Impact Investor Josh Campbell reveals his unorthodox formula for scaling companies: stigma + brand storytelling + trends + team.
Josh doesn’t think about investing as a numbers game. For him, it’s like surfing. In this episode, Josh shares how to catch the wave of a trend and spot companies that could transform an industry by changing the narrative of a stigmatized product. His approach to impact investing is holistic… and all about alignment.
“Look at your time as the most valuable asset you have. You really want to spend it doing things that can be a global impact rather than just to make a buck or two.”
- What is your personal mission of what you want to create in the world?
- Can you share with us a little bit of background on how you got here?
- How do you change the narrative on products that are stigmatized?
- What are the pros and cons of getting into the product market?
- What is your relationship to fundraising vs. bootstrapping?
- What are the top lessons you’ve learned?
- What are the next ventures your interested in?
- What is one piece of advice you’d leave with them?
Listen in for ideas on how to leverage your brand story to scale strategically, and how to invest in companies that represent the next era in their industry.
So Josh, can you kick us off with what is your personal mission of what you want to create in the world?
You know, that’s an interesting question. When people talk about mission and vision, it often sounds a little contrived. So for me it, it’s, it’s almost like it’s simpler for me, it’s about having a meaningful impact, um, and doing things you love with people you love.
Can you share a little bit of background, how did you get here?
I grew up outside Toronto, Canada, about two hours outside the city, out in the country. I remember having a lemonade stand there. That was where I realized that location is everything. Lemonade stands and the country do not do well, a very humbling experience at the age of five.
I went to school to study business accounting, I call myself a recovering account. Wall Street was the path that I was going down, but I had a very powerful conversation with a mentor of mine early on. We were working late on a financial model and he looked at me and said, you don’t love this do you.
And I said, no. They said, well, why the F are you doing this? Great question.
I said, you’re right. It was a key turning point for me. So after that I ended up leaving the world of finance. I joined a private equity company, went down to the US from Canada. I took the leap of faith to move from Canada into the US to do land development and take an active operating role at one of the businesses we had. So I did that, I scaled that business up and ended up selling it late 2007, early 2008 which if you recall, that was really when the financial crisis hit. I was very, very lucky to do it at that time.
So I got a great lesson early on in my career. After that I ended up coming back to Canada. I joined a small coffee company based in Seattle called Starbucks. I think you may have heard of it.
What made you decide to start by scaling Starbucks?
I spoke French and wanted to scale and restructure this American Brand in a French Canadian market – I ended up having five different roles or five years at Starbucks. And I was the youngest executive ever in the company.
I ended up leaving Starbucks to restructure a 20-year old company that had promising financials. It seemed crazy at the time, but I scaled it and had a second exit.
Tell us how you got into the next few companies?
I was approached to do basically a roll-up strategy to change the dynamics of a leadership team with a hearing health care business, restructure it, and then buy up a bunch of other businesses and consolidate them. You know, it’s interesting. My gut actually said not to do it… but I ended up doing it anyway. It was really a financial play and at the end of the day I just really wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing.
“I wasn’t changing the world really. I was really just doing deals at the end of the day, which can be fun at a very short time, but if you truly look at your time being the most valuable commodity you have or valuable asset you have you really want to spend it doing things that can be a global impact rather than just to make a buck or two, to try and appease shareholders.”
So we did that for two years, ended up selling it. Then, at a Bachelor party in Amsterdam of all places I was approached to come and lead a cannabis business. I finally decided to sit down with the CEO at the time. And, and I was totally blown away with the team and the brand and the space. I was completely ignorant to the world of cannabis.
Can you give us some background on your cannabis business?
The company’s called Doses. We’re the first and only dose controlled vaporization device out there. We don’t consider ourselves a cannabis company per se, we’re really health and wellness company that happens to use cannabis and some of our ingredients.
So the positioning of it in the marketplace is quite different. We’ve worked very hard for the last couple of years to push the legislation forward in Canada to actually federally legalize cannabis. So we were changing the narrative and really breaking down stigma.
Why Branding is the Key to Incredible Exits
Starbucks If you look back at starting with Starbucks, Starbucks completely redefined what coffee is, right? They broke down stigma. People before thought coffee was 5 cents and came at a Styrofoam Cup. You would never pay $4 for a cup of coffee and you’re sure as heck would never wait 20 minutes to pay four bucks for that coffee.
Sage Natural Wellness The next organization I ran was called Sage Natural Wellness. It was an essential oils retailer. Very similar story. You know, essential oils have been around for thousands of years. Recently they have had a very negative stigma around them, like snake oil. But we completely pivoted that stigma and actually turned it into more of a fashion brand.
Dosist So when I saw what the team at Dosist was already doing this with regards to the brand, I said, this is incredible. Not only did you have a market that’s huge, you’ve got brilliant people and oh, by the way, you’re not talking about coffee or essential oils, you’re redefining an entire category that’s been negatively perceived for the last a hundred years.
Cannabis It’s been criminalized last hundred years, which is kind of crazy. A lot of people have acquainted it to the end of prohibition. But I would say it’s more like the end of prohibition and then the doctor recommending you drink cocktails. Wow. It’s much, much bigger. So to be one of the only brands that’s truly changed that narrative is truly incredible.
The keys to picking a business: Catch a wave, don’t create it!
- Commodity product that you’re excited about.
- Trend watching for low-competition and high opportunity (usually involving changing a stigma).
- Branding that people will love and get behind – with a proven market demand.
Are there specific revenue models for these products?
It needs to be a commodity product with a negative perception. You wouldn’t start a low-cost hardware store, you’d be competing with Home Depot. That’s hard.
Chandler: So it’s gotta be a case where you’re going left and everyone else is going right. What are some of the other criteria you use to decide to invest in a business or step in as an operator?
A humble leadership team I think is for me is personally really important. They need to be open to feedback. I’m not good at very much, but I know what I’m really bad at and have a good network to supply that. I think of myself as a land developer more than anything else, I watch trends and gather a good team around them.
Branding is Key
I think the brand is key. One that people seem to forget about it, right? There are so many examples where there’s a product that’s like a 10 at a 10 it’s amazing. But the branding is just awful. There’s no ability to resonate with the consumer. And I think that’s where a lot of people fall down. So I over-index on how much you allocate to actually brand-building versus some of the other functions of the business early on.
Especially if you’re taking something that’s truly different, you want to brand it and position in a way where people are excited about it and it’s something that they can get behind. You are changing the narrative in most of your businesses.
Well, I think that’s what it has to be. I mean, otherwise, there’s nothing newsworthy about it.
Sure. So how do you go about changing the narrative on something like essential oils or cannabis? Like what is your process for how you even start that?
It’s about identifying what do people really want, what’s, what’s that emotional, which a compelling emotional connection they want to make for the product. And then going finding people that that resonates with them. They can actually do that work but are an actual creative type.
So finding the right branding team of somebody that’s emotionally tied and really passionate about the project to share this story in a new way, to change the narrative, um, from what it was to what it can be.
Each project has three legs to the stool. There’s the creative pillar, which is critical.
- There’s the product pillar
- a creative pillar
- and the back office stuff.
The “back office” is bringing the players together and holding the team accountable. It’s bringing product and brand vision to life. Here are some questions that I ask:
- What are the other players or even on the team?
- Where do we need financing from?
- How do we actually bring it to market?
So if you love consumer products, are there specific kind of revenue models that you’ll go with?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I want to actually back that up a little bit. I think a lot of people jump into the technicalities, but if you back up two more stages is key. Why does the product even exist? Is there really a need for it? Starting with the why I find is so critical.
So many people jump to tactics right away. They’re like, I have this new shoe or this widget, let’s throw it in a subscription model. Go, go, go. And they’re like, wow, it’s not selling. I wonder why? Well, because no one really cares about the product. You haven’t built a brand or a narrative around it. And that takes time. Once you start with that real core part of the business and have that nailed, then it affords you a lot more flexibility. And you still have to be willing to try a few different things and then go after what starts to work.
What are the pros and cons of getting into the product market?
Cashflow challenges for sure. You have to actually build it and have inventory. In the digital world, these things don’t exist. I mean there’s a ton of challenges from regulatory challenges to warehousing challenges. It’s a pretty daunting task for most people to dive into, which is also what’s really exciting.
How have you gotten around cashflow challenges?
Making a lot of mistakes very early on.
What is your relationship to fundraising vs. bootstrapping?
It depends on the project. I’m notoriously frugal, which everyone in my personal life can certainly attest to. But I really liked the idea of going through the first stage, bootstrapping it. And when I say first stage, I mean really validated the demand.
What are the top lessons you’ve learned?
I think first was always trust your gut. I think the biggest mistakes I’ve made, I’ve tried to do things to make other people happy and it’s always been a mistake every single time. So that is absolutely number one. And be humble. I think we all have egos out there and people should be proud of the work they’ve done, but there’s someone who’s going to have a different opinion and engage them. Right? I really seek out people that disagree with me and love to debate and I think that’s, for me at least, I think it’s a healthy way to go about doing it and we don’t always have to come to an agreement on it, but I’d love hearing a different perspective on it and I’ll often take a different perspective just to get the conversation going with people. I think that’s when you truly get innovative ideas coming out when you have that.
What is one piece of advice you’d leave with us?
I think one piece of advice could be a little dangerous and it’s truly ask yourself why you’re doing it… why are you doing this business? And if it doesn’t resonate with you with an incredible passion, then don’t do it. Life is too short.