A Brand Built With Heart & Soul: Taking a Look Inside Justin’s

By Ethan Watters
Oct 29, 2019 9:35 AM ET
Article

“When you name your brand after yourself, you can never have a bad day,” said Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s, a company known for its naturally delicious nut butters and organic nut butter cups. “You've got to bring your best every day, which is inspiring and awesome, and also exhausting.”

Not having a bad day doesn’t seem to be much of a problem, at least on this day. The morning starts at 6:30 a.m. when he leads some out-of-town guests to the Centennial Trailhead in the foothills a mile from his home in Boulder, Colo. His constant companion, a short-haired blue canine named Mobi, is at his side. The hike starts at daybreak and is pretty much straight uphill. When the weather is good, Gold takes this route on a weekly basis. He usually runs it, but today, in deference to his panting visitors, he’s taking it easy.

After 20 minutes, as the sun begins to rise, two views appear. To the east, the skyscrapers of Denver begin to glint and sparkle. To the west, the ever-rising peaks of the Rocky Mountains fill the horizon. The early light turns the sky pink and the dry grass a brilliant gold. Each view is so breathtaking, it’s hard to decide which way to look. The location of the hike, on the border where civilization meets nature, is a useful metaphor for Gold’s passion for creating a food system that sustains a healthy balance between the two worlds.

Today the natural world seems to be smiling on Gold. Rounding a bend, he points out a herd of mule deer bucks about 50 yards up the trail. At the next turn, he stops and takes in a rainbow streaking across the sky. “Are his hikes always like this?” the visitors want to know. “No, I called in some favors,” he said.

He stops at a rocky outcropping. “This is one of the places I like to stop and meditate. I have a mantra, it’s simple and kind of silly. I say to myself, ‘I think I can, I know I can, I’m already doing it.’ It’s just about reinforcing a groundswell of creativity, productivity, execution and confidence. And it is really just showing gratitude in the moment.”

Back home an hour later, after making his family-famous kale smoothies for his two young children and wife, Gold sets off on the three-block walk to his office on Pearl Street, one of downtown Boulder’s main thoroughfares. The office is quintessential bohemian Boulder. Multiple dogs roam the office, and there’s not a tie or suit jacket in sight. Cold-brew coffee and kombucha are on tap.

Gold is the first to acknowledge and be grateful for his accomplishments. At only 41 years old, he oversees a business that he started, molded and nurtured, watching it rocket to success. He’s proud of his hard work, but also admits that he’s had more than his share of good luck. He also admits that there were times when the rocket engines looked like they were going to flame out and the whole enterprise would fall back to Earth.

Starting Up

Being a newbie to the food business, Gold had to withstand a withering series of rejections and technical roadblocks, particularly in the early days. Hearing him tell the story, it becomes clear that his success wasn’t simply about perseverance and not taking no for an answer. He approached every setback as a puzzle from which to learn.

The year after jars of Justin’s® nut butters had made the initial jump from the farmers market to Boulder-area grocery store shelves, Gold had a eureka moment while on a mountain-bike ride. He realized that athletes would love a lightweight, portable protein option in the form of single-serving squeeze packets of almond butter. He believed so strongly in the idea that he borrowed against everything he owned to buy the equipment to make the packets, then convinced a local grocery store to stock them alongside its energy bars and gel packs.

Gold was certain the new format would be a winner, but for a moment it looked as though the effort had been a colossal mistake. The buyer at the store called to tell him to come pick up the product; his squeeze packets just weren’t selling.

Gold was devastated, and as a last resort, he pleaded with the store to move his packets next to the jars of peanut and almond butter. Suddenly, Justin’s packets started to sell. Because of the context provided by the packets’ new location, customers didn’t have to try to figure out what purpose these unfamiliar little containers served. They got it. The inexpensive single servings also proved to be a great sample size. Once customers tried the small squeeze packs, they often came back to buy a whole jar.

Because he has his name on every one of his products, Gold has an intimate relationship with his brand. The naming was more accident than hubris. He started making his nut butters just for himself but found his hungry housemates were always helping themselves. So, he labeled his jars with his name to remind them to keep their hands off. It was when that tactic failed to work that he first realized he might have created a product for a wider market. One of his roommates even convinced his own father to be an early investor.

“I didn’t understand the value of a brand persona. You’re in control; you create the company that you want to go to work at, and then all of a sudden the company becomes an expression of who you are,” he said.

“There is a virtuous cycle, the brand becomes your idealized self, and that’s the blessing.”

But he didn’t do it alone. Gold has had many supporters and mentors. The town of Boulder itself played a key role in his story.

“I call it the Boulder trifecta,” he said. “One, Boulder has a high concentration of successful natural food companies with people who were willing to share best practices. Two, a community of residents that supports not only natural and organic, but local. And three, a vibrant angel investment network that was willing to take the risk with me. I feel like I had help the whole way.”

Giving Back

For all of this assistance, Gold knows that expressing gratitude is not nearly enough, so he spends a good deal of his time paying it forward. On this day, he helps a nonprofit reimagine school lunch offerings. Later, he devotes an hour to mentoring an intern from Rwanda who is working on a business plan to start a peanut butter business in her home country.

In the late afternoon, Gold drops by the Boulder farmers market, one of the first places he sold his nut butter 14 years ago. There he walks by a younger version of himself — a young man hawking samples of his own nut butter mixes. He stops to say hello and taste the product. He already knows the man. In fact, he has a meeting on the books for the next morning to give him some free advice.

While Gold has transitioned from the role of mentee to mentor, he knows he still has more to learn and more to achieve. That’s what made him most excited about his partnership with Hormel Foods, which began two years ago. That affiliation with Hormel Foods, Justin said, “gave us the opportunity to really benefit from its best-in-class food safety and operational systems.”

“At the end of the day, it all comes down to the consumer,” he said. “The consumer drives everything. If we don’t win in the marketplace, then everyone has the right to say, ‘Hey, look, what you’re doing isn’t working. The vision you guys have for the future of food just isn’t reality.’ But if people continue to support Justin’s and we continue to grow, then we can have a voice and credibility. That’s where real change can occur.”