"I've had that experience working for a big company of being like, what goes on in that boardroom? And why does this group of people have so much power over my career and over my life and over this company? Why is it so secretive and why is it all men?"
This week we're joined by Alex Hanifin, co-founder of Alpine Start Foods and Women on Boards. Alex chats about being a young woman in big pitch meetings, how her team got Alpine Start off the ground, and what she's working on now to encourage diversity in the boardroom.
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Iris: Hey Lisa.
Lisa: Hey Iris.
Iris: Welcome back to another episode of your own podcast.
Lisa: Hey, welcome back to your own podcast too.
Iris: Oh, thanks.
Lisa: Outside by design.
Iris: Glad to be here.
Lisa: Mhmm. Today's a fun, fun day on the podcast.
Iris: Sure is. We have the amazing, the bubbly, the wonderful Alex Hanifin. And she is the co-founder of Alpine Start Coffee.
Lisa: She also is involved with an organization called Women on Boards that helps support equal representation and diversity in the boardroom.
Iris: Yeah. Alex has a lot of history in the food industry, as well as with entrepreneurship. So she talks about launching her own food company, how they have pivoted during COVID-19, how she preps for big meetings - going in there and pitching huge retailers to offer their products - and how she feels going into pitches as a very young woman.
Lisa: Yeah, I really enjoyed Alex's ability to talk about money and negotiation because those are topics I also enjoy and I don't think they get spoken about nearly enough. So that's kind of been my new mission on the podcast - you may have noticed lately - is talking to creatives about talking about money.
Iris: and women.
Lisa: And women. And just being a badass.
Iris: Hell yeah. Let's get into it.
Lisa: Well, Alex, thanks so much for being on our podcast this morning.
Alex: Thank you. I'm very excited.
Lisa: And the first question we ask everyone is where are you and what do you see?
Alex: Okay. I am in Boulder, Colorado at the moment, and I have a baby kitten on my lap at the moment. And that is my current view.
Alex: It's very cute.
Lisa: I grew up in Fort Collins, so I'm very familiar with Boulder.
Lisa: Yeah, how is spring in Boulder going?
Alex: You know, it's good. It was like a classic day yesterday where it was freezing cold in the morning and raining and some snow and like the foothills. And then now today it's like going to be 80 degrees and beautiful.
Lisa: Cool. So for our audience, and for me too, I would love to know how... how Alpine Start Foods came into your life and kind of your story around that.
Alex: Yeah. So I've been in the food world pretty much my whole life, all the way from just, you know, loving… just cooking and baking. And being in Boulder there was just a lot of organic and a lot of just farmer's markets and whatnot. So I think, like, that just really peaked my interest at a young age. And then as I got older, I also just loved business and just the community around it and collaborating and just the… you know, being creative with ideas. And so naturally food and business kind of were just in my blood with those two passions. And yeah.
So when I was 17, I started working for Justin's, which is the nut butter company, which is also in Boulder. And that was really what solidified my love for food and business. It was a startup at the time and I think there were like 10 people in the company and so, yeah, that was where I really sort of learned, you know, how you can take an idea and put it into the market.
So being able to learn from him sort of got me... got me on the trajectory of creating more products and more businesses. And yeah, and then I was lucky enough to build a pretty solid network in the food industry also in Boulder. We have a lot. We've got Rudy's, we've got Hain Celestial, we've got White Wave. We've got just a ton of food companies here. So having a great group of mentors also really helped me get where I needed to be with Alpine Start.
But yeah, so I met my business partner who is Matt Segal, in 2016 and he is a professional rock climber. So he was sort of in this outdoor industry, which was something that I… that experience is something that I didn't have. But I was also like, really intrigued by the outdoors, just because... also being a Boulder I've, you know, I think I learned how to ski before I learned how to walk. So I just had this huge love for the outdoor world and camping and whatnot. And so Matt actually was the one that brought the idea to me of saying like, “Hey, you know, like, there's a need for a really good instant coffee. You know, I'm backpacking all the time and traveling all the time, I’m on the big walls and, you know, I still want to have my coffee ritual in the morning, but I also don't want to have to like sacrifice for, you know, bad instant coffee.” And that was kind of where I was like, “Oh, interesting. Like that's a cool, cool idea of how to connect both the outdoor world and the food world and the business world.” And so him and I were really close. So I was like, you know what? This is a great idea. And I was in the big corporate world at this point, and I was ready to get out of that and go back to my entrepreneurial roots.
Lisa: Cool. Wow. So what, how has your role changed and shifted and what, like, how do you spend your time now?
Alex: Yeah. So Alpine Start was founded in 2017. So we've been in the market now for a couple of years, which has been really… it's exciting, but it's a roller coaster. There's so many ups and downs.
And especially... like, in the startup world, it's such an unknown. And for us, when we first started, we were really lucky. We got a national launch with REI and that was like, really exactly what we needed to get our business going. And so that was something that we could really, you know, use as our pillar and our North star to just drive our consumers to... REI was exactly what people were looking for. So we got lucky in that sense. And now that COVID happened, you know, REI shut down and that was our biggest retailer. So that's been a pretty big struggle, but on the other end of it, we were also in Whole Foods. And Whole Foods did not shut down. They had the opposite experience where they've been, you know, really going strong. And actually I was talking to Matt yesterday and Whole Foods really got behind us. Which was awesome. They, you know, said, “okay, we're going to get you more placements in the store. We're going to get you in end caps. We're going to get you at the register.” So, you know, so as one retailer, you know, just had to sort of close their doors because of COVID, the other retailer opened, you know, more of an opportunity. And so that was, that's kind of, to me, the like, ecosystem of this industry is, you know, we all are looking out for each other. And, you know, even though there is competition, of course, it's not like... I dunno, it's just still really supportive. So, yeah. So it's been like a really interesting role to watch all of this unfold the last couple months.
Lisa: Yeah. Wow. And so do you do most of these big sales like to get into the retail stores?
Alex: Yeah. So I've actually sort of stepped down. We actually have a new CEO, Mike Crouch, who has stepped in. Yeah. So the other thing about Alpine Start and just, like, business in general is I love doing the, like startup, the like zero to, you know, getting to scale. And that's like really where I thrive and I've done a few times.
And then once we kind of get past that point, I'm like, okay, somebody else has to like, you know, get it to the next level. So, yeah. So before that I really have been on like the ground. You know, I was going to big retailer meetings. I was at REI, Whole Foods, I've met with Walmart, you know, just kind of going to the big guys and... and yeah, just sort of having that, like, you know, founder vision to share with… with like retailers and consumers and, and just sharing our story.
Lisa: How cool. How cool. How do you… how do you mentally prepare for bigger meetings like that?
Alex: Yeah, that's a good question. It's definitely a thrill. And one of my favorite... it's definitely a favorite, but it's also one of those things where it takes practice.
So I think that there's a mental component where you just sort of have to be relaxed and you can't really over-prepare. Like, you definitely have to like have all your back pocket information of, okay, what are your sales? What are your numbers? What are your, you know, what, what questions are they going to ask and relative to their sets or their consumers. So you kind of have to know all that information. But honestly, every time I walk into a meeting and hand over, you know, a deck or something, they flip through it in like 30 seconds. And like my entire presentation is over. And so I've sort of just have gotten into the flow of just walking in and just being like, you know what, “I'm Alex, how's it going?” You know, sort of like throwing the presentation out the window. And I found that that is where I feel the most comfortable and less nervous. So I've definitely adjusted the mentality of having to be overly prepared and, and walking in now with just kind of more of like a chill vibe. And I often find that that works a little better.
Lisa: Right. Just kind of that ability to literally improv rather than have something really prepared, like a, like a speech or a deck. I think that's incredibly human and an easier way to…
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, but there is also the sense of like, okay, I did it, I walked out and we were like, are we going to get in? Are we not going to get in? You know, this could be like a million dollar account. So yeah, there's definitely like this, you know, sense of like, excitement, but also being like so nervous, ‘cause there's so much risk and so much on the line and you know, it's up to like one or two people to decide like the future of your business.
So. Yeah. So there's also the aftermath piece, which is oftentimes disappointing. ‘Cause you lose probably more than you win, which I'm sure you've heard a bunch of times as you interview entrepreneurs. But, yeah, I think that's the other piece is I've learned how to not be so hard on myself, especially when... you know, Walmart is a good example. I, you know, it was a journey to get there. First of all, they're out in Fayetteville and it's not an easy place to get to. They don't really have an airport super close and you have to drive and rent a car and often stay the night. And it's Walmart. So it's like kind of this big, you know, deal.
And that was a hard one for me, because we... it was that thrill of just like, okay, I'm really prepared. I've worked super hard on this presentation. And, you know, we, we got a yes to even come to their headquarters. So that was like a big deal. And then, you know, we didn't end up getting in Walmart and that was kind of one of those moments of just being like, Oh man, like this... like I have to just have to be psyched that I had that opportunity and, you know, learn from it and take it away. But yeah, that, that... there's definitely those like, you know, gut wrenching, you know, kind of punches that you get every once in a while that are a super bummer. But I think that's the best part about having business partners and an awesome team is, is you kind of like share that together and pick each other up. And, you know, some, sometimes one person's a little bit more down than the other. And it's kind of that balance of finding how you support each other when you, when you don't always win.
Lisa: Exactly. Yeah. And so what role do you have in kind of that brand voice of Alpine start? Because it's pretty hilarious.
Alex: So that's all Matt. That is a hundred percent Matt. He is a hilarious guy and Mikey too. So, so yeah, the team is Mike, Matt and Matt’s sister, Amy. That's the founding team and yeah, those guys are all hilarious. Like, if you come into our office for a day, it's just... yeah, you never know what you're going to get, but yeah, I've been super proud of those guys.
I'm watching them, you know, pivot the brand because yeah, when we first launched you know, I think we were a little conservative. We weren't really sure, you know, what our voice was. Because we were like, well, we're a food, we’re outdoor, we're coffee, we're... you know, sort of hitting like a lot of different marks.
But I think as we've gotten more comfortable. Matt specifically has really, you know, sort of like gotten more comfortable with pushing the boundaries. Yeah. So that's all Matt he's... he's a hilarious guy.
Lisa: Yeah. I think those Instagram posts of like, I don't... Yeah. They're very funny. It's a good personality without being over the top, you know, it's not cheesy.
Alex: Oh, good.
Lisa: Yeah. It was fun.
Alex: Oh good. Well, I'm glad you enjoyed that.
Lisa: I think they're really fun. Yeah. They're quite good. So it's... so for being only like a two and a half year old company, basically, it feels really established. What was your intentionality behind that?
Alex: Yeah. So I think like part of it was luck, like in a lot of ways, we were just lucky to be the first instant coffee to really push the limit. You know, since then there's been like a handful of other companies that have arrived, which is actually a good thing in a lot of ways. It just means that, that the industry is evolving and consumers are wanting a better instant coffee. But for us, you know, being the first ones to sort of push that limit was, was really lucky for us, the timing of it. And the second piece was REI and Whole Foods. Like I just have to always, like, I don't know. I feel like I owe both of them my first child there's something because they really like took a chance with us. And I mean, there was a lot of people who really take a chance with us, but those two particularly. You know, we were... I think when we went to REI, I think our product was still in a plastic bag. [laughs] And like, it wasn't even fully packaged yet. And yeah. Like, I think we just met them and they, and you know, they gave us a chance and, you know, once we had that yes from them, you know, that was really where I was like, Oh my God, like, let's go. Like, we are gonna just like, let's put, you know... the fire has started and let's just put whatever fuel we can on it.
And then we also got really lucky with finding some really, really great investment partners. So that was sort of... my first big role was, you know, not only establishing like, okay, we have to get the product and we have to find a manufacturer and like that whole piece, but I also had to go raise money. And I was 26 at the time. And I'm like a blonde bubbly person. And that was like, one of the more challenging, I think career developments I've ever had to like, figure out how to do. And so, yeah, we... we got really lucky, again, in finding the right investment partners who really believed in us. And I mean, I got shut down like a ton of times, you know, raising money. It's just really hard. It's just, again, like when you're in a startup position, you're like, I don't really have sales. I don't really have any traction to like prove, you know, you just have to trust me as this person that you're meeting kindof for the first time and our idea and, and whatnot. So luckily we... we found some partners that were awesome and some of them were, you know, mentors are people I've worked with in the past. And then with REI coming on board nationally and Whole Foods coming on board, too, those three were really like the… the three that we needed to get this business going. And after that, we sort of had enough leverage to then really bootstrap to the next level, and just, you know, market the best we could.
And, you know, with Matt, too, being really prominent in the outdoor industry, we also had a lot of great connections there too. That really helped us as well. So yeah, it was, it was cool to see how many people really, like, came together, whether they were friends or family, or just people who wanted to support, you know, a small little local company. They're the ones that really got us to the level where we're at.
Lisa: And what was that like being 26 year old blonde girl going in speaking to people about money.
Alex: You know, I look... it's actually, it's changed a lot over the last, you know, couple of years. But in those moments, there are only a few that I felt really like, “wow, that was like a total bummer.” Like I felt like I was asking money from my dad or something. It was really upsetting to me. I think I like, cried a lot. I definitely cried. I cried a lot. But it wasn't bad. It was just like, frustrating. It was just like, I didn't feel like I was being taken seriously. And I'm like, look, I have a business plan. I'm not like walking in here empty handed. So I think that was the part that was most frustrating is it was just like pure judgment.
But then... but then that changed and I got more confident and I learned how to talk their language, which was also a huge learning curve. And as that became more, you know, a little more natural, that was when I was like, okay, I got this.
And then I was getting, you know, at first I was getting checks for like $7,000 and then I was getting checks for like $250,000. And you know, we... we ended up raising a little over a million. And that was when I was like, “wow, that was like the coolest thing I think I've ever done.” So it was definitely like a 180 pivot. But yeah, there was a lot of tears and a lot of like self boosting.
And I also, it was hard cause I didn't have anyone that could really relate to what I was going through. Like all my friends and all my family were of course, like, so supportive, but there was like a piece where I was like, I just need... I don't know anybody else who's like going through this. And so that was a little challenging to sort of had to sort of self motivate in some ways. And yeah, to this day, it's still maybe like the coolest thing I think I've ever done.
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Lisa: You know, I can relate to Alex's struggle to kind of like learn by doing and make some mistakes and just put your foot in your mouth and feel like you're asking your dad for money or something. Like, I can relate to that. And just, I left OR crying the first time I ever went.
Lisa: I got offered a modeling job and I was like, I like, I'm trying to talk to you about my business, sir. I have a business, I'm a business woman. And he, you know, and then he was like, here's a modeling contract. And I was like, just so frustrated. Right? But I just kept showing up and realizing I can change how I present myself or I can stand taller or, have a new approach and just kind of like take accountability for how I show up and getting more comfortable holding my own in my own way in a boardroom, in a world that perhaps I'm not super familiar with until it becomes familiar. And then once something becomes familiar, you can put your own style on it.
Iris: Yeah. And that confidence just radiates off of you and creates so much power in the room and forces people to take you seriously.
Lisa: Yeah. Or else I'll pie you in the face. Remember that?
Iris: Yeah, I do. That wasn't because I wasn't taking you seriously!
Lisa: It's because you did something special.
Lisa: Anyway, [laughs] anyway, yeah. Thank you for saying that though. I think... I do think that it just like totally sucks and nothing toughens you more than just like, okay, so much humility and just like hearing rejection and just still knowing your worth through all that. And then realizing that it's not about you, it's about something being a good fit or not a good fit. And then that kind of takes that emotional aspect out of it. Although like, no one is superhuman, that shit still sucks when, when you hear like no on something that, you know, you could kill. But then again, it's all just perspective.
Lisa: Anyway, I appreciated Alex’s ability to just take it head on as far as talking about money and answering my questions and feeling really comfortable about who she is and how she shows up.
Iris: Let's get back to Alex.
Lisa: That's cool. Yeah. And I think it's really interesting to like evaluate your relationship to money, as a person, especially as a business owner and having a really healthy relationship with money and being able to talk about it and ask for it and view money as nourishment. You know?
Alex: Yeah. It’s a resource for sure.
Lisa: It is a resource and it's super powerful and it sounds like you have a really, like, healthy dynamic that you're proud of.
Alex: Yeah, that was definitely a pivot that I had to yeah, mentally change. Because like I said, it was, you know, I felt like I was asking money from like my dad. And that was like so disappointing. Cause I was like, “Oh please just like, please listen to me.” And so yeah, I definitely had to like, change that mindset of like, you know what it is, it's a resource. And you have to have money to grow a business and to get money, you have to ask for it and you have to be confident.
And so, yeah, I definitely... that was like one of the probably learning curves that I had to take for sure. But yeah, money is an interesting one.
Lisa: It is, it is. And I, I enjoy negotiations.
Lisa: Yeah. So for my creative agency, I do most of the sales and I enjoy it because I feel like negotiating is like, “okay, what are your needs? I hear your needs. These are my needs. How can we agree with them?” You know? And I just find it to be like a collaborative process that everybody wins.
Alex: Yes, it's true.
Alex: It is true.
Lisa: Yeah. So do you, are you still doing a lot on that financial front for the company now? Or are you focused more on employees or what, like where what's next for you?
Alex: Yeah. So as I mentioned, Mikey - he was actually our first hire back... I think we were like three months old at the time. And so since then Mikey has really stepped up and he's become the CEO. So he's actually the one that's really focused on like the finance piece of the business and raising money and taking it to the next level.
And, yeah, I've taken it more of a step back and really have just been more of like on the founder side and you know, I also just love the food industry. And so... and just being an entrepreneur, I've also kind of dabbled in a few other avenues. So besides Alpine Start, I've just, you know, I also was the board chair for Naturally Boulder for a handful of years.
And I've also launched a new nonprofit that's called Women On Boards and it's actually kind of stemmed maybe from my experience with raising money and also being in like in the big corporate world of... of just seeing like how uneven boardrooms are with… with diversity. Just in general, it doesn't even have to be men and women. It's just diversity. And so I partnered with a few other women who are bad-ass in the industry, Cheryl, who is the CEO over at REBBL. And she was at Clif bar. She was a CEO at Clif Bar for a while. And then Kara, who is a founder of VMG, which is one of the leading investment firms in the industry. So just a handful of awesome women.
And we all kinda got together and were like, you know what? Like, someone's gotta like say something and just like try to get more women in the boardroom in our industry. And so we launched Women On Boards, gosh, almost a year ago. And in the last six months, we've... we've started to announce a few companies that we are encouraging to bring women into their boardroom. And they've said yes. So that's been sort of a layer project that I've been working a lot on, just to kind of like, hopefully make a difference in our industry... and yeah, super important to me.
Lisa: Yeah, that's amazing. What does it, like, what does that look like? Are you... tell me more about that.
Alex: Yeah. So we we've just been starting to talk about it. So I'm not going to... we're still perfecting like, exactly like what this means. But yeah, so we basically went to… we, again, like coming from money, it's like, we realize that money is, is such a huge negotiator in any business, but specifically with the food world.
So we went to VCs and - which is venture capital and or private equity - and we said, “Hey, like in your portfolio of companies that you have, you know, would you be willing to work with us and put forward one or two companies every six months to put a woman on their board?” And we have a database of amazing women who are all eligible and want to grow their career and want to be on a board.
And we can hopefully match, you know, one on one together. So that was sort of how we're structuring it. So we have, you know, VC, venture capital and private equity firms that are backing us and supporting us and helping us find these companies. And then, you know, we're working directly then with the companies to match women that would, you know, that they're looking for in terms of, you know, to grow their board. And yeah, it's been like super cool to see... it's both like super cool and also like kind of mind boggling of how much work we still have to do in our industry to get... to get it to like that even split of diversity and women and men and, and, you know, whatnot. And so from that perspective, it's like really, really exciting for me. ‘Cause I'm like, Oh my gosh, we're like doing something like this is, this is where we need to be.
And then it's also cool to just see these like, I don't know. These partnerships happen and just movement come, especially with, you know, in light of everything that's going on right now with Black Lives Matter. You know, I think it just goes to show that you have to like speak up and you have to be uncomfortable and you have to have these conversations.
And, you know, and that's like where I think I'm at with this, is like, you know, the boardroom makes so many decisions. And I've had that experience working for a big companies of just being like what goes on in that boardroom and like, why does this group of people have so much power over my career and over my life and like over this company and like, why is it so secretive and why is it all men? And like, what is going on?
And so I was just had that like, feeling for over like 10 years, I think now. And so finally it's like, okay, like, let's like do something about it. And like, let's call these companies out and like, not just call them out, but like offer support and offer a resource. Because before, when we would ask, we would say, Hey, like, why don't you have any women on your board? Or why don't you have any diversity? Their answer nine out of 10 times was well like, “Oh, I don't know where to find anyone. All I know are, you know, men who are qualified or men who want to be on the boardroom” or whatever. And we're like, okay, well, we can fix that! Like, we have this awesome database now of, of like a ton of women who are all like insanely badass. And so we've now kind of like solved that problem in a way. And so now there's no excuse, which was, you know… and, and maybe it wasn't an excuse. Maybe it was like an actual problem. Like, it was hard to find. But to me it was like, okay, we can... we can find that solution real quick.
So yeah. So that's been... that's kind of where we are with it now, but yeah, we've definitely got a lot of cool media out of it and we're starting to really like make noise around it. So that yeah, we can kind of move the needle.
Lisa: That is so cool.
Alex: Yeah. It's pretty awesome. I love it. I get super giddy about it.
Lisa: Yeah. Wow. I love that. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think our audience of like marketing managers and brand managers would be interested in knowing?
Alex: Yeah. You know, I think, I think like the thing that I've learned the most, you know, especially in the last six months is just like how important it is to be able to pivot.
And you know, whether you're working for a big company, a small company, a medium sized company… you know, it's so important to be able to pivot. And not being tone deaf to like what's going on. And whether it's, you know, COVID and you know, this pandemic and, and, you know, sort of like all of this shift in lifestyle to, you know, wear masks and having to social distance and, and you know, that whole lifestyle changed - to now Black Lives Matter and watching this unfold and how important this is. And just like being a brand and having a voice is so powerful, but it has to be appropriate. And it has to be able to pivot. And I can't tell you how many times I've seen like advertisements or social posts or something that have just been so tone deaf because they're based on a content calendar or they like… I don't know, they haven't been able to have that flexibility to pivot. And I think that those times have passed and like being a brand and like, especially in the marketing world, we have to be able to shift in like a minutes notice, and just be able to be really relevant and honest and open and vulnerable and appropriate.
And so I think that that's been like, really interesting to me the last six months as a marketer. ‘Cause before it was like, you know, like working for a big company, you know, in agency world, we had all of our content and everything mapped out for almost a year to come. And there was like barely any way that that would change.
And so I think that now it's just been interesting because that doesn't really work anymore, like that strategy's gone. So, yeah. So I've just been like super interested with, with sort of that idea.
Lisa: Yeah, that's great advice. Cool. Well, thank you so much for being on our podcast today.
Alex: Yeah. Thanks for inviting me.
Lisa: And where can people follow you and follow along with your adventures?
Alex: Yeah, I mean, LinkedIn is always good. Or Instagram, both are... yeah, both are me and I, I'm not super posty on Instagram, but I definitely do post a lot on LinkedIn, that's like more business related. So.
Lisa: Cool, right on. Well, we will put a link to that in our show notes and again, yeah. Thanks for your time today.
Alex: Yeah. Thank you.
Iris: Thank you so much for being here, Alex. And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in this week. You can find Alex's links in the show notes, and while you're there, maybe take a second and leave us a review, that really helps us get shown to more people. Or you can share us with a friend that you think might like the Outside By Design podcast.
And you can find more info at wheeliecreative.com/podcast. And also our website is wheeliecreative.com. Hit us up on Instagram at @wheeliecreative if you have any suggestions for guests that we should have on the show in the future, we're always looking for fresh new voices to feature here. And other than that, we hope you have a wonderful, wonderful week.
Lisa: Party on.
Iris: Party on.