Meet The Disruptors: Martin Williams Of Above Food On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Don’t attempt to run a marathon like a sprint — Creating disruptive companies is a long journey, if you burn up all of your energy, all of your resources too quickly, the work becomes REALLY difficult. Set a really strong pace, train to improve that pace every day, but make sure it is one you would be happy running for years.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Williams.

Martin Williams has more than 20 years of experience in CPG, specifically in Innovation, Marketing, Operations, and Product Development. He spent 12 years advising Fortune 500 CPG companies on Innovation and go-to-market strategy, bringing a high-level expert opinion to various businesses looking to scale. Williams’ own love for biohacking and the plant-based industry fuels his goals to make Above Food the best plant-based protein company in the business, serving the B2C side as the leader in innovation. He brings his passion for and expertise in the wellness sector to the table for Above Food as he looks to bring the CPG products to the U.S. for all consumers to enjoy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve been obsessed with the healing power of food for over 30 years. Like many obsessions that drive us, mine had a catalyst that ignited the proverbial wick.

As a 13 yr old my mother became bedridden with a severe form of Epstein Barr Virus, only able to get up to use the bathroom with assistance. No conventional medical intervention made any difference, despite doing everything we were told by doctors for over 6 months. We were introduced to a Naturopath who was also a Holistic Nutritionist, and through transforming my mother’s diet, and subsequently all of our family’s diet, to one with no processed foods, no dairy, no red meat, no gluten, or sugar….my mother went from barely able to get out of bed one day, being markedly better and out of bed within a week. I realize correlation is not causality, but imagine the profound impact this experience would have had on you if you’d witnessed it in your formative years.

Since then, I’ve worked in and around food in one way, shape, or form. Despite a few sojourns out of food, I always find my way back to this passion. My personal mission is to make food better and to make better food.

Which is exactly what we’re doing at Above Food.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Above Food is a company I’ve co-founded, and we have created North America’s first completely vertically integrated plant-based food company, of scale. We call this complete vertical integration our Seed-to-Fork Platform.

This is particularly disruptive because conventional business and operating models for food companies say you have to play in one, maybe two of three distinct business segments: Agricultural Production, Ingredient Creation, Consumer Packaged Goods (aka branded consumer products). We believe that by being a scaled player in all three, we deliver a better set of products to all of our customers and consumers.

To give you a tangible example, imagine being able to contract grow 72,000 tons of the best Oats, based on our seeds, that are grown under our tightly defined protocols, that ensure they are produced regeneratively, and that they follow stringent gluten-free standards. We take ownership of those oats at the farm(s). We then Groat them ourselves (a fancy way of saying taking the outer husk off), we mill them into flour in some cases, and in others, we use our proprietary Sonic Milling(™) technology to transform them into the Liquid Oat Base, which used in all Oat Milks, oat ice creams, oat yogurts, etc. We then have several of our own consumer brands like Cultured and Eat Up! that will use these oat ingredients as the basis of their differentiated food formulations.

This complete control of our value and supply chain enables us to have a greater influence on how these foods are cultivated, transported, processed, formulated, priced, and sold. Through this, we are able to drive down unit economics in order to be more price-competitive with meat & dairy-based products, provide unparalleled traceability to our customers and consumers, and be able to quantify our environmental impact (regenerative farming practices sequester a tremendous amount of carbon).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Not sure it’s all that funny, but it certainly is common, and somewhat ironic in hindsight. Sometimes a thing you just accept as a fact that everyone knows can be the exact opposite, it can be a big ‘AHA’ and something that can blow people’s minds once they learn it.

We took for granted that everyone knew the best plant proteins are grown in the higher latitudes of the Northern Plains and Prairies of Canada, so we wouldn’t really talk too much about the fact that this is where all of our proteins are grown for us. We’d mention it in passing but it wasn’t a focus of a pitch per se.

Then in one particular meeting, we had an investor stop us as we were mentioning this in passing, and say, “DO YOU KNOW HOW IMPORTANT THAT IS? That may be the most genius thing about what you’ve done, you have a unique geographic competitive advantage, that others cannot duplicate”.

Needless to say, we talk about that advantage ALOT now.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My wife, and my kids. They are the teachers that I learn from every day. They call me out, they demand that I continue to grow and evolve, and their happiness and wellbeing are the only fuel I need.

That said, I would be remiss not to mention one person in particular that gave me a chance, believed in me, and was super instrumental in helping me push beyond my self-imposed limitations throughout my career.

An early mentor, who became a dear friend, Rony Zibara hired me when I was still doing my undergrad, to work with him as a design assistant, and innovation consultant for his company’s food clients. I had ZERO experience, like less than zero, and he saw something in me. He gave me an opportunity, and when I would succeed, he would give me increasingly more complex assignments. He had a belief in me early that I was really capable, and just wouldn’t allow me to doubt myself.

He introduced me to the idea of obsessing about the ‘consumer’ and really leveraging empathy and curiosity to create solutions from deep consumer insight.

He also illustrated through his own work and behaviour that one could be equal parts commercial and creative, which are both critical to being an entrepreneur. Invent the product one day, define the best route to market and pricing strategy the next…..he showed me that these were just two sides of the same coin.

Years after this first experience Rony convinced me to move my family down to NYC as he had become a partner in an award-winning innovation consultancy, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He put his reputation on the line for me, worked closely with me to accelerate my skills, made sure I was getting access to increasingly demanding work, and I like to think I repaid that kindness by delivering day in and day out.

I also believe I’m honouring that faith he had in me by paying it forward by taking chances on people that might not have the educational background, or conventional experience, but have grit, curiosity, a high degree of adaptability, and think unexpected things.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Being disruptive is really hard, you are often educating customers and consumers as to why your new ‘thing’ is better than the old thing. The more disruptive, the more convincing people need.

If you want to be a challenger, or a disruptor, be VERY deliberate in why, where, when, and how you are being disruptive. This requires a great degree of insight and perspective about what works in your industry/market, and what needs material improvement.

If you are only disrupting a product category with new attributes/benefits, without rethinking the underlying business model or value chain, it is likely your ‘disruptive differentiator’ will be copied, especially if you’re successful. That is why we made the deliberate decision to start with building our seed-to-fork platform, then building brands with attributes that take advantage of our platform.

If you are able to facilitate disruption by fully rethinking and reinventing the systems that underpin your product/service, this systems-level disruption and reinvention provide a significant competitive advantage, as it is much more challenging to duplicate.

We sought out to disrupt how food companies produce products, and systematically redesigned the parts of a traditional value chain to suit this purpose. We also chose to change the competitive vectors, making sustainability and nutrient density a key way we were going to win. Again, these two things require deep transparency into the supply chain, enabled through our seed-to-fork platform.

Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Never cost-reduce the magic — Obsess about what is most special about your product or service and never value engineer this out, else you are left with something you won’t love and people will see as just — ‘meh’.

Don’t attempt to run a marathon like a sprint — Creating disruptive companies is a long journey, if you burn up all of your energy, all of your resources too quickly, the work becomes REALLY difficult. Set a really strong pace, train to improve that pace every day, but make sure it is one you would be happy running for years.

The details aren’t the details, the details ARE THE PRODUCT. There are no details too big or too small to obsessive over. If you don’t obsess over them how can you expect an end consumer to care?

Just be better than yesterday, if you can do that day in and day out, the compounding effect of that on your abilities and your business will be profound. I know this type of sentiment is all over the socials, but it is absolutely true that consistency over time wins.

Your product or service might be the most important thing to you, but it is seldom that important to a ‘consumer’. What this illustrates is that it is incumbent on you to really understand what ‘job’ your product service does for your end target, and get super meticulous about how to do that job the best, so you remain the logical choice in their lives.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We are just getting started. Now that we have complete vertical integration and scaled businesses across our value chain, the real magic is about to start.

Look for whole cut chicken breasts (plant based of course), whole filet’s of ocean free plant based fish, Oat based Pizza crusts with over 40g of plant-protein, Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) snacks, and cereals…just to name a few of the consumer products you can expect from us in the next 12 months.

I’ll also leave you with this little preview of something we’re not prepared to disclose yet, but are working on under the cover of darkness. We believe that nutrient density will be one of the most important attributes in plant-based foods and will be coming out with a way to quantify this for the consumers while launching many products that lean into this. The days of celebrating how many grams of protein your plant-based burger or nugget has are coming to a close, we are preparing for the next generation of plant-based foods, that celebrate how bioavailable, digestible, and nutritive these foods are for you and the planet….stay tuned.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I’m currently obsessed with Andrew Huberman and his Huberman Lab. Love anything to do with the brain, especially the gut-brain axis.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be a little bit better, and do a little bit more than yesterday”. This idea of consistency over time, netting the best results is just so freaking elegant and true.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Increase food access, improve food affordability, fund proper food education — divorced from food lobbyists. Food is the way!!

How can our readers follow you online?

Abovefood.com

LinkedIn

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market