Eric Plantenberg, the chief sales and marketing officer at Humm Kombucha, has watched the business grow from day one. The brand, formerly known as Kombucha Mama, started in Plantenberg’s kitchen as friends Jamie Danek and Michelle Mitchell began brewing kombucha. After selling it locally, they decided to take the company across the country, rebranding and targeting mainstream grocers in a quest to make America healthier.
Today, Humm is the fastest-growing kombucha brand in the country, and its fermented beverages are available in every state in the U.S., including at major retailers such as Target, Albertson’s, Walmart, and Costco. Plantenberg leads the sales and marketing team’s expansion efforts, working with retailers and distributors to include Humm in the supply chain.
Prior to his work with Humm, Plantenberg enjoyed an 18-year career in personal development, where he spoke to groups, coached, and led retreats. He now calls Seattle, Wash., home, but he enjoys exploring the great outdoors around the world.
Where did the idea for Humm come from?
Humm was a rebrand of Jamie and Michelle’s Kombucha Mama, a cottage company. They decided they wanted to expand the business across the United States; for that, we wanted a brand name that was more accessible and better understood. The Humm name came about when we were trying to properly convey how it feels when your body is feeling good and just humming. The entire mission of the company is to help people feel better, and that starts with healthy food. Simply put, we chose the name because you hum when you’re happy.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
What we’re trying to do is make kombucha as well-known and accessible as possible. We’re working with retailers, marketers, and distributors to expand awareness. Today, only 4 percent of households purchase kombucha, and we want to change that. Our office is in Bend, Ore., but I spend close to 200 days per year outside of Bend, working with retailers, distributors, and marketers.
I’m a big, big believer in having clear goals and effective priorities. I stay really focused on the A-list priorities I need to get accomplished during the week. People have more and more on their plates; on any given day, I could have 50-100 things on my plate. I have to know I’m not going to get 50-100 things done per day. I have to accept that I can get four high-impact things done per day and stay focused on those.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Teamwork brings ideas to life. As part of a very entrepreneurial organization, we have a lot of ideas that make it to the whiteboard. Bringing an idea to life is twofold: It’s 1) allowing space for all of the ideas that get initial traction with the team to marinate and become part of the discussion, and 2) making decisions as thoughtfully as you can.
We just launched an entirely new line of kombucha that has the lowest amount of sugar of any kombucha on the market. It was an interesting play for the market and for Humm — kombucha isn’t often compared to soda or other high-sugar products on the market — yet for many people sugar levels are a concern. We listened for several years and saw how this concept was in alignment with our purpose. From there, we let the market decide whether it’s a good idea or it’s not ready for it.
Even rebranding was a major leap of faith; people who loved the brand locally were hesitant about a rebrand, fearing it would dilute what they loved about the company. But when we rebranded, we immediately saw a 300 percent increase in sales in our local market. Sometimes, especially in business, the vocal minority doesn’t provide the full picture of what’s really happening.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The trend of accessibility for organic and natural foods excites me. Organic foods have been under scrutiny for a good decade or more. People are questioning whether they’re worth the money. I’m a firm believer that they are. Organic and natural foods are becoming part of the main grocery set — Walmart, Target, discount grocers with amazing organic selections — so it’s good for the country.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I believe that morning reading is a really, really good use of brain cells because it takes you out of your ideas and into other people’s thoughts. Educational or inspirational reading in the morning sets my mindset for the day.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself to not take it all so seriously and to slow down a little bit; I’d tell myself to understand that patience and wisdom are really, really important partners to enthusiasm and working your tail off.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Taking large amounts of time off and learning new skills makes you more effective. Each year, I take a minimum of two months off to learn something new. I get way more done in the remaining 10 months than I would if I only took two or three weeks of vacation. Many people would say that they agree with me on this one, but it’s not feasible or it wouldn’t work for them. For me, that would be a copout. I’d challenge people to actually do it, and then see the results they get. If you lead an organization, just make it happen. If you are employed, be so valuable that you can negotiate the time into your employment contract.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?
I really believe in looking for how seemingly challenging or negative situations are actually supporting my growth and success. Adversity and challenges are a very real part of every day of every entrepreneur’s or executive’s life. Challenges are what you make them — you can lose power or energy from them or gain knowledge and perspective that then helps you move forward in your cause. It’s a very conscious choice. People think, “That setback moved me forward; that one didn’t.” They all move you forward. Sometimes, you have to have patience and wait for it, even when you can’t see yet how it’s helping you.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One of the main strategies that has helped us grow is not following the typical distribution strategy of our category. When everyone else was building in Whole Foods and natural grocers first, we went with more conventional and mainstream places — Target, Albertson’s — and then went niche. Everyone else went to the organic safe haven and then went mainstream, while we did the opposite.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve made forecasting errors repeatedly, and I’m working to overcome it. We signed a seven-year lease on our last facility, thinking we had five years of runway — but we sold that facility out within six months.
People say, “Oh, that’s not really a failure — you’re just bragging about your growth.” Trust me, when you’re working with retailers like Target and Costco, failure to perform is not an option. We had to take on capital faster than we were planning to — and take on much more capital — which was difficult from a diversion standpoint, as well as a dilution perspective.
In my previous business, my biggest failure was not taking on investment partners. I shortchanged our company’s growth by not properly capitalizing or having the right resources available. That experience and this one have the same thing in common: undercapitalizing. For a good 15 years, I’ve done that with my companies, so I’ve spent the past two years developing good strategic relationships with bankers and private equity partners to have the knowledge and access to capital to make good on our dreams and plans.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I see two businesses with an incredible future: The first is a cold chain distribution of natural products. Look across the regional and global cold chain distribution setup, and you’ll see a couple very large players distributing natural products. There’s a huge opportunity for more and better local distribution of natural products.
The other idea has regulatory impacts, for sure, but if I had no other major demands on my time, and if the federal regulations changed, I’d invest in kombucha cannabis. In five or six years, it will be an absolute boon in any state where it’s legal. The cannabis industry is here to stay; a healthy beverage with low levels of cannabinoids is a business that would thrive in the future.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Hiring a snorkeling instructor for my daughter when we were in Honduras for spring break. She’s 8 years old and strong-willed, and it was her first time snorkeling. Having someone else teach my kids things like skiing or snorkeling makes it way more fun for all of us.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I love Wunderlist because it connects with my mobile and my laptop. It keeps my high-payoff activities in front of me and ensures I don’t drop commitments I make.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
Stephen Mitchell’s version of the “Tao Te Ching” has lived in my backpack and on my bookshelves for 12 years now.
What is your favorite quote?
One of my favorites is “Never wish it were easier; wish you were better.” The other one is from Teddy Roosevelt: “It’s not the critic that counts, it’s not the man who points out when the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deed could’ve done it better. The credit belongs to the person who’s actually in the arena, whose face is marred with blood and sweat and dust, who, at the best, in the end knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, he fails daring greatly.”
- Challenges are what you make them — you can lose power or energy from them or gain knowledge and perspective that then helps you move forward in your cause. It’s a very conscious choice.
- One of the main strategies that has helped us grow is not following the typical distribution strategy of our category.
- I have to know I’m not going to get 50-100 things done per day. I have to accept that I can get four high-impact things done per day and stay focused on those.
- Each year, I take a minimum of two months off to learn something new. I get way more done in the remaining 10 months than I would if I only took two or three weeks of vacation.