Kevin Rutherford, CEO Nuun Shares Leadership Lessons and Strategies to Grow a Business (Video)

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For the first interview on TrepTalks, I have the honor to host Kevin Rutherford (Twitter), CEO and Chief Eternal Optimist of Nuun – a brand that empowers people to move and stay hydrated. Kevin shares his story of becoming a CEO as well as key strategies and tactics that he has used at Nuun to grow the business and brand.

What You’ll Learn

Segment 1: The Story

In this segment, we will briefly discover the story behind the entrepreneur, businessperson, or brand.

  1. Could you please share a bit about your professional background and how did you come to work at nuun? What interested you about nuun?
  2. For anyone who wishes to pursue a C-level executive role in their career, what would you say are some of the most important skills, traits, and experiences to develop and gain in one’s career?
  3. As a CEO, how do you keep yourself up to date on what is going on in the market, competitors, come up with new ideas etc.

Segment 2: The Business

In this segment, we will dive into the business and explore topics related to business strategy and tactics.

  1. Could you please share a bit about Nuun, the business and its products? What problem is the business solving?
  2. As a business, how does Nuun maintain its competitive advantage? Do you worry that a new startup/business may come and simply copy/improve upon the products or business model, or someone with a great viral marketing campaign can take away some market share?
  3. What is the process of product development (R&D) at Nuun? Nuun introduced some new products (product variations) in the last couple of years. How do you know/validate if the products you are releasing will receive good response from the market?
  4. How many countries in nuun located in? How does the international distribution work?

Segment 3: The Digital

In this segment, we will explore questions related to eCommerce and digital strategy and tactics.

  1. Some of your marketing is more grassroots oriented like Nuun ambassador program, partnering with sporting events, and online influencers. How do you measure the ROI from these activities or are these more for branding and brand recognition? 
  2. How important is Ecommerce for your brand? I noticed that there are separate sites for US and Canada? Why is this? Would you consider a global D2C ecommerce strategy in the future?

Segment 4: Rapid Fire

In this segment, the guest will answer a few questions quickly in one or two sentences.

  1. One book that you would recommend to entrepreneurs/business professionals in 2020 and why (Response: Start with Why, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)
  2. An innovative product or idea in the current ecommerce, retail, or tech landscape that you feel excited about (Response: Wearable Technology)
  3. A business or productivity tool or software that you would recommend (Response: None)
  4. A startup or business (in ecommerce, retail, or tech) that you think is currently doing great things (Response: Allbirds)
  5. A peer entrepreneur or business-person whom you look up to or someone who inspires you (Response: Brendan Brazier, Founder Vega)

Interview Transcript

Sushant Misra: Hey there entrepreneurs my name is Sushant and welcome to TrepTalks this i the show where I interview successful entrepreneurs business executives an thought leaders and ask them questions about their business story and also dive deep into some of the strategies and tactics that they have used to star and grow their businesses and today I have the pleasure of welcoming Mr. Kevin Rutherford. Kevin is the CEO and Chief Eternal Optimist at Nuun. Nuun is the company with a mission to keep you as hydrated as humanly possible Nuun’s drink tablets are fizzy tasty and loaded with electrolytes but free of carbohydrates that helps to keep you healthy and hydrated all day long and Kevin is also a runner and a triathlete so thank you so much for joining us today at TrepTalks, Kevin.

Kevin Rutherford: Thanks for having me, I appreciate you

Sushant Misra: So the first segment is called the story where I want to learn a little bit about your personal and professional journey should becoming a CEO and working with Nuun so maybe you can share a little bit about your professional history how did you come to work with Nuun and what interested you and in working with Nuun.

Kevin Rutherford: for sure yeah so Nuun, Nuun hydration it’s been a good run I mean here in Seattle as you can see from Canada flag I’ll touch on that in a second I am a Canadian and so I but I do live in Seattle I will have been at Nuun having the privilege to be the self-proclaimed Chief Eternal Optimist this fall so be seven years high I served my career actually in Canada I worked for Loblaws which is a large retailer I was a buyer there and it was a phenomenal experience I went from that role into I went to company called SC Johnson “SC Johnson a family company” and that sounds familiar from commercials and so SC Johnson was an amazing company work for its family-owned business and I worked with them outside Toronto and then they moved me to the US to work within their their worldwide headquarters in marketing in 2001 and when my career went all over the US so basically my journey was all about marketing from really this point on and we’re really at the end of the Canadian part and then now the US and I had this privilege of doing a career journey at SC Johnson learned a ton about consumer packaged goods marketing advertising you know packaging communication really like understanding research and consumers and trying to connect with them so those skills are really transferrable no matter what you do which is which is amazing and I left there and went to work at Miller Brewing Company so as a senior marketer there and I was leading their global brand Miller Genuine Draft which is actually in Canada most of the Miller brands are not in that was a phenomenal experience as well I left there to take what was something that changed me forever and how I looked at business and that was Kashi so if you’re not familiar with Kashi that’s the cereal the granola bars not natural foods it’s it’s a it’s a really incredible brand and I was leading the Barenaked granola brand but you know part of the Kashi team as a marketing director there and that was amazing because it changed the way I looked at business which was all about what’s our purpose what’s our meaning why do we do we do and that was before the infamous TED talk by Simon Cenac that is several years old I didn’t know about Simon Cenac then but afterward I’m like that’s what we did you know

Sushant Misra: Starting with why or something?

Kevin Rutherford: That’s right! “Start with Why” exactly it’s um yeah it’s it’s a great book and a great TED talk if anyone hasn’t watched it, it’s 18 minutes of your time well-spent and so on long story short I then had my first chance of being a CEO at the Caldrea Company in Minneapolis and it was Caldrea Companies is better known for a brand called Mrs. Meyer’s clean day and that’s the natural soaps cleaners detergents and long story short on that is I really wanted to take what I learned in my career and have this chance I was leading a company of how can I apply that and and really apply what I had in my head is a playbook and the team we did really great things and then after that that really opened up the opportunity for me to come to Nuun and for those of you that don’t know is Nuun really started in the endurance based Ironman adventure racing and so I’ve you know I’ve done marathons and triathlete as you mentioned endurance sports are kind of who I am and I think the background really attracted the board of directors to bring me in to try to help this team and company reached a whole different level and here I am as stoked as ever I could not be happier with where I am

Sushant Misra: So a lot of people like who are in the corporate world who are with this professional work trajectory you know you’ve worked in different companies and you you grew from there but a lot of people do that but they don’t reach that C-level roles do you know what was different about your journey what was it some of your personal skills attributes experiences like can you give some advice to people who do want to reach the c-level roles what can what advice can you do give to people

Kevin Rutherford: yeah I can so I don’t know if this forget anyone to C-level I think you know want to rise within an organization if that’s that’s what’s important to you I would say this if I really distill it down is how do you work with people how do you lead and inspire and motivate people and I say that because I don’t know if it will get to a C-level but what I can tell you is if you’re if you have an ability to lead teams whether they report to you or not that skill is so important and it becomes more important to hire up people in the organization of course there’s vision and what’s the difference you want to make in the world and painting that picture because that’s part of the inspiration and creating that belief that everyone wants to charge the hill with you for but you really need to understand what motivates people and how do you keep them fired up and driving toward the end goal and and when I look back and my career even back to early days being what a lot of Canadians do is play hockey I just think about it was the core of who I was of how do I rally around my teammates our rally my teammates around me and by you know basically back and forth and I think that really pays dividends so I can’t say for sure what we’ll get to C-level but I can tell you that if you focus on being a servant leader how do you help your teammates win and how do you motivate them it just pays back and then just you know just always always give that extra ten fifteen percent on top of that or whatever you’re doing the more you focus on something the more you become a master of a skill and that’s gonna happen while you’re getting a whole team rallying around it.

Sushant Misra: So it’s all getting leadership and getting people to follow you and I think that’s that’s a topic that we can talk hours and hours about so I do not really go too deep into that but yeah I want to move on to our second segment which is called the business and in this segment I want to talk a little bit about Nuun as a business your products and you know some of the strategies and tactics so can you share a little bit about Nuun the products and what problems it’s solving.

Kevin Rutherford: Yeah so um I just we said my my desk and I’ve got tubes so just to show everyone here this is what it looks like this is comes in a tube and so here’s the product in itself you can see there’s tablets here and one of these you would drop in your water bottle and dissolve in a few minutes it’s ready to go so what it is and how we started it was it’s a it’s a healthier sports drink it’s all clean ingredients all-natural it’s low in calories only as one gram of sugar and that’s how it started what’s changed is we’ve really made it not just about the sweat occasion sport we’ve actually made it about functional hydration where we addressed many parts of the day where you have some needs so here’s the problem coming back to what you asked as what problem are we trying to solve and there’s really the overarching problem we’re trying to solve is in society today we we basically live a sedentary lifestyle we don’t move enough but number one thing you can do for health and vitality and longevity is move get your muscles going get the blood flow moving get the oxygen flow moving so hydration is what we found is 2/3 of people are in a chronically dehydrated state right it’s it’s just constant constant we’re not drinking enough water and so how do we help you do that we started with a torture test of the athlete but really it’s it’s for everybody and how do we get everybody to drink more water I personally can tell you that I’m conscious of drinking somewhere close to 4 liters of water every day either with or without Nuun sometimes I deal with Nuun in a bottle but I’ll do one without one with one without with it without just even the exercise portion so that’s the problem we’re trying to solve sedentary lifestyles and one of the one of the tools so Nuun is about empowering the world to move more and it’s because we’re hydration will help empower and give you that kind of goal and energy to get there so it’s worked really well but you know the the brand is really connecting now the other thing we’re solving by the way is we take an innovation approach in an innovation approach up if we had to start all over again how would we do it so when we looked at sports drinks that are in ready to drink bottle one-time-use drink and go we said that’s counterintuitive both what’s in the product and we have the science behind that one so we said we can do better than that so let’s do that and then how do we do better for the planet so the concept behind this one is one tablet drop it in your reusable water bottle you’ve reduced your impact dramatically because we also have a crisis around the planet where we’re addicted to our reliance on single-use disposable bottles plastic models ones.

Sushant Misra:One question that that I think about is you know competitive advantage so Nuun it’s it’s an electrolyte tablet as a CEO how do you think about being competitive in the marketplace where do you think that you know a competitor can come and simply copy your product or a start-up can come and you know do a really good marketing and basically take a big chunk of your market share how do you what do you how do you as a CEO think about being competitive in the

Kevin Rutherford: innovation is key and maybe part of innovation a subset of that is renovation so think like a tech company I think tech companies do it so well right think of iPhone how many but are we 11 versions or whatever it is and I’m not sure I don’t work with Apple but it’s you know it’s something significant so as an example this is our just our sports drink this is our third version internally we call it both original as 1.0 the next one’s 2.0 the next one’s 3.0 so basically the key is innovate keep bringing news in also renovate grading your product because you’re right if you if you just go this is working we’re good move on to the next thing and you don’t keep improving this someone’s gonna obsolete it however what I have learned in my career in marketing is if you keep renovating and innovating and in addition to that if you happen to be first to market which we are that’s a big that’s a big advantage because once your first to market and you’ve got momentum the key is keep evolving keep improving so everyone’s kind of chasing where you were you’re already working on the next step like we have a 4.0 already in the works as an example so many companies that are copying us are probably two steps behind us usually not always but usually because they they’re not seeing what we’re working on the next step so but so brand recognition also plays a big part in that

Sushant Misra: I know that in the last couple of years you you have released you know the versions that you’re talking about the could you please a little bit about what that process is about the product development process and is there a market validation where when you are thinking about a new version of this product have you already done some market research to say okay you know we’re going to invest so much money in developing this product we know it to a certain extent that this is going to be successful in the market

Kevin Rutherford: yeah I my advice when I think of your audience several of them being entrepreneurs right is you don’t need a lot of research out of the gates because your expectations of what success needs to be is gonna be a little bit lower and I say that because we did that meaning the market research was us it was our team we made it for us we tested it on us from an efficacy perspective right and we tested it for taste with us in the consumer experience we were it now as we’ve got more scale we recognized that we’re bringing in people that aren’t always thinking and acting the same way we do so that’s where we do some consumer research I don’t it’s not it’s not as extensive as times when I worked at big companies but it’s it’s still there so things that we’ll do is we basically look at different um meet unmet needs in the marketplace they correlate with hydration of hydration if we could do this to your water to make it work harder for you what would be what would be a products or immunity product right we have a rest product with the vitamins products and we have our sport products and of course ones with caffeine and so we identify those need states and then when we go to attack it we have to figure out like when you look at this and we say we would test that with consumers and and say what is this if we call it Nuun sport what does it mean maybe we call it Nuun active Nuun this Nuun that likes maybe three or four different versions we get a little bit of quick feedback it’s a it’s quantitative but not statistically significant just to make sure we are in the right car wheels we’ve also about what we do do is we do blind label tests on taste to see what the consumers perception is when they taste it and does that help because taste is gonna be the consumer experience when it comes to beverages and food for that matter so you want to think what’s the consumer experience are we living up to what they expect and we do small-scale testing on that to validate it there’s three buckets by the way when I think of bringing a product to market there’s the ideation where’s your ideas coming in so it could be competitive landscape it could be science it could be globally what’s happening out there right so you’re filling the funnel with ideas that fit your strategy then you go here’s where we want to go here’s they want to move forward we think this is a big enough idea you move it to the second stage which is development which is what you described and now we’re refining it now we’re testing it the taste and the experience and as a dissolve fast enough is a efficacious do I feel it and then we move to commercialization and the commercialization is now go to market approach what’s our marketing approach which our sales approach to our operations to make sure that we can fulfill it and make it happen hopefully that helps but it’s kind of about

Sushant Misra: Yeah definitely and just to follow up on that the ideation process is that like something that occurs in within the company internally or do you work with like an external agency to and bring in people who do some sort of ideation process with you exercise with you

Kevin Rutherford: so today it’s ideation has been all all internal that we did test we did put a basically create concepts and did a quantitative test to see what was coming back on purchase and things like yeah I would buy that and that makes sense coming from Nuun but we do most of the ideation ourselves as a team and come up with that you know again being a bigger companies I’ve also done it other ways where we outsource it and bring in consultants in different big brains that can help us find new frontiers we’ve never thought of and we’re probably getting close that stage not that we’re big but if it’s a new stage where we have to start thinking differently of what’s a new frontier we want to go after and we might want to seek external help on that work but today we’ve done it all internal.

Sushant Misra: Now I know that you the business is in multiple countries I believe I read about 30 countries I think in the retail shops you are within US maybe Canada but in other countries I think you work through international distributors. Can you talk a little bit about what that process is like when you’re trying to go in a different country how do you work with these distributors and how exactly to that business work?

Kevin Rutherford: that’s a great question so we are priority country number one is the US which is where we’re located our number two priority is Canada and with all due respect to all of the other countries we really lean on our distributors so even more than what we do anywhere in the US or Canada in the US or Canada core hands-on and getting involved in meeting with retailers so in the case of globally outside of these two countries in North America we real our distributors and they know the market better than we do and so it tends to be it’s almost like we’re exporting it and they’re building the brand so you have to really find the right distributor partner to do it and so we do have some really good partners out there that do it quite well down then it’s like sorry about that and so yeah and so that’s how we use our distributor partners and we really want to make sure they understand the brand they have like-minded type brands and they have a similar strategy to what we want and then like I said we’re fairly hands-off other than getting product to them and some marketing materials when they ask for it but we’re very hands-on in driving it in Canada in the US on all facets of business again hopefully that makes sense

Sushant Misra: and once it is up to the distributor like are they are they once are they the one who’s who are responsible for financial accountability like are they the ones who you know are driving the revenues and profits and and you make a decision based on their performance how exactly is that?

Kevin Rutherford: Yeah you know if it’s if we’re simply would meet annually with our distributor partners and if it’s not hitting the goals it’s kind of like anyone with the performance review right it’s like hey I don’t think this is working so we can always switch the business we don’t do that often but we have if it’s just not working maybe we’re not important to them so therefore it’s not a high priority and they’re not driving it forward because if we’re gonna be there we’ve known it to grow so if it’s not growing then it becomes vulnerable at retail and once you get knocked out at retail and it’s really hard to get back in so yeah

Sushant Misra: so now we’re going to move on to our next segment which is called the marketing e-commerce and digital where I’m going to talk ask you a few questions about your e-commerce and marketing strategy and tactics I noticed when I was doing the research that on your social media especially that you do some sort of a lot of grassroots marketing like you have a new ambassadors program you have your partner with sporting events you partner with online influencers are these are these marketing strategies really effective for you how do you measure the ROI for them or these are more like brand building activities for you?

Kevin Rutherford: well they’re more braid building for sure so it’s hard to calculate the ROI so this is an interesting one because a lot of a lot of people and brands have reached out Chara being our team asking for advice because our team’s done a really nice job of building our content strategy our social media content our engagement is really high our ambassador program is really strong here’s what I would say is there are no shortcuts you might hit the jackpot and do something that goes viral and does really well but you sure as heck can’t build a plan on that and we didn’t so what we did is we really focused on people that believe what we believe we shared the same beliefs how do we go and connect on that one and we built a high connection kind of one-to-one word-of-mouth philosophy all about engagement whether that was online in person or in store and that’s basically how we kept on thinking about of those triangulation rights online in the store in person so as an example when you go online from day one when I came in into the team at Nuun and the marketing team had some social media handles out there we had Instagram Facebook and Twitter back even seven years ago big Instagram was their most positive but the you know it wasn’t it was teeny tiny and we weren’t like fully consistent on it and I wanted to I’m like how do we go and get a massive number of followers and the team pushed back on me back to this day and she’s our VP of marketing today she pushed back me back then and she was spot on in her name’s Arielle um it’s in an Arielle Arielle said you’ve got to focus on engagement you have to focus on engagement not followers yes you want the followers but if you focus on engagement the rest will come but it takes time and we did and we focus on an engagement engagement engagement engagement ambassadors same thing highly engaged we did trips with ambassadors with a small group and they were bloggers and then it built and then it went to another group today we have I think we have like we have thousands thousands of ambassadors like there there are a significant number and they’re in Canada in the US but that was built with starting with 15 people and bloggers we all did a guttin dance and did these relay races together we have a relationship to this day seven years later all together so yeah a high commitment

Sushant Misra: Yeah one thing I noticed when I was looking at your social media like you have a huge number of following but the engagement is pretty good as well and regards for your e-commerce strategy I noticed that you have a US ecommerce site and you have a Canadian site maybe you have some sites in other countries also why the separation and in the future like do you consider having one site and you know a direct-to-consumer strategy all over the world because I think these days shipping anywhere in the world is not it’s not that difficult.

Kevin Rutherford: I agree with you so we’re not doing that very well today and the team would agree with that I know that if they watch this they’ll be like yeah that’s true you know we we’ve kind of you know when you’re when you don’t have a lot of money and a lot of like cash flow especially early on you’re really building a scrappy website and then you’re putting band-aids on it to try to make it a little bit better and that’s why the Canadian one is separate from the US is it’s really band-aids and capacity right now it’s its capacity it was resource and funds and capacity back then now it’s I think we can pay to do it like we’re getting to that point we could we could make this happen and which is on the docket but I agree with you I think you’re you’re 110 percent right we should make this so that it’s one website and make it work so that we can ship all over the world and we don’t do it today because it was it was just not thinking ahead and probably well maybe not thinking it maybe it’s truly it was maybe just a capacity and resource constraint do you do see a you know since you’ve been the CEO at Nuun do you see like a huge growth and e-commerce sale year-over-year that’s it for the channel that the core can really well for you oh yeah it’s on fire it’s doing really well instead of yeah it’s it’s growing faster than the total company you know it really started to kick into gear in the last year so we’ve put more and more resources than effort onto our into our marketing team around digital capabilities we have basically and we have an incredible marketing team the marketing team they have like content creation going on so we have basically an internal agency the digital component a lot of its outsourced but we’re in sourcing more – as we build our capabilities on that as well and that and the results have been really profound like we’re seeing a lot of really good results on their e-commerce sales

Sushant Misra: okay and now we’re going to move on to our final segment which is the rapid-fire round where I will ask you a few quick questions and you have to answer them maybe in a few words or a sentence or two so first question do you recommend the book for entrepreneurs or business executives in 2020 and and why?

Kevin Rutherford: Yeah I got it I got a say we even I talked about I would do Simon Cenac “Start with Why” because purpose driven businesses really really crank it out if I could give a second one I know you didn’t ask for – it’s an oldie but a goodie it’s an oldie but a goodie and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by someone by the name of Stephen Covey who’s now passed away it’s about people’s skills and remember I mentioned that at the very beginning so an innovative product or idea in the current ecommerce retail or text is that you’re excited about I’m really excited about wearable technology wearable technology I believe can change the way we behave so whether it’s Gharmin, Fitbit etc right but wearable technology is it could change the way we think about healthcare imagine if we stop thinking reactive and thought more proactive and wearable technology can gamify and create habits and behaviors so I’m really excited about that.

Sushant Misra: A productivity tool or software that you use?

Kevin Rutherford: I don’t think I have a good one there I tend to use the tools that are existing I don’t seek out like on that one a lot I guess if I was to say there’s a tool this is an oldie one you know it goes test the this test time if you will it’s all about time your time and really just set you intention for the week and day and they know that what you want to accomplish what’s most important and go after that but I don’t have a tool for it honestly like I specific nothing more than making notes to myself

Sushant Misra: a startup or business in ecommerce retail or tech that you find interesting?

Kevin Rutherford: Check out All Birds so I’m in me and you might not have heard of it but All Birds is a rising a rising star of a running shoe and this running shoe is doing some really cool things and started out with really making a difference for the planet the material used and now they’re like starting to convert through performance running to so they started more with mission-driven do better for the planet and now they’re adding on the performance as opposed to performance and then what’s the less bad that we can be

Sushant Misra: and the finally one appear entrepreneur or business person that you look up to or who inspires you?

Kevin Rutherford: yeah that’s a good question I think I think appear in a friend of mine that’s done really well fellow Canadian Brendan Brazier. Brendan Brazier is from Vancouver he lives in LA now and he is the co-founder of Vega suppliant based nutrition and he’s just so purpose driven and true to his cause all the way through and I love that about him it inspires me I think I’ve used their products so okay guy

Sushant Misra: yeah it’s great so yeah those are those were all the questions that I had thank you so much Kevin for for sharing your insights and for sharing your story if someone wants to get in touch with you what is the best way or if you want to promote you if you have any products or services that you want to promote please go ahead

Kevin Rutherford: Yeah you know check out Nuun Hydration so noon is spelt with to U’s instead of two O’s it’s a made-up word stands for nutrition uncompromised but Nuun Hydration is our handle if you want to find me I’m Kevin Rutherford or otherwise known as I’m in the social media world Clean Lantern so clean underscore lantern and I’d love to chat with you anytime if nothing else just keep it moving and stay hydrated

Sushant Misra: perfect and I just want to say Nuun’s US website is and the Canadian website is and I would recommend people go and check it out. Thank you so much Kevin for for joining today and I really appreciate it.

Kevin Rutherford, Kevin Rutherford

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