Catharine Arnston never envisioned a career in algae. But that’s where she finds herself today, and she couldn’t be more pleased or more passionate about it. Five years ago, Arnston founded ENERGYbits, a Boston company that sells algae tablets to athletes and fitness enthusiasts around the world. The business appears to be at a tipping point. Demand has been growing steadily among mainstream consumers, thanks in part to media buzz and endorsements from a range of high-profile athletes, including NHL players and Olympians.
In short, the future looks bright. But as is often the case, success hasn’t come overnight. Reaching this point involved a radical career shift for Arnston, followed by five years of 16-hour days and working to establish a global supply chain.
“A Wakeup Call”
Arnston’s interest in algae and nutrition was sparked by her sister’s diagnosis with cancer in 2008. “Her doctor recommended she eat an alkaline diet, and that meant plenty of greens,” she says. “My sister recovered, but it was a wakeup call. It made me examine how food choices affect our health. I was stunned by what I learned.”
So stunned, in fact, that she quit her job as CEO of an online luxury goods retailer to enroll at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City. After graduating, she gave workshops encouraging others to embrace a diet of greens. As she recalls, it quickly became clear that many people didn’t like them — which meant she needed a new alternative. Shortly afterward, she discovered algae, which has long been a dietary staple in many Asian countries. The more Arnston read about algae’s health benefits, the more excited she became.
She sensed an opportunity. What if she could brand algae as a hip, easy-to-consume snack that provided nutrition and energy without chemicals, caffeine, calories or sugar? “I absolutely knew this was something I had to do,” she says.
Arnston’s enthusiasm was tempered by her veteran business instincts. She took five years to steadily build ENERGYbits, fueling demand with social media and word of mouth and keeping overhead low by selling only through her website. For the first three years, she was the only employee. Once the market responded, she added college-age interns followed by part-time employees and later, a full-time staff.
She applied similar discipline to her supply chain. After reviewing numerous candidates, she chose a company based in Taiwan to grow her algae, dry it and press it into tablet form. She also set up a distribution system in which the supplier ships the tablets in bulk to a Michigan warehouse, where they are stored and delivered bimonthly to Arnston’s smaller Boston warehouse. FedEx One RateSM is Arnston’s choice for all customer deliveries. “It’s ideal for ENERGYbits,” she says. “The streamlined flat rate pricing structure makes it easy for us to manage customer shipping costs.”
But Arnston adds that cost isn’t the only factor. “We sell a premium product,” she says. “Being able to ship to our customers using the FedEx brand is like having our algae tablets delivered by a white-glove limousine service.”
Ready for Takeoff
Things have been hectic of late for ENERGYbits. The company unveiled a new website in March 2014, and Arnston says orders have spiked in recent months. “This is only the start,” she adds. “Companies like Red Bull and Under Armour grew into multibillion-dollar businesses using savvy branding, grassroots marketing and community-building. We’re doing the same thing, but with algae.”
Explore ENERGYbits at www.energybits.com.