About This Episode
In this episode of Brilliant Thoughts, a SUCCESS magazine podcast, our guest is Brian Littlefield, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Jocko Fuel, an Origin brand. Jocko Fuel is a well-known name in the nutritional supplements and specialty foods industry, and today, Brian shares with us his journey into business and the secrets to successful partnership ventures. Let’s dive right in.
“Health is Wealth”
For Brian, this quote is as literal as it is metaphorical.
Brian grew up in an athletic household, but he was 10 years older than his closest siblings. Growing up in the shadows of those professional athletes, he played sports until his freshman year of high school, until puberty hit and he was sidetracked by his passion for cars and women.
He fell off the map when it came to ball sports, and for a couple of years, had an unhealthy lifestyle. “I became overweight very quickly. I’m not genetically gifted in the sense of, you know, ‘I can eat whatever I want, never work out, and have six-pack abs.’ That’s just not who I am,” Brian says.
Brian took a short break after high school to work and figure things out, and he decided to pursue his passion: race cars and racing. He entered a premier motorsports school to get a regionally accredited degree in car racing in Ohio.
“During that period, I liked traveling, working on a race team, eating shitty food, living in shitty hotels… [Then I] realized, ‘Hey, I just turned my hobby and my passion into something that I’m not really enjoying anymore,’” Brian shares. “I decided I needed to change things up simultaneously.”
He took after his dad and was always drawn to business. Around the same time, he got invited to the gym and was given a book about old-school nutraceuticals. Even as a kid, Brian had an affinity for science, so nutraceuticals piqued his interest. And it was during this transition that he discovered a new passion for fitness and nutrition.
He also discovered Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, a martial arts and combat sport based on ground fighting and submission holds.
“Because [Brazilian Jiu-jitsu] coincided with me diving into health, wellness, nutritional, and nutraceutical endeavors, it just kind of all started coming together,” he says.
A couple of years later, Brian decides to go back to school for business. At the same time, he started getting good at jiu-jitsu and started competing, traveling around to coach, teach, and do private lessons.
Diving into Business Partnerships
Around that time, Brian started becoming a go-to person that other gym goers in their area ask for advice when it comes to supplements.
“People would come to me for recommendations, and I started curating these fitness, diet, and nutraceutical plans for people,” he shares.
He decided to partner with the owner of the gym where he started training in jiu-jitsu, and they opened a supplement store in Lima, Ohio. It was a smooth venture, and according to Brian, “We weren’t making a killing, but we weren't losing money.”
But that is when it started to get serious for Brian. As a store owner, he would notice the formulations of supplements that were being delivered to their shop. He got curious about the science behind these formulations and quickly realized that for most of the supplements out there, there is no rhyme or reason behind their formulas.
“Is it marketing? Is it because they are cheap? I didn’t understand [yet, at that time] the business side of those ingredients. I didn’t know what the cost of the materials was or where they were sourced, whether regionally or internationally. That’s all stuff I had to learn,” he says.
In 2014, he visited his family in Maine, bringing his gear with him, and he looked for a place to train. He comes across a dojo, with a loom running on the first floor, weaving fabric—4,000 individual pieces going up and down in synchrony.
“If you haven’t seen one in person, it’s magic. How it runs is literally… it’s like wizardry [to me],” he comments.
It was around that time that he met Pete Roberts, the founder of Origin. Brian was still living in Ohio, running his small business, teaching a lot of jiu-jitsu training, and doing a little bit of MMA (mixed martial arts). Pete was a designer and a jiu-jitsu world-class competitor.
When they get acquainted with each other, Pete tells him the story of his recent venture into manufacturing and importing martial arts uniforms. He also talked about how while he was competing in Abu Dhabi for a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition, he found some of his uniform designs were being ripped off.
This made Pete decide to revive the Made-in-America manufacturing industry, and he built a factory to make American-made gis (jiu-jitsu uniforms).
Brian saw the mission Pete had for Origin in its earliest stages, and he was inspired. He wanted to be a part of that mission, so he decided to help out.
When he went back to Ohio, Brian started the wholesale account for Origin, contacting jiu-jitsu schools in his area and showing them the uniforms manufactured by Pete to the owners and members of those schools. He also sparred with the members of those gyms.
“It is very grassroots, but we went from zero to more than 120 wholesale accounts in the first four months, and that was a lot for us.”
The wholesale side of the business was doing so well. The hand-crafted products were so high in quality that people were willing to wait eight months to get them. They were growing so fast that Pete had to call him and say, “You need to stop selling any more products because we can’t make enough.”
In 2016, just when Brian’s partner is thinking of selling and moving to Florida, he gets a call from Pete asking him to move back to Maine. He takes the plunge and says yes, closing down his shop in Ohio and moving back to Maine.
“But I told him, we will be doing something in nutrition. And he knew my background and he's like, 100%. We were very aligned that we would do something. But like, it was just, you know, at some point, we'll do something,” Brian shares.
In just 12 months, Origin grew from having 7 people working to over 30 employees.
Around 2017, Pete and Brian got a call from Sarah Armstrong, telling them that Jocko Willink had been trying to get in touch with Origin.
Brian has heard of Jocko, and apparently, Jocko has heard of Origin and liked the idea of Made-in-America manufacturing being alive again. So, he encouraged Pete to meet Jocko.
“Pete gets on a four-hour zoom call with [Jocko], and they just absolutely hit it off because they are a lot alike in certain ways, and it was great,” Brian shares.
Jocko flies to Maine, and after what Brian says “a steak and a handshake in Portland, Maine” with Pete, the partnership between Origin and Jocko was founded.
Jocko also wanted to do a nutritional supplement line, and he wanted to do it right. During that time, some protein supplements were reported to have high heavy metal content, one of which is a brand that Jocko and his family regularly consume.
“That’s [also] how I am. I lean heavily towards efficacy, but also very, very clean label. So, him and I hit it off, and then we had the conversation and he’s like, ‘Can it be done right?’ and I was like, ‘Absolutely, man. You just have to put the people before the profits. As long as you’re good with that.’ Which, of course, he was because he’s Jocko,” Brian says.
They had a good trifecta going: Pete is in charge of design and marketing, Brian, with his understanding of science and the supply chain at the time, built the structure around the early organization, and Jocko was the “megaphone,” the face and the voice on social media and podcasts, letting people know about their new products and how they did it, not only right but better.
They created nutritional products that don’t use artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, or chemical preservatives.
“We just had a relentless pursuit of trying to make the absolute cleanest, healthiest, and most efficacious product possible. So, we were all in line and it just made it really easy those first few years. And we just, you know, we did really, really well,” Brian shares.
Unlike most supplement companies that choose to launch a catalog of products that are hot in the current market, Jocko Fuel launched with Super Krill Oil.
Jocko is someone who is particular about only putting his name on products that he 100% believes in, so they decided to release a better version of krill oil, a product that he already talks a lot about in his podcasts, and something that he actually uses.
He wanted to make it better, so Brian found ways to improve the efficacy of the product. It was considered a very unique and very niche product to launch with. Since his listeners already know that Jocko uses it, there was authenticity in releasing it first.
The next product they worked on was a joint support product. Jocko was in the SEALs, and he did competitive jiu-jitsu, so his body has been put through some considerable wear and tear.
“He's like, ‘I need joint support because our joints are our foundation. Like, if you have you can have all the strong muscles and endurance in the world, but if your joints don't hold you together, you're going to be pretty immobile.’” And that’s what they did, they built a really strong joint support product.
Putting People First
There’s a lot of competition in the nutritional supplement industry. One way they managed to have a foothold in the industry is through Jocko’s influence.
“Most brands nowadays know that just because someone has a massive following doesn't mean that they're actually going to translate into sales or moving the needle. Like, there's a big difference between like being an influencer and being someone who's actually going to drive people to take action. And we didn't realize how influential [Jocko] truly was until we launched our first product,” Brian shares.
But what really allowed them to expand beyond that is their focus on product reputation, having a clean label, and making sure to meet the needs of their market.
“People have to enjoy the product, and with something like this, either they’ve got to really enjoy the taste, or they have to enjoy the messaging and the branding. But most importantly, the product has to work. That was one of the biggest things. That was my biggest input. I’m failing if I don’t build products that work. And they need to work at a very high level,” he adds.
Jocko Fuel is more of a lifestyle brand than an athletic brand. They provide effective and healthy supplements for people of all walks of life who want to be a better version of themselves every day.
“We have a lot of top performers because that's who Jocko talks to as well. Like people that are just like, you know, they're there in the game, whatever profession they're in, they're trying to reach that highest level, so they're looking for that extra edge. You got to build products that can help them do that,” Brian says.
Sometimes, You Got to Pay Tuition in Business
Every success story we see in print has a lot of failures behind the scenes. Brian shares a few moments in business when he “made tuition payments.”
The first big tuition payment he made was two months after partnering with Pete and moving back to Maine. They bought a small business selling nutritional supplements to a local community. They decided to rebrand the package and make it more visually appealing, without changing the supplements.
In their first year, they lost more than 60% of that business’s sales. They realized that despite the subpar design of the packaging, its identity with its consumers was solid, and by changing the packaging, they disrupted that identity.
The next big one was during their partnership with Jocko. They have very strict guidelines for their products. So, when they tried doing a line on protein bars, they wanted to improve on it by making a bar that's actually good, tastes good, has a great texture, and doesn't use sugar or sugar alternatives.
A lot of protein bar manufacturers tried and failed, so they built a small manufacturing facility to do it in-house. They spent many months and dollars on R&D and managed to come up with an initial product that fit their standards, but the manufacturing process was too complicated that they wouldn’t be able to scale, even if they managed to get it out in the market.
They tried to pivot to the confectionery world, but the people they had lined up bailed at the last minute. So, after a serious conversation with Pete, they decided to gut the whole thing, cut their losses, and focus on their winning products.
What Makes a Good Partner?
Partnerships in business are tough. “If you want to find success, you have to be receptive to other people's ideas and processes and things like that, because otherwise it's just not going to work. You've got to be a team player and you've got to be able to put the mission and the company and the brand before your personal need,” Jocko shares.
For him, what makes a good partner is someone who is balanced. A partner who is a pushover and lets you have your way all the time will not be able to challenge you. They’ll be doing you and the company a disservice. A certain level of challenge is necessary to foster growth. But at the same time, a partner who opposes everything and just pushes his own ideas on the joint venture wouldn’t work.
“I think it's always a happy medium. And you want to find someone that you're going to have that relationship with, especially if they bring something to the table. If you're bringing on a partner and it's just financial interest and they have like zero to add of value outside of that. That's a certain type of relationship, like a silent partner,” Brian shares.
That’s why his partnership with Pete and Jocko works. He and Jocko work closely together in product development, and Pete and Jocko are in-charge of packaging and design.
“You have to learn and understand what they're looking for. It's about being receptive and evolving over time, to understand what your partner's needs are,” he says.
Plus, being aligned with the same mission is important.
“That's part of our origin, no pun intended. The constant improvement aspect, just never settling for what we think is good, always challenging that and, you know, trying to listen to the consumer or listen to our people. If we're hearing something and it seems relatively constant, you just got to be receptive to that and adapt.” — Brian Littlefield
Watch out for their new energy drink
Our flagship product right now is our energy drink. We first got the national distribution of Vitamin Shoppe and Specialty, and then we launched into Wawa which is like the mecca of convenience, you know, basically the king. And then, and then we got our first food location with Hannaford Brothers, and now we're launching, and then we launch into H-E-B.
Now we're, we're going into Myer. So, it's really taking off. The whole line is, but the energy drink for sure.
We have one type, low-caffeine, but we have eight going on nine and then ten flavors.
My favorite is the brand new one we just did, which is pink lemonade. It'll be out. In a couple of weeks. We actually did that for Vitamin Shoppe.
I had to bring in new tropic ingredients from the nutraceutical world to actually make it work the way people wanted it to, increase focus, support memory, and things like that, but with low caffeine.
Where to Follow Brian
You can follow me on Instagram: @brian_origin. You can also find me and hit me up on LinkedIn. Of course, check our website, that’s JockoFuel.com and check out the products. Hopefully, you like them if you check them out.
DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.