimes create friction. So with me, because in many ways I felt like I gave birth to my kombucha in so many ways, it was my baby, I didn’t really want any outside influences or worse yet, even more business-minded influences that would tell me, “Hey.” Which unfortunately, and this sounds like I’m disparaging the business mindset, which I’m not.
But, “Hey, change your recipe to make more money. Change your formulate to extend the shelf life. Add more sugar so it has more of a mainstream appeal.” Those are things that I honestly did hear from periodic mentors and periodic kind of influences from the outside, and that was my first insight to, “All right, I can’t listen to that noise. I need to stay true to myself and true to this path,” because again, not to sound redundant, I started making kombucha because I genuinely felt it could change the world. I didn’t start it thinking, “I’m going to get so rich,” or, “I’m going to be so famous.” Which a lot of people when you deal with investors, even if they say, “Oh, I love your company and your brand because you’re doing something great,” it’s still a transaction. They’re giving you money, and they want money back. The clock starts clicking the second they give you the money, and they want to know, “When are you going to exit? When am I going to be able to make a return on my investment?” In my mind, that’s a big distraction.
Then as well as selling my company. Not to say that I think there’s anything wrong with that or I’m certainly not disparaging anybody listening that has sold their company or wants to sell their company. It’s a matter of personal preference to be frank, but for me, the biggest gating item, if you will, is the fact that my product has my name on it. Most products rarely have the founder’s name on it, not even Steve Jobs name is on Apple. So I think when your identity is almost tethered to the product, in many ways it does feel truly like your child. I don’t know anybody that has said, “I want to have a kid, and then I want to put it up for adoption.” I mean, nobody really makes that plan. So that’s how it is for me.
It was very intentional for me to start making kombucha, to start my company, and I feel what I’m doing is I’m really raising this life form that hopefully will make me proud and will continue my legacy even when I’m no longer around. I don’t know if I could say that if I sold my company to a larger company like the Coke’s, the Pepsi’s and what have you because those aren’t founder companies anymore. They’re very massive, publicly traded companies, and the number one thing that they pay attention to, whether they admit it or not, is making their shareholders happy, which means making profit. I think profit and passion struggle to coexist, and I’m a very passionate person. So for now, I’m on this solo journey.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. I really respect your approach here because I think as time has gone on, there is this movement of bootstrapping and staying bootstrapped, and you’re really controlling your own destiny versus going off and looking to raise capital. It just depends on that journey though because I think you’ve been very fortunate because it sounds like you guys have done really well on the retail side. Sometimes that can be quite capital intensive with big purchase orders, and when you’re starting out to fund that, it can be very, very difficult or to navigate these big purchase orders and stuff like that. But no, I really respect your take and the fact that you’re doing something that is like a true calling and a true purpose to you. That it’s not about the money. Whether it’s an extra zero or not, that doesn’t probably really going to change your lifestyle or anything like that, right?
GT Dave: Yeah. And again, that’s the reason why it took 10 years for me to have national distribution is I do understand that if you take on a national retail chain that places that very large purchase order, it can actually destroy your business. So I was very cognizant of that early on, which is why I went from store to store, city to city, not region to region, chain to chain within the first five or 10 years because again, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s a lot like having a child and within the first few years, you throw them into college. You would never do that. There’s a sequence of events and a certain cycle of that life that you need to follow to make sure that they are learning at the appropriate rate and being exposed to an environment that’s conducive to who they are at that moment, space, and time. So in my mind, a company or brand is no exception.
Now having said that, there’s a lot of entrepreneurs that have a three to five year plan, and in that five year, they want to be $100 million. They want to exit. They want to be a $1 billion, all of that, and that’s totally fine. It’s a different path than mine, which neither is right or wrong. I’m more of a passion, purpose-driven individual where I already feel that I’ve made it. The fact that I make a product that I love and make a product that I know helps people’s lives be better, I’m good. Anything else on top of that is just a bonus.
Nathan: Yeah, I love that. So I’m curious as well, sometimes people when they start a business as time goes on, they lose passion for it. Do you think that is because they have the wrong intentions, or do you think you could ever lose passion for the work that you’re doing because you want to build a legacy. Sounds like this is a business that perhaps might be a family business or be passed down. What’s your take there?
GT Dave: Yeah, I think that’s a very real question in the sense that… And I must admit, in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this, not every year has been great. There were days where I struggled to get up in the morning. I lost a little bit of the fire in the belly, and it wasn’t because I had any second guesses on is this my path and is kombucha really for me? There was never a doubt in my mind about that. But I think what can happen is twofold. One is that slippery slope, as I referenced earlier, of being caught up in the success and the competition, and I need to beat last year’s numbers. Or I didn’t hit my target goals, or I need to be nationwide by next year. All those are either self imposed or even outside imposed pressures. They can really start to eat at you and almost make you feel like a failure or make you feel desperate or make you feel even that perhaps you’re even losing. I think losing can be subjective, depends on your standards that you set for yourself. So I think that in many ways can start to discourage you, and I think being discouraged in many ways can erode your passion.
So by the way, that never really happened to me fortunately because as I said earlier, I just wanted to make one great bottle that helped one person and that’s it. So I did that I believe in the first few months of me starting. So everything after that was like an unexpected success. So I was always on cloud nine as far as that is concerned.
The other example that I’ll give that is more applicable to me is that as you become more successful, as your brand has more awareness, has more of a reputation in the marketplace. In many ways you do feel that you’re under a magnifying glass, and what that means is that people will judge you. People will criticise you. People will dismiss you. So that can be hard. Again, a lot of people said that, “Oh, he’s so lucky he started kombucha when he did because there’s no brands when he started. So he basically had a cake walk.” It’s like, “Okay. That’s easy for you to say, but you weren’t with me in 1995 when I was competing with SoBe and Snapple.”
So there’s that, and then there’s also… And this is a horrible thing. And to all the entrepreneurs listening out there, this is probably one of the hardest things that entrepreneurs can go through, and that really is the scrutiny of litigation and litigious behaviour. Maybe where you are in the country that you’re in, you don’t see this as much, but in the states, any brand, once you achieve a certain degree of success, you immediately become a target to be sued. And what happens is you’re sued for somewhat frivolous reasons. Whether that’s employment, whether it’s compliance, whether it’s consumer, whether it’s whatever. And the way that this works is that, especially here in California, is a company and brand is usually guilty until proven otherwise. So anybody can make any allegation against you and the burden of proof is on you, the company and brand and employer, to prove them wrong.
And what happens is that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars in defence, and then there’s a chance that you may lose. And if you lose, you have to pay not only your attorney’s fees but the others, as well as whatever value that’s awarded. And if you win, you kind of still lose because you pay…
And I’ll give you an example. I won’t give you the details, but many years ago we were fighting a complete frivolous litigation that was actually sexual discrimination of a bisexual male within my company. And for me, I was like, “Guys, I’m a gay male. I would never, ever… I’m a gay male, by the way, that’s been bullied, so I would never, ever tolerate any form of discrimination.” But this individual made such outlandish claims that allowed him to have this case that we had to take it all the way through to trial. And then I had to sit up there on the stand and basically tell a jury that I was a young gay male being bullied in high school, and without a doubt, I will never, ever allow anybody under my watch to be bullied.
Fortunately, we won that case, but I was left with a $400,000 legal bill and with nine months of heartache and headaches. And what happens is, and sorry for this long winded answer, but at the end of this journey, what I was told by my attorney is, “You’re a target. You’re successful and people see you as wealthy. So you have deep pockets.” Whether they think their case is right or wrong, the way things work, especially here in the states, it’s this thing called cost of defence, which means do I pay my attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars, or do I pay you $50,000 to go away? It started to feel like this extortion game, and I’m telling you extortion in many ways is almost like blackmail. It’s a horrible, horrible thing, and I think brands and companies and entrepreneurs get pulled into this trap.
So what happens is you rather (A) do I what I do and you fight back, or (B) you become a Coke or a Pepsi where everything you do is safe. You don’t take any risk. You’re not a trailblazer. You don’t take any chances. You don’t do anything out of the ordinary because, by the way, if you do, you become a target. So I think at many times that becomes this internal struggle that I’ve personally gone through of I know what I’m doing is helping people, but there are people out there in the world that are going to poke holes in that. They’re going to spin things in their favour and somehow demonise me or my product in the process and that’s the hardest thing. That really, really is the hardest thing.
So I’ll give you an example. In 2010, the kombucha category was being scrutinised for the potential for alcohol, and kombucha had been around for 15 years. But in that moment, space, and time because kombucha was so new, there was this concern that, “Oh, it’s fermented and fermentation has alcohol. Oh my god, this might be booze.” And overnight the entire category, including my brand, was demonised and disparaged, and that was really tough because for the last 15 years, I kept my head down. I was focusing on making a great product. I was focusing on connecting with the consumer. I was focusing on making something that I believe is authentically healthy, and then out of the blue for someone to say, “You’re wrong. What you’re doing is bad. We’re going to shut you down,” it’s hard.
By the way, by the time this happened in 2010, it wasn’t just my brand that was on my shelf. There was about a dozen. And I’m telling you, after the three months of this controversy that transpired, no other brand besides mine came back because the brands and the entrepreneurs couldn’t stomach that degree of controversy and attack, and it really is, and this is for anybody that’s listening, is the most important thing that you need to do when starting your brand and your company is root yourself in, “I believe in what I’m doing, and I’m doing this because I genuinely feel it makes the world a better place.” Because if you don’t have those two things and it’s really like, “Oh, I think this is fun,” or, “Oh, I think this is going to make me a lot of money,” when challenges come your way, make my words, they always do; if you don’t have that solid foundation, you’ll crack. And that’s what I a lot of brands in 2010 did. Fortunately, and I’m not here to toot my own horn, but I was able to navigate that storm because I was grounded in the things that I believed in, and I was able to maintain my confidence throughout that scrutiny and controversy to really transcend it and rise above it.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s an incredible story. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability because that must have been really tough going through these legals battles and all these different things. That’s the dark side of entrepreneurship that often people don’t talk about. When I was researching and looking up, they say that your company’s valued at over $1 billion and you own 100%. It’s just like, “Wow. That’s impressive.” But that’s what happens when you’re at the top. People are going to take a shot.
GT Dave: Yeah, exactly.
Nathan: I’m curious, when it comes to competitors now, you probably have a lot of copycats. How do you deal with that? How do you handle that? What advice do you have to people where someone sees what you’re doing and they want to a piece of that/
GT Dave: Yeah. Well, I mean, I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. So first of all, listen, I love to inspire people. I believe by making authentic raw kombucha for the last 25 years that I’ve not only inspired people to reassess their diet and lifestyle but also to start to become curious in this beautiful world of fermented raw foods. So I’ve seen a lot of brands and products be born, and I’ve been told this specifically from experiencing and interacting with my product. It inspired them to make a raw kimchi or to do this or do that. I think that’s great.
Where I draw the line is when they start to copy you, and then worse yet, attack you. So I would say unfortunately in the last 10 years, there has been this proliferation of brands that copy the flavours we make, copy the imagery on our label. They’ve even gone as far as to copy our bottle. But then they won’t admit it, and in addition to not admitting that they’ve borrowed some stuff from us, then they attack us. I’m not going to name any names because honestly there’s too many to name, but there have been brands out there that would say, “Oh, we don’t taste as bad as his,” or, “We don’t have those lougees floating in the bottle,” or, “Ours isn’t so sour and disgusting,” or things of that nature. Or, “We don’t mass produce our products.” And I’d even hear things that they would start rumours is saying that I was sold to Coke. I was sold to Pepsi. Doing anything honestly in their bag of tricks to kind of push my brand down to elevate themselves.
I think that really is the dark side of competition. I do believe that competition’s healthy, and I think the tide rises all boats. I think that having more than one brand in the kombucha space is a great thing because I think that indicates and signifies to the consumer and the broader marketplace that this is a legitimate category and it’s not going anywhere. But I think there’s again a line you can cross if in order to advance yourself, you’re putting other people down because in my mind, it’s just negative energy. With something as special and as sacred as kombucha, where in my mind, it’s this living, breathing thing that’s so sensitive to energy and that’s what makes it so special is it has this vibration that I think works with us on a cellular level. I find it ironic that negativity and stuff like that can come from a kombucha brand in the kombucha space because it’s almost counterintuitive to why we exist.
So forgive me for the long winded answer, but again, it’s the trials and tribulations of being successful, as we talked about, and then also being the first. When you’re the first, people like to take shots at you.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s true. So we have to work towards wrapping up, but I’m curious did you have any words of wisdom that you would like to share for anyone that’s just on earlier in their journey or they’re just been working on something for a couple years and they’re starting to get some traction because you’ve been at this for a long time. You’ve built a very successful business, a category king brand. I’d love to hear.
GT Dave: Well, I’ll give you a variety of advice. So one is for anybody who’s getting started, you really need to ask yourself what are you doing and why are you doing it? Because as I said earlier, if you can say, “I’m doing this because I’m passionate about it. I’m doing it because it makes me happy, and I’m doing it because I genuinely feel that it’s making the world a better place and improving people’s lives,” that is certified gold. But if your answer is, “Well, I think I can make a lot of money,” or, “I think I could get famous,” I’m going to be honest, you’re maybe starting for the wrong reasons. And that disalignment, if you will, with yourself and this philosophy that you’re looking to further may rear its ugly head and sabotage your success. So that’s number one.
Number two is always get proof of concept because a lot of entrepreneurs, and I’m guilty of this, we get so obsessed with what we’re doing, we think it’s the most amazing thing. But you need to make sure others agree because nine out of 10 times you’ll find out that you’re either kind of there or completely off the market. Because when it comes to a product and kind of like what you’re saying earlier is if you have the opportunity that I was fortunate to have early on, we’re able to have a conversation with consumers. You can either hear from them and then understand what’s important from them, but if you don’t have that opportunity, the product has to speak for itself. And you need to make sure that everything that you think the product is saying, everything that you think the product is doing, that the consumer agrees and they’re getting that same message. Because nine out of 10 times a lot of times it’s not happening that way, which can stunt your growth.
The third advice is keep it simple and keep it slow. That kind of dovetails with the proof of concept idea of just making sure that, hey, go from one batch to two batches. Don’t go from one batch to 200 because in my mind, quality is always king and rapid growth can sometimes erode quality and erode your standards. And then again, then what are you making? You’re not making a great product anymore.
Then last but not least is stay true to yourself, and even if you decide to work with an investor or a partner, that’s fine. Just make sure that you’re absolutely aligned with why the two of you are joining forces. It is a transactional reason, or is it really more of a passionate philosophical reason? And are you really better together? Not just with merging bank accounts or finances but also merging of minds and heart to make sure that this individual or these group of individuals that you’re bringing in the picture are truly going to make you and your brand better.
And I would challenge that because even if optically you think the answer’s yes, you really want to kind of test it and make sure that there are certain criteria that says, “Hey partner or investor, this is a marriage. I do certain things. You do the others. And if you don’t, then I have an opportunity to take you out of the picture.” Because a lot of entrepreneurs don’t think that way and they get so excited that I’m raising money or I have somebody coming into the picture. But they don’t really have the division of labour, if you will, and really how you’re going to join forces and not step on each other’s toes.
So I think that kind of summarises what I think people should be mindful of when starting and running their businesses.
Nathan: Awesome. Look, thank you so much for your time, GT. It was a fantastic interview. I appreciate your vulnerability as well and just being so open with us. So yeah, look, thank you so much for your time.
GT Dave: No, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me on. I really enjoyed it.
Nathan: And also, one last question, where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?
GT Dave: Absolutely. So our website is GT’s Living Foods. So that’s G-T-S living and foods dot com. And that’s where you can find all our products from our kombucha to our adaptogenic mushroom drinks called Alive, our water kefir and everything else we make. And then on social media, all our handles are GT’s Kombucha. So that’s G-T-S and then kombucha. And then myself, I’m really simple, it’s GT Dave and the number three. And I’m on Instagram. So you can find me that way.
Nathan: Amazing. Well look, thank you so much for your time. I hope you have a good rest of your day.
GT Dave: It was my pleasure. Thank you. You too. Take care.