How the founder of Athletic Greens, Chris Ashenden, scaled from 0 to a $1.2B valuation
Athletic Greens has become dominant in the DTC supplements space. Read this story to learn the true history of how Chris Ashenden founded Athletic Greens, and the playbook he used to scale to a billion dollar business.
Chris Ashenden’s entrepreneurial journey started when he was a little kid hiking in Abel Tasman National Park, a beautiful place located in the South of Chris’ home country- New Zealand. He’s 9 years old and helping his sister run a lemonade stand catering to hikers who have just finished 4+ hour hikes through the park. One gentleman approaches the lemonade stand and says he wishes they were selling cold beer. Chris knows his dad is nearby with a cooler full of cold beer and asks the exhausted hiker how much he would pay for a beer. The hiker says $4 and Chris negotiates him up to $5. He runs to get a beer from his dad’s cooler and makes his first upsell from lemonade to beer as a young entrepreneur.
“I've basically been an entrepreneur since I was really, really young and it's always been the ambition. I don't know what gene I got or if my parents dropped me on my head one time too many times, but that's always been the deeper driver. I managed to go out there and have a crack at things” - Chris Ashenden, FounderAthletic Greens
Later, in high school Chris gets interested in Bruce Lee and martial arts. Through martial arts, he becomes aware of sports nutrition and reads a book by Dr. Michael Colgan called Optimum Sports Nutrition.
He reads and re-reads the book so many times he has to rebind the spine of the book with masking tape. He decided to study Sports Science at Auckland University. He drops out of college and launches his first sports nutrition company. This company ends up failing. He said it was a great idea, but his execution was “absolute rubbish”. After this failure, he was burned by entrepreneurship. He goes on to have every odd job you could imagine from sales roles to physical labor jobs. One role involved selling used cars wholesale to used cars dealers. Used car dealers are not known as the best customers, and he had a list of car dealers to cold call and received 58 “F yous” before getting someone willing to take a sales call with him. He left that job and spent three years as a policeman. During his commutes he listens to self development books like Rich Dad Poor Dad and realizes he’s not on the career path he wants to be on.
He leaves the police force and becomes a real estate investor. He borrows money from friends and family and ends up losing it all including his parents' life savings and is forced to file bankruptcy. During this time his health deteriorated. He was stressed, depressed, and drinking heavily. He was getting sick 4-5 times a year and felt terrible. He thought he was eating a good diet, but his health was failing. In 2008, he decided to go to a nutrition clinic in Phoenix that puts him through every test imaginable. The $35,000 worth of testing revealed that his body wasn’t absorbing nutrients properly. Chris is thankful to have an answer but the clinic's recommended regimen includes 50 supplement pills a day that cost Chris $100 per day. He sticks to the routine and is grateful to have his health restored, but he sets out to find a way to make the supplement routine easier and cheaper for himself and others.
The result was Athletic Greens, and he was customer number one. Athletic Greens combined 8 different types of supplements from multivitamins to probiotics into a single powder. Chris had very high standards for his product which led his first commercial version to have very low margins for the typically high margin supplement industry.
When Chris started Athletic Greens, he was $5M in debt from his failed real estate investments and determined to make it back and make his friends and family whole. Most people think starting from zero is difficult. Imagine starting from negative $5M.
Despite his prior bankruptcy, Chris is able to find an early capital partner to fund Athletic Greens. Chris had a vision and was determined to execute on it. He wanted to take the friction out of covering your nutritional bases. On April 2nd, 2009 he bought the athleticgreens.com domain name on GoDaddy. He starts with a half million dollars of inventory, $4-6 grand per month in warehousing and other ongoing expenses, and no income. He is living in Miami and subsisting off of cheap beans and Athletic Greens of course. In 2009, taking natural supplements was not yet in the mainstream. He went looking for the smallest group of people that deeply understood what he was doing. He realized early on that his real customer wasn’t the end consumer of Athletic Greens, but the people that influence the end consumer. He knew that if he could convince the early adopters that had audiences - trainers, nutritionists, weight loss coaches etc. - then his product would get traction. It would be too expensive to try to directly market to the end consumer, but he could use his small marketing budget and focus on those who influence the end consumer. The plan worked, and Athletic Greens began to slowly grow.
Chris got a big win in 2010, when one of those early influencers that he targeted, published his second book. The influencer was Tim Ferriss, and the book was called the Four Hour Body, and in it he mentions Athletic Greens. Tim wasn’t paid to mention the product, but the concept of Athletic Greens resonated with him. This led to a huge boost in sales of Athletic Greens from tech early adopters that followed Tim Ferriss for all things around self optimization.
The company continued to iterate on its core product, messaging, and branding, and the snowball of success slowly began to grow. It benefitted from tailwinds in the health and wellness category and a laser focus on their single SKU.
As it's grown, the company went through a series of rebrands. In 2018, Chris rebranded the product to Athletic Greens Ultimate Daily, and then again rebranded to AG1 in 2021. He felt the original name Athletic Greens was a misnomer, and their signature product was much more than a ‘greens’ powder.
It has been a fully remote business from day one. They have never had a formal headquarters.
Chris bootstrapped the company to $160M in revenue, and in 2022, the company raised $115M in outside capital from Alpha Wave Global at a $1.2B valuation.
Health Influencers 🗣️
Early on Chris realized that the target of his small marketing budget shouldn’t be on the end consumer of Athletic Greens, but the people that influence the end consumer: their trainers, nutritionists, dieticians etc. Athletic Greens has capitalized on huge partnerships with mainstream health and wellness influencers like Tim Ferriss & Andrew Huberman. The first step was developing a product that would resonate with these influencers - high end, not cutting any corners on manufacturing - and then partnering with them on promoting a product they would feel good promoting to their audience. The playbook looks like this: get influencers to become customers first, then approach influencers who are already customers about partnering and promoting. Athletic Greens took a very similar approach to Butcher Box in their influencer strategy.
This strategy was especially important in a low trust category like supplements. There are so many companies in the supplement space that over promise and under deliver that consumers have developed an inherent mistrust of the category (rightfully so!) In order to overcome that mistrust, health influencers were crucial to Athletic Greens.
Podcasts 🎙️ (alternative marketing channels)
In tandem with their influencer strategy, Athletic Greens has invested heavily into podcast advertising. One of their first big podcast investments was with Tim Ferriss’ podcast The Tim Ferriss Show. The early strategy focused on health and wellness focused podcasts (e.g Huberman Lab), but as they have broadened their appeal, they have increasingly targeted shows focused on things outside of health and wellness like the Dax Shepard and Monica Padman show Armchair Experts. Rather than run a couple of ads with each podcast, they have focused on building long-term relationships with podcasts and ideally partnering with successful podcasts for years. They’ve found it takes a couple of ad reads for audiences to familiarize themselves with the brand.
According to Magellan AI data, Athletic Greens was the 7th largest podcast advertiser in June 2023 and spent $2,227,000 across 592 separate podcasts! To manage this, the company has an in-house partnerships team of five that’s partially dedicated to managing its podcasting efforts. The team buys both programmatic podcast ads and baked in ads, but they have found the baked in ads tend to perform better, and they have received the lionshare of their podcasting spend. To track performance, Athletic Greens uses a combination of vanity URLs with UTM parameters and post purchase surveys. This tracking is part art and part science. As Facebook ads have become more expensive, Athletic Greens has benefitted from having diversified marketing channels. It is more difficult to track podcast purchases and more difficult to scale spend, but this creates a moat for the companies that are willing to invest the time and effort into more difficult channels like podcasting.
Constantly Evolve Brand 🧫
It is somewhat comical to look back on the early Athletic Greens website. We’ve included some images below because we couldn’t resist. For those that know Athletic Greens as one of the best branded DTC companies in the world it can be shocking to look back on the old website. It’s a good reminder that brands evolve over time, and it isn’t necessary to launch with the Red Antler optimized brand from day one (if you’re curious Creech Studio did Athletic Greens’ latest rebrand). What mattered was the core value prop resonated with consumers. If your customers are buying your product despite its poor branding then you know improving your brand image is a future lever to pull in the future. Brands that launch day one and their only differentiator is a good looking brand image are in for a rude awakening in today’s DTC world.
Single SKU ☝️, Single Channel ☝️= Focus 🔬
Athletic Greens launched with a single SKU and that has been their main focus over the last decade plus. They’ve had the discipline to not be distracted with other products or shiny objects. This essentialism is rare but has greatly benefited the company. There are fewer distractions on the website. Many companies give customers analysis paralysis and choice overload with the number of SKUs on their website. Athletic Greens is proof that a single SKU company can get very, very big. And one product doesn’t mean one angle. They have a single product but many different marketing angles. Some angles target busy professionals with meal replacements and others target athletes looking to optimize their sports performance. The focus on a single SKU has also allowed them to iterate and improve it over time. As of this writing the company is on its 53rd iteration of Athletic Greens.
This focus also extends to retail channels where it's a double edged sword. Currently, Athletic Greens is only available through their website. It isn't available on Amazon, and you can't buy it in a physical retail store. This has allowed other greens supplement companies like Bloom to build huge businesses on Amazon because Athletic Greens isn't available their. The company is likely leaving millions of dollars on the table by not serving customers who only shop on Amazon or in physical retail. However, this focus has allowed Athletic Greens to have super tight control over their product quality and own the customer relationship.
Conversion Rate Optimization 🧪
The current website is a masterclass in conversion rate optimization. The team has clearly spent a lot of energy A/B testing and optimizing their site and messaging. It’s also lightning fast due to their headless implementation. We don’t always recommend companies to go headless (read our full guide on headless), but it is working very well for Athletic Greens. When they first went headless, their site load times dropped to below 2 seconds, and they saw a 50% increase in time on page, and a 100% reduction in bounce rates.
Email Mastery 📧
Like their website, their email program is top notch. Their welcome flow highlights all the right things. They have a winback flow that is customized to the customer's reason for unsubscribing. When a customer unsubscribes, they ask the customer why they are canceling their subscription. If the customer mentions taste as the reason for unsubscribing, then they will get emails focused on how to mix athletic greens with various juices to improve the taste. If the customer mentions price as the reason for unsubscribing, then they will get emails focused on the value of Athletic Greens relative to the supplements they replace and more discounts.
Paid Ads 💸
Athletic Greens is constantly testing new creative. Their Facebook Ads account has over 70 live ads. You can see the same image being used with multiple different hooks. They mix branded content with UGC. They focus their hooks on the benefits of the product and not just the ingredients. Their paid ads take customers to landing pages that tie back to the ad.
Signup for our email ✉️
Receive email updates when we drop a new guide.
Awesome! You're signed up!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.