Tonic Health's very own Sunna van Kampen, was recently interviewed on the podcast Founders 365! Keep reading for the highlights from the episode, including Sunna's story and mission as founder, current industry obstacles and Tonic's strategy to overcome them, and some of the highs and lows of startup life. And see the links at the bottom of this post if you fancy listening to the full episode!
STEVEN (HOST): Welcome to Founders 365, really pleased to have you on here Sunna. It's Tonic Health’s one-year anniversary this year; for those that haven't heard of Tonic Health, can you give an overview of what you guys do?
SUNNA: Thanks, Steven. Tonic Health is the highest dose of vitamin on the market with a full clean label. I created it with the mission in mind to help people harness their natural power: the immune system. We all have this complex, wonderful kind of tool inside us that keeps us healthy throughout the year, prevents viruses and infections from taking hold, and helps us recover. But often we actually hinder it rather than help it. Things on the market for symptomatic relief often actually suppress the immune system. We're all about harnessing its power to aid recovery from common illnesses.
STEVEN: What I'm curious to know is what made you want to create the highest dose vitamin supplement on the market - a big bold, ballsy mission?
SUNNA: Interestingly, the idea actually came from when I was in banking and I was getting sick three or four times a winter. I was like, what is going on? Why am I getting ill? I thought I was healthy, I played a lot of sport, and considered myself young and invincible. That got me curious as to what I could do.
And so over the course of a year of experimenting, I came up with a plant-based formula with turmeric, ginger, etc. and found that if I took this drink three or four times a day, at the first sign of the cold, instead of having this a protracted five to seven-day illness, it would be gone within 2-3 days; my body would just fight it off without the illness getting severe – I wouldn’t need to take days off work or miss any social events. As soon as I discovered how powerful this formula was, I wanted to find a way to make it something other people could do too. So, I did a couple of years of R&D, reading the science and trying to understand the immune system and how it works, speaking to doctors, nutritionists, immunologists, and generally just finding out what goes on in the immune system.
STEVEN: Very interesting and clearly Tonic has been in the making for a while now! The vitamins and supplements industry is obviously quite a noisy market. How did you guys manage to get yourselves out there?
SUNNA: You’re absolutely right, it's a very noisy market. I think our biggest challenge in the market as a whole is the legislation of what you can and can't say. There is a plethora of vitamins on the market, providing a super low dose which has been scientifically proven to do no more than prevent vitamin deficiencies rather than having any effect on your health. But the consumer doesn't know that. And so that is one of the main things we're having to overcome. The way we're doing that is through retailer education; we're in close to 900 independent pharmacies already, so we’ve been speaking to pharmacists, showing them scientific studies and how we're different, so that they can recommend Tonic to customers. Often the pharmacist is your first point of information: if people come in with a cold that has been lingering for 7 to 10 days, what they need is something that will help their immune systems fight it off faster. And that’s where you need Tonic, the highest dose vitamin on the market, which will have the highest impact in that time of need, so if the pharmacists can advise people, it really helps raise awareness.
STEVEN: Why do you think there is still that gap in getting the knowledge from people like yourselves to that end consumer, without having to go via the pharmacy?
SUNNA: That's a good question. I mean, it isn’t something we're ever taught, right? Even doctors, they know a lot about medicines and how the body works, but they don't cover much on nutrition as I understand it. And there is also a lot of misleading press that muddies the waters with myths about vitamins and doses. It saddens me to see how the pandemic is playing out because the media create headlines, rather than education, and that is a fundamental problem with the health industry. People read the headline, maybe the first few paragraphs of an article, but they never really critically analyse the problem or on the science behind it. A lot of people think that with high doses of vitamins, all you’re doing is buying expensive pee and that you won’t absorb it. No one's actually looking into the data and how the body works; if you're ill you need a much higher amount of vitamins.
STEVEN: Really interesting stuff. In terms of your broader aim with Tonic Health, are you aiming to be a fixer or do you want people to adopt a healthier lifestyle with Tonic being part of that lifestyle?
SUNNA: In every box of Tonic that we send out, there are five steps to immune health: good sleep, good diet, regular exercise, minimising stress, and taking supplements. Immune health and health in general is 100% a lifestyle thing. But what the data shows is that the majority of people will wait until they have an issue, and then want to do something about it. And that's where Tonic comes in, being the highest dose so you can really deliver at that time of need. And at the same time, there are plenty of people out there that are prepared and want something they can just take daily for prevention. And we'll absolutely cater for those people as well in the future, I'm sure.
Steven: Obviously, this year there has been an increased awareness of health. Have you seen a change in the pattern of people wanting to adopt a healthier lifestyle or start putting more vitamins into their body to prevent illnesses and support the immune system?
SUNNA: Absolutely. I think it has been a macro trend for the last probably 20 years, and it comes down to the fact we are just becoming more educated. The science is evolving: 20 years ago, fat was bad, now, fat is good. And that's purely because we now have an understanding of how fat works in the body that we didn't have 20 years ago. So, there's that macro trend but then obviously a global pandemic has also come into play, which means it's been a crazy journey for us. What the pandemic has done is elevate the understanding about health and the importance of moving towards healthier lifestyles.
STEVEN: What can you tell me about the experience of a founder?
SUNNA: When you found your own company, you're putting yourself out there, what you believe in. Every time a consumer leaves a bad review, it personally touches you because you're like, why didn't they like my product? I think there's an emotional perspective which is difficult to understand until you actually launch something yourself. I thought I understood it because I've done startups before, but never in the way as I experienced with Tonic.
STEVEN: How do you make sure that you are being that best person that you can be, you're being the best founder that you can be, that you're showing up to make sure that Tonic Health is moving forward in that right direction? How do you make sure that you're at your peak?
SUNNA: It’s a funny journey. I've kind of learned the hard way this year. Up until September, I was working six days a week, there wasn't a day where I wasn't checking and answering emails. I kind of just lived and breathed the business.
STEVEN: The OG start-up journey.
SUNNA: Yes exactly. And thankfully, I've got a very understanding wife who understands the mission and the role and lets me do that. I thought the best way for me to show up for the business was to work as long and as hard as I possibly could. But then in August I just felt just generally a bit fatigued. Not a sports fatigue or lack of energy, but I just didn't have the same quality of ideas or enthusiasm for things because I was just tired and burnt out. So, I went on holiday to Croatia for five days in the beginning of September, because I needed that reset button to go sit on a beach for five days doing nothing, ignoring work, and allowing me to just come back refreshed. And I think just seeing that contrast already has been so important. You’ve really got to manage that kind of stress and have a balance. It's not about the number of hours, it's about how you show up: having that passion and enthusiasm and motivation to drive the business forward and motivate your team to do the same.
STEVEN: Again, it just comes back to that awareness side of things, doesn’t it? Now let's talk about the future of Tonic Health. It’s nearly your anniversary! What's next for you guys? What's next for the next couple years or this year coming?
SUNNA: We see ourselves as a brand that's really trying to harness the power of the immune system to tackle common illnesses. So obviously, we've started with cold and flu, but there's plenty of other things out there that need fixing: hay fever is a common problem people have, and they often taking a drug-based medicine which isn't always good for the body. There are more natural ways to help with hay fever. So that's definitely in the future trajectory, but our priority currently is to build our foothold in the UK, really establish an awareness so that consumers know that Tonic Health is there as a go-to option in place of Lemsip. As a year-old brand, we're still low awareness and got a lot to do on that, but we’re doing well in terms of building up our distribution with the likes of Holland and Barrett, Boots, Whole Foods, and pharmacies across the country. But beyond that and moving into 2021, the international market becomes an interesting thing for us. As we all know, cold and flu is ubiquitous across the world. And most markets have similar problems that we do in terms of dominance of medical and drug-based companies. So growing and going international and becoming the go-to in that space is 100% our goal.
STEVEN: I'm assuming going international brings a whole new logistical nightmare, though, in terms of every country probably having different laws to get into the market, which keeps your job exciting at least!
SUNNA: It does. I mean, the good thing about the EU, fingers crossed, is that if we get a good transitional deal it will kind of level the playing field, because the European Food Standard Authorities (EFSA) standardise most things. So, no problems for the rest of Europe, hopefully, but the US has a different model with the FDA. Usually, though, the EU rules are a bit more stringent than the US rules, so, whilst there'll be new things to learn, and paperwork and forms to complete, and rules to adhere to, hopefully getting FDA-approval will be an easier step than dealing with the EFSA.
STEVEN: I love that. One of my last questions for you is: over the last year, what's been one of the most memorable experiences that have happened for you, that you look back on now and actually makes you really proud of what you've created?
SUNNA: Back in March when we went into lockdown, we really wanted to get our message out there because the immune system was more present than ever in people’s minds. The real pinch-me moment, I remember it well, was my PR team saying, “Oh, there's a good chance we're going to get into the Telegraph.” And I said, “Okay, amazing, this will be great for our awareness.” And when I went to buy the Telegraph, literally on the front page, there was an article titled “Top Ways to look after your Immune System.” And Tonic Health was the third recommendation on this list of 13 things, with the first two being wash your hands and follow the NHS advice. I remember coming out of Sainsbury's just like a giddy little school kid at Christmas, just so excited—
STEVEN: With all the Telegraphs in your hand.
SUNNA: Literally, I bought nearly all of them.
STEVEN: Has to be done.
SUNNA: Yes, so that was a pretty special moment because we were expecting a mention maybe somewhere towards the back, but to be featured so prominently was out of this world for us.
STEVEN: I have no doubt that you're going to have more moments like that to come; maybe in a couple of years, I'll ask you that question again and we’ll see what the answer is. My final question is, how can people find out more about Tonic Health?
SUNNA: On our website we have subscription offers and an immunity hub containing close to 100 blogs now, where we try to help people understand the fascinating thing that is the immune system, because people just don't even understand how it works. So we're there trying to educate and spread the message.
STEVEN: Fantastic. I think you're doing a fantastic thing and I wish you all the best. I look forward to seeing further growth of Tonic Health and if I'm ever in Sainsbury's and I see you guys I'll make sure I take a photo and send it to you.
SUNNA: Awesome. Thank you, Steven. Appreciate it.