Alex Song is CEO and Co-Founder of Innovation Department, a tech-powered start-up studio that builds DTC brands. He also co-founded DojoMojo, a platform that streamlines the process of partnership marketing for growing brands. Prior to launching Innovation Department, Alex spent time at Goldman Sachs and Pershing Square Capital Management.
Where did the idea for Innovation Department come from?
Companies have HR departments, finance departments, legal departments — we wanted to be the “innovation department” for our entire portfolio of companies such that we would drive creativity and strategic thinking to maximize outcomes.
At its core, Innovation Department builds wellness brands that aim to impact people’s lives for the better. We identify market opportunities and then use our expertise in brand development and our tech-enabled platform to maximize potential success. We streamline the process by leveraging our proprietary acquisition engine, owned-media assets and diversified distribution channels to help us scale quickly and profitably. To date, we’ve built 4 wholly-owned and operated businesses: WellPath, DojoMojo, Valyrian Media and Finn, a pet wellness brand launching in July 2020.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I’m up at 7:30am every day. I practice intermittent fasting so I save time on preparing breakfast. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not a part of the morning ritual but I do take my vitamins and drink plenty of water. I then meditate for at least 15 minutes. I do not look at my phone or email before meditating as I strongly believe that the moment you start going through your messages/email, you’re officially on someone else’s agenda and no longer your own. When I finish meditating, I get ready for work (shower, groom, etc.) and start by looking at my schedule for my day. I’m typically online by 8:30am and will take a quick review of new messages in my inbox and slack messages. I’ll respond to the quick ones that require less than five minutes and save the lengthier responses for later, as long as they’re not urgent. I’ll check in with my wonderful EA shortly after and make sure that we’re aligned on all things that need to happen today and for the rest of the week. By 10am, my first meetings/interviews will have begun. From 10am until 2pm, I’ll usually be in back-to-back meetings, and after that I’ll have my first meal of the day (sometimes later if I forget). I take the late afternoon to dive into my individual work — emails, thought leadership, idea documentation, legal contracts, more emails — and then have my 1:1s in the late afternoon or early evening. I find that those end of day 1:1s are more productive as both parties are able to have a more productive conversation when the day is winding down. I try to organize my days based on themes: Monday/Tuesday for organizational meetings, leadership conversations and process management; Wednesday/Thursday for smaller team meetings and external meetings; Friday for strategic initiatives, workflow progress recaps, and culture building. Throughout the week, I’ll sprinkle in hiring interviews as needed. Weekends are for catching up on everything that went unfinished during the week.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’ll start by opening up a Google doc and just writing down all my thoughts as fast as my fingers can keep up and capture all the core pieces relevant to the idea. I’ll exhaust myself of all thoughts and concepts and then go back and organize everything I’ve written in a cohesive communication I can share with others. It’s important for my process that I don’t share too early as I don’t want to bring half-baked ideas to my team that can be distracting to them and can disrupt or overly influence my own thinking process. I’ll then share my ideas with members of my leadership team to get their feedback. It’s important that I preface the discussion by ensuring them that I’m not suddenly going to divert our resources towards a particular idea at this point, and this discussion is just a discussion; there is no action required. That alleviates fear from my team that the CEO just came up with another idea (something I do often) that we’re all going to have to shift gears to focus on. I learned this the hard way after having some difficult reactions in the past. If the idea has merit, we’ll decide as a team to pursue it and determine a timeline that makes sense for an initial mockup or prototype to validate the idea. If my team doesn’t support the idea and I fail to convince them otherwise, I put it on the back burner and accept that now just might not be the right time and move on. I believe that most ideas are good, but timing is what makes ideas great. I revisit ideas each quarter to see if the current timing has made a past idea more valuable or actionable. If the prototype/testing phase shows traction, then we will invest resources behind it and make it accessible to the world. We are very lean in how we test this as we ultimately want to make the most capital-efficient bets possible.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I believe health and wellness is a trend that will only become more and more pervasive. It’s already exploded over the past decade but I think it’s only going to get bigger as it spreads into every other category. Just look at the rise of the sleep category as a focus on wellness, or the fact that the Natural Product Expo has become the second largest conference in the world — just slightly smaller in attendees than the Consumer Electronics Show. We continue to strive to execute our vision to build an extraordinary portfolio of wellness products that impact people’s lives for the better.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I reserve a lot of time for meditating daily and specifically setting intentions during my meditation. That ritual forces me to focus on the most important priorities I want to dedicate myself to, which then gives me a constant reminder of my north star objectives. I allow myself the flexibility to change my north star over time but I note when that happens so I ensure that my focus is not wavering. I can then measure all my actions and weigh all my efforts against those north star objectives to ensure that I’m truly spending my time most effectively. If I can’t validate what I’m doing against my north star, then I shouldn’t be doing it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t care so much about what others think. I was once told that as a Libra (my star sign), I’m prone to being superficial and caring a lot about my perceived image. That was very much true about my younger self and caring too much about what others thought, which definitely limited my growth as an individual. When I stopped caring as much, I started accelerating my desired outcomes and feeling more clear about my personal journey. Ultimately, I’m still a long way from where I want to be, but letting go of the superficial concerns with what others think about you, particularly when it comes to the risk of failing, has unlocked tremendous progress in my life.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.”
Unfortunately with social media taking over and making everyone appear to be “living their best life” all of the time, FOMO, envy, and insecurity have infected the world. We stopped appreciating and having gratitude for what we have and instead constantly sought out more, more, more. One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that it’s forced the world to slow down and take inventory of what really matters — health, our loved ones, our elders, personal growth, and human connection. I hope that sticks long after we’ve passed through this difficult point in time.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Be willing to change your mind and have your mind changed. I love being right — absolutely love it — and I hate being wrong, especially in a public setting. I’ve been forced to get over this feeling and am willing to change my mind and accept new information, new data, new environmental conditions much sooner than I used to be willing to before. It’s important to own the moment, admit to being wrong if and when you are, and let your team see that it’s ok to be wrong. We’re going to make mistakes as an organization — we are building startups after all. We just need to do our best to make the reversible mistakes, not the irreversible ones.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Focus on capital efficiency and scaling with profitable unit economics. It’s tempting to scale for vanity metrics that show early traction and startup success, but scaling without profitable unit economics is a deal with the devil. Growing well is better than growing fast. Don’t betray your unit economics despite how tempting it can be to spend for exposure today with the intent to figure out how to increase customer lifetime value tomorrow.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Just one? 🙂 When we first launched Innovation Department, we had a vision of becoming a startup studio that would launch the next generation of brands that mattered in the world. We would invest in companies and build companies from scratch with this vision in mind. The problem with doing both is that unless you’re very well capitalized and have a large, experienced team, you’ll end up spreading yourself too thin. That’s what happened to us and we ended up being mediocre across the board. We stopped our investing side and focused solely on building wholly-owned wellness brands. Our first wellness company, WellPath, scaled profitably from $1m ARR to $10mm ARR in just 24 months.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
With working from home happening more than ever, I’ve come to realize from many Zoom calls with my employees with young children, that it’s really difficult to manage their children and be productive working at home. With a lack of clarity on when kids will be able to go back to school, how pre- and post-school childcare will function and perhaps an extended work-from-home status for many companies that are able to operate that way, traditional childcare needs some good old tech-enabled disruption. I don’t specifically know what that looks like but I know it’s a problem that a lot of parents are willing to pay a lot of money for.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently started trying out meal kit services — so far Green Chef & Gobble — but to make it more fun, I immediately throw out the recipes when I unpack the box and just wing it. It’s a fun way to embrace cooking at home but not feel stuck to flavors that other people dictate for you. I choose the portions, select from their ingredients, mix the proteins and add a bunch of other random stuff I have in my home that I’m in the mood for. So far, so good.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I recently discovered Notion and am loving using it for managing my personal workflow, tasks, documentation of key resources, and aligning with my EA on projects. I highly recommend it and understand why they just raised at a $2bn valuation in the midst of the coronavirus chaos.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I highly recommend “Mindset” by Carol S. Dweck. The concept is that we have two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. To be in startups, a fixed mindset is death as it struggles to adjust and adapt to the unpredictable nature of being in an early stage business where mistakes are the norm. A growth mindset on the other hand, believes in constantly expanding knowledge and seeking out more opportunities to learn and increase intelligence. We send every new hire a hardcopy of the book and ask that they read it before their first day of work.
What is your favorite quote?
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” I like this quote because it enforces action with proper planning and minimizes the inertia of perfectionism. CEOs are often Type A individuals that have thrived on being perfectionists to succeed. Left to my own devices, I would have long strived to perfect plans stealthily and plan out how to navigate around every potential pitfall. But, this path assumes I have the ability to see around all the corners and limits the actual data and learnings gained from taking action earlier, particularly important when you’re navigating uncharted waters for the first time like most startups. Often, those learnings become critical in reshaping and remapping the next part of your plan and the next part after that, ultimately leading to amazing results.
- New ideas are the lifeblood of any startup, but make sure you have team support to validate and expand on new ideas before resources are put behind it.
- Growing well is better than growing fast. Businesses that focus on capital efficiencies and scaling for profitability will fare better than those chasing vanity metrics.
- Be open to change your mind, have your mind changed and be willing to make (reversible) mistakes.
- The current COVID-19 situation has forced the world to slow down and take inventory of what really matters — health, loved ones, elders, personal growth, and human connection. It’s important to take the time to appreciate what you already have and what really matters and not get wrapped up in the social media-driven culture of more, excess and envy.
- Seek out opportunities to expand your growth mindset which allows you to adapt to the unpredictable nature of the startup business world.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.