Thriving with Plants: Insights from Brenden Dougherty on Crafting a Flourishing Plant-Based Product Venture
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The era of plant-based products has arrived. With a global shift towards eco-friendly and health-centric choices, the demand for plant-derived items has surged. From food and beverages to beauty and fashion, the market for plant-based goods is thriving. But how does one enter this burgeoning industry? What are the essential components for launching and expanding a prosperous plant-based product enterprise? In this interview series, we're delving into the realm of plant-based entrepreneurship. We're engaging with founders, product developers, industry specialists, and pioneers who've successfully navigated the landscape of plant-based businesses. As part of this series, we had the privilege of conversing with Brenden Dougherty from MDBio.
MDBio — The Doctors Brand is an exceptional company recognized for its clinically verified plant-based remedies. Established by four practicing physicians, MDBio brings a unique fusion of clinical expertise and scientific precision to the nutraceutical field. Setting themselves apart from competitors, every product in their range is substantiated by scientific evidence, either through observational studies or clinical trials.
MDBio stands out as a brand that harmonizes the finest aspects of both the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical realms. Their products not only ensure proven effectiveness but also tout minimal to no side effects, a rarity in this industry.
Their approach is a seamless amalgamation of modern scientific methodologies and the ancient wisdom of medicinal practices, a combination they believe to be unparalleled. As MDBio continues its expansion and innovative strides, many eagerly anticipate their products becoming a staple in households worldwide.
To explore more about MDBio’s remarkable plant-based remedies, visit: https://bit.ly/3Ri2prf For a deeper insight into their origins and philosophy, their blog is available at: http://bit.ly/3Rmadbo.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Iam originally from Woodstock Illinois, a small rural town close to the Wisconsin border. Growing up my parents were adamant in ensuring that I was exposed to as many extra curricular activities as possible, while also maintaining a rigorous schedule in academics. Looking back, it’s the exposure to such a colorful array of activities and topics that became a guiding force in my life to continually remain a student of numerous professional fields. Always with a tendency to lead by action, I grew up on student councils, captain of extracurricular teams and elected as a team lead. With a fierce competitive streak engrained deep, it has never been enough for me to merely show up and participate, but I have always strived to pick up concepts quickly and apply those learnings at scale.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The most influential character trait that has driven continued success is my desire to lead by example. There is no task too mundane or small that I will not tackle first, before delegating to other team members. This do-first approach has allowed me to better understand the entire system we are running, as well as provide a benchmark for my team to follow. While ego usually gets in the way of most executives to “sweep the floors”, I have found that my propensity to the work instills a culture built on work product opposed to titles and egos. This was never more apparent when I was building a sales team for a large government contractor business that was selling medical devices to both state and federal governments. Even with a robust sales team at the outset, I found that I could not lead effectively if I didn’t know first hand the constraints and feedback we would receive from our customers. After I had spent considerable time making the cold phone calls, I was able to lead the sales team with greater empathy and command of the market environment. The sales team responded to this approach successfully, having seen me fail many times during those early days.
Perseverance is a trait that can not be overstated as a top quality of any executive and as a 3x entrepreneur, I have had to develop thick skin to remain on a successful path. In almost every business, there are countless setbacks that occur before you establish your first big win. Even after early success, growth is never smooth and earlier stage businesses are usually always a few bad decisions away from insolvency. It truly requires the ability to wake up every morning looking for the solutions instead of obsessing over the problem. A great example of this was the numerous setbacks I faced while developing a successful consulting business. The first two years were spent hearing 100 “no’s” before I found a “maybe”. I constantly had to remain resilient and steadfast in my belief that the venture development agency I was building would take off once I was able to find the right prospective clients. Many peers and friends didn’t understand the goal along the journey, but in the end it was the agency that allowed me to grow and scale businesses within multiple sectors at many different stages of business growth. My entire business education was developed during those formative years and the failures taught me how to succeed.
The last trait to highlight is my innate evenkeel demeanor that provides an ever stable foundation when hard strategic decisions are required. It’s not easy to stay calm as the proverbial house is on fire, but keeping a cool head allows me to think sharp, keep the doubt out of my mind and present a course of action that is sound in logic and mitigates risk. As mentioned, early stage business is ripe with pivots and failures and requires thoughtful and commanding leadership to continue making the right decisions along the way. MDbio — The Doctors Brand is not unique in the CPG world to many of the same setbacks when trying to formulate new products and get them to market. If I had not been able to effectively stay calm, there are many mole hills that would have become insurmountable mountains.
As a bonus, a leadership tendency I try to live by is hiring the best talent and providing them resources and agency to do what they do best. As a CEO, your main objective is to acquire the correct resources (personnel, funding, relationships) so that your team can execute the vision. My team’s are always built with the fundamental principle of directed autonomy. Provide the vision and resources and get out of the way for your talented team to achieve the success they are destined to achieve.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
The single most exciting project we are working on at MDbio is creating clinically proven pharmaceutical alternatives to give patients and consumers effective and safe medications. As we see success in our clinical trials, we are first hand experiencing the gratitude and relief chronically ill patients are experiencing when they take medications that are both effective and have very mild side effects. Up until now, our founding doctors have had to make difficult decisions in patient treatment plans; prescribe pharmaceutical medications that they know will result in severe side effects or allow the patient to test their luck in a nutraceutical market that has a +90% fail rate on effectively treating the patients underlying conditions. It’s been an incredible journey working with these chronically ill patients as they have found relief for their symptoms for the first time in decades.
As we continue our journey as a company, our ultimate goal is to align ourselves with the healthcare industry in providing personalized treatment plans through our medications. We are investing in large scale in-house trials to better understand specific disease processes and how genetics and microbiomes can be accounted for when recommending our product line up. In a few years, there will be a world in which we are able to accurately predict the exact medication ratios and dosing guidelines to provide a day by day analysis into the symptom relief our products provide. An exact personalized roadmap to the relief from pain, sleeplessness and anxiety. The implications means the patient or customer will know the exact day their pain will end, or the night they will finally see 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about creating a successful plant-based product business. What inspired you to enter the plant-based product industry? Did you have a turning point or eureka moment that led you into the plant-based industry? Can you share some key milestones that helped shape your journey to success?
My entry into the plant-based product business was not initially one out of passion but one out of curiosity, timing and luck. When I moved from Chicago to California in 2018, the cannabis market was exploding and chronically ill patients were seeking a way to ditch their pharmaceutical products and find relief through this plant. Initially turned off by the recreational market, I was pulled in when I began hearing the incredible stories about oncology and chronic pain patients seeing positive therapeutic outcomes using the plant. After consulting with a handful of businesses in the cannabis space, I found myself fixated by the lengths consumers went to find a plant-based product that could do the work of the pharmaceutical industry. Still not completely convinced that this trend was anything more than a west coast fad, I found myself in a board meeting with the founding doctors at MDbio and went from skeptic to evangelist. When four medical doctors at the height of western medicine were speaking about the incredible effects they were seeing with post-operative patients using plant based medicines to support their bodies natural healing functions, I knew that this was the future. With the right scientific rigor, it would be possible to naturally heal chronically ill patients all the while bringing the pharmaceutical approach to the non-regulated supplement industry. A true partnership between eastern wisdom and western science.
What do you believe are the key factors behind the recent surge in demand for plant-based products, and how can aspiring entrepreneurs authentically tap into this growing trend?
One of the largest factors we attribute to the rise of plant-based nutraceutical products is that we have an aging population that has spent the past 30 years consistently taking pharmaceutical drugs and are first hand seeing the side effects that accompany a mono pharmacology approach. As the generation is aging into more chronic illnesses, they are seeking treatments that do not leave them feeling worse off. Imagine taking sleep medications for 10 years and beginning to lose cognitive abilities or watching daily tremors develop after chronically using your pain medications. These are just a few prevalent side effects that are widely experienced and when paired with the access to a litany of consumer education content that is exponentially growing, consumers are asking their healthcare providers for more natural ways to find relief for their conditions.
My advice for aspiring plant-based entrepreneurs is to create truly unique products or services that push the entire industry further into data backed solutions instead of merely joining the industry to provide more paths to “wellness”. The plant-based market is highly competitive and over saturated at this point. Consumers are seeking additional validation that your product or service will actually solve their health condition. What we hear more than anything is that “I’ve tried everything and nothing has actually worked.” 9 times out of 10 this is because the market is saturated with products and services that simply do not provide any therapeutic value to the customer. To truly make a difference, do your research. Read the research being conducted within the industry and try to comprehend the molecular science that is at play when the plant-based products are supporting your body’s innate ability to heal itself. Plant-based therapies are more of a science, than an artform.
How do you envision the evolution of consumer preferences in the next 5–10 years?
Consumers are beginning to critically evaluate the plant-based nutraceutical industry and what was once easily sold on the back of the “wellness” trend is beginning to erode. With better, and more abundant, information widely available to consumers, they are beginning to prefer products that have a more meaningful approach than merely a great brand and packaging components. We are seeing better educated consumers that can easily detect what is scientific fact and what is marketing jargon. From this perspective, we are seeing an industry wide trend towards efficacy data that was never available to the consumer, and therefore was not required. The FDA is additionally cracking down on misleading claims in this industry and therefore consumers will see a clear picture of what products are effective and which have never been tested. This will have lasting effects on the plant-based industry since it’s been the deception of non-effective products that have held it back from competing in the traditional healthcare setting.
What is your favorite plant-based product (not necessarily your own) and what makes it stand out? What can we all learn from the appeal of that product?
My favorite plant based company at the moment is Sakara life. They stand out in the sea of ready-to-eat meal delivery platforms due to their exceptional marketing photography mixed with product storytelling. The way they seamlessly merge the two makes me (a consumer) feel like a “better life” is possible just through better nutrition and meal plans. The company does not trade off great marketing assets and branding for high quality ingredients either. A great mix!
Based on your experience, what are some of the biggest myths or misconceptions people have about the plant-based industry?
The biggest misconception I see in the plant-based nutraceutical industry is that all the products inherently support your overall health functions and therefore I trust the label since it surely has less contaminants than other processed food. What I have seen firsthand is that most of the products produced are done with very little scientific rigor. 90% of brands do not have the controls in place to effectively test the safety and efficacy of the products they are putting in their packaging. Therefore, they are relying heavily on consumer feedback and strong marketing campaigns to overcome their lack of production accuracy.
Additionally, supplements are not reviewed by the FDA and therefore the raw ingredients used in production are the first to be compromised when a brand is seeking cost savings. There is near zero enforceable oversight into a product’s label claims and therefore consumers are blindly trusting a brand is accurate in their supplement facts, and can reproduce those products consistently at scale. In a study just conducted by John Hopkins University, they found that the majority of cannabinoid products tested were wildly outside the acceptable range of ingredient variance. This is no surprise to everyone who has worked in this market.
Developing and marketing plant-based products often involves unique challenges, from sourcing quality ingredients and sustainable packaging to building a brand that resonates with consumers. What strategies have you found most effective in overcoming these hurdles?
The two greatest challenges to running a CPG brand is product manufacturing and creating a brand that resonates with the consumer. There is no step in the product manufacturing process that is an easy task. From finding reliable and quality ingredient suppliers to establishing quality controls that effectively mitigate variance risk from batch to batch. When creating unique products, you will always come up against unique challenges that only a well trained and ingenuous team will be able to overcome. At MDbio, we have taken months and years to hone in our supply chain, and we are constantly seeking ways to improve our processes. To effectively scale, it requires a constant critical eye on all potential fail points and built in redundancies when a gap arises.
As for the brand side, it requires a keen eye to understand the consumers pain points, while also having expert knowledge of the state of the industry. Many brands do a great job of understanding the real pain points of their customer base, but struggle with customer acquisition because their messaging and branding is too similar to every other brand. We have found that brands that resonate with customers are able to emotionally connect with their customers through effective storytelling. For a brand message to become contagious, it requires a consumer to see themselves directly reflected in a brand’s pillar messaging points. This can only be achieved through emotional connections. Far easier said than done!
Here is the main question of our interview. The plant-based market continues to evolve and grow. What advice can you offer to individuals looking to launch their own plant-based product businesses? Are there any critical lessons or insights you’ve gained along the way that you’d like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs in this field? Based on your experience can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Plant-Based Product Business”.
1 . Contract a highly skilled product team. All co-packers have production experts on staff but that person does not work for your brand and therefore will not be able to effectively bring your product vision to fruition. Having in-house or contracted experts on your team that understand your brand’s objectives and have years of experience in your specific industry will save you thousands of dollars and mitigate many of your formulating and production risks. More times than not, that expert will be able to help troubleshoot any production issues that arise and keep your manufacturing timelines on track for an efficient launch schedule. By working with a well seasoned product team, you will be able to take back control of your own product development.
2 . Quality is non-negotiable. Consumer purchasing points are important to understand, but the price you sell your product should not derail you from creating a high quality product. Consumers don’t shy away from spending money on premium products. It’s cheaper in the long run to acquire a high paying customer who stays with the brand because the quality is exceptional as opposed to churning and burning through customers who bounce after the product was not as quality as advertised.
3 . Find the emotional connection to your customers. Consumers make emotional decisions based on the connection they make to the pain points you are addressing. When a brand is able to unlock a consumer’s emotions, it will see conversions at a higher velocity. Sell customers on their needs and desires, not the features of your product.
4 . Understand your competitive market. To stand out in the noise, it requires a deep understanding of what your competitors are doing and saying. If you launch with a similar product, the story of your brand must stand out and resonate in a way that your competitors are failing to achieve. Find the white space in the market, and own that differentiator. Early on at MDbio, we knew that the nutraceutical space was dominated by companies capitalizing on the wellness trend and their main selling point was the natural ingredients. If a doctor launched a product, they were usually in self practice and looking for a second stream of revenue. We found an opportunity to align four board certified surgeons from world renowned medical systems together to lend credibility and trust to the brand. But even that was not enough. Over the past few years, it has become in vogue to have “doctor formulated” or “doctor recommended” on a product, even though the doctor who formulated or recommended is nowhere to be seen. This message then oversaturated the market. We had to combine another way to lend additional credibility to our product portfolio and that came in the form of clinical trial results. The ultimate gold star for a product is to be clinically proven through controlled, double-blind research trials. With under 1% of all nutraceutical products ever tested, and a fraction of that ever proven statistically significant beyond placebo, we carved a major brand differentiator to all other nutraceutical brands with a solid one, two punch.
5 . Be ready to pivot when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t mean a full 180 degree pivot, but staying agile and nimble is the only way to survive the changes that occur in a rapidly changing market environment. Consumers are fickle and it requires constant refinements and alterations to stay relevant in a crowded marketplace. Maintain short feedback loops with your customer base and pay attention to their reviews.
How does your business align with sustainability and ethics in the plant-based industry, and how does this alignment impact your brand’s success and customer trust?
The average plant-based consumer is more inclined to choose brands that align with their own personal values. These values tend to emphasize sustainable packaging and ingredient sourcing practices. The granular details are vitally important to a brand. Consumers are looking to discount new brands and are searching for the cracks in the marketing message. It’s important to think critically on the ingredient suppliers, the manufacturing process and the packaging components you pick. At MDbio, we have had to toe the line between providing customers with marketing material and additional sales assets, and their dislike for product waste. Eco-responsibility is driven by the consumer and brands are required to align their core values with their customer base.
What certifications and regulations are essential for new plant-based brands to uphold their values as they grow?
There are numerous raw ingredient certifications that are required and should be inquired on when choosing a new ingredient supplier. These include GRAS standings and certificates of analysis for pesticides, toxins and heavy metals. Additionally, choosing a manufacturing facility that is cGMP certified is a great step to ensuring product quality control.
From a marketing perspective, the FDA is cracking down heavily on the misuse of customer reviews and product claims. It’s imperative that companies stay abreast on state and federal guidelines to ensure their messaging is compliant with all consumer protection laws. At MDbio, we are thrilled that the FDA is beginning to issue warning letters to brands that are making unsubstantiated claims as this has been the biggest hurdle in consumer trust in the plant-based nutraceutical industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The expert in anything was once a beginner.” — Helen Hayes We are all on a journey of lifelong learning and discovery. The best thing a leader can do is become confident in saying, “I don’t know the answer.” What I have learned over the years from extremely knowledgeable and respected business leaders is that they are not afraid of not knowing an answer. Instead, it allows them the opportunity to learn something new and seek out the council of others who have devoted their lives to being an expert in that specific field. A leader achieves more respect when they can confidently say they don’t know the answer, but they will find out.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Great question! My movement would be centered around ditching ego for curiosity. In the broader population, consumers are more apt to seek to confirm their own bias opposed to seeking out challenging viewpoints. When the personal ego is overridden with a sense of curiosity and wonderment, people are more likely to openly hear conflicting ideas rather than posturing with competing opinions. What I have learned from the four wonderful founding physicians at MDbio is the beauty in seeking out opposing viewpoints to either confirm or debunk your current set of beliefs. This philosophy frees you from the need to be right, and expands your mind into topics and constructs that were otherwise shut off to you.
This is what we call our “matchmaker question”, and it sometimes works. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a power lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
As with many in the natural health world, I have found the work of Andrew Huberman to be inspiring and thought provoking. Discussing the future of healthcare, and how non-pharmaceuticals will play a role is something I’d love to discuss over lunch… or his podcast.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My work can be seen on the MDbio website, Doctor’s Desk section where I write long form blog posts related to debunking consumer misconceptions about the supplement industry. Additionally I will be starting a podcast to explore the future of the nutraceutical industry, supplement manufacturing and what consumers need to know about their favorite plant-based product trends; through the eyes of scientists and data driven formulators.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.