Beyond Bulletproof Coffee: Lessons on Leadership and Startup Growth

Beyond Bulletproof Coffee: Lessons on Leadership and Startup Growth

Editor’s note: Anna left Bulletproof in 2019 shortly after she appeared on the Second in Command Podcast.

When Anna Collins joined the nutrition company Bulletproof as president and COO in 2017, the business had recently expanded its ecommerce operation to Canada, the U.K. and Japan. Within her first 90 days, Collins shut down all of those new markets. In her first six months, she cut the number of product SKUs in half.

Taking such a bold approach could be nerve-wracking at any growing company. But at Bulletproof, which was launched by the popular creator of the Bulletproof Diet, Dave Asprey, such a tack could have immediately put stress on the relationship between CEO and COO.

In a conversation for the Second in Command podcast, Anna explained how reducing Bulletproof’s product focus has helped the company grow in a more sustainable way. And she shares plenty of lessons for COOs in businesses of any size.

Say ‘not now’ instead of ‘no’

Although Anna describes herself as a builder, she says a company can’t scale and grow by doing everything. She cites one of her favorite quotes from Michael Porter, founder of the modern strategy field: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

When she arrived at Bulletproof after four years at Amazon, where she led Prime membership, Anna started making tough choices to support the vision of the company. At Bulletproof, it meant saying “not now” instead of “no” to grow Dave’s vision thoughtfully. 

“He wanted to go faster on some things, as we all do,” Anna recalls. She proposed systems and processes gleaned from her prior work to demonstrate how focusing on fewer products could lead to faster growth — while still providing space for Dave to innovate.

Think beyond the core customer

Part of the strategy for scaling back product lines and distribution channels was to focus on the customer. While core Bulletproof customers were biohacking enthusiasts — people striving to improve their health and performance primarily through their diet — Anna wanted to develop audience segments beyond those enthusiasts.

“We had to say, what’s required to do that?” she says. “How do we grow if our vision is how all people tap into the potential of being human?” 

Showing Dave the possibilities to expand the customer base by building around content, product and distribution, he was able to buy into Anna’s plans.

Define reality

Anna explains taking the reins from Dave to refine Bulletproof’s product development strategy has involved keeping him aware of and engaged with that very process. She hosts a monthly 90-minute product innovation pipeline briefing called “What The CEO Needs to Know.”

“This is a way to continue to have visibility,” Anna explains, with a framework and a context for what product innovation means for the business — and a clear view of what tradeoffs may be necessary.

Anna’s passion for putting ideas into the context of the company mission comes in part from the book “Leadership Is an Art by Max De Pree, which states, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” 

Anna says, “The reality for me is what the state of the union is for all facts on the ground.” Then, after getting the lay of the land, there’s a second part to defining reality: determining the opportunity.

In her first year at Bulletproof, Anna focused on building data analytics tools. Then in her second year, she started hosting weekly business review meetings. Coming from Amazon was quite the transition, explaining, “You can’t do PowerPoint. You can only write narratives. It’s only written word. Every meeting starts with a document and nobody talks until everyone reads the document.”

After years of that particular meeting style, nothing else compares, she admits. But instead of arriving at Bulletproof — a company with a meeting style she describes as “more entrepreneurial” — with a plan to revamp everything, she gradually started to integrate pieces of the Amazon style into Bulletproof’s meetings.

As the business continues to grow, Anna relies on the weekly business meeting to check in on the company’s larger goals. But she admits there’s no metric she relies on to determine success above the others. “Being responsible for the entire business, I don’t not look at anything,” she says. “There’s no one dashboard…it’s a set of things we’re looking at.”

Slow down and practice gratitude

Anna is used to fast-paced work environments but says she’s always working on learning to slow down. “The effort to take the time and bring everyone along is a thing I struggle with,” she says. If she doesn’t slow down and make an effort to engage with stakeholders, she says she can be viewed as intimidating or overbearing.

But as she continues to slow down her leadership style, she continues to practice gratitude, an integral value for her work.

“I care about each individual. I care about them professionally and as a person,” Anna explains. “I’ve invested in their success and work to be that leader who is not only helping to provide clarity on the reality but who also is a servant. What can I do to help?”

This article is based on an episode of Second in Command podcast, where your host Cameron Herold interviews the chief operating officer behind the chief executive officer to learn their tips, systems, and insights from being the second-in-command of an amazing growth company.

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