JUST co-founder Josh Tetrick wanted to build a disruptive company, so he hired disruptive employees. Then he got disrupted himself.
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Josh Tetrick had never run a food company, and he considered that an asset. His goal was to disrupt the food industry, so he wasn’t interested in old ways of doing things. “If you had told me when I started the company that one of the keys to success would be hiring people who are experts at going out to the Midwest to visit different warehousing partners, I would have been like, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ ” he says. Instead, as he built his startup JUST (originally called Hampton Creek), he hired outsiders like himself. It seemed to work. His first product, an egg-free mayonnaise, debuted in 2014 at Northern California Whole Foods stores and shortly thereafter was carried by thousands of Safeways and Walmarts. Demand was high.
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Then lids started popping off. Labels fell off, too. The packaging was defective, and the product went from a success to a money-loser. As Tetrick scrambled, he came to a hard realization: An entrepreneur can be too disruptive for his own good.
At the beginning, Tetrick fit a certain Silicon Valley archetype — the brash founder who celebrates inexperience. There’s a logic to it. If you want to rock an industry with fresh ideas, you can’t be bound by industry standards. And Tetrick had big ambitions. In creating animal-free versions of staples like eggs, mayonnaise, cookie dough and more, he wanted people to rethink how food is made. So he set up shop in a Bay Area garage and began hiring people he thought could make a huge impact — experts in data science and high-tech platforms.
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Then came the disastrous launch. As his products lost money, he began examining the causes. There were many. His company had a terrible manufacturing contract and had picked the wrong manufacturers and warehouse partners. Its shipping process was a mess, and so was its supply chain. “Pretty much everything we should have been doing in operations we weren’t doing,” he says.
When CEOs reflect back, they often regret that they didn’t move faster to fire people who weren’t right for the company. Waiting even an extra month can drag down an organization. Tetrick understood this. He’d hired smart people, but now he realized they were the wrong smart people. So he laid off a few and replaced them with industry vets. “We hired a guy who gave me the most boring presentation I’ve had in the history of all interviews,” Tetrick says. “But that was great, because all he wanted to do was talk about warehousing.” Then Tetrick forced himself to step back from hiring. Rather than be in control of every decision, as he once was, he left his new industry experts to build their own team — filtering for what they thought was important, rather than what he did.
Operations team members either caught on or were replaced. Contracts were renegotiated. Supply chains were fixed. Losses shrank and disappeared.
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As he watched this happen, Tetrick reconsidered his leadership. “I need to be intelligent enough to know that there’s a whole bunch of stuff I don’t know anything about,” he says. But more than that, he needed to appreciate the limits of change. “Everything is not a revolution,” he says now. Some things can be reinvented, but others are better off embraced.
Today, Tetrick says, JUST is a growing 120-person company and is on its way to going public. That’ll be the next phase of its revolution — all thanks to some very nonrevolutionary employees.