From Celebrity Matchmaker to Wellness Trailblazer, Making Stomachs Happy, and Leadership Tips
From Celebrity Matchmaker to Wellness Trailblazer, Making Stomachs Happy, and Leadership Tips

"We believe that by helping women feel better and eat better, they can live better lives. We think we belong in the pantry, not the medicine cabinet." 

- Katie Wilson

Elizabeth welcomes the bubbly and dynamic Katie Wilson, CEO and Co-Founder of BelliWelli, a groundbreaking wellness brand committed to destigmatizing digestive health and addressing the gaps in the functional food market. Having embarked on a journey from celebrity matchmaker to wellness trailblazer, Katie's personal struggle with IBS ignited a passion to revolutionize gut health.

Katie shares her inspiring transformation – from poring over food labels and consulting doctors to crafting a solution that didn't exacerbate her symptoms. Her pivot into the world of consumer packaged goods (CPG) led to the birth of BelliWelli bars. She talks about the power of community feedback and how immersing herself in a Facebook group and listening to customer feedback continues to build and shape BelliWelli’s trajectory. She also talks about fundraising, mentorship and why she’ll never give up coffee!

  • PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey. This week's guest is Katie Wilson, founder, and CEO of BelliWelli, a wellness brand on a mission to destigmatize digestive health and fill the gap in the functional food market. Starting out as a celebrity matchmaker, Katie experienced her gut health issues with IBS and spent years looking at food labels and consulting doctors to find products that didn't trigger her symptoms. This eventually led her to pivot her career entirely into the CPG space with the launch of BelliWelli bars. In this episode, Katie shares all about her journey starting with launching her bars and an IBS Facebook group. We talked about the importance of listening to your community when building a brand, how she's standing out in the crowded bar space, gut health, her advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs and so much more. Keep listening to learn all about Katy and BelliWelli. All right, Katie, welcome to the podcast. I'm so excited about our conversation today and to hear all about your journey of starting BelliWelli.

    Katie Wilson 1:24
    Thank you so much for having me. I can't wait for the conversation, talk all things CPG and specifically BelliWelli too.

    Elizabeth Stein 1:32
    Yeah. Let's start with the beginning of your wellness journey. And really what led you to start the company?

    Katie Wilson 1:40
    Yeah, I did not come from CPG. I was a professional matchmaker, the weirdest job ever.

    Elizabeth Stein 1:47
    How does one become a professional matchmaker?

    Katie Wilson 1:51
    Oh my gosh, it's like a conversation …

    Elizabeth Stein 1:54
    That's a bar conversation. It's great.

    Katie Wilson 1:57
    Yeah, I was gonna say that too. The quick story is I knew I wanted to be a matchmaker from like, age 10 and on. So I interned every summer in LA for professional matchmakers, then eventually joined a female-led startup which is where I got a taste for a startup. And all that entailed looking to scale matchmaking, and then I ended up going off on my own at some point, and then eventually went over to match.com. So dating was what I planned to do. But six years ago, amid my matchmaking career, I came down with gut issues. I'll spare everyone that graphic TMI, but essentially, I went to Cabo, got food poisoning and it was never the same. And it wasn't straightforward IBS. It was like all of a sudden, I had all these food intolerances that had never existed before. And gluten was hurting my stomach, I thought dairy was, I had reflux, I was bloated. And I just got obsessed with trying to return to normal. My normal, by the way, had been healthy. I wasn't binging pizza and hamburgers, but I could have the slice of pizza without worrying about gut consequences two hours later. And I just lost that freedom. So just like anything that starts impacting your life, you start talking about it with anyone that will listen, or at least that's what I did. And in doing so I realized, this thing seems to be impacting 80% of my female network. So much so that I sent out a SurveyMonkey one day, because I was that curious, about my network. And I asked everyone to share it more broadly. It ended up reaching hundreds of people. And the results were crazy. 76% of the respondents said they suffered from daily gut issues. And a staggering number even reported as having self-diagnosed IBS, meaning they were just living with gut trouble.

    Elizabeth Stein 3:40
    That they think is normal sometimes. It’s like this is how I should feel.

    Katie Wilson 3:45
    Totally. So I was doing all the things in my own life to try to fix my problem. I was doing a colonoscopy, seeing the best GI doctor in LA, and supplements. I was ordering weird supplements on Amazon that had no reviews. I was just desperate to return to normal. I mentioned the word freedom. That's what I was losing. I was worrying about going on planes. And I was worrying about going out for the day because I was worried I wouldn't have a safe snack. So I started camping out in Facebook groups, which almost sounds old school now. And it was just a means to try to solve my problem and relate that and talk to others who had been down this road. And again, the same observation. This thing was huge. It was affecting many people and no one was talking about it in a mainstream way.

    Elizabeth Stein 4:35
    And what were you starting to do at that point to feel better?

    Katie Wilson 4:40
    Great question. I was doing everything you're not supposed to do, which was controlling my diet. I had this real fear of food at that point because I was associating this with hurting my stomach. I had like three meals that were safe meals that I could eat a day. I wouldn't deviate from that. They weren't even very nutritious. It was just simple carbs, things that just wouldn't irritate my stomach. I was taking a bunch of antibiotics because I was convinced. But again, turns out I wasn't alone. So many people were trying to walk the same path. So, I started creating Facebook groups. Then I saw that there were already hundreds of these pre-existing groups dedicated to this. I woke up and I thought, why can't I buy some of these Facebook groups? So, I'd ask the admins, “Can I buy your Facebook group?”

    Elizabeth Stein 5:31
    And what did you want to do? What were you going to buy the group and do at that point?

    Katie Wilson 5:35
    Unsexy answer, I didn't have a goal. The goal was like, I just knew I was fiercely curious and obsessed with the space, realizing that it was so much bigger than I understood and it was at the forefront of my own life. I just cared to know more. This was the plan. And I decided community, and people are generally how you do that. It's just building a community and talking about it with one another that leads to good or productive things. That was the extent of the plan. So I created this big online Facebook community. And in the meantime, I had had a weak night. I'd also been pregnant, which probably was the reason for the tears, but I've been crying the same as chocolate chip cookies. And I was like, “I just want a chocolate chip cookie, that doesn't hurt my stomach.” And that, for me was this long list of things. It was like it needs to be gluten-free and dairy-free and no soy and no sugar alcohols and certified low FODMAP. And that just didn't exist. I think what I was meaning is I want someone to have made a chocolate chip cookie that speaks my language and says things like, “This won't make you feel bloated. This will make you feel gross.” Which was a word I was using a lot. My husband went to the grocery store one night. I remember him calling me at 10 different grocery stores like, “This thing doesn't exist. I’ll try to make you this.” So we hired a food scientist and a dietician. And this was meant to be a fun passion project. And he said, “Look, I'm gonna make you the perfect chocolate chip cookie.”

    Elizabeth Stein 6:59
    What a good husband.

    Katie Wilson 7:00
    I know. I did a good job matching with him myself. He did exactly that. We worked on this in our kitchen. It's just this passion project that we had fun working on. There were lots of terrible cookies that came out of it.

    Elizabeth Stein 7:14
    Was there any intention at this point of it being a product you're gonna sell?

    Katie Wilson 7:22
    No. I was talking people into breakups, and out of breakups, I was matchmaking, and I was loving that. My title at the time was chief dating strategist at Match. So, no aspiration of doing anything else. And these cookies were so good. And we started to call them bars because I was putting them into bar molds to take them with me on the go. And I said, “Why don't we just share these with this community we built and see what happens?” I said, “Look, make 10 extra bars tomorrow. And I'm just going to share these with the community and see what happens.” I worked for the next week and threw up a scrappy website, I call it IB Symbol. Thank goodness, I changed the name. And we had like little wrappers that we ordered. We put the site live and we woke up to 884 orders. So for the next few months, we pulled all-nighters. We made 1000s of these things at home. All day in a hairnet and gloves, we would package them all up overnight, and then UPS would come to the house six times a day. This went on for about seven months. So many entrepreneurs have the story and I love these stories. I was just gonna say I'm sure your stories are unlike this. It's such a hard time. But it's such a magical time because you're interfacing so intimately with consumers, you're so close to what you're building. It was wild, and we had a toddler at the time. Anyways, I wouldn't choose to repeat that stage, but it was magic. It was one of those things that worked. And it worked because the community helped us build it and helped us create the concept.

    Elizabeth Stein 9:00
    I love that. I love that they saw that there was this group and like didn't know how to tap into it. But just taking that like step to lead you and keeping the door open to where this might lead. Like it could have led in many directions. But it led to what you were craving, which was that chocolate chip cookie.

    Katie Wilson 9:20
    Totally. Although thank goodness, we changed the name. We launched officially as BelliWelli at some point. And I'm glad we don't have a company called IB Symbol today. Things you learned along the way.

    Elizabeth Stein 9:29
    Totally. Let's get into that. So first of all, give us some time frame. So what time was this that you had sold the 10 bars that turned into 800 bars? And when did you officially launch?

    Katie Wilson 9:43
    Great question. We officially launched in March 2021. This was all the eight months leading up to March 2021, the easiest way to think. In the middle of COVID, all this is happening. I suppose what came next was a very clear product market fit. We were launching a business at the height of D2C hype. We’re like, that was possible. The launch of the D2C brand seemed exciting and great. It just became clear as they call it after four months of the kitchen grind that we wanted this to be a real and thoughtful business. And it deserves to be. At that point, we took the big scary leaps. I quit my job, we went out to raise venture capital. And together, a fundraising deck. Did all these things that felt hard, strange, weird, and crazy? And we just were super lucky that we aligned ourselves with some people who had done this a time or two early on, who helped us with things like co-packer relationships, and supply chain and naming the business. Two of our early investors were the women at SmartSweets, and I remember them getting on a call one day. They're like, “So we think you should change the name.” And I was like, “It's such a good name. Are you kidding?” And they were like, nah. Thank goodness we did. By the time he launched in March 2021, we launched as BelliWelli with a thoughtful brand, a brand position, a co-packer, and a 3PL. There were no kitchen bars made at that time. So we've been around for just over two years now. Operated as a direct-to-consumer business the first year and eventually pivoted into retail.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:22
    So had you raised money before getting a little bit into that? And what that was like for you raising VC money, and bringing on those partners early on?

    Katie Wilson 11:32
    So the short answer is yes and no. As I mentioned, I worked at a female-led matchmaking startup. And I was number three or four there. So I got to see it firsthand. It was a venture-backed startup. I had been intimate and front-row seat to the fundraising process and all that comes with that. I had never done it myself. But it wasn't like, whoa, what is this? I have no idea how to make a pitch deck. That said, I think fundraising is a humbling experience. K I don't think any two times are the same by any means. And it's not a linear process to the least. But when I was just starting to think about needing capital to do this, I was poking around on LinkedIn. I reached out to someone who had been a former exec at Clorox. Funny enough, I'd reached out to him because I still had a female matchmaking client that I wanted to match. I reached out and I was like, this is so weird. I'm not doing this for money. I'm just doing this for fun and for free. And I think you could be great. He was so kind, he responded. He wasn't interested at that point. I think on my LinkedIn, I said I'm starting a company or something. He said,” Tell me more about your company. So we got on a quick call. And I'm sure in retrospect, I sounded like a mess. I think I said, “Oh, this is just this thing I'm doing. It's in our kitchen. Yeah, it's gonna be great.” And he was just awesome. He said, “Here's what I want you to do. I want you to come back next week, and I want you to present me with a pitch deck. This is how your pitch decks gonna look.” He gave me a template. And he said, “Let's have a conversation once you do that.” And I did that. I did exactly what he said. Again, that first pitch deck is cringing when I look back on it. I pitched it back to him the following weekend. He was our first investor and he invested a sizable amount in the business. He said, “I'm gonna help you with the rest.” And to date, he's probably been our most influential, most helpful investor. He's coming out every round. He's one of my favorite humans. Anyways, we would be nowhere without him. But it's such an unconventional, weird, nontraditional fundraising story.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:40
    Yeah, that's such a great story. What have you learned the most from him? What has he taught you so far in the business?

    Katie Wilson 13:47
    Don't get caught up in a crisis. I don't know why I used to get caught up or what I used to get worried about. Be very calm. Seen it all, done it all. And surround yourself with the right people. I knew very early on and he was aware too and helped me think about this that some CEOs have it all. They're operators, they're marketers. They're visionaries. I am not the have-it CEO and I'm cool with that. So it just became very important and critical that I surrounded myself with the missing pieces very early. He filled that void for me before I had the right person on the team. But no, I'm not one of those unicorns who can do it all. I know they exist, but I just knew very early on that wasn't me.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:32
    How's it been hiring a team and having a team?

    Katie Wilson 14:36
    Oh, my goodness. So far so good. I know our day is coming. Or I know hiring is the hardest part. And hiring, managing, keeping a team motivated, and keeping everyone working towards the same vision is the hard part. So, we're still early days. We were three people for the first year and a half. So we just added to the team for the first time. So now we're a team of nine. It's a big step. It's been like a life-changing experience. I can't imagine teams of 20. That sounds so big. But we got a team of nine. And I like collaborative thinking. I like to collaborate. To me, just having more voices around the table has been amazing.

    Elizabeth Stein 15:23
    So exciting. All right, let's get back to your earlier days and how you came up with BelliWelli as the name and your branding. Because certainly you're in a very crowded category, and how do you stand out especially on that retailer shelf when you're no longer DTC?

    Katie Wilson 15:42
    Yeah. I suppose it makes sense to talk about the thinking and the positioning first, which has always been clear to me. And that is, we are destigmatizing and mainstreaming gut health. I think historically, gut health has been looked at as a medical problem with medical solutions. We have partly accidentally, partly on purpose, taken a food-centered view. We believe that by helping women feel better and eat better, they can live better lives. We think we belong in the pantry, not the medicine cabinet. And what didn't exist when I was a consumer was that brand walking the middle. We're not leaning into potty jokes. That didn't resonate with me. We're not medical. We're still fun and premium and relevant. But we're using words that feel familiar. Like gluten-free, low FODMAP, good for your gut. That's where I thought BelliWelli belonged in the market. And IB Symbol was wrong. That was too medical. That wasn't accomplished. I was so clear on wanting to accomplish. BelliWelli came from a group brainstorming. It was the genius of someone else on our team. I can't even remember, but it was like a group text. And someone said, “That's it.” We were more forward-thinking with the brand and then the name caught up. Because that's the vision. It's just to be this pink box on the shelf and our promises. We won't hurt your stomach. We're not promising to fix you. We're not a pill. We're the safe tree that's good for your belly. And it's as simple as that. The pink and the sparkles, one of one my co-founders refers to it as the sparkle unicorn brand. That is probably just admittedly a reflection of my personality that made it onto the package. So I'm a sparkle pink, the girliest of girly girls. I probably said I want to pink package.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:45
    And that was BelliWelli. That was perfect to stand out on the shelf of a crowded bar category.

    Katie Wilson 17:49
    Yeah, totally. You asked about the bar set, and I think that's gonna be a challenge forever. But where I get excited is, there are so many amazing protein bars in the set. I eat a different bar for my protein. There are five different bars I eat for protein.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:10
    What's your favorite protein bar?

    Katie Wilson 18:12
    I'm so cliche but I'm a GoMacro gal. Who isn't? But I love a GoMacro bar. There are so many good ones coming. I just tried one called Raw Rev, which I thought was fantastic. That wasn't the focus. We felt like there were just a lot of those. A lot of them are doing it well. As a consumer, I was alienated when I went to the bar category. I wanted to snack, I didn't want a meal bridge. I wanted a snack that I could eat that didn't feel heavy and gross in my gut that had some benefit, and that tasted good. And that didn't exist. The goal was not to be a protein bar, it never has been. We've got about five grams of protein. So it’s not anything, but it's just not the point. So again, what’s almost accidentally helped us stand out is we're just trying to be something very different than anything else on the set.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:59
    So as you think about ingredients, can you explain a little bit about the guardrails? And also explain what low FODMAP is because I don't know if everyone knows what that is.

    Katie Wilson 19:07
    For sure. So, low FODMAP. I'll start with a technical, boring answer that no one will ever remember but it just sounds cool. Then I'll explain what that means. So low FODMAP stands for Low fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.

    Elizabeth Stein 19:22
    That is a mouthful.

    Katie Wilson 19:26
    It’s a lot. It's a fancy way of saying they're short-chain carbs that are poorly digested in the gut. Here's where FODMAP gets confusing. FODMAPs themselves are not bad for you. This is my favorite example. Eight almonds are low FODMAP. 12 almonds are high FODMAP. How the heck is a consumer supposed to follow that diet when they're on their reading labels in the grocery store? you don't know how many almonds, you've consumed that day or even how much is in that product. It's about thresholds, and it turns out that if you limit FODMAPs and you can see a low FODMAP diet, your gut symptoms are probably better or improved. Again, this isn't a cure. This isn't gonna fix you. FODMAPs aren't bad. Apples are high in FODMAPs, apples aren't bad for you. It's impossible to follow as a consumer. So something important to me and it's not who we are as a brand, it's just one of many things that I think makes us credibly gut healthy is being certified low FODMAP. So Monash University is the crème de la crème when it comes to certifying a product as low FODMAP. It's a lab test, we've failed it several times. It was really hard to make it happen. But it was just important to me because I was following that diet. So, all of our bars are certified low FODMAP, meaning they're not going to hurt your gut. Not going to fix you, but they're not going to hurt. And then there were table stakes. Gluten-free, dairy free. Again, so many different perspectives on that now and that's okay. It just so happened that those were irritants for me. So, I wanted this to be a haven. This is like a very safe snack. So no gluten, no dairy. Fiber, there's a little bit of protein and real probiotics. And probiotics were tough, but that was the hardest thing to achieve and maintain. But again, I wanted this to not only be safe, but we're providing a little value back when you consume the product. So those are the guardrails, low FODMAP being by far the hardest.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:26
    What's your number one flavored SKU?

    Katie Wilson 21:29
    Oh, it's the one we just launched. It's the best one by far. It's peanut butter. Peanut butter chocolate. I've learned chocolate is king in bar sales. Even if you think strawberry shortcake is amazing, which I think it is, chocolate is what wins on the shelf.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:45
    And every version of it. If it's chocolate chip, double chocolate, every variety.

    Katie Wilson 21:50
    As a consumer, I see the world very differently now. In most categories in the grocery store, it's just different ways of saying chocolate. Double chocolate, double chocolate caramel, salted chocolate caramel. Chocolate sells.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:02
    Yeah. And I don't like chocolate, unfortunately.

    Katie Wilson 22:06
    I'm a fruit girl. Someone was like, “Guys, this strawberry shortcake is amazing.” But no, it's not what the volume is.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:12
    I feel you. As you have been building the brand. I know that community has played a big role, as you mentioned, certainly at the beginning. I'd love to dive into that and how you have continued to lean on community to guide the brand and where you're heading.

    Katie Wilson 22:29
    Yeah. So when I say they have decided everything, it's not an exaggeration. Quite literally, it's been very humbling. I realized I probably have bad ideas and wrong opinions 90% of the time. I'm not the CEO, because I have amazing ideas. I make things happen. But it's not because my ideas are amazing. And they always know best. So when I say they chose the flavor name, every flavor we've launched, and the name of the flavor, we eventually survey the community and they tell us what they want. The packaging, look and feel.

    Elizabeth Stein 23:00
    Has there ever been something that they've suggested and you're like, “No, I don't like this.”

    Katie Wilson 23:05
    100%. It's what we just talked about. It's like, “We don't want your fruit flavors. We want your chocolate. That's it.” I've been wrong so many times. I think really what's been interesting is on our packaging iteration, we worked with an agency to get this retail ready. And at every iteration, we've got a new design. We sent it out via email to the entire community and said we want all the feedback. We pulled everyone on Instagram, TikTok, email. And my instincts were so wrong. It just is such a good lesson. Quite humbling. As a founder, you're in your echo chamber. You're like, oh, my gosh, everyone wants to hear that. There are a million examples. This belongs in the package. And it's just like, no, it doesn't. They don't care. The most interesting was the claims and what we featured on the claims. And I still think we have this wrong. I thought everyone was obsessed with fiber. No, they didn't care if the fiber was on the front of the package. I just learned my lesson several times and we don't do anything without asking them now. They're the reason you have a proper product and a brand at the end of the day. Equally, our retail approach to this has been in-store demos. We built a big team, one of the first investments we made was building an internal demo team that we refer to as our belly besties. Then on top of that, I committed to doing a demo day for 85 days.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:36
    Oh, good for you.

    Katie Wilson 24:39
    I still do three a week. And I do all of our customer service. I have not relinquished any customer service because I am obsessed with what people are saying. And again, nothing more humbling than a demo in-store. Nothing.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:53
    Totally. It is the best way and that was how I built my business in the early days. Getting in-store multiple times a week. And there's nothing that replaces that connection.

    Katie Wilson 25:07
    What I've had to try to figure out is that balance. If there were no guardrails, I'd come home every night and redo everything, which you can't do. But you just learn a lot.

    Elizabeth Stein 25:18
    Yeah. What have you been surprised by that you have changed?

    Katie Wilson 25:24
    probiotics. When I created this product, I was making this for myself initially. What resonated with me was like, it won't hurt your stomach. That still resonates. It's just a function. I'm learning the position, where function belongs in the narrative. And people like to know that there are probiotics. I put probiotics as an afterthought, to be honest. Because they’re like, “Oh, this also has probiotics. Isn't that great?” That's the thing. People love that idea. That's how they describe the bar back to me. It's like, I'm getting my probiotics in a bar. And that was new. I wasn't leading with that. I was leading with good for your gut snack. By the way that positioning doesn't work. Like people are like, good for your gut sounds like that's not gonna taste good. No, thanks. They've taught me how to talk about our product.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:15
    That's such a valuable insight. Someone was just telling me like a great way to hone in on your elevator pitch is you saying to someone what your positioning brand is, and then have them repeat it back to you to hear what they're hearing, and saying, which is oftentimes different than what you think you’re saying.

    Katie Wilson 26:38
    Totally. I can see that. That's what happens every time. I'm like, wow, that's what you took from that? That's so interesting. Or the word with the phrase we got from our consumers that we may even put on packaging at this point is, these make me feel good, not gross. It's funny because I used to use that word. It just doesn't sound like fancy box packaging. But it turns out that's how they describe the product. They can relate to it. Would an agency have ever helped us crack that? No.

    Elizabeth Stein 27:13
    So I'm curious for you. What have you done to help feel your best and not have all these gut issues?

    Katie Wilson 27:23
    Yeah. Learning a lot more than I ever knew and understood about nutrition. That's such a cliche answer. And there's a lot of people going through that right now. But what I think is so cool about the era we're living in is it's all much more accessible than it was. Nutritionists are great, huge fans. Dietitians are amazing. You can do a lot of this sourcing yourself. It’s like going back to a lot of whole foods. And then the other thing I should mention that I'm a big believer in is everything in moderation. So I don't know, insert blank diet. There are a lot of great diets out there that work for people. I have found that my way is to moderation. I don't lean heavily into yes, no, bad, or good. It's moderation. I know I have some foods like gluten that trigger symptoms, and

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