Author's note: While I have no strict product preferences or relationship with any kombucha brand, I do drink the stuff. A martini glass adds a bit of flair.
George Thomas Dave, known as GT, is the billionaire founder of GT's Living Foods, the first company to bring commercial kombucha to the shelves in the U.S. He began research for the company after receiving his GED, experimenting with recipes in his mother's kitchen. Today, he is known for his extraordinarily executed, bootstrapped growth as well as sticking to his values to maintain the integrity of his homemade recipe. He also owns 40 percent of the US market. So, it's curious that the leader of this multi-billion-dollar industry would make a few rather unsavory remarks about his top competitors, including Health-Ade, in this recent Forbes article written by staff writer, Chloe Sorvino.
In the interview, Dave referred to Health-Ade's kombucha products as basic and bastardized, the founders as hipsters, and packaging as medicinal-looking. "If your claim to fame is that you're in amber bottles, or you're three cool hipsters behind this product, and that's it? Your days are numbered, in my opinion," said Dave.
When Health-Ade co-founder and CEO, Daina Trout, first read her competitor's disparaging statements about her product, she took to her keyboard to write that email--the one that is always best unsent.
One of only two female CEOs out of over 350 Kombucha brands, Trout opted to take the high road in her public response on LinkedIn, advising entrepreneurs to see the upside of public criticism and bullying. "The trick is this," she wrote. "When you receive negativity, turn it into fuel. Competition might make you cringe but use that energy to flex up. After all, diversity in any industry is not only a win for consumers, it's a sign of a category with staying power." Dave did respond to the post; however, the communication was subsequently removed.
This is not the first time that Trout has been bullied in her career. "There are so many times that people in a position of power or people whom I respect have threatened or insulted me. I've practically become a master at transforming a story, so it suits me better," she says. At one point she dyed her hair blue because a powerhouse male in the beverage industry told her, "You can't be a strong CEO, a woman, AND have blue hair." Trout knew she had a choice to either hold on to that negative statement or find a unique way of embracing it. Or, as she puts it, "You bet your ass I dyed my hair blue!"
What is Trout's approach to combating criticism? "Control your response and remember that knee jerk responses don't serve anyone well," she says. In this case Trout took a step back to consider other interpretations of why Dave's public (and incorrect) criticism about her brand came to be. "What I came to realize is that it may be the result of him feeling threatened by Health-Ade's success," she says. "That is, oddly, a compliment from which I drew positive and powerful sentiments. Just like that, emotions turned from perplexed and resentful to motivated and proud."
Eventually, successful businesses will face condemnation in one form or another. Trout says it's not all bad since it could lead to entrepreneurial lessons learned. Sometimes, you just have to look in the mirror and ask if the criticism true, as Trout did in one case when an error in a Health-Ade social media post called out by a competitor. You never know when you may discover just a grain of truth that leads to a correction or even the transformation of your brand. If this happens to you, Trout's advice is to remember that great leaders have the opportunity to make a real change in the world and in people's lives. "If you want to be one of those, you have to behave in a way you'd want your employees to behave and in a manner that you'd want your consumers to see."
"No matter what, you gotta handle threats and jabs like a champion boxer in the ring," Trout says. "Don't let it knock you down! And always shake hands at the end. I'm a big fan of good healthy competition."
With reference to the comments on Health-Ade and yet another brand, Kevita, below is Dave's response to BevNET's inquiry about his statements. You can read more here.
"I am so conscientious and cognizant of making sure that I never ever speak disparagingly about another brand, whether it's kombucha or another category," he said. However, he later added: "In the article, there were inadvertent quotes that reference other brands, that was not something that was intended. If that could be done all over again, I would ask for that to have been excluded [from the story]."