Here’s Paul Janowitz, CEO of MANTRA Labs

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Paul Janowitz, founder & CEO of MANTRA Labs, talks about how to take a company from good to great

Paul Janowitz is the founder and CEO of nutrition company MANTRA Labs, which he started in 2020. He is a serial “entrepreneur, founder, executive, and investor.” Currently, Paul Janowitz divides his time working on MANTRA Labs, lecturing at the University of Texas at Austin, ATX Seed Ventures, SKU and Beyond SKU Incubators, Saturn Five Fund, and managing his real estate and investment portfolio.

For his work, Paul Janowitz builds “category leading businesses” and scales them. He also does the same for brands by “leveraging smart teams, innovative products, integrated data & technology, marketing, branding, and user-centered-design.” His varied skill set also consists of “corporate leadership, CPG, SaaS & platform development, branding/marketing/advertising, product innovation, market research, e-commerce, social entrepreneurship, startups, and venture funding.”

Paul Janowitz also mentors and invests in seed and venture funds SKU and ATX Seed Ventures. He also makes direct investments and advises company boards. Among his portfolio are “MANTRA Labs, EPIC, Austin East Ciders, Kammok, Mood33, Siete, Raven + Lily, Primizie, Good Seed, Criquet Clothing, Wildway, Seaweed Bath Co., Thunderbrid, Mood 33, YVY, Alert Media, Ride Scout, ICON, Key Concierge, Ideal Spot and other innovative CPG, tech/e-commerce and product companies.”

At MANTRA Labs, Paul Janowitz ensures customers get “the best way to hydrate, focus, energize & rest.” The company makes products that are “clinically backed,” produced using “clean ingredients,” and “delivered in delicious superpowders.” These products also use “powerful chrono-nutrition formulas” to “deliver vitamins, oceanic hydration electrolytes, nootropics, immune boosting antioxidants and recovery herbs.”

Check out more interviews with health-conscious executives here.

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Paul Janowitz: My backstory reads more like rough manuscript or winding road — which means I like trying new things, normally get over my head and then work like hell to figure it out. At 45 I think I have finally figured out that pattern and that is what gives me purpose, and also drives my wife crazy. I started out with an undergraduate degree from UT Austin in Government and Economics and took a job at The Gallup Organization. I had no idea what the job was, I was just excited to have a job coming out of school. So my wife and I move out to California (yep, we got married at age 20, I dropped out of school for a year and roofed, then went back to school and double- majored and finished in 2.5 years — like I said, “a winding road”). It was a great job with amazing people, there was no better place to learn market research and human behavior than at The Gallup Organization. Alas, I decided to go back to grad school at UT and during that time my Gallup client from Intel started a new innovation firm and I joined him and helped grow that for a few years. Then an opportunity came up to really focus on school and work part time running a branding department at an ad agency. So we sold our new car, bought an old Volvo, refinanced the house, and I dove into school and brand consulting.

Then I struck out on my own and created a market research and innovation consultancy as I finished up grad school (I was in the PhD. program and did all the courses, but after we had our second child I decided to “drop out” with my masters so I could actually see my kids). Those early start-up days were long! Once a week or so I would pull a 24- hour shift at the office to catch up on billing and operations, drive home in the morning, have breakfast with the kids and then head back in. My wife was a true partner in the venture and did an amazing job on the home front and with the children while I was on the other side of the world doing focus groups, probably too often.

I started with some wonderful interns (because that is what I could afford), who turned into employees and we grew from there. These were fun times, like building an airplane while flying it — we just faked what we could and assumed whatever else came along we could figure out with a bit of the old Google, hustle and extra hours. Eventually after several boom and bust cycles that were filled with laying off friends, tears and beers; we built a software platform for engaging a brand’s customers in co-creation to create better products and services. That really took off and we pivoted from being a service-based business to be a software-based business (SaaS platform). We sold that company to a PE firm in 2016.

Oh, and during that time of running the company I had some friends that were starting up SKU (back then called Incubation Station). We were the first CPG-focused accelerator and it was a blast working with, and investing in, all these passionate founders creating new categories and better-for-you products.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Paul Janowitz: There is a great analogy I read about the entrepreneur based on a Chinese proverb I believe. There is a man riding a tiger and everyone that sees him says, “Wow, look at him, he is so strong and so brave!”, but the man on the tiger is saying, “I can’t get off this tiger I jumped on, because if I get off, it will eat me.” There is no better analogy for being young, unfunded and striking out on your own. Come to think of it, it feels the same way even at 45! Some days you wake up, or some nights you can’t even sleep with what feels like an unbearable list of things to do and an emotional roller coaster that just won’t quit. Add to that the imposter syndrome (you have to always smile and cheerlead even when you don’t feel it), the real possibility of going to zero and the fact that investors, family and employees are counting on you — well that gets hard quickly, and does not quit. The highs are amazing and the lows are soul testing. Brad Feld, a prolific investor and start-up advisor, has shared some amazing thought pieces and data around this that are worth looking up: Entrepreneurs have significantly higher rates of depression and other mental illness than the general population. Some of this is probably systemic — those of us that chase emotional edges are more drawn start-up life and the emotional roller coaster, and the roller coaster of a start-up contributes to bouts of anxiety and depression.

All that is to say — any start-up has hard times and some amazing times. What makes it worthwhile for me personally is working hard at something worth working hard for with good friends, breakfast tacos, tons of coffee and Friday patio beers. It does not get much better than that. I also laid everything on the line in those early days, there was no savings (and I don’t come from money) — we mortgaged or sold everything and maxed credit cards. I don’t recommend it, but that seems to be the journey. I had two young babies and a loving wife — failure just was not an option. The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was letting me know I was capable, you just need to put in the work, figure it out and put one foot in front of the other. As I tell my kids — “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I look at hard times and start-ups the same way — we are capable, it is not failure until you give up. And, giving up is way different than the business failing — a business failing can be a huge success if you learn, and grow from it.

To go full circle to my current venture — MANTRA Labs. I took about a year off after leaving my last venture and was pretty bored and honestly depressed without much direction. I was drinking too much coffee in the morning and too much bourbon at night — not a bad day, but not good when you string too many in a row. I looked for a healthy morning beverage and clean pre-workout to get back in shape. At the same time my wife was having a bad bout of insomnia. I looked online and at the stores and found nothing that was a simple, clinically-backed, and in an all natural system to address these key day parts. I figured, how hard could it be — well that was the first mistake, and a lot of fun! Oh, and then right when we finally had all the research done and were ready to start production and launch — COVID-19 hit! That made everything 10x harder — from sourcing ingredients, to getting boxes made, to meeting with retail accounts.

This time around, I am all in again so that stress is there. However, I have learned to self-regulate my hours a bit more, to listen to my wife more, to check my ego more, to hire experts that I can learn from and to trust the process — you can only push that rock uphill so fast — but I am finding ways to speed it up every day. We also have an amazing physical product that has a true health impact on our customers. The reviews that have come in from those suffering from insomnia where our product has helped, and the feedback about the energy we are giving busy parents now working from home, and now doing school and more has just been awesome and keeps me going. Our social mission also drives me. My wife and I both came from families that suffered tragically from mental health issues. Our goal is to save others from that by destigmatizing mental health and elevating the conversation around it — because talking saves lives. We also donate one percent of every single dollar we make to mental health organizations that are doing life-saving work. I am driven by the fact that for every dollar we sell we do more good and every marketing message we do that promotes mental health means someone may ask for help.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Paul Janowitz: Let me take my latest venture in CPG for this one. I have a friend who I will leave nameless (he will know who he is when he reads this). Let’s call him Mike. Well, Mike took over a struggling CPG brand and helped nurse it back to life and it grew quite well. But every time I talked to him something was always going wrong — from packaging, to their 3PL to a retail display. I told him lovingly that he must be the common denominator and to stop messing things up, put in some processes and relax. I realize now after being on this side of the fence the common denominator is CPG! You don’t own many of the means of production and have half-a-dozen partners in the business all producing parts independently that have to all fit together perfectly.

So, as I started down this road, I found myself calling him several times a week saying, “Hey, you know how you totally messed up XYZ and said it was not your fault, well I just messed up XYZ and I swear it is not my fault, but it certainly looks like it!” An example? We worked super hard on getting custom shipping boxes made that fit our custom packaging and some high end custom stainless-steel water bottles (the use of “custom” three times in this sentence should be a warning). I measured everything, sent pictures to all our vendors and so forth. All was perfect. As this was COVID I could not visit any manufacturer or our 3PL warehouse. Well, everything gets sent into the warehouse and I email them detailed packaging instructions. I get a call back saying the water bottle does not fit! I can’t figure out why. Then they send the picture — each water bottle looks great, but from the factory they come nicely wrapped in paper and then are put inside their own shipping box — I did not count on that extra half inch! So, now for all our shipments we have to instruct the warehouse to actually unbox the nice water bottle and put it in the box — not a big deal, but we are wasting packaging, which I hate and as anyone in the industry knows, you pay for each water bottle to be unboxed, so our costs went up before we even shipped our first order.

Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Paul Janowitz: Don’t be Enron: Meaning don’t be the “smartest one in the room”. If you are, you have hired poorly. You need people around you to call out your BS and say when the emperor has no clothes.

Hire for resourcefulness and drive — not experience or skills: It’s great if you can get all 4, but I will take the former Marine, or kid that worked two jobs during college over pedigree anytime. You can acquire skills pretty quickly, but drive and a “can do” attitude, not so much. I want the person that says, “Yeah, I don’t know how to do that, but hand that over buddy. I can Google anything and put in a few hours tonight and I will figure this out.”

Family first: Employees can’t be engaged at work if they can’t take care of their families and have freedom to do so.

Trust and don’t be cheap (two interrelated items) — and know you will get screwed here and there: Some people hold tight reigns over hours, expenditures and contracts. I find that time is best focused on creating good vs. worrying about the downside. I have gotten more upside over this approach than any downside. Just know you will get screwed here and there no matter what. So, nickel-and-diming contracts and vendors is not worth it, nor is worrying if a client owes you an extra $500 on a $50,000 order — instead build goodwill that you can cash in later for a whole lot more.

Don’t let processes wag the dog: Put in templates and processes so everyone can focus on adding incremental value above that. Don’t make the business be in the process business because it makes you seem larger or more together. You want to look (and feel) like you are operating in a flow state (use the processes to give you this space).

Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Paul Janowitz: I think we are seeing the outer limits of unfettered capitalism and the notion that shareholder value is the highest good and truth for a business. The next generations (and I will even say mine) don’t want that and we are burnt out. Burn out comes from chasing something that has diminishing returns — money. What does not have diminishing returns is purpose and passion. If you want to be happy, do things for others. That is the single scientific underpinning of happiness — at least from what I can tell from reviewing the scientific literature on happiness. Since we spend more time at work than anywhere else, it only makes sense to have your company do good things for others so that you and your employees are happy and engaged.

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Paul Janowitz: Consumers buy stories and the products that support those stories. Those could be your story, the product’s story or even the consumer’s story and how this product fits in to their life. And keep it simple — simple to read, simple to understand, simple to buy.

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Paul Janowitz: Nordstrom is the classic example here. They would drive to drop off shoes hours away and accept returns that were not even from their store. Maybe they did these things a few times, but they received a lifetime reputation and millions in revenue from these stories. Another way to put this — do the right thing. What if it was your mom or kid that was the customer? Just do the right thing, I don’t think that needs much explaining for most people; we just lose sight of it in all the business jargon and desire for profits.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Paul Janowitz: You can find me on LinkedIn, as well as other social media @paul_janowitz and @gomantralabs.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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