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What’s it like to lead a startup with purpose?

Nathan Carey explains what led to him to found food startup ProYo.

5 min read




SmartBrief illustration by James daSilva

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”

Nathan Carey is the founder of ProYo, a high-protein, low-glycemic, better-for-you ice cream indulgent. He started his career working in the family construction business. After studying construction management at California Polytechnic State University, and during a break between two development projects, he pivoted. Observing the re-emergence of frozen yogurt and the smoothie explosion, he opened a drive-thru smoothie bar in Santa Barbara, Calif..

Not long after, while doing a set of military presses at the gym, he heard a sickening sound followed by excruciating pain. He had broken his arm in three places. He spent the next six months working to regain its use. While in physical therapy, he noticed the way in which protein was being delivered and how people were reacting to it. He thought he could do it better, and ProYo was born.

I spent some time speaking with Nathan about his journey and I’ve included the highlights of our conversation below.

Why are you doing this?

Carey ( Linda Blue Photography)

“I’m doing this because it is a pure, fun experience. There’s nothing better than watching somebody get a smile on their face.”

Carey said he started attending Special Olympic events in support of his uncle and had gone on to become a volunteer. He began giving out ProYo samples at the events. He learned that many of the participants struggled with diabetes and weight-control issues and were therefore often on restrictive diets.

Carey said that it’s inspirational “to watch those participants get this huge smile on their faces” after trying ProYo. He found additional inspiration in the smiles of the participants’ parents and coaches. Not only were they proud of their athletes, but they were also happy that they could enjoy a healthy treat.

What’s your vision for this brand?

“To be a global brand and be able to expand into different segments of the marketplace. I started out pretty much with the hardest section to get into, which is frozen.”

He said that he hopes “to be able to take the technology and the brand platform and roll it into other items within grocery.”

What’s the biggest obstacle you face?

“I think the biggest challenge for me is being able to run at the right pace without imploding. Making sure we’re moving fast enough, but at the same time not too fast.”

Carey shared that, “I think it’s really difficult to figure out how to balance that speed. You obviously can’t go slow; you’ve got to go at a pretty decent speed in order not to get passed up by the big companies.”

As we discussed this further, he added that a closely related challenge is balancing focus between the immediate business needs and the need to look years into the future. Carey feels, as he prepares for the future, that it is important to strategically build the business to be ready for a potential partnership with a large consumer packaged goods firm.

“It’s very clear that these big companies have realized that they need to show growth within their infrastructure. At the same time, they can’t deliver a new brand to the millennials because millennials want a true story, a true brand, something that’s grassroots. They can read through the lines very quickly if it’s a Fortune 500 company starting one of these brands.”

He sees a synergistic relationship, where ProYo leverages the CPG company’s infrastructure, sales and distribution pipeline to accelerate growth. In return, the CPG adds a growing innovative brand with a unique consumer value proposition and an authentic story to its portfolio.

The real challenge, Carey said, is “knowing when the critical time is to team up with that bigger company to allow them to take you to the next level without sacrificing the brand or the vision of the company.”

What’s been your biggest lesson learned?

“I think my biggest takeaway, still, is that it comes down to real people.”

“When you do find those real people, it’s so important to keep those relationships” he added. “It’s so critical to get you to the next level, and they’re so sparse out there.”

What would your current self tell your former self?

“I would tell myself to follow my gut even though this wasn’t my original career path, and that although it’s very important to have mentors and people around you for guidance, it’s not necessary to rely 100% on those people. Often, your gut is really the right choice.”

Carey explained that he has he at times relied too heavily on the opinion and advice of others. “You can rely on your mentors, but at the end of the day, it’s your gut decision that drives you in the right direction and you have to trust your gut.”


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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.

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