Under Kelly’s watch, Gainful has raised millions in funding, increased its sales and expanded into product categories beyond protein
Dean Kelly knows a thing or two about building successful consumer brands in the digital era.
After creating a pair of app businesses and holding senior roles in Walmart’s e-commerce division and at online wedding registry Zola, Kelly took over as CEO of Gainful in February 2020, tasked with taking the personalized performance nutrition company to the next level.
Kelly quickly built on the impressive work done by founders Eric Ji Sun Wu and Jahaan Ansari, who created Gainful as a personalized protein company that allows users to take a quiz and receive a protein powder blend that’s customized to their needs, goals and preferences.
Under Kelly’s watch, Gainful raised $7.5 million in a Series A round in January 2021 and has expanded beyond protein into categories including pre-workout, creatine, fiber, collagen and hydration, all while staying true to the brand’s ethos of personalized nutrition. Gainful reached profitability in early 2023 and has seen over one million orders and counting placed on its website.
Kelly spoke with Athletech News about the power of personalized nutrition, Gainful’s groundbreaking retail partnership with Target, and what’s next for the brand in terms of new features, products and funding.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Athletech News: You came into this role with high-level experience as a founder and executive at top consumer brands. Why did you decide to join Gainful?
Dean Kelly: I’d been at a lot of big consumer companies, with big brands in really emotional categories, whether it be pets, weddings, furniture and homewares, or travel, and personalization has been a theme across my entire career. When Gainful approached me, I saw a really great opportunity to join a very young company with two incredible founders as the CEO in a category, health and wellness, where more and more people are spending more time and money. Personalization was being used as a vehicle in so many other categories, but it hadn’t really been done in this category, performance nutrition. I’ve stood in front of a wall of supplements in a GNC and been so confused, not knowing what the ingredients meant. So I had the same experience that our founders had.
ATN: Besides offering quizzes, how does Gainful make nutrition “personalized”?
DK: I view personalization as the feeling that a customer gets at the end of their experience with Gainful that makes them feel as if “Gainful is for me.” And it’s not only because of the products we’re recommending; the way that we talk to you is unique to you. We also bring in expert guidance from real RDs (registered dietitians) to help our customers with nutrition. It’s completely personalized, so it’s a real person responding to real people with real questions. Customers who use our RDSs retain 20 percentage points higher than customers who don’t. At the moment it’s email-based, but we’re moving into making it chat-based and text-based.
We’ve also started to work with content providers who are experts in their field, whether it be personal personal trainers, registered dieticians, etc. So the education and the content that we send you post-quiz is tailored to you. If you’re looking to build muscle versus lose weight, the education and content you get will be very different.
ATN: How does Gainful decide which supplements to sell?
DK: Gainful as a brand is about the individual, and removing barriers to that individual feeling their best, whatever those barriers are. There are brands out there that are quite niche. A vegan company can’t necessarily launch a Keto product, for example. The incredible thing about the Gainful brand is that we can go into any product in any multi-billion dollar category.
We started with protein because it’s an incredible base, most people don’t know how much they need and most people aren’t getting enough of it. But as you can see, we’ve started to add products and categories very selectively. Pre-workout, for example, there’s a huge crossover between a protein and a pre-workout customer. We then launched Boosts – collagen, fiber, creatine – that can be added to any of our products. And then we launched hydration as well.
If you can imagine where we’ll go next, Gainful is all about customization. You have a base protein, and then you can start to add Boosts, which might be gut health, menopause, prenatal, postnatal, cognitive, sleep, heart health or joint health. These are all categories we can go into under the umbrella of customization. We’ll be launching a brand new category in Q1 of next year.
ATN: Why did Gainful decide to partner with Target and enter the retail space?
DK: Target has over 1,800 stores nationwide, and 85% of the U.S. population shops in Target, so we saw it as a huge opportunity to attract a new customer and give that new customer a better experience, a more seamless and personalized experience, in an aisle that’s been pretty intimidating in the past.
ATN: How does Gainful bring a personalized experience to brick-and-mortar retail?
DK: Online, we taught customers how to shop a system for themselves. And we brought that behavior into the four walls of Target. When we launched at Target, we didn’t launch with just two products. We launched with 11 products and a very simple three-step process where customers can choose their base protein, they can choose a flavor, and then they can add a Goal Boost – build muscle, lose weight or recover. And you can combine those Goal Boosts and your flavor into the base protein, which is your customized protein. Also, on the lid of each of the protein packs (bought in Target) is a QR code that drives you to our registered dietitians. So we really are bringing personalized nutrition to everyone across the U.S.
ATN: Gainful is the official U.S. supplement and performance nutrition partner of Hyrox for the ‘23-24 race season. Why is this partnership important?
DK: One thing I love about Hyrox is that the races span ages, genders and athletic abilities. This is what Gainful recognizes, everyone is different, and therefore, everyone needs a personal approach not only to their training but to their nutrition. Also, Hyrox is incredibly big in Europe, and it’s coming to the U.S., so we thought it was incredible timing with an incredible partner who is trying to do something innovative. The third reason is because it’s becoming harder to acquire customers online and through Facebook and Instagram. For us, it’s less about putting a click-bait ad in front of a person. It’s about, Where are our customers when they’re not on Facebook and Instagram? They’re competing in Hyrox.
ATN: You’ve gone on record saying that Gainful is planning to raise another $20 to $30 million. Why is that investment important and what are your expansion plans?
DK: We’ve always been very capital efficient and very prioritized in what we do. We’ve never been one of those companies that’s over-raised, over-hired and then fired a lot of people. But now we’re at this point where we can expand our product range into new categories. We want to double down on retail – we’re further expanding in Target, and we have other retailers who approach us all the time. I get approached weekly by various people internationally about wanting to sell Gainful. We see a brand that could and should be global.
We want to build out our platform. We currently get a lot of our data from a quiz and we want to move that to make it more real-time. That involves building out an app, getting real-time data and connecting with different connected fitness partners. We also want to build brand awareness. We’re in the multiple tens of millions in revenue, and it’s now time to start telling the stories of Gainful, and that involves larger marketing budgets and top-of-funnel brand advertising, stuff that we’ve never done before.
These are all the things we want to do, and we want to find the right strategic partner who has seen numerous companies throughout this stage of growth and future stages.