making oatmeal deliciously convenient for everyone

Ashley Thompson is the Co-Founder and CEO of MUSH, healthy, ready-to-eat cold oats that are plant-based, gluten-free, dairy-free, wholesome and delicious. Ashley and her co-founder launched MUSH in 2015, with the conviction that easy, delicious, nutritious food can elevate the world in powerful ways. MUSH products are sold in stores around the country, and directly through their website.

It’s really difficult to message that your product is tasty. How do you do that? Get people to try it and talk about it. … We’ve leveraged influencers in that way as real proof points around how it tastes. … You can’t just tell people you taste good.

Ashley ThompsonCo-Founder and CEO of MUSH

Transcription

Katie Hankinson  (00:01):

Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson

Mickey cloud (00:02):

And I’m Mickey cloud.

Katie Hankinson  (00:03):

Welcome to building while flying a Saha group podcast, where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever-changing skies.

Mickey cloud (00:18):

Ashley, thank you so much for joining us on building offline.

Ashley Thompson (00:23):

Absolutely so excited to be here. Thank you.

Mickey cloud (00:26):

Yeah, of course. So Ashley Thompson is the co-founder and CEO of mush, uh, ready to eat cold snack brand made with clean ingredients. Uh, Ashley co-founder mush in 2015 after leaving a career as a trading analyst on wall street with the conviction that easy, delicious and nutritious food can elevate the world in powerful ways. So first off, Ashley, I, I will admit, I have never had overnight oats as a snack or as a breakfast food, or, uh, so can you give me the quick pitch on what it is and what I’m missing?

Ashley Thompson (00:54):

Yes, absolutely. Ready to oats. Um, super delicious. So we take whole rolled oats. We soak them in either almond or coconut milk with some sort of plant-based milk and we add fresh whole food ingredients to make different flavors. And it’s basically the most delicious, freshest way and most convenient way to eat oats at this point. Um, so they’re, they’re served cold and they’re portable like a yogurt. So, um, think of like oatmeal meats pudding, um, and that’s, that’s what mush is. Um, and yeah, just super clean, delicious whole food ingredients, um, that are portable and spoonable.

Mickey cloud (01:35):

Amazing. Um, so could you, all right, so it’s a direct consumer brand. You’re also selling out retail. I know you’ve got a, a couple different channels, um, curious kind of, if you could give maybe just an overview of the business and, and even a little bit of kind of a breakdown of where your revenue and sales are coming by kind of those different distribution channels.

Ashley Thompson (01:55):

Yeah, absolutely. So we’re actually predominantly, um, a retail business, so we’re highly focused on the, the retail channel. Um, we have a small direct to consumer presence, um, but mostly our, our digital commerce comes from third parties, like Instacart where you can, it’s an ordering essentially an ordering platform. And yeah. Um, and so yeah, we, we, our route to market has been really traditional for CPG. And the reason for that is we are our temperature state we’re cold, um, which makes direct to consumer shipping really expensive <laugh>, um, logistically a challenge. Um, and, and just for, for most consumer product goods, um, the biggest opportunity still is in retail. That’s where a large portion of, of sales are flowing through. So we figured why not? Um, why, why fight reality? Let’s just go with it. And, um, yeah, it’s, it’s worked out thus far.

Mickey cloud (02:54):

Awesome. And so what are your biggest kind of retail accounts and, and what, what has been your journey in kind of building out a more traditional retail, uh, kind of footprint?

Ashley Thompson (03:02):

Yeah. Uh, our, our bigger retail accounts are whole foods. Um, obviously the sort of leading, um, retailer in the natural food space. Um, and then we’ve got sprouts as well. And then a lot of the, the regional, um, conventional players, like Publix in the Southeast were Wegmans. Um, we’re also in Costco in a couple of regions, that’s been an amazing retail partnership, um, where folks can, can discover our product at a really great value, which is awesome, um, and align to, you know, the overall mission and purpose of what we’re doing. Um, and then as well, target. So, um, playing around in the mass channel, Target’s been a wonderful partner to us and we’re sold nationally across all of their regions.

Mickey cloud (03:53):

Awesome. And you just mentioned there that, you know, Costco has been helping to deliver on some of the mission that, that you guys established when you, when you started mush. And so I’d love for you to maybe dive into that mission mission and kind of the purpose of the, uh, what, what kind of gave you the reason to start the brand? Um, I know you’ve, you’ve, you know, in doing some of the research on, on the company, you know, you talk about kind of better outcomes start with better foods and, and I’d love to kind of, I think that’s a great line. I think it makes a lot of sense, but I’d love for you to just dive a couple, you know, uh, depth deeper on, on that front. Like where did that, uh, idea come from? And then how did you kind of identify an on the go oatmeal, putting snack breakfast food is kinda the first product to help kind of prove out that, that mission.

Ashley Thompson (04:38):

Yeah. So I’ll take a stab at the first. So, um, growing up, my sister, my older sister was diagnosed with type one diabetes at age 13. And that’s when I originally sort of discovered the idea that, you know, physical and mental are so interconnected, um, and that what we eat and how we feel afterward can really shape, um, different outcomes in life. Um, and so I, I sort of kicked off this lifelong journey of learning and understanding about nutrition and food and how it might impact, um, you know, the way we live and, and what we value and, um, and how, how we become happy, et cetera. Um, and then I also, I also observed, um, this huge public health crisis, um, taking place in America as a result of the foods and beverages that are on grocery store shelves. Um, you know, the, the food landscape has changed significantly in the last 50 years to incorporate a lot of highly processed foods.

Ashley Thompson (05:47):

And we’re seeing the effects of that. Um, you know, in, in modern society, a third of Americans either have diabetes or prediabetes. Um, fourth of us have heart disease. Um, and, and that’s basically the number one killer in America. Um, 40 million Americans have mobility issues as a result of, um, overweightness, et cetera. And so just this, this huge public health crisis, um, got me thinking about, you know, what, how, how can we reverse this? What can we do aside from, um, you know, changing healthcare, et cetera. And, uh, I thought, well, the best way we can tackle it is, is by offering better, healthier foods for, for folks. Um, and so, uh, when I, when I came up with the idea of mush, I was running a lot at the time and I needed really great clean energy and fuel yeah. To, to keep me going on those long runs, something that I could eat pre or post run, um, and, and something that I could eat daily consistently.

Ashley Thompson (06:54):

So something that wasn’t too expensive or out of budget and oatmeal was, was the, the choice, the number one choice for me, um, super satiating, very clean, um, heart healthy, uh, offers a lot of great energy, low glycemic index. So doesn’t spike the blood sugar that leads then to a crash. Um, and, and again, um, pretty, pretty, relatively inexpensive. Um, and I thought if we could, if we could make oatmeal really convenient and still keep it really affordable, but also make it delicious and maybe modernize it a bit. I think we’ve got a winning product here and that’s, uh, those thoughts are what shaped, uh, how mush came to be.

Mickey cloud (07:37):

And I mean, it’s it, the, the topic you bring up around the public health crisis and how it’s not just kind of consumer, uh, preference, right. That’s driving this, like there are forces and, and it, it’s interesting cause we worked with a client, um, that was bringing, uh, to market, um, a, a sugar alternative, um, that was using allulose and it was, it was all about kind of, um, you know, the fact that allulose is a more rare sugar and it, and it, but it, it behaves exactly like sugar, um, like common table sugar, but common table sugar is one of the things that is like driving kind of it’s used in all processed foods, how, like all the things you’re talking about, like can also come back to sugar in a lot of different ways, but, and there’s a, but what, as we were building out kind of the, the work with him, you know, we were learning about how, you know, it’s, it’s almost like our tastes have been conditioned to need that <laugh> as an American consumer.

Mickey cloud (08:30):

So it can’t all just be fixed by the consumer’s item. And then at the same time that highly processed sugar and, and, and, and the different ingredients that kind of contribute to some of these health issues are more profitable to mass scale and produce. Right. And so, you know, you said, you mentioned creating healthier alternatives that are both accessible, more affordable, but are also delicious and enticing to consumers. How, you know, I, I understand where oats can kind of play a little bit into that sweet spot, but is, um, I guess if you, how do you, how does that expand maybe even beyond, and how are you thinking about kind of what that might mean for a product roadmap, um, for, for, for mush?

Ashley Thompson (09:09):

Yeah, it’s a gr it’s a great question. I think, um, what you’re touching on is really important to, to understand and to take into account when you’re product developing, which is that consumers have been trained to like a certain taste. We grew up drinking apple juice from an early age. We grew up drinking glasses of milk, which have sugar content, um, to them and, and, um, the lactate, etcetera. So we grew up with a lot of things and that shapes our preferences these days. And so it’s about trying to make products that are incrementally better than what the, the current options out there that also play to our preferences so that they can actually be adopted in a mass way, if you know, a lot, I think where better for U C G misses the mark sometimes is that they sort of ignore taste preferences

Mickey cloud (10:04):

<laugh>.

Ashley Thompson (10:05):

And so we come up with a lot of amazing products that have so much merit, and, and if we just could adopt our taste buds that quickly, they would be so successful, but we can’t, and that doesn’t happen, but we still need to make progress. So what do we do with that? And I think it really is about understanding the current reality and trying to marry just a slightly better option to that reality. And that’s why you see our products they’re not free from sugar, right? Um, they’re, they’re all made with fruits that have sugar, natural sugar, um, natural sugars. Exactly. Um, and it’s in, in what amounts and, and from what types of fruits, um, is, is really what we focus on and what we care about. So one of the things we do for half of our product line, we use dates and dates are a lower glycemic, um, fruit. So they have really great sugar content to them. They they’re sweet. And so they play to the, the preferences of, of consumers. Um, but they have a lower glycemic index. So they don’t create that spike in blood sugar, which is really important for how you feel after you ingest them. Um, and I think is a better alternative to what you were describing before, like table sugar, which is just, you know, straight to the bloodstream, um, sugar spikes, et cetera. And we kinda called it down, down in everything.

Mickey cloud (11:28):

Yeah. We kinda called it like, it’s the, it’s the low hanging sugar, right? Like, like table sugar and cane sugar. It’s, it’s the low hanging fruit and it’s the higher hanging fruit that we need to be utilizing. Um, in order to kind have some of those healthier options that still give you that, that delicious taste or, or what, what consumer preferences, the reality you know of them are. Um,

Ashley Thompson (11:49):

Yeah, totally.

Mickey cloud (11:51):

I’d be curious from how that translates from a marketing perspective and, and how you educate consumers that, you know, this is yes, better for you, but also tastes really good. I mean, there’s a, there’s a couple different messages that you’re probably wanting to get across, but at the same time, we all know that like you’ve gotta hone in and, and be concise and you, and, and, and it can’t overwhelm people with messages. So I’m curious, kind of what have been the marketing channels that have been, uh, the most successful in kind of helping much grow.

Ashley Thompson (12:19):

Yeah. It’s interesting. We talk a lot about messaging and keeping it focused and what messaging, what messages resonate the most. I think we’re still actually in the early innings of, of learning this. And I think it, you know, if we can get this right, it’ll unlock a tremendous amount of value, um, for, for everyone, both the, the company and consumers. It’s interesting. Um, we, we’ve created a product that is actually quite unfamiliar, which is cold oatmeal. Like we don’t eat cold oats in America. It’s not a super familiar, um, yeah. Format of oatmeal. So a lot of our messaging is just around, like, what is it?

Mickey cloud (12:58):

<laugh>.

Ashley Thompson (13:00):

Yep. Um, so we focus a lot of time educating the consumer on what it is. Um, but then second to that, like, what is it made from? So I think, um, you know, consumers are really smart and perceptive and they understand that like real food ingredients usually translates to healthy or better for you. So there’s a big ingredient story that we focus on and rally behind. Um, all of our products are made with eight or less ingredients, all natural ingredients. Um, there’s absolutely like no natural flavors, no artificial flavors, no preservatives, no gums, no thickeners, et cetera. So we have, we just have such a strong point of differentiation in that, that signals to the consumer that we’re healthy. Yeah. Um, and then what other benefits, um, you know, might might they get from the product and actually, um, all of our, all of our products contain anywhere from five to, to eight grams of protein, which is sort of equivalent to a traditional yogurt. So, um, got it. You know, protein helps with satiation building muscle, et cetera. Um, and that’s also a message we focus on that I think is really resonating, uh, with consumers.

Mickey cloud (14:12):

That’s awesome. Um, and I’ve noticed in checking out kind of your, your website and your social and things like that, you know, you’ve, you’ve certainly leveraged, um, influencers in, in, in a variety of ways, whether it’s with vertical video across Instagram reels and TikTok or, and, and kind of, I mean, I, I remember there, there was one post of, uh, kind of an influencer showing off his fridge and it was a really comical kind of humorous, uh, uh, post. And, and, um, and so I guess I’m curious, like what has been, um, I’d be curious to learn how you manage that. Um, because I know like different early stage companies and growth, you know, ha have different ways of kind of working with influencers, whether you’re just sending them product, are you, you know, how are you engaging with them? How, how, how do you make sure that they’re a right fit for your brand? And so I’m curious, kind of how, um, influencers have been, have been, you know, what you’ve learned from kind of working with, with ones and when they’ve gone well and when they haven’t.

Ashley Thompson (15:02):

Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great, great question. And actually it touches on one other point around messaging and I’ll, I’ll get back to the original question, but it touches on a point about messaging, which is that it’s really difficult to message that your product is tasty <laugh>. And so how do you do that? Well, get people to try it and talk about whether or not it’s tasty, that’s the best way. And influencers, you know, naturally they have large platforms where they can authentically try the product and tell people how it tastes. So that’s we, so we’ve leveraged influencers in that way, um, as like real proof points, um, around how it tastes, um, it’s like saying

Mickey cloud (15:44):

Like you can’t, you can’t say that you’re cool. You have to have, like, you have to just be cool <laugh>

Ashley Thompson (15:50):

You just have to be cool. Well, you just have to taste good. Like you can’t just tell people you taste good. They they’ll know once they try it. It’s why it’s, it’s really tough to communicate, taste on packaging as well. It’s, it’s, it’s challenging. So, so we leverage influencers, um, for, for awareness and, and especially around taste. Um, and I think so we do this completely organically, I, which is really, really important. We seed a ton of influencers. We send them product either, um, solicit it or not. We’ll, we’ll send, we’ll send product and we’ll have them try it. And thankfully, I think because our product is so unique that has benefits and consequences. One of the benefits though, is that it is so unique <laugh> and because it’s so novel and new, and it tastes really good, a lot of influencers are just willing to post about it and share it because it is something new that they can bring to the table. It’s not that, you know, the 20th, you know, chip company or

Mickey cloud (16:47):

Right. Or bar or whatever. Yeah.

Ashley Thompson (16:49):

Sparkling water company or a bar company. Exactly. It’s something new. Um, it does taste really good. Sometimes it’s surprising to people that it tastes really good so that it adds even more incentive, um, to post about it. And that’s been working extremely well.

Mickey cloud (17:04):

Awesome. Awesome. How I’d love to know, uh, and this maybe takes it back a little bit in the brand’s story, but what were you were, you guys were on shark tank, and so I’m curious, kind of what were the biggest takeaways from that experience of being on, on the show and then what that actually played out for, for the business?

Ashley Thompson (17:21):

Yeah. Gosh, shark tank was such an amazing, um, such an amazing experience. I think first and foremost, it forced my co-founder and I to really step outside of our comfort zone and, and build some confidence and, and, um, you know, get a big win that helped, you know, launch us on, on the right path and in the right trajectory. Um, so that, that was awesome. We found a really wonderful business partner in mark Cuban. Um, he’s just been so supportive. Um, so flexible. So founder friendly, really, really, always willing to listen and, and offer advice from his perspective, which he has a lot of just simply because of the amount of experience he’s he’s had, um, under his belt. Um, I would say like it was after we aired, it was one of the most challenging times, I’m sure. In our, in the history of the company we received, I think something like 10,000 orders in the first two days after airing and we couldn’t direct

Mickey cloud (18:31):

From direct consumers from direct

Ashley Thompson (18:32):

Consumer. Yeah. Yeah. And we had never fulfilled a single order

Mickey cloud (18:37):

<laugh>

Ashley Thompson (18:38):

So you’re talking about a team of four or five people. We had full time at the time. Um, we had just launched the website and we get 10,000 direct to where we need to put a perishable product in a FedEx box and ship it nationwide. Um, and we, you know, our, our forecast was completely off. Um, we ran out of cups like a couple weeks into fulfilling these orders and we had to really pivot hard and it was a big, big undertaking. Um, a lot of lessons learned, ultimately we came out of it, you know, stronger than ever before. Um, but was a very, it was such a bright and, and amazing moment to air followed by like one of the worst sort of like three month stints of my life of just ruling pain, having to fulfill these orders and not having enough cups having to pivot it was, it was, uh, it was fun. <laugh>

Mickey cloud (19:38):

Do you, how often do you still connect with, uh, Mr. Cuban?

Ashley Thompson (19:43):

Yeah, we, we connect, um, it’s so funny. He’ll, I’ll email him. He answers me quicker than anyone <laugh>

Ashley Thompson (19:53):

Like any, any single human on the planet. He, he answers within a couple of minutes, like consistently every single time. Um, that’s, that’s our, our main form of communication and, um, and yeah, it’s been really wonderful. I, I, um, I’ve learned like how and when to tap him. And I think that’s, that’s worked incredibly well, like what I should bring to the table with him and, and maybe, you know, what I should leave for, for others. Um, but yeah, he’s, he’s phenomenal. Just like, so sound like such sound advice all the time consistently. I think that’s, that’s the piece that’s, um, admirable in him is like, you know, anyone can give good advice every, every now and again <laugh> but he does it like pretty consistently, which is, which

Mickey cloud (20:44):

Is cool. I think that’s an important part of having, I mean, it’s, it reminds me of kind of how my relationship with Gary has evolved, um, over the past 10 and a half years where, you know, there’s, it, it is, I really don’t reach out to him that often anymore, you know, and, and he gets plenty of updates on what’s going on with the Sasha group. Um, and, and, and there’s things that, you know, clients that we’re working on together and things like that. But, um, you kind of know over, over time, you get to know when, when is it all right, you’ve come to a crux, you know, a, a, a point in the road you’re like, all right. You know, who would actually have a really great perspective on this <laugh> and then, and then you go to ’em. So I, I love that. Um, so what, where, where is growth coming from next for, for mush? What is what’s on the roadmap of, of where you see kind of the next opportunities? You talked a little bit about the, the growth and the retail channels are dabbling in mass with target, but where, what what’s, what’s kind of next step from a growth perspective for you guys?

Ashley Thompson (21:36):

Yeah. It’s it funny enough? The greatest opportunity for growth right now is, is focusing on the core, the core product line. We just still have so much, uh, so much runway, um, both from a distribution perspective, um, from a household penetration perspective. So, um, in an environment, especially in this environment where, um, you know, it’s a really choppy supply chain environment. Yep. Um, inflation focusing on yeah. Inflation, et cetera, focusing on scaling the core, I think will, will yield the most fruitful results. And, and we’re excited by that. I mean, um, you know, it hasn’t gotten old yet. Like when we see people discover the products for the first time and see how it may or may not change their lives, it’s, it’s really fun. It’s such a unique opportunity. Um, so we’re gonna continue to focus on expanding distribution, um, getting more flavors in the same doors that we’re currently in, um, and driving a lot of awareness and, and trial. Um, you know, we’ve, we have 0.7% household penetration right now. <laugh> like the, the smallest amount. Right. Um, and so just a lot of, a lot of opportunity there for, for growth.

Mickey cloud (22:52):

Amazing. Awesome. Well, uh, last question here. We always talk, we call this podcast building while flying, cuz you know, it’s important to keep calm under pressure, uh, when you’re in, when you’re driving, uh, towards opportunities. And, and so I’m curious when you’ve got your back against wall, you’re faced with a tough decision for your business. What’s that kind of internal pilot checklist that you’re, that you utilize, that you rely on to kind of, uh, help you get through it.

Ashley Thompson (23:16):

I love this question. Um, I think it’s such an important one forces like reflection, which is always great. You can always learn a lot from trying to make sense of how you do things. <laugh> um, I think the first thing I do is slow down. Um, like if I need to make a really important decision, like whether I have, uh, 10 minutes or 10 hours or 10 days, I try to slow the time down by really, um, you know, shutting out external voices, um, you know, understanding the situation at hand, um, and, and really try not to let the pace of life dictate anything so much as like, let my own internal compass dictate what’s going on. And then I think a lot about like for, for different decisions, there are different decision making frameworks. And so I, you know, I have several, um, that I like to think about and I, I, I try to, um, I try to think about which decision making framework applies best to the decision at hand.

Ashley Thompson (24:24):

Um, and then I apply that framework to it with a lot of rigor. And then finally, um, you know, sanity check the, the answer that I’ve come up with, um, with really credible people who, who may have new or different perspective to offer, um, that might add something to the decision that I may have not, um, necessarily, um, considered on my own. So that’s sort of, that’s sort of what I do. Um, though I bet the process of making decisions like there’s, it’s iterative and I think it changes over time, especially as we, um, grow and experience and expertise. Um, sometimes you can rely a lot more on gut, et cetera, so it changes.

Mickey cloud (25:09):

Awesome. Awesome. Well, Ashley, thanks so much for sharing today with our, uh, with our audience and excited to see you guys keep scaling that core.

Ashley Thompson (25:17):

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me really appreciate it.

Mickey cloud (25:21):

Yeah. Talk soon.

Ashley Thompson (25:22):

Thanks.

Katie Hankinson  (25:25):

Thanks for joining us for building while flying today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.

Mickey cloud (25:37):

If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times tune into the next episode. And if you’re so kind, please rate and review us, plus we’d love feedback. So let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on building while flying across brands, businesses, marketing, and more

Katie Hankinson  (25:51):

Original music by Fulton street music group at group.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

 

the start of MUSH and the lifelong journey of nutrition

Ashley Thompson is the Co-Founder and CEO of MUSH, healthy, ready-to-eat cold oats that are plant-based, gluten-free, dairy-free, wholesome and delicious. Ashley and her co-founder launched MUSH in 2015, with the conviction that easy, delicious, nutritious food can elevate the world in powerful ways. MUSH products are sold in stores around the country, and directly through their website. 

 

In her conversation with Mickey Cloud, Ashley shares how MUSH got started and what inspired her lifelong journey of nutrition. She also discusses their split between retail and DTC, how they partner with influencers, and how an appearance on a popular TV show changed their business.

In-flight topics:

  • Choosing retail over DTC
  • Solving health issues with food
  • Finding the right messaging for consumers
  • Leveraging influencers in marketing
  • Learning experiences from Shark Tank
  • Navigating relationships with mentors and investors
  • Opportunities for growth

Links | Connect with Ashley:

New York, NY
Chattanooga, TN
Los Angeles, CA