Start with the conviction of your vision and then do the work to fill in the gaps.
7 min read
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After her father experienced a severe brain injury in 2005, Robin Gentry McGee was determined to save his life. Due to the severity of his condition, she and her family were advised to discontinue life support. In order to make peace with this, she had to know if there were any other options not being offered by his medical team.
Upon reading the can of feeding tube formula being offered to her father, Gentry McGee put her chef training to use and spent the next two months developing a feeding tube formula for him that contained only healthy ingredients and was tailored to his needs.
“I was fortunate to find a doctor who, in his words ‘knew nothing about what I was doing, but completely understood why I wanted to.’ He was willing to oversee the process,” Gentry McGee explained. Her father’s life was extended by three years, and she says his doctors tell her that her formula made the difference. Four years after her father’s passing, Functional Formularies was born.
First, Robin went back to school in 2007 to become a Certified Health Coach and to study the “food as medicine” model which she used in the product she created for her dad. Along the way, she began receiving requests, building up a small customers in the lead up to the first production run, which made a big difference early on.
“Although 20 customers may not sound like a lot, most all of this population uses my product for sole source nutrition, 24/7, 365 which translates to huge numbers,” McGee Gentry explained. “Most tube-fed adults use four to five pouches per day which translates to about $230,000 per year for 20 customers.”
When we met in 2011, three years after her father’s passing, McGee Gentry was still working to get her product to market.
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“There were 17 ingredients, all organic. It was hard to source the raw ingredient suppliers I needed early on, but once I finally did find them and share why I was using their ingredients, all of them were more than willing to help,” said McGee Gentry.
After launching her Liquid Hope product into market in 2013, Functional Formularies began to quickly grow, and Robin and her husband and business partner Brian spent every waking moment on the business.
“We didn’t stop. We knew the impact it was taking on our own health. During this time, I was diagnosed with insomnia tied to stress as well as a cervical herniation leading to a neck fusion. In 2017 it was clear we needed a break and we decided that we either needed to hire a new management team to replace ourselves or look for an exit,” McGee Gentry explained. “We found a company that wanted to purchase us, spent months in negotiations, and closed in November, 2018. We built the business from scratch, self-funded for nine years years, and sold it in a multi-million dollar deal.”
When asked how others can turn a passion project into an exit for tens of millions of dollars, McGee Gentry had the following four suggestions:
Make sure that your decisions are aligned with your vision.
When she was developing her product, McGee Gentry says it wasn’t difficult for her to find the right people to bring on board or the best strategies or tools to use because she was very clear about why she was creating her product.
“Our CFO referred to me as the psychic CEO,” she said. “I listened to my intuition — whether it was a method of advertising or hiring an employee, I listened to my gut. And my gut never let me down.”
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Develop a presales waiting list with your early supporters.
McGee Gentry received many emails asking her about the product for six years before it was on the market. When the first production run was finally scheduled after 8 years of research and development, Robin began with pre-orders.
“There is a risk if the production run goes south, but this was a really good way to pay for early production costs, she recalled. “Because we were able to get people excited far in advance, we fully pre-sold both our first two production runs and were able to self-fund through 2016.”
You can’t take “no” for an answer.
When someone tells you that you can’t do something, you just haven’t found the right person yet. Don’t beat yourself up. Just keep pressing forward until you feel you’ve come to the end of the path, but do not let the end of your path be because someone else does not believe in your idea. “Just because somebody tells you no, that’s their limitation. I felt that this product was my dad’s gift to the world, so I couldn’t walk away from it,” said McGee Gentry. “I never thought I’d get to market but I just knew I couldn’t stop until I turned over every rock.”
Though McGee Gentry had years of experience in the food industry working as a caterer and restaurateur, large scale food manufacturing required an entirely different approach and skillset.
“When I was faced with an issue that I truly felt would be the final straw for my business, someone would appear who had the exact information I needed to keep me moving forward. It was like this with manufacturing partners, suppliers, clinical trial partners, and more. They just showed up. And they kept showing up because I kept searching.”
Sell a product that works.
As Simon Sinek explained in his Ted Talk, people buy your Why, but they only remain loyal if you have a strong product that supports it. McGee Gentry is a big believer in this. “I would never create or sell a product that I wouldn’t consume myself. I was unwavering in my commitment to offering a quality product. The patients that clinical nutrition serve should be getting the best nutrition on the planet, not the worst. And that’s what continues to set the company apart.”
McGee Gentry says that her biggest success in her more than a decade long journey was not the money she made, but that she created a “new normal” in healthcare.
In 2015, Nestle, one of the leading manufacturers in the market, reformulated their formula to be competitive with Liquid Hope and another major competitor, Abbott Nutrition launched a real food formula in 2018.
“My mission was to change clinical nutrition worldwide. I accomplished that goal,” McGee Gentry said. “We completely pressed these huge companies to change by the groundswell Liquid Hope started, and in doing so, my passion project changed the world.”