Before starting Genexa, David Johnson and Max Speilberg were two dads who wanted healthier medicines for their kids. But when searching the aisles at grocery stores, the pair came face-to-face with medicines packed with unhealthy or unnecessary inactive ingredients — like artificial food dyes or propylene glycol, the poisonous ingredients in antifreeze.
“We didn’t understand why the [medicine] on the shelves was all pink, blue or green and had unpronounceable ingredients,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Spielberg, who have backgrounds in food science and FDA law, respectively, adopted a novel aim: Make medicine clean. To Genexa’s founders, this meant keeping all the active ingredients people need but getting rid of the artificial ones they don’t.
“We wanted to take out the artificial inactive ingredients,” said Johnson, calling out items like artificial flavors, preservatives and common allergens, “to make medicines that are cleaner and better for you.”
Accepting the role of David in an industry dominated by Goliaths, the duo spent years on upfront research and development before, in 2017, launching Genexa at a handful of local retailers. Today, the company’s products are available in over 45,000 stores worldwide, including Walmart, CVS, GNC, Whole Foods, Kroger and Target.
On the way, Genexa’s founders learned much about how to succeed as entrepreneurs.
👉 Watch our “10 Questions With” Johnson below, then continue reading for four pieces of advice from his experience growing Genexa.
1. Expect setbacks.
When you set out to innovate an industry, there are bound to be some hurdles. That was certainly true for Genexa’s founders in their quest to create organic, non-GMO medicine.
“Having no clue what we were getting into allowed us to start something we would have backed away from if we knew how difficult it was going to be,” Johnson said.
The first problem was finding a manufacturer willing to work through the company’s R&D phases when it lacked substantial capital.
“We had to fly around the country and beg manufacturers to work with us,” Johnson said.
When Genexa ultimately landed a manufacturing partner in Anaheim, California, its R&D team tried six unsuccessful formulas before finally getting its first medicine right.
Another hurdle came in convincing retailers to carry the product. Unsure where to start, the founders pitched the product in-person to natural food retailers around Los Angeles, eventually securing their first accounts. From there, they headed to Expo West, one of the largest natural products trade shows in the country. They didn’t have enough money for a booth, so they attended the conference and aggressively worked on setting up meetings with chief merchandising officers from large, target retail accounts. It was at that show that Johnson and Spielberg met with a merchandising contact at GNC, which would become the group’s first national account.
During difficult moments, reconnecting to the company mission helped the entrepreneurs push forward.
“In a growth company, you’ll face a lot of ups and downs,” Johnson said. “Be passionate, and love what you do.”
2. Mind the mission.
Having a clear mission — putting people first and making clean medicines to support the whole family — further helps Genexa’s team stay motivated, Johnson said.
The mission also influences critical business decisions. For example, Genexa pursues its people-first initiative by selecting partners for product development, material sourcing and manufacturing that meet USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project standards. Genexa is also a B Corp, “a strong certification that helps keep us aligned with our values,” Johnson said. Finally, the sustainable packaging and shipping material that Genexa uses meets standards from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and earned USDA Certified Biobased product labels.
A clear company mission also encourages decisions that benefit a larger group of stakeholders, keeps decisions aligned with the values of Genexa’s target demographic and gives the brand accountability as it grows, Johnson added.
3. Prioritize your team.
“To excel at something that’s never been done before, you need to find the individuals that will be by your side,” Johnson said.
Early on, Genexa’s founders amassed a medical advisory board whose members had backgrounds in Western and Eastern medicine, nutrition, cardiology, functional medicine, healthcare management and more. These experts, along with experienced manufacturing partners, were instrumental in Genexa’s early success as it developed its brand and products. Equally important were, and still are, the employees who work every day in support of Genexa’s mission — they’re the company’s “most important asset,” according to Johnson.
👉 Learn how to form a board of directors as an entrepreneur seeking venture capital.
4. Hit the right technology mix.
Initially, Genexa relied on a broad mix of disconnected software to manage finance, distribution, sales and customer service. However, as the brand expanded, accessing and sharing data across those systems became imperative to reaching the next stage of growth.
In particular, Genexa struggled to manage a growing number of SKUs across thousands of stores and ecommerce channels. After analyzing several leading enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, Genexa chose to unify its operations on NetSuite ERP.
“NetSuite gave us everything we needed from a [financial] reporting perspective, but it served other needs too,” said Arjun Singh, director of finance.
NetSuite’s manufacturing functionality allows Genexa to track products by lot numbers that it assigns to various retailers, which is crucial to effective order fulfillment and account management. Lot tracking is doubly important in the pharmaceutical space because it establishes health and safety controls around counterfeit products and recalls, Johnson said.
Additionally, the software simplifies Genexa’s ecommerce operations, routing orders from third-party sales channels like Amazon directly to the company’s fulfillment center. Finally, NetSuite’s demand planning tool helps the operations team optimize inventory levels.
The future is clean
Over the past three years, Genexa’s clean medicines have gained a substantial plot of real estate in the medicine aisles of major retail chains. But according to Johnson, this progress is only the start of “the clean medicine revolution.”
By increasing awareness of the advantages of clean medicine, he said, Genexa is hopeful it can drive demand that will put pressure on larger pharmaceutical companies.
“The mindset is that we’re going to create the top medicine in every category across pediatric and adult, making 50% of the industry clean over the next 3-5 years,” Johnson said. “We’re here to make a difference in the industry and get some of the bigger [brands] to reformulate.”