How Ashley Thompson Of MUSH Went From Wall Street To Shark Tank And Changed Healthy Eating Along The Way

Food & Drink

Stuck in an unfulfilling job on Wall Street, Ashley Thompson was looking for something more. She found that inspiration in the most unlikely of places with ready to eat oats. Starting in farmer’s markets, Thompson started MUSH to make it easier for people to eat healthy – starting with breakfast. I sat down with Thompson to learn more about the early days of the brand, how they ended up appearing on Shark Tank, and the advice she gives to fellow entrepreneurs.

Dave Knox: What is the founding story of MUSH? 

Ashley Thompson: For those who have not heard of MUSH, we make plant based ready to eat oats with very simple whole food ingredients that give you clean and natural energy; like oatmeal but cooler that’s high in good fiber, protein, and is gluten-free. We don’t use any added sugar, artificial flavors or colors or preservatives to make the product. And they come in a variety of delicious flavors for all different occasions, particularly for breakfast, but you can also use it as a pre or post-workout refuel , or even as a snack or dessert at night. And MUSH was really born out of the belief that better outcomes in life begin with better food – starting at breakfast. There’s an undeniable scientific connection between what you eat and how you experience life, particularly how you feel, how you think and what you do. And so really we just try to eliminate the friction between people and healthy food choices by making food that’s nutrient dense, like oats, accessible from a price and distribution perspective and absolutely delicious. And this is really important to me because it is a huge part of a solution to what has now become a human health crisis, particularly in America. 32% of Americans are overweight and 38% are obese, which makes a collective 70% of us too heavy, and heart disease kills a quarter of us. And all of these issues were essentially non-existent until the 20th century, and so we’re here just trying to help people improve their overall wellbeing, especially at the start of the day with a great breakfast option. I’m a big believer in starting off on the right foot and the healthier we eat, the more we thrive. So it’s a great opportunity to help make the world a little bit better.

Knox: What was the personal inspiration behind you tackling this mission?

Thompson: Most decision-making processes are preceded by several catalysts, and my sister’s diagnosis with type one diabetes was one of many, but it was a strong one because I saw her suffer so greatly from something related to her body and nutrition and her body’s inability to process certain things like sugar. I also observed my family’s struggles with physical and mental health and the negative effects of poor diet and habits. And then I was working in an unfulfilling job coming out of college. Finally, just observing the obesity epidemic in America was another catalyst. Combined, those were all points which led me to starting MUSH. My strongest one was just my innate interest in health and wellness. I’m a firm believer that in order to be successful in life and the amount of time and energy and imagination you need to put into something to be successful, it has to be something of great interest to you. And so all of those things led me to start the business.

Knox: What led you to jump from Wall Street to the world of Consumer-Packaged Goods?

Thompson: After school I went into trading on Wall Street because I just didn’t even know where to start my career, but I did know that I would be able to make enough money in finance to hopefully start something of my own someday. Subconsciously that was always in the back of my mind, and when I got to Wall Street I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be for me in the long run. Again, back to that idea of having a strong interest in what you do, I had very little interest in the markets and I especially didn’t like the feeling of playing a zero sum game every single day. In finance, more often than not, someone else’s gains can be someone else’s losses. During the early days of my career, I was struck by the stark reality that even on Wall Street, it was really hard to access nutritious food. In an attempt to reconcile my strong beliefs with what I found to be unacceptable, I discovered a white space and quit my job to create a healthy, delicious and convenient food product inspired by my favorite hack as a kid: cereal and oatmeal soaked in milk. I just mustered up enough courage to take that first step and took a leap of faith and got started.

Knox: When you took that leap of faith, how did you decide the category that was most interesting to you?

Thompson: Well, overnight oats and cereal in general has played a really big role in my life. I ate a ton of cereal growing up. My family, we didn’t have really great means as a kid, and so cereal was pretty cheap, accessible, and super satiating. And so I ate a lot of cereal and oatmeal growing up. When I was working in finance, I was running a lot at the time and needed a lot of carbs to fuel my runs, so I turned to oats. And what I really liked about it was that oats are such an unsexy commodity, but they’re so cheap and so satiating. And so I thought, you know, these little mighty grains that can be really powerful, I think they can help transform what we eat in the morning, and I just kind of got hung up on it and sort of started obsessing over it and took it pretty far. I quit and I didn’t know where to start at all, so I just started making overnight oats in my kitchen. I moved to Southern California where there are a lot of farmer’s markets, and that was sort of the game plan in the beginning. I didn’t have a five- year business plan, it was a six-month business plan where I started making and selling overnight oats out of my kitchen and then at local farmers markets. And it was the best way to start, we got so much consumer feedback. The feedback loop was immediate and it really helped us develop a wonderful product in the long run.

Knox: When did Shark Tank come in your journey?

Thompson: Shark Tank came in about a year and a half into the journey. We finally reached retail shelves by then, and one of the producers found our product in LA and reached out and asked us to come on the show. We were really excited about the opportunity because one of the biggest barriers that we’ve needed to overcome in building this business is just awareness around the category. MUSH is really innovative because cold oats that are refrigerated and ready to eat had never existed, at least in a commercialized way. And so we wanted to educate the American population at large about this new category and this new product. And we thought Shark Tank is the perfect way to do that. We are so grateful for that opportunity, it was pivotal and just a wonderful experience. That’s when Mark Cuban invested, he really believed in the brand and that helped us build just a little more confidence and a little more conviction in the journey that we were on.

Knox: The brand started as “direct to consumer” the old-fashioned way with farmer’s markets and then you expanded to retail. As a growing brand, how have you thought about your retail strategy? 

Thompson: Direct to consumer for refrigerated products, that infrastructure in America, still isn’t quite there. And you see that sort of percolating, you know, FedEx and UPS don’t even have the infrastructure to deliver all of the dry goods necessarily and refrigeration is really tough to overcome. So as we’ve grown, we’ve leaned more so into our retail strategy because structurally it’s so sound and set up, and there’s a much more frictionless path to growth in retail. And I think people tend to forget that we are moving to a digital world, but it’s not digital yet. And so you can’t forget about the physical world. The physical world of retail is a lot more economical and environmentally friendly to be delivering products to stores in a lot of ways. We’ve leaned heavily into retail and that’s really paid off, especially as a lot of folks continue to experience logistic challenges and unit economic challenges with DTC.

I’ve been fortunate as well because all my investors have been previous operators and some of my larger investors have been operators within the food and beverage space. They have intimate knowledge with the difficulties of shipping direct to consumer versus the retail play. And they were so supportive of the strategic vision that we’ve had for the company over the last few years, which has really made all the difference. A lot of success in building a brand comes down to execution, and if you’re not aligned on the vision, especially with investors, it can be difficult. There is a lot of wasted time and energy. I have the right people around the table and the support I have received has been awesome.

Knox: How have you thought about the building the mission of mental health and obesity into the essence of what MUSH is?

Thompson: I think we build that in every day by just focusing maniacally on making this product as delicious as possible, as nutrient dense as possible and as accessible as possible from a price and distribution perspective. Because we know that fundamentally we will be able to combat the obesity epidemic with this amazing option. That’s really been the focus in the early days. Over the long term, as we continue to build the brand, which is a by-product of doing hard things well, we will be able to use the social equity that we build up through the trust and loyalty and credibility with consumers. And we can use that in ways like educating more consumers around what’s going on in America, as it relates to health and wellness, maybe even spearheading initiatives with other like-minded companies who are also helping to combat these issues, because there is such great strength in numbers. So right now it really is about the product and getting it out there. I’m a big believer that the more we grow with the product, the better off society will be as it relates to the obesity epidemic. And then longer term, we would love to do more and more as it relates to things outside of consumer packaged goods.

Knox: How have you thought about continuing to innovate and bring newness to the category that you helped create?

Thompson: I tend not to think about competitors too much because business really isn’t a zero sum game. I think “better for you” is only continuing to grow. So even if market share declined, we could still be in growth mode, and that’s really exciting. So I tend not to focus on competitors too much. And then in terms of innovation, MUSH is the very definition of innovation. Refrigerated, ready-to-eat oats have never been commercialized before. It’s one of the only spoonable breakfasts on the market made with simple ingredients, no added sugar, no dairy, and no additives.Quite frankly, we haven’t innovated a lot since the inception of MUSH. We innovated in a great way with the first product line, but since then, we’ve just had a maniacal focus on getting it off the ground. It’s taken a lot of time and energy to build a new category, but we continue to come out with new flavors that are great. Like we have Snickerdoodle, Pumpkin Pie, and Mixed Berry available and soon coming down the pipeline but, in general, we’ve just really focused on what we’re doing now. You must focus on things for an uncommonly long period of time in order to make them succeed. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Knox: In your early days of launching MUSH, you didn’t come from the food and beverage industry. What advantages do you think that gave you to look at this space differently?

Thompson: It was the best advantage. I like to talk about a beginner’s mindset versus an expert’s mindset. A beginner’s mindset thinks there’s endless possibilities to solve problems, whereas an expert’s mindset usually looks at things and sees it one way because of how deep they’ve gone. And so I think it made a world of a difference. In the beginning of our journey we went to the experts and wanted to collaborate with them on how to make this product, and they basically said we couldn’t do it the way that we wanted to. And I just didn’t believe them at all and kept searching and searching, and eventually landed on a solution that works. We have a really cool manufacturing process where we don’t use heat, we actually use pressure to pasteurize the product and extend its shelf life. And it’s never been done before, and I think the only way we got to that solution is because we had no experience in the industry and just didn’t think about all the ways in which it wouldn’t work, we just thought about all of the ways in which it would.

Knox: You mentioned that expert mindset versus the beginner mindset, as you talk to other entrepreneurs that see the success that you built and want to follow your path, what advice do you give to them in those early days?

Thompson: You know, as entrepreneurs, our job is to build something valuable and we build valuable things by pursuing worthy opportunities and making great decisions over a long period of time. And good decision-making requires good thinking and great perspective. And good thinking just requires time. I think people don’t realize that you actually have to sit down and think through things and it takes a lot more time, especially as things become more complex and bigger. So my advice is to really refine your perspective to be more in line with reality and leave time for good thinking so that you can make really good decisions.

And the other piece of advice that I love to give, and it’s probably, I think, the most important thing. It’s also really cliche, which is to follow your gut. And it’s really easy to say and hard to do because gut is such a funny thing. In society there are really common misconceptions about the gut. People think that gut and data do not go hand in hand, and we’re in a data obsessed world so we’re often sort of shunning people for listening to their gut, but gut is actually a compilation of thousands of data points collected through observation and experience. So from my point of view it’s a really powerful tool and entrepreneurs should use it more and more. They really do know what’s best, they know why they started their business. They know how it works, how it operates, where the opportunity is, and they should lean into to what they know versus rummaging through data sets all the time.

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