SEPTEMBER 23, 2019
Episode 34 – The Future of CPG in Austin
Jake Sloan from Naturally Austin
In this episode, we talk to Jake Sloan, about his journey from skater kid to nonprofit founder to marketing professional before becoming the Executive Director of Naturally Austin, a collaborative community organization that supports growing consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and natural products in Austin.
Read the Transcript
Savannah Barker (00:00):
Hi, welcome back to another episode of Change the Rules. My name is Savannah Barker and with me in the studio is our very exciting guest, Jake Sloan Executive Director of Naturally Austin. Jake, thanks for joining us.
Jake Sloan (00:11):
Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.
Savannah Barker (00:13):
So before we dive into Naturally Austin and CPG I would love to hear a little bit about your background.
Jake Sloan (00:20):
Yeah, for sure. I can go back pretty pretty far and I think, I think it’s worth doing it because there’s a lot of foundational things that happened to me younger in my life that that kind of led me to where I’m at now. Born and raised in Texas. I think a third generation Texan, which I’m very proud of. My mother’s side of the family, civil servants, my father’s side of the family, entrepreneurs. So I got to see both parts of life and, and kind of see how being a civil servant can put you in a community and give you a lot of value out of your life. And then also an entrepreneur can do the same. And so it was my junior year. I hadn’t even planned to go to college, even apply. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was planning on I’ll make up a skate shop and go that entrepreneurial life. I was a young punk skater kid in Sherman, Texas. And some friends of mine, some new friends of mine in high school took me to an Oklahoma State basketball game. And I was like, “Whoa, this is college. I will go to college.” I did not know. So I applied to Oklahoma State and, and, and got in and, and went to there and studied, started in journalism and then went to Advertising. After college, I went to Los Angeles for a really hot second worked in advertising and had complete culture shock. And my girlfriend came with me, who’s now my wife, we were like, let’s go back to Oklahoma. Let’s, let’s be with our college friends for a little bit while we’re all still young and just enjoy that. So we went back, got a job in advertising. It was mid 2008 and then recession hit. And it was crazy. It was so scary. Cause I was one of the few people on really in my direct family and especially on my father’s side that, that went to university. So I was really adamant about putting what I learned to work and not just going into the restaurant industry. I shouldn’t say just because that’s a big industry and an important industry as well, but not going into the restaurant industry like a lot of my friends and colleagues were doing. And so I got a job doing field marketing for an education company, marketing test prep classes. So I did that and it wasn’t big, it didn’t feed my soul. And I’m also someone that’s very passionate about life and want to make sure that, you know, every minute, every breath is, is, is filled with some sort of passion that fulfills me and, and, and people around me. And so through just tinkering around, I, I developed a little non-profit called Small Pond Music. And our goal was to get some of the artists in Oklahoma City out of the small pond.
Savannah Barker (03:29):
Oh I like that!
Jake Sloan (03:34):
Yeah, there it is. They do that by putting local artists on the bill of major artists that were coming through town. And so to be able to get that connection with major artists, I ended up working with The Flaming Lips and I did about two shows. And the second show I did with The Avett Brothers and someone from Red Bull happened to be there and I took that person to meet the band. And a few months later ended up being asked to move to Austin, Texas to work for Red Bull. So that’s where my career with Red Bull started. And I did field marketing for them in Austin and then moved to Dallas to build the field marketing team of there, and then went to Santa Monica to run field marketing strategy and kind of resource allocation and business planning for the West Coast over there and did that for about three years. And then my wife and I, again, we’re like, let’s go back because friends and family let’s put, put some roots down. So we moved back to Texas – Austin. And that’s where I really kind of reset my intentions again and said, all right, the core desires that I want in my everyday life are community. I want to be able to build something that, that has a lasting legacy. And I want to always work around people that inspire me and challenge me and make me want to do more in my life. And so, as I kind of sought those core desires, I ended up meeting Genevieve Gilbreath and we became friends and I was always like, “Hey, let me know if I can help out, let me know if I can do anything.” And a few years later she said, she’s launching this program called Naturally Austin that is going to help the CPG industry in Austin, Texas and we’re actually looking for someone to, to run the ship. And I said, “Sign me up. Let’s do this. It sounds awesome. I’m super excited.” And so, yeah, that’s my story in a nutshell, there’s a lot more that I’m not getting at but yeah it’s just really cool to, I don’t know, be able to look back and take that, take that step back and be like, all right, what really fulfills me and try and try and seek that out. And I, I feel really excited that I’m able to do that in this role now.
Savannah Barker (06:05):
Awesome. Awesome. And so what is Naturally Austin? What’s its mission what’s its purpose? How long has it been around? In your own words.
Jake Sloan (06:16):
Naturally, Austin is, is very brand new, but the Naturally network is kind of an affiliate of Naturally organizations across the U S and, and which started in Boulder with Naturally Boulder. So they’ve been around for about five years. And kind of the founding story of Naturally Austin is a few folks in the, in the CPG industry. We’re looking around at some of the other industries in Austin and looking at all the resources and infrastructure that they have to kind of grow the industry. Tech is a perfect example. There’s so many resources to figure out how to get into tech, how to grow your tech skills, how to network in tech how to kind of build more infrastructure in tech and CPG really didn’t have any of that. And so some of the founding board members, including Aimy Stedman, and I got together and kind of brought some people together and said, “Hey, let’s build something that will have a sustaining and long-term impact on the Austin CPG community.” And from that, some of the people that she brought together, they said, well, let’s talk to Naturally Boulder and see if they will affiliate us, Naturally Austin and allow us to, to kind of start building a program down here in Austin. Of course they said yes, knowing our legacy for developing really amazing CPG brands from, from Austin. That’s kind of the origin story. Yeah. But what we really do, our mission very simply said is fostering the CPG industry in Austin, Texas. And that can mean a lot of different things that can mean you know, working with the city to develop policies that help manufacturers come into town. So that brands have a place to produce their products. That can mean working with farmers to figure out how they can be better suppliers and more sustainable suppliers to the CPG community. But for us right now, what we’re really focused on is educating and inspiring founders and young talent to be able to allow them to produce their innovations, produce their dreams so that we can continue to foster all the amazing, innovative, sustainable, organic, natural products that come out of this city. So that we can, at the end of the day, say that we are making the Austin CPG industry the most exciting CPG industry, hopefully in the world. So yeah, and there’s a of different, like added benefits to that as well. Some, some more intrinsic ones that I’m actually really excited about. And it’s, you know, centered on maybe, there’s a lot of research to be done, but maybe if a CPG industry in Austin, Texas is really strongly established, we might be able to influence and impact a strong word, stronger upward mobility situation in Austin, Texas. So, but right now we’re really focused on educating and inspiring talent and founders. So, yeah.
Savannah Barker (09:31):
Awesome. So some have referred to CPG as the great equalizer in that you don’t need a ton of startup capital to, to get your business off the ground and you can leverage things like social media to connect directly with customers. So I would love your thoughts on that. Like is CPG a level playing field compared to say traditional tech startup?
Jake Sloan (09:57):
Yes. well, yes and no, which I hate that answer. I wouldn’t say It’s a level playing field. I think we have a lot of work to level out the playing field across different socio-economic environments, but it is a more accessible industry. Yes, absolutely. It allows really anyone with an idea and a place to create food. Like they can, can turn that into a product and enter that product into the market. And that is really unique to CPG compared to, to other industries. But yeah, because of that, that does support, you know the, the kind of the claim that CPG, if established well, can support and mitigate some of the upward mobility issues that Austin, Texas has. So I’m really excited to explore that even more, but to your point of like level playing field, we do have a lot of work to do to ensure that diverse communities know how to take their product or their idea to market. And then once they take it to market, how do they scale it and grow it from there? Because there are a lot of barriers that are tough to jump over as you grow your CPG company. And at Naturally Austin, those education forums we’re talking about, we want to educate people on how to navigate those barriers and then also inspire them to fight through them. Cause they’re tough and it takes a lot of inspiration and motivation intrinsically to, to get through them. But we’re here to, to help people figure that out.
Savannah Barker (11:44):
Awesome. So what are some of your favorite CPG products that you’ve come across since joining Naturally Austin or maybe that are of the Naturally Austin community?
Jake Sloan (11:54):
Yeah. There are so many amazing brands in Austin first, I think really want to celebrate Austin. And in terms of creating these genre-breaking brands, like constantly starting with, you know Sweet Leaf Tea, right? One of the first like clean bottled tea brands. And then you look at Deep Eddy vodka, which again, like clean product, a clean product. And then you get brands like Epic Provisions, which is really just a unicorn in the CPG space. And then now Siete, who’s coming out with all of these amazing grain-free products. That’s really changing multiple categories in the grocery store. And so first, like those brands, celebrating those brands that just break genres and break categories, we in Austin are known for that and drive that. So there’s a lot more on the horizon that as soon as they, you know, get out into the market and they’re definitely going to change, change the landscape. There are a few brands out there, you know that are they’re caffeinated water. Like that’s a, that’s a really unique, you know category that’s coming up. There is Exo in town who does a protein bar and the protein resource is from crickets.Yeah, it’s crazy. But it is amazing.
Savannah Barker (13:38):
Can you taste them? Is it crunchy?
Jake Sloan (13:39):
I mean, it is crunchy, but it’s crunchy like any other, like any other protein bar and it tastes really great.
Savannah Barker (13:46):
Jake Sloan (13:47):
Yeah, it’s so good. And, and I love them because, you know, not only is it a great product that serves the function of a protein bar, you know, sustaining you between meals or however you plan to use protein bars, but it’s also a really just sustainable product overall. And that’s another reason that I’m really excited about Naturally Austin in general is because, you know, there are so many opportunities for us to sustain human life and sustain the earth through the CPG industry. Perfect example is the meat industry, I guess I should say the beef industry. And now I’m not like pro vegan, pro paleo or whatever. I’m very much gray in the middle. But what I think is really interesting about the beef industry and the innovators within CPG is that they’re identifying how to cut down the carbon and methane footprint that comes from that industry. Because we are leading the change in sustainability. And if you look at some of the big, you know, offenders of our, of our ozone and like pollution, you know, methane from, from industrial cattle is a big, big, big offender almost, you know, I don’t want to be quoted on this, but like almost as large as you know CO2 from, from vehicles. So, you know, with innovation coming in this vein of, of, you know, beef, the beef industry and beef products, like we can change how, you know, how much healthier our, our environment can be. I think Epic is a, is a really great example of how they’ve dug deep in on bison and buffalo production, and then the grasslands that they live on. So, for example, the grass that buffalo and, and, and natural, I guess, native animals fed on was grass called buffalo grass. And the roots of that grass go 10 X deeper than the alfalfa grass that beef/cattle feed on. And because the roots are so deeper when that plant absorbed CO2 from the air that CO2 gets sequestered into the soil. So it’s actually taking CO2 out of the air and again, making our air cleaner. So by just having a certain type of native grass that animals can feed on, like we can make an impact.
Savannah Barker (16:43):
Wow. Love it. In the weeds, literally. Awesome.
Jake Sloan (16:48):
Savannah Barker (16:49):
So what advice would you, you give to someone who is just starting out in CPG?
Jake Sloan (16:54):
Yeah, I think the first and foremost, the most important thing is to really know your consumer intimately and know what really drives them intrinsically and functionally. Like what does their everyday life look like and, and what are their, you know, emotional motivators and how does your product fit into that in an everyday environment? That’s first and foremost, and there’s so many ways that you can do that. You don’t have to have, you know, a ton of data or anything like this. Like you can just go and talk to people. And that I think is the first thing that you need to do. And through that, you’ll find out if your product is actually good, right?
Savannah Barker (17:46):
Jake Sloan (17:47):
It actually tastes good and can work in the marketplace. But I think really knowing your consumer, that’s the, that’s the most important thing that you have to do from day one. Without that everything else falls apart, not only, you know, how you show up at a grocery store, but also how you buy digital media, right? Like all of those things just fall apart. So the most important thing is, is really understand your consumer and how your product and your brand fits into their daily life, functionally and their emotional aspirations and motivations, I think is the most important thing.
Savannah Barker (18:28):
Awesome. So as things become more globally available what role does local play in CPG? Is there still space for local products? Is there an argument for keeping your products contained to a certain sales area? What’s the balance there, if you’re looking to scale, but you’re also trying to support local, homegrown CPG businesses.
Jake Sloan (18:54):
I think the biggest value or the biggest thing to pay attention to in terms of local is supporting farmers through, through the CPG community. So, and, and that’s on, I take a lot of responsibility to that as much as all the other brands that are out there and Austin should as well. But what I mean by this is, you know, when you, if you’re, if you have a hot sauce company and you need, you know, jalapenos, you know, sourcing those jalapenos from organic local farmers, great. And even as you scale, ideally now there is a bunch of manufacturing nuances that can limit that, but really supporting local farmers through your CPG company as a supplier, I think is very, very, very important. And it’s easier said than done, easier said than done. And that is why kind of, one of my longterm visions as we establish some of the foundational elements in Naturally Austin is to work with farmers to really educate them on how to become more competitive suppliers to the local CPG community in terms of being organic, in terms of regenerative agriculture and, and just kind of diversifying what type of product offerings are out there. You look at the, the farmers in Central Texas and, and what type of, you know, agriculture they’re doing, it’s a lot of very centered on, on the beef industry as well. So you get a lot of alfalfa growing. You get a lot of just cattle land in general, and then grains to feed the cattle. So you know, one of the things to explore and, you know, commission some studies from, from some of the universities in town is, you know, how can we kind of chop up that ag land to better serve CPG communities or CPG industries that, you know need more carrots or more, I don’t know peas, peas. It’s a big one. Protein man from peas is so hot right now. So hot right now.
Savannah Barker (21:23):
Awesome. So how is Naturally Austin changing the rules for the CPG community in Austin?
Jake Sloan (21:32):
That’s a really great question. I think we’re changing the rules by providing accessibility to education. A lot of the brands that you know, grow fast and scale fast are, are, are, come from classically trained people, either classically trained in as, as a chef or classically trained as a business professional in the CPG world. So one of the things that we are doing and how we’re changing the rules is we’re providing access to education so that people can learn how to overcome barriers that some of the classically trained folks in CPG have. Which is really exciting and I think if we break that rule more innovation is going to come from Austin, because it’s going to become a more competitive landscape in Austin. And what’s really special about Austin is that like, kind of like, “Competitive in Austin? No one’s competitive in Austin. We’re all homies.” Which is so true, but because we are so collaborative like that innovation and allowing more people to jump into the community is only gonna spur much more innovation in Austin, Texas, which will be really exciting.
Savannah Barker (22:53):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming to the studio to talk to me about CPG and Naturally Austin, how can listeners get more involved with Naturally Austin?
Jake Sloan (23:03):
Yeah. So naturallyaustin.org is our website. And that’s where we post all of our events. It’s where you can sign up for our newsletter. We usually have two events a month, sometimes more that are right now centered on education and inspiration. On October 29th we will have our big pitch slam where we’ll showcase some of the top innovative Austin and Central Texas CPG companies. So coming out to that, it’s going to be a really fun time is, is a great way to get involved.
Savannah Barker (23:39):
Awesome. Well, we were so happy to have you here to talk about Naturally Austin and the CPG community. Thank you so much for joining us. The Change the Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio. Chez Boom Audio is the leading audio post-production company for TV, film, advertising, audio books, and podcasts in Austin. And we’re so honored to work in their studio with a wonderful Shayna Brown. You can find the chezboomaudio.com. If you enjoyed this episode and want more, visit Change the Rules on Apple podcast to subscribe. While you’re there, make sure you leave a review.