ND Founders Profile #62: For this FouNDer, Transforming a High-Potential Category Takes Patience and a Little Inspiration from Mom

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Tj Stouder


Company Founded: HOLISTIK Wellness Year Graduated: 2008
Title: Founder and CEO Degree: B.A., Accounting and Finance
Location: Fanwood, NJ Residence Hall: Zahm

What drives an entrepreneur to succeed? Money? Fame? Prestige? A bigger house? A better car?

For TJ Stouder, CEO and co-founder of Holistik Wellness, his inspiration is...wait for it…his mother. Over the last three years, as the former P&G global brand manager has carefully crafted the brand of his company’s wellness product line, his mother is never far from his mind. He constantly challenges himself with a litany of questions to get the brand and the customer experience exactly right.

What can we do to get her to try our product?

Would she feel good about buying this product?

She wouldn’t want to go here to buy; but what about here?

It’s only natural Stouder would think this way. First, he’s very family oriented. He chose to attend the University of Notre Dame because it’s where his grandfather attended college. Both lived in Zahm Hall. Second, he launched his career as an internal auditor for one of the largest consumer products companies in the world, P&G, spending the first few years analyzing the company’s global business units. Third, he knows brands, having helped turn Europe’s top-selling brand of men’s fragrance, Hugo Boss, into the number one men’s brand in the world behind a United States relaunch. And finally, he has his mother’s best interests at heart.

Stouder explains. ”My mom had persistent health issues and despite everything she tried couldn’t get control of them. I encouraged her to try a hemp-derived CBD product. She thought I was crazy and refused.”

Stouder wasn’t suggesting CBD as a possible natural health remedy out of thin air. He has done extensive research on CBD—also known as cannabidiol—a chemical derived from the Cannabis Sativa plant, commonly referred to as marijuana or hemp. The plant has over 100 compounds, a number of which have demonstrated the potential for health benefits such as relieving pain and stress, reducing swelling, treating skin conditions, aiding digestion, and reducing the risk of obesity. The FDA has already approved one prescription drug Epidiolex for the treatment of specific forms of epilepsy.  What CBD doesn’t do is cause one to get “high” as it is a non-psychoactive component of hemp.

He persisted that his mother should try CBD and finally, she relented. Says Stouder, “It literally changed her life from the first drop of oil, and now has become the key part of her wellness routine, and something she’ll never leave home without.”

At the time, Stouder didn’t know he would go on to found a company whose flagship product line included CBD as a key ingredient. But after eight years with P&G and another year with Coty, which had acquired 41 of P&G’s top beauty brands in 2016, Stouder believed he had the experience in finance and brand-building to take on a new role, and now he had the motivation. Ultimately that role was founding HOLISTIK Wellness, with six other partners who believe in the power of CBD wellness, in 2017.

“The co-founders bring deep experience in consumer products, pharmaceuticals, finance and marketing. With my time at P&G, I’m the least experienced on my team, and fortunate to draw on the strengths and experiences of my founding partners to build this vision” Stouder says. “While we come from different backgrounds, we share a common mission to simplify the consumer journey to CBD wellness.”

At HOLISTIK Wellness, that means transforming a category known for tinctures and gummies sold at nondescript CBD shops, into a higher end product line where hemp extracts are blended with recognizable ingredients like lemon balm, chamomile, turmeric, and ginger to address specific everyday ailments such as sleep, stress, digestion, beauty, and recovery. Each product is packaged in a single-serve Stir STIK™ as standalones for promotions or in multipacks. The packaging is simple and elegant, in-line with what one would expect in the wellness aisles of top retailers like Whole Foods, Target and CVS.

The visual appeal is intentional, Stouder explains, as is messaging that explains the unique quality of the product—greenhouse grown hemp, trackable from seed to sale—and its status with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 legalized hemp on a federal level but preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds. While the FDA recognizes opportunities that cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds may offer, it has yet to formally categorize its use as a health supplement.

FDA clarification on ingestible CBD is something the HOLISTIK Wellness team has been anticipating for two years. When they raised a pre-revenue Series A with angel investors in 2020, the expectation was that they’d have a decision from the FDA at any time. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA has been laser-focused on vaccines and therapeutics, putting CBD on the backburner. Stouder and the HOLISTIK Wellness team are now raising a $2 million convertible bridge round with hopes of a decision from the FDA by summer and plans to scale rapidly in the United States, and internationally, focused on Latin America and the United Kingdom.

While there is no way to pinpoint the FDA’s timing, Stouder is confident that the category, and in turn, HOLISTIK Wellness is poised for growth. “We originally launched the product in a premium northeast grocery store chain in October 2019. We were their number one velocity brand in 2020,” Stouder reports.

Stouder has also relied on promotions as the early “path to purchase” to spark trials and gain consumer acceptance. It all starts with an everyday low priced $5 STIK, which makes trying a new product low risk. Consumers can also order trial packs with all five variants online to find favorites and before committing to a larger package. Throughout the pandemic, the need was obvious and HOLISTIK Wellness wanted to step up where they could, with targeted sampling drops for frontline healthcare employees to work-from-home parents who have been under tremendous pressure for the last 15 months.

“Consumers are hungry for new, healthier options to improve overall wellness naturally. That said, CBD is everywhere and it's nearly impossible to choose which one. Our goal is to take the trial barrier out so that every person can try their first STIK, from there we believe the product will speak for itself,” he says. “One product is already building a loyal fan base, Men’s Health Magazine recently named HOLISTIK sleep the “Top CBD Sleep Beverage of 2021.” Forbes has also featured the product line and its benefits.

Stouder is not surprised. “Stressful days and sleepless nights have been endless this past year and a lot of consumers have found comfort in our products. People chase me at conferences for samples and it truly warms my heart with each life we are able to touch.”

Meanwhile, the HOLISTIK Wellness team continues to work through the challenges posed by the FDA and the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused them to “right-size” their business expectations over the past year. “We were ready to hit the gas and everything paused. It’s been tough on the team to wait but the team stands firm in the mission,” he says.

The company continues to make progress. Stouder reports they are in discussions with a number of major retailers and also anticipate private label deals which could also explode sales. Longer-term goals may include additional formulations to help with everyday ailments to new form factors like topicals to build on the consumer experience.

Stouder admits that being a company founder is sometimes tiresome, but he continues to find inspiration in his mission, his mother and others like her. “We owe it to consumers to deliver the best product, the safest product, in a place she—and he—feels comfortable shopping.”

His advice to other entrepreneurs is to have a clear sense of purpose.  “Make sure you believe in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it because it’s going to be your life.”