Jill Van Gyn is a Badass
Jill Van Gyn is the CEO and founder of the popular peanut butter company, Fatso. Her mission is to provide highly nutritious peanut butter that competes with specialty nut butter at a more affordable price. High in good fats and fibre and low in unhealthy ingredients like sugar and palm oil, Fatso can be found in stores all across Canada. We caught up with Jill as she begins to expand into the United States to find out why she got into the food space, what challenges she faces as head of a growing company, her quick stint in reality TV, and what makes her a total badass.
How did you get started in the food space?
I never intended to be in the food space, and I never had the the ambition to be in business. I wanted to work for the UN. I did a master’s degree and graduated in 2015 at the top of my class with published work, but I was completely unemployable. I couldn’t get a job. I got really depressed and was pretty desperate because I was like 35, and I had spent all this time and money. I took a job trying to franchise a health food restaurant in Victoria, and there was this peanut butter being sold there and on a couple of shelves around town called Fatso. I wanted to buy into the company and help it because it was just limping along. It was such a good idea and something needed to be done about it. I was turned down by the owners, but then the local health authority seized their inventory because they were making it without a proper license in their home, to my understanding.
So I got a call from one of the retailers because I had been pretty bullish on it. Somebody was like, hey, if you want to snap this company up, you should probably do it now. I offered them, like, the price of a used car for it and probably would have overpaid if it hadn’t worked out–– but it did. I just started it from scratch again with zero experience. The thing that kept me going was if it doesn’t work, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing with my life. It was pretty scary. It was a business run on fear for months. It’s not like a classic founder story, but that’s how I get my start. The rest is history.
What do you love most about the food space?
Well, I think the food space is similar to the tech space, especially now. There’s so much innovation and creativity within the industry. I’ve always been really interested in food, and this brings in so many of the things, like the creative aspect and this innovative aspect and these other things around food security and sustainability and politics and all these things. I can express many of the things that I’ve always wanted to do with my life within this peanut butter and I think that’s what’s so attractive to me about it.
What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve experienced so far?
Growth is a bitch.
You have to be really on top of timing and we are at a growth inflection point right now. Things get really tricky as a national Canadian company trying to expand to the United States. Managing growth, I think, is this very opaque part of the business where there’s a bunch of different roads you can take, and you’re never going to know which one is the right one. Growth was easy until year four. Year one was fun. It was just me getting listings, going in and doing demos. Now growth feels like there’s a burden behind it, and it’s challenging to coordinate the right timing, the right funding, and the right logistical decision-making. It’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in my business for sure.
What do you wish you knew before starting Fatso?
That’s a good question. I think I wish I had known that there was going to be a point where it wouldn’t be all fun games anymore. That intensive start-up phase is like a high and I was on it for three years. I wish I had known that once you start to transport across the country and once you’re holding a lot of inventory, and once you’re managing listings as a more mature brand, you need to shift your mindset from a startup mindset to a growth mindset. It’s hard to know when to make the switch because it creeps up on you. I realize now that there are two minds that you need going into a business if you pass that fourth or fifth year from a start-up into a growth brand.
You’re already a national brand and you’re going into the States. What do you see Fatso growing into?
We would like to become a snack brand for sure and focus on nice and nutritious snacks, but also indulgences. I deeply believe that people can enjoy wonderful indulgences without wild amounts of sugar and crazy ingredients. I recently heard somebody at a talk say there’s a division between health and wellness and indulgence. I don’t think that’s what’s happening. The natural food space is bringing the two sides together. We want to focus our attention on making accessible snacks for those those who don’t care about their sugar intake or the ingredient list and for those who are nutritionally minded. Low sugar, great fat, whole ingredients. That’s the way forward for the future, I believe.
What do you do to nourish yourself both personally and nutritionally?
Personally, I believe a lot in therapy. I feel like, especially entrepreneurs, should get a therapist.
I’ve been in recovery for eleven years from drinking alcohol, so I have experience around self-care. It doesn’t mean that I’m very good at it, but it does mean that I am conscientious about my state of mind. I’ve got a lot out of personal therapy, and am a huge advocate for taking breaks. It’s a conversation I think people like to have, but I don’t think people actually apply to their lives. I feel as entrepreneurs, we fall into the fetishization of work and overly productive because it inherently ties into who we are and our self-worth. I struggle with this. I think it’s tied to capitalism, which makes us feel guilty for not being productive. It’s tough to unlearn that stuff.
On the nutrition side, I’m a huge advocate for moderation, although it took me over a decade to learn. After coming into recovery. I got really into fitness, CrossFit, marathon running, etc. It was another addiction in my life. Diet-wise I’ve been all over. I’ve done Paleo, I’ve done keto, I’ve done restrictive diets, and I’ve done macro counting. The thing I’ve learned is that it’s all about moderation. It’s just the key. So, I don’t subscribe to any one style of diet. I love having indulgences once in a while, but it’s taken a long time to learn that.
What do you look for in a snack?
I look for something that does speak to that moderation principle. I’ll treat myself once in a while – I love black licorice and things like that – but I like snacking on something that is super satisfying. If I’m going to spend money on it, it can’t be empty for me. It has to have some reason why I’m going to put it into my body beyond setting off some good dopamine receptors. I think that a nutritious indulgence is really what I’m looking for.
What is something that people don’t know about you?
Back in 2005, I was on a reality show. It was like for this Nissan, when the Versa came out and they did this big cross-country road trip like The Amazing Race. It was like a 21-day commercial, essentially.
How can people find Fatso or learn more about your product?