Vital Proteins founder and CEO Kurt Seidensticker.
Five or six years ago, few Americans thought of collagen as anything beyond an ingredient in shampoo. They certainly didn’t think of it as something to eat or drink. Yet today you can barely open a lifestyle magazine without seeing celebrities like Kylie Jenner gushing over it or Chicago Cubs players swearing by it, nor can you shop at Costco, Whole Foods or even Sephora without seeing entire displays devoted to it.
Much of the attention can be traced back to one company, Vital Proteins. The original category creator for the collagen protein market, Vital Proteins maintains number one US market share across every sales channel from retail to online, dominating the US collagen market predicted to reach $6.6 billion globally by 2025. The channel diversity demonstrates how collagen has become a mainstream habit among a varied group of consumers in a short period of time. In fewer than four years since the first Vital Proteins products landed on shelves, the company has surged to over $100 million in annual sales, a milestone achieved by only a handful of startups each year.
Assortment of Vital Proteins products.
Vital Proteins founder and CEO Kurt Seidensticker shared what prompted him to start the wellness brand that’s generating so much buzz.“Back in 2012, I had been reading some medical journals that outlined the benefits of the amino acids contained in collagen,” explained Seidensticker. “An engineer by background, I love digging into science. My daughter was in medical school at the time, and together we reviewed all the research we could find. The results blew us away.”
The more the duo researched collagen, the more potential benefits they discovered for beauty in the form of improved skin elasticity and decreased wrinkles, for athletes seeking improved muscle mass and joint health and decreased pain from sports injuries, for the elderly to slow osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, and for anyone seeking assistance in healing wounds or, potentially, improving gut health. In other words, they reviewed evidence that collagen may provide benefits to almost any adult, regardless of athletic ability, age or gender.
What exactly is collagen? It’s the most abundant protein in the body and makes up about 75-80% of our skin. As we age, our bodies produce less collagen per year, weakening our joints and muscles, dulling our hair and nails, slowing our ability to heal, and increasing the signs of aging on our skin, in our joints and within our bones. To stem the loss, our bodies need on average 10 grams per day of glycine, the amino acid that stimulates collagen production in our bodies. Seidensticker considered existing supplements and dietary options to be insufficient in their glycine dosages, so he created Vital Proteins to deliver the desired dosage in a convenient way. As Seidensticker put it, “Adding a scoop to your morning matcha is definitely more convenient than eating 46 eggs!”
Seidensticker’s background is much more varied than many wellness founders. He began his career at NASA training astronauts to fly the space shuttle. Next he helped Motorola build the industry’s earliest cell phone prototypes. Then he moved to Level 3 Communications, where he helped architect the fiber optic cable network that enabled ATT, Verizon, Comcast, and Singular to first connect Americans to the Internet.
Seidensticker still carries the skills from his earlier career into growing Vital Proteins. “I’ve always been someone who connected the dots, who understood what people needed before they even realized it and then found a way to make it happen,” he said. “That’s why we’ve not only educated the world about the benefits of collagen. We’ve also made it insanely easy to consume. Unlike the many wellness products that require their consumers to change their lifestyles, Vital Proteins piggybacks on people’s everyday behaviors so they can consume their collagen in a way that’s natural for them. Sixty percent of the time that means stirred into coffee. With 250 unique SKUs ranging from powders, shots and capsules to protein bars, coffee creamers and delicious waters and teas, we have a product for everyone and every lifestyle.”
Vital Proteins and its many follow-on competitors have reinvigorated the protein category, boosting it 25 percent year-over-year since 2016, according to SPINS data dated December 2019. Vital Proteins has earned adoration from celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Kourtney Kardashian and Jennifer Aniston and supermodels like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Candice Swanepoel and Olivia Culpo. It is even the official collagen protein of the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball team. The whole team started using Vital Proteins collagen products in 2016. That same year they won the World Series—their first time doing so since 1908.
250 unique products is a lot for any company, even for one selling in 28,000 retail stores nationwide. So how does Seidensticker know what products to build and how does he stay in touch with his customers. “We’ve always prioritized a direct dialogue with our customers,” he said. “From the beginning, we built our online presence to maximize our relationship with the customer. Even though our online customer interactions generated a lot of data, it wasn’t sufficient for us, so for the past four years, we’ve spent nearly every weekend attending events featuring Vital Proteins, from massive 8000-person beauty conventions to local beach volleyball tournaments, Iron Man contests and decathlons,” explained Seidensticker. “Nothing replaces that direct connection to your consumers to help you understand why they love your product, how they use it, and what additional ways you can serve them.”
With managing such aggressive top-line growth Seidensticker is till able to push on profitability. “Our growth has been vigorous but controlled. We run a tight supply chain, always focusing relentlessly on quality, and while we’re focused on the top-line, it’s never at the expense of the bottom line.”
What’s next for this NASA engineer and internet pioneer-turned-wellness-entrepreneur? “The sky’s the limit,” said Seidensticker. “In many ways, our movement is just getting started. Americans have always been obsessed with wellness and longevity. Now that we’ve introduced Americans to edible collagen—and it’s enthusiastically endorsed by everyone from celebrities to athletes to senior citizens to the medical establishment—there’s no limit.”