From pharmacy stores to Instagram ads, gummies to dog treats, the CBD industry is among the most talked-about in the country right now.
Business is booming. Since the federal legalization of hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD sales in the USA ballooned to $845 million in 2019 and are expected to reach $1.9 billion by 2022.
And where there’s a demand, there’s a bevy of players eager to get in on the action. So the challenge for consumers is cutting through the noise and finding the reputable brands with the most bona fide track record, expertise and business ethos — those that heed to the long-term game of delivering the highest quality product, being transparent, educating and providing an absolute top notch customer service.
One such brand that’s swiftly distinguishing itself from the pack is Feals. Launched in April 2019, Feals is clean, premium CBD delivered to your doorstep – using an industry-first direct to consumer model that is perfect for our times.
As a single product available in three strengths, it is derived from just two ingredients, US-grown hemp and 100% USDA organic MCT oil, and is among the highest concentration in the market. Every batch produced is tested with a third party lab to ensure purity and consistency. And they also maintain a keen eye on the needs and health of their customers, providing an expert CBD hotline for empathetic support and guidance.
It’s a product that has caught our attention with its clean branding and consumer-focused approach. So this week our co-founder John Pearson spoke to Feals co-founder Alex Iwanchuk, who was brave and open in the telling of his personal story which in part inspired the genesis and creation of the company promising “a better way to feel better.”
How did you come to start Feals, what was the timeline, and what had you done before that set you up to start this business?
Eric, Drew, and myself previously built and exited an ad tech company. We learned a lot. That company started in 2012, and we sold it in 2015. And so we all got to hit the reset button at that time, which was an incredible experience for all of us, but in particular for myself. It really was a self-care journey, trying to figure out what worked for me and what didn’t.
We started in 2018. We launched a proof of concept. We sold topicals, tinctures, pet products, capsules. We were testing different supply chains, to find out two important things. One, not all CBD is created equal, and two, the market was a lot bigger than we expected.
So we launched Feals in April of 2019, with just one product, with three different strengths, and our focus was cutting through a lot of the noise early on. We’ve seen so much out there with different companies, we call them a CBD mart, with 100 skews on their website, and you don’t know where to start. Certainly my mom wouldn’t know where to start if she was going to try jump into that world.
Our background with digital acquisition is really what set us up for success here — we learned how to acquire customers on the internet, that was our first company. So the three of us, we did it once, and then we got the band back together in 2018.
You’ve been quite open with your own struggles with wellness, and all the things that all of us have to some degree, but a lot of us are terrified of admitting, so I have great respect for anybody who has the courage to go out there and be honest about such stuff. Where did your education and relationship with CBD begin?
My journey started in middle school. Probably around 14, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I used sports as an outlet at that time, as much energy as I could exert. I was anti-medication at that time, I don’t think I realized the benefits and maybe the needs. Fast forward to college, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. And I realized that anxiety was affecting my social ability at school, my ability to focus on projects, and it really was starting to hinder me. So I started taking an antidepressant. It was more of a mood stabilizer. At the same time, they prescribed me Xanax for anxiety. I was an absolute puddle when I took Xanax. I think it certainly curbed the anxiety, but at the same time, I wasn’t functional. I couldn’t go work or study for a test or hang out with my friend. I literally was loosey-goosey puddle.
Then I started realizing some of the longer term slumps that I was in, or the moods, months at a time, and that was my freshman year of college. I think it was being away from home and just realizing things on my own and so I sought out a therapist at that time and really was leaning into why I ticked that way.
It was interesting, during college and going through all of this and thinking back, I was in a fraternity, I am dealing with anxiety, depression, and it wasn’t a topic that I could go to talk to my college brothers about. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing, and it definitely was a topic that [had a] stigma around it.
So we sold our Ad tech company in 2015, and during that time, I was able to hit the reset button. I was able to really see what works for me, what doesn’t work for me. And this was when I was introduced to CBD, in 2016. Coupling everything that I’d learned through my battle with anxiety and depression with CBD was a game-changer for me. Meditation was a big change for me. Therapy, just being able to talk to somebody about it, and then also, in that transition, I decided to be more open about it. I get vulnerable and pretty emotional — it’s new to me to even talk about it, to be honest about it, and be transparent. I think back to the time at college when I didn’t talk to a good buddy about it or didn’t talk to anybody. There was no comfort level.
During that reset transition for me, I wanted to tell my friends about it. And ironically, telling some of my college friends and being more open over the last couple of years about it, [I found out that] they were battling some very similar things to what I was going through.
Coupled with being honest with myself that it’s OK to not be OK, finding outlets that I could communicate that with, and be honest with my friend circle — my immediate friend circle that I never felt comfortable telling them I’ve been on an antidepressant or I’ve tried Xanax and it didn’t work. The conversation around it was a big change for me when I felt comfortable talking. And I’m still learning to be comfortable about it.
So then I guess you go from that point and you decide to take this journey because you’re a businessman and you’ve got a couple of trusted partners that you’ve already built a solid track record with- So then how did you go about starting this business?
Eric is incredibly technology advanced, so we used technology to our advantage. When we sold our proof of concept, we were selling all sorts of different products. We were able to test retention. We were sending surveys out. This person took 20 milligrams of this blend. Did they find relief? Did they come back as a customer later on? And so we were able to really use a scientific approach. And, like I said before, not all CBD is created equal. So when we were able to get all of this scientific information around what works and what doesn’t, we were able to really lean into a thoughtful approach with our north star [of] truly helping people feel better. And so with that in mind, when we launched Feals, it was really simple. It was very approachable. One thing we learned early on was that people don’t know if it will work or how much to take. So Drew and Eric came up with the flight, and the flight is our try-before-you-buy model. And so you’re able, for 20 dollars, to try a 40 milligram, 80 milligram, and 160 milligram.
And so this thought process of being able to try-before-you-buy was really something that was exciting for us to lean into. And the other part, everybody is so unique when they’re trying CBD. It’s very personal in your journey. So, John, you may say, “Hey, Alex, I need 40 milligrams to feel relief around the anxiety.” And I could say, “I need 80 milligrams to find the same relief.” So that personal side of it, Feals has really rolled out a red carpet to help people find that journey. So it’s been exciting.
What qualities are imperative for those working your phone hotline? You have to have faith in them, they must be able to understand your customers and provide the best advice?
That’s a great question, and one word that comes to mind for our customer experience team is empathy. We’ve led with an example of really understanding our customers and why they’re calling in. Asking questions, being willing just to listen at the same time. And I think as we onboard our customer service agents, it’s really all about making people feel comfortable. We talk about some tough topics, whether it’s fibromyalgia or depression or chronic pain, and these customers are looking for relief. And sometimes it’s at their last straw. They’ve been trying everything, and they’re willing to try one more thing. This hand-holding, this white glove treatment that we offer, it really elevates the experience. There’s a lot of stigma that comes with this product, and I think we’re trying to really break down some of those walls as we onboard our customers when they have questions. And we’re here. We’re thoughtfully answering these questions.
So the CX team is really trained to be empathetic, to ask questions, but also just be an ear to listen. Our average call, I think, is about 17 minutes long. And I think the industry average is probably four or five, I’d say, just from a customer experience.
And so I think that goes to show, really the treatment that our team is willing to offer, and that empathy, that patience to ask questions, to understand, not just as a customer but as a human. It’s not a one call and you’re done experience. They actually build friendships and relationships over time. So month one, you’re figuring out your dose, but month two, you’re hearing from our CX team, “How’s it going? Maybe you could take a little bit less to find the same results?” And so we really coach people through that experience, and it’s been fun.
I think that’s one of my favorite parts about Feals, is really being able to deliver that elevated experience while trying something that’s new. And there’s definitely some stigmas out there, and we’re here to help you figure it out as you go.
You’ve got three different doses, so you ask people to begin at the lowest dose and see what they feel and then go more or go less once you get a conversation going with the CX?
It’s all about transparency. All of our products have third party lab tests. We’re testing our products six different times from seed to oil, that transparency of assuring what’s in the product, what’s not in the product. It’s an agricultural product, so we’re testing for pesticides and heavy metals and making sure our product is potent but also clean. I think the next part of it into figuring out that journey, if it’s working for you, is patience.
I think one of my most favorite sayings when trying CBD, it’s not what you feel but it’s what you don’t feel. You really have to tune in and understand, “Hey, I’m a little less anxious than I was.” Or, “Hey, that inflammation or that pain is a little less.” Because there’s no psychoactive elements. You’re not going to be high. So it’s really, it’s a very subtle feeling.
And so we train our customer experience team to coach people through this, start small, be consistent. When you’re starting small and trying to find that perfect dose, it’s unique to each person. Small doses of CBD tend to be more of a stimulant and more for everyday wellness, and then larger doses of CBD tend to have more sedative-like effects. Let’s just say you went to the store and bought a tincture and you took a small amount of CBD, you may get the exact opposite effect from that which you’re looking for, if you’re looking for a sleep aid.
Our material, when you do receive your product, we hold your hand every step of the way. Understanding how to take it, what’s best practices, when to take it. So if you are looking to sleep, we suggest you start at the 80 milligrams and work your way up. We really have catered the customer experience team to ensure that people are finding the relief that they’re looking for. But you do have to be patient and consistent, I think those are the two keys.
Sleep is so important. I’ll use you as an example. So you understand your body, your mind and your stress levels and your anxiety very well. You’re keenly self-aware, which is wonderful, that you’ve taken the time to acknowledge and study that. But if, for instance, you suddenly have a massive, stressful situation, do you feel that you have confidence in what you’ve learned and your dosage, that you can cope and move steadily forward, no matter the stress level?
So I like to think that I take CBD a la carte, so it’s really as needed, as I feel that anxiety creeping in. I think one thing that’s great about CBD is, it’s not addictive forming, so it’s not going to be that, “Hey, I need it right now.” But for me, just finding that perfect dose, it took time. And so I take the a la carte, as needed. I took about 20 milligrams before this interview. My butterflies were running strong! And I went for a walk with my girlfriend, and she reminded me, “Hey, why don’t you take 20 milligrams, or why don’t you take some CBD before?” And sometimes, just that reminder, that’s what I need.
But I like to call it a warm hug. It settles me down and, again, it’s not what you feel, it’s what you don’t feel. It’s a subtle effect for me, but it’s really the weight on my chest. I’ve had panic attacks before, and it’s the weight on my chest and the feeling of just utter unknown. And I think that when I do take CBD, really, you can feel that weight lifted.
So are you actually taking a little every day, just to start your day, like you would take a multivitamin or such? Or is it that you’re seeing how you’re feeling and if you’re feeling a little stressed, then you’ll take a little bit to help ease that off?
I take it daily in the morning, before I meditate. And so that’s helped me really just zen. I’ve been really good about not touching email, no phone, no nothing before I set my day up for success. That has been a game-changer for me. Just not touching digital products before I have an espresso and a little bit of CBD and a meditation. That’s the daily wellness, to set me up for success. But then as I feel anxiety creeping in, I certainly will take 20 milligrams proactively. Or if I know that I have a big meeting the next morning or a flight, and I’m going to be a restless sleeper, I’ll take CBD in the evening, a larger dose, to ensure that I can get a good night’s sleep. Because I certainly will toss and turn if I have something important the next day, I’m not a great sleeper.
Does it affect your dream world if you take a higher dose in the evening? Do you feel that you have more interesting dreams?
I haven’t noticed that. But I have heard others feel more vivid dreams are coming into their life as they have a better REM sleep. But I can’t say that I’ve had the delight to have more vivid dreams. Because I would love to wake up and tell everybody about my dreams.
And what meditation do you do? Are you a TM man or are you an app guy?
I’ve tried pretty much every app out there. I just signed up for TM, so I’ll be doing a TM course next month, so I’m very excited to explore that. But I’m currently using Headspace. I’ve gone through all of the beginner to pro, all the courses, and now I really find just a slight guided meditation works for me, just to settle in and focus on my breathing, and then usually about five to seven minutes of true silence, and then working my way back in.
But it’s a total game-changer for me. My business partner, Eric, introduced me to meditation when I visited him in Thailand on that reset period. He was on a 79-day streak of meditation, and then I arrived and I think I did not help that streak. But he introduced me to Headspace … just to be more present, to be more mindful.
Demographically-wise, who are your customers?
We’re really thoughtful in our branding. We want it to be very approachable. So we’re actually 53% women and 47% male. So understanding that on the weighing side of the female demographic. And the other part that’s really been cool is when we started our branding, we wanted to create a brand that was cool next to our peers, but also approachable for our grandparents. So we like to call it CBD your mom would try. Is the branding approachable? It’s really cool to see the cross-generational. We’ve got millennials trying it for anxiety, and telling their parents or grandparents about it for inflammation, or vice versa. And so we’ve seen a really cool cross-generational selling of this product as the stigma gets taken away.
We’ve been focused on education, to lift some of those stigmas. But it’s been interesting to see those generational gaps come closer together when you’re talking about a product that you can use for anxiety and also use for inflammation.
To any parents researching the use of CBD for their teenagers suffering from anxiety disorders- what would you advise?
We do use a full spectrum CBD oil, so not only do we have CBD in our product, we have CBG, CBN, CBC, and then all of the other terpenes, which gives the smell and the aroma and the taste. All have therapeutic benefits. When you get all of this together, you call it the entourage effect.
One thing I wanted to mention is, anybody under the age of 18, consult a physician or be in close contact with your parents, just making sure that they’re aware. But we definitely have customers that are using it with their children in tandem with a physician’s notice, and just being transparent. But I think start small. I was just speaking to a business partner who is doing something similar with their daughter with anxiety, and just starting small and going through that journey. But the CX can help, I think from a conversation standpoint, if they have any questions, our hotline is always available.
So for inflammation, for example, how do you recognize that?
Yeah, so I think the journey to find that perfect dose, as far as inflammation, is being consistent. Everybody is pre-wired for CBD, it’s called the endo-cannabinoid system. We all have one. And so CBD is very unique to each person. It’s kind of a lock and key. So some people, you may open to an anti-inflammatory. Or some, you may find CBD makes you very sleepy. I think there’s a tipping point or an equilibrium, where you will find the anti-inflammatory would kick in. I know my mom has had tremendous arthritis, and it’s really based on inflammation, and her hands crippling when it comes to just writing or using a pencil. But CBD for her has been a total game-changer.
Five years from now, where would you like to be? Do you feel you want to stay with it? Or is it something that you want to build and let go?
I think we’re still focused on the three buckets we’ve been chasing, which is pain, sleep, anxiety, and truly helping people feel better. So I think looking at the five year horizon, we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to the therapeutic benefits of the hemp plant. Our team is really focused on the research around each cannabinoid. We’re selling a CBD product, but we’re still starting to learn about CBN and CBG for sleep, or inflammation. So we’re just beginning to see where this plant can take us.
I think this is something I’m leaning into. To be able to get up every day and read our reviews of our third-party customers who are authentic and truly have life-changing stories. It’s our north star and it gets me, and it gets our founding team and our entire Feals team, up out of bed every day to put our right foot forward. So I think it’s exciting.
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