NatureBox founder urges aspiring entrepreneurs to be ‘bold but authentic’

Gautam Gupta, who launched the healthy snacks company in 2012, delivered the C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture in LaRose Digital Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 14.

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Gautam Gupta on Thursday urged students to let their passions drive their creativity in business as they seek out new ideas as entrepreneurs.

It was Gupta’s passion for nutrition and healthy living that inspired him and his business partner to launch NatureBox in 2012, a company that began with 100 customers receiving boxes of healthy snacks each month and would grow to capture national brand awareness and the backing of more than $70 million in venture financing. Since it’s launch, NatureBox has served more than 1 million customers.

“Do something you’re passionate about,” Gupta told those filling LaRose Digital Theatre in the Koury Business Center for the C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture. “For me, the choice of NatureBox was very much aligned with my passion around nutrition. That made the tough days a little bit easier.”

The C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture Series, named for Elon University trustee C. Ashton Newhall ’98 and hosted by the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, brings successful entrepreneurs to campus to share their knowledge and experience managing the risks and rewards of entrepreneurial endeavors.

Gupta left the world of venture capitalism to try his hand at his own business start-up, pulling from his earlier life for inspiration. As a high school student, Gupta was overweight, but he was able to shed 70 pounds in six months through healthy eating and exercise. “For me, food has always been a personal passion, and nutrition became something I was really interested in,” he told the crowd.

Gautam Gupta, founder of NatureBox and a partner in venture capital firm M13, delivered the 2019 C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture.

He focused on how to help make people change their dietary behavior by making it easier for them to find something healthy. Entering the snack food world was daunting, given its size and diversity. However, there was also untapped potential with few consumers at the time looking to purchase snack foods online. “Everything else today is being purchased online,” Gupta said. “We thought there was a really interesting opportunity to use consumer data to tailor the customer experience.”

Gupta and his business partner began visiting farmer’s markets to get a sense of the types of healthier snacks available. They initially purchased many of the snacks they found and repackaged them, using a simple introductory website to allow people to purchase a monthly NatureBox supply of snacks for $20. By the end of the first weekend after the site launched, 100 people had signed up.

Their business quickly expanded, with the entrepreneurs turning to Costco, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to find a variety of snacks that could be repacked under the NatureBox label and shipped out to subscribers. A friend tipped them off to the private label manufacturing sector, through which food manufacturers could produce products packaged with a retailer’s label, which was a gamechanger for their growing business.

“We made a lot of mistakes as we went along, and we had to learn how to deal with manufacturers and how to learn an industry we were not steeped in,” Gupta said.

But they found success, growing from 2,500 subscribers at the beginning of 2013 to close to 100,000 by the end of that year. Gupta displayed a copy of an email sent to the head of Costco laying out how big a fan he is of the warehouse club, and how his young company had relied upon their products for its first few months. He asked the executive to consider now putting the unique NatureBox products on its shelves. The long-shot paid off, with Costco agreeing to stock NatureBox products, as did a three-year-long pursuit to get NatureBox into Target stores.

“Often you won’t get a ‘yes’ the first time,” Gupta advised. “Keep pushing.”

By 2017, a potential buyer made an offer for NatureBox, which had expanded its customer base, but was still burning large amounts of cash each month. Though highly anticipated, that deal fell through, bringing layoffs and a rethinking of operations. That experience resulted in NatureBox finding a firmer operational footing and reaching a point where it broke even, and then began turning a profit.

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“The lesson I learned here was that sometimes you have to survive long enough to get lucky,” he said.

With NatureBox emerging as a profitable venture, Gupta decided it was time to return to the world of venture capital, and he appointed a new CEO to take the helm. Now a partner with venture capital firm M13, Gupta is using his own experience in growing a startup to help pick those founders and innovative business ideas that show promise. He said he looks for those who are “bold but authentic,” and for whom talking about their new business or their new product is a joy, not a tiring chore.

“We look for ambition and we definitely look for perseverance,” Gupta said. “We also look for people who are mission-driven. Starting a company is really difficult, and you want to find a founder who is passionate about what they are doing. It’s really that passion of wanting to see a problem solved that we look for.”