“This is just the speed at which I operate,” said serial entrepreneur Neil Grimmer in a recent interview with Inc. And as he’s charged from experience to experience, Grimmer’s personal passions have heavily influenced his professional life.
Take, for example, the five years he spent as an artist and assistant to sculptor Alan Rath. Grimmer took that artistic appetite and transitioned it into a design career, first as a senior designer at leading design firm Ideo, then as VP of Innovation at sustainability pioneer Clif Bar.
Then, in 2007, Grimmer was a young parent, highly invested in the health of his two daughters. Noticing a hole in the baby-food market, he co-founded Plum Organics with Gigi Lee Chang & Sheryl O’Loughlin who shared the goal of making real, healthy food enticing and accessible to young families. Selling products such as “Baby Bowls” (beet, apple, strawberry and chia is just one of many) and colorful organic meals for tots in squeezable pouches, Plum, and fellow Certified B Corporation category disruptor Happy Family, took the baby-food market by storm. Army-green pureed peas in jars were no longer the only option parents could pick from the shelves. Moreover, Plum products shifted from pricey to competitive as the company scaled, all while managing not to compromise on quality.
Grimmer sold the company in 2013 to Campbell’s for $249 million, creating a healthy exit for early investors like Catterton Partners and Alliance Consumer Growth (ACG), and an opportunity to achieve the economies of scale that would make healthy baby food more accessible to lots more little ones. That same year, Plum and Campbell’s worked together to adopt the then-new benefit corporation legal structure, cementing Plum’s mission into its bylaws to ensure the next generation of leadership would be required to consider the impact of their actions on all their stakeholder—especially those little hungry customers—well into the future.
During the rapid seven-year run with Plum, Grimmer had followed a well-trodden path of entrepreneurs who sacrifice their personal health to concentrate on their businesses. Upon Plum’s sale, he was 65 pounds heavier than when he started the business. At the same time, his wife was diagnosed with cancer.
Habit, Grimmer’s newest venture, transforms their health experiences–one clearly more immediately life threatening than the other—into health empowerment for everyone. Based on science and intense data-driven personalization, Habit helps clients change their lifestyles to achieve long-term health.
I talked to Grimmer about how health and business can (and should) work hand-in-hand.
How have your personal health challenges tied into your work with Habit?
Part of what inspired me to start Habit was three months after we sold Plum to Campbell’s, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and we were all hands on deck, helping her through her treatment and recovery. She’s now four years free and clear. When she started pulling out of the acute phase of that, she was taking inventory in her life in terms of the people and practices that she surrounded herself with every day. And, quite frankly, she was really holding a mirror up to me and saying, “You need to do the same inventory.”
I was 65 pounds heavier than I was before I started Plum, and I learned through a whole series of tests that I was pre-diabetic, at high risk for a heart attack, and my genetic caffeine sensitivity combined with the three cups of coffee I was drinking every day accelerated that risk by a thousand-fold. It was a real wake-up call for me.
With specialists, I ended up putting together a personalized nutrition plan to make a transformation with food, not with pharma. Over a period of six months, I lost 25 pounds. All of my blood work came back in line, and I had a new lease on life. It was a journey, not on the same order of magnitude of what my wife went through, but it was transformational nonetheless.
It’s incredibly empowering, the idea that the answer to our health and wellbeing lives inside of us as opposed to in an esoteric fad diet or what’s going to show up on The New York Times best-seller list. It’s very grounding to find that level of clarity. This is your life. It’s really up to you.
That’s true. In addition to diet and nutrition, what changes did you make that have stuck?
I had “CEO disease.” It’s very consistent with what many of us experience, which is our careers and our lives get in the way of our health and wellness. We prioritize many other things, whether it’s our work, our family, our email, our social feed, and oftentimes, things like eating well, getting enough rest, and taking care of yourself holistically fall by the wayside.
I actually purposely didn’t ramp up exercise for the first six months. I focused on getting the food right. Once I did that, and started getting into a new ritual, then I started layering in exercise.
What I did adopt right away, and I adopted this from my wife, was mindfulness and gratitude. She was practicing that as part of her cancer recovery, and I adopted it as well. That mental shift of how you approach your life, and how you appreciate everyone in your life, actually went a long way. Why we make bad food choices is very complicated, and some of it has to do with indulgence and pleasure, but a lot of it has to do with all the other things: stress, emotional baggage, and all of those things that mindfulness and gratitude actually can start to reverse.
In both mindfulness and gratitude, I think I’m just in grasshopper mode. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve mastered any practice. I have attempted different forms of meditation. My wife actually had sitting practice. I’m too kinetic for that to work for me. But I find that when I move, whether I’m running or walking or swimming, I can actually get into a meditative state.
The other thing is being present in every interaction in my life. Whether I’m sitting with my team, whether I’m negotiating a deal or whatever it may be, it’s being absolutely in the moment. It’s recognizing the voices that go through your head, the distractions that come in, and not being moved by them, but rather letting them pass in and out of consciousness.
I think that has been one of the more powerful aspects of mindfulness, and one of the interesting dovetails that we’re now looking to bring into Habit: mindful nutrition. It’s not just what you eat, but actually your mental orientation when you’re about to eat and while you’re eating that matters as well. So being present with your food. Slowing down and actually experiencing the sensation of the food.
Tell me more about how Habit is turning mindful nutrition into something easily shared with other folks while also being a workable business.
Much like starting Plum, which was based around trying to raise a healthy family, Habit was born out of a personal experience I had that was super transformational. I had been globetrotting, meeting with some of the most incredible scientists around this country and around the world to figure out what was going on outside of my own health transformation. One of the biggest things for me was translating my experience into a bigger purpose: How do we help everyone around this country unlock the best version of themselves through the power of personalized nutrition?
With the advent of big data and computational biology, for the first time ever, we’re actually able to look inside of our DNA. We can test your metabolism and unlock the nutrition insights that live inside of each one of us.
I think one of the exciting things about Habit is that it actually challenges the assumption that we’re all the same—that a one-size-fits-all approach to our health, our wellbeing and our food is actually the right approach. What we’re finding is that we are all different. We all respond to foods differently. We have the ability now to understand those unique differences to unlock that best version of ourselves. So that’s the purpose and the mission of Habit.
From a business standpoint, there are four elements. The first one is we have an at-home test where we look at your DNA. You do a fasting blood test, and then we have you drink this fairly large metabolic shake. Thirty minutes after you drink that shake, we test your blood, and then again 120 minutes after you drink the shake. That allows us to see how your body processes fats and carbs in real time. Then we can match up the way your body processes food with the right way of eating for you.
That recommendation takes the form of a digital dashboard that you have on your phone or your desktop. Then we do two other things that really put it into practice in your life. We have registered dietitians that do one-on-one coaching, and we can deliver freshly prepared meals customized to your biology to your door.
The the initial test is $299. But if you’ve gotten a consumer genetic test or an ancestry test, you can port that into Habit for $199. Then the meals range between $8 and $14 with delivery. The coaching is a free service. For every test kit you buy, we do a 25-minute coaching session.
That certainly puts Habit well out of reach of the 63 percent of Americans who can’t handle a $500 expense. For the average working American and for low-wage workers, what longer-term thoughts do you have about how you can help everybody develop good habits?
One of the examples I would point to is actually Plum Organics. When we first launched Plum, we were four to five times the cost of a regular glass jar of baby food. Going into that business, we said, “We need to transform the way kids eat by getting them amazing food at the earliest stages in their life. We’re not going to compromise on the food, and it’s going to cost more. But we’re going to scale; we’re going to drive costs out of the system; and we’ll deliver on the mission of getting great food to kids across the country.”
Ten years later, we’re in 75 percent of retailers with extremely competitive price points, and we’re the third-largest baby-food brand in the country. So, much like what we did with the economics of Plum, we intend to do the same with Habit as soon as possible. I want this to be available to anyone in this country who wants to unlock the best version of themselves, and I don’t want price to be a barrier.
While Habit is not yet a B Corp, Plum Organics is a Certified B Corp and one of the first companies in the country to adopt the benefit corporation legal structure, with total support of Campbell’s. Tell me about why B Corp and the benefit corp legal structure matter to your businesses.
We’re an LLC and we modeled our corporate documents after the benefit corporation documents we did for Plum. At Plum, it took us two years to finally go through the B Corp Certification with success. We’ve done our first iteration of that with Habit. Our score on the first pass wasn’t where it needed to be.
My intent is to have Habit become a B Corp, and we’ve got the legal structure already in place. The punchline for me is that you can’t run a health company if you’re not healthy as a leader , and it ripples through in all ways. We know our actions and our behaviors shape the culture, which shapes the brand and what the company is. The legal structure helps us develop good habits for healthy decision making and the B Corp Certification helps us measure our progress on the journey to become our the best business we can be.
Learn even more from Grimmer about starting a business and maintaining health in this LIFT Economy podcast on B the Change.
Learn about B Corporations and people using business as a force for good, and read the stories of companies leading the way to creating a shared and durable prosperity for all.