What does it take to develop and launch a consumable product? What are the unique challenges with an ingestible product? My guest today is innovator and entrepreneur, Chris Tolles. Chris co-founded Sundots with Emilia Javorsky MD, MPH, a physician-scientist focused on developing new tools to improve health and well being. Sundots are the world’s first gummy for sun protection and provide an innovative solution to prevent sun damage to your skin. In our conversation, Chris touches on the intricate process of developing an ingestible product, challenges he and his team have faced along the way, how they identified their target audience, advice for startup entrepreneurs, and much more! You don’t want to miss a minute of this engaging and informative episode featuring Chris!

Developing an ingestible product.

As if launching a new product wasn’t hard enough, try making it a consumable product! Far and away, there are more challenges, difficulties and hurdles when it comes to producing and marketing an ingestible product like Sundots. On this episode, you’ll hear from Chris Tolles as he goes through the process of developing his product, Sundots. Much of the product development process centered around safety tests, procuring pure, quality ingredients, and passing ethical standards. Sundots are based on the active ingredient polypodium leucotomos, a fern extract from Ecuador backed by 30+ years of research for sun protective properties, including blinded human clinical trials conducted by Harvard. To hear more about the development process with Sundots, make sure to listen to this episode!

Pre-campaign efforts that led to early success.

How does a profitable brand lay the groundwork for success and capitalize on it before and during a crowdfunding campaign? What lessons can you learn that you can apply to your startup? On this episode, you’ll hear from Chris Tolles as he shares how Sundots was able to stay in contact with their backers as well as learn from early testers and build on their feedback. For Chris and his team, it came down to not only making sure that the product resonated with consumers but that the storytelling aspect made a connection as well. Learn more about Sundots and how they’ve been able to get a product off of the ground that speaks to consumers pain points on this exciting episode!

Why a subscription service is so attractive.

As a business leader and entrepreneur, you are constantly on the lookout for ways to make your product stand out from the competition. What is the best way to accomplish this goal? On this episode, you’ll hear from innovator Chris Tolles as he explains how Sundots stands out with their subscription model. Because Chris and his team have worked so hard on creating a high-quality product, they wanted to find a way to make their awesome product part of everyday life for their consumers. This led Chris to market his product with a subscription service model where customers pay for a month, three months, six months or a full year’s worth of products. Listen to this episode as Chris expands on this concept and how it helped Sundots stand out!

The key to success? Real benefits!

Everyone wants to know what the “key” is to launch a successful and thriving product. Is there a secret key strategy that will make one product sell better than others? Yes, but it’s not so secret. Create products that resonate with people! One of the best ways to do this is by creating products that end up producing real benefits. While creating consumable products has its own set of challenges, a great way to midgate some of these challenges is by crafting an effective message about their benefits. On this episode, Chris Tolles talks about the benefits of Sundots and how he and his team were able to communicate that message to their customers. You don’t want to miss this fascinating episode!

Key Takeaways

  • [1:05] Chris Tolles joins the podcast and shares the backstory for Sundots.
  • [3:30] What was product development like for an ingestible product?
  • [5:45] The biggest challenge Chris and his team faced.
  • [7:00] Pre-campaign efforts Chris and his team used to set Sundots up for success.
  • [9:30] How did Chris niche down his target audience?
  • [12:00] Is it hard to gain consumer trust with a product that has medical claims?
  • [14:30] The biggest surprise so far.
  • [16:00] Chris’ advice for startup entrepreneurs.
  • [17:30] What’s the plan for the future of Sundots?
  • [19:00] Chris enters the Launch Round.
  • [20:15] How to connect with Sundots.


Connect With Sundots


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View this episode's transcript

Roy Morejon: Welcome to Art of the Kickstart: Your Source for Crowdfunding Campaign Success. I’m your host, Roy Morejon, President of Enventys Partners, the top full-service turnkey product development in crowdfunding market agency in the world. We have helped startups raise over a hundred million dollars for our clients since 2010. Each week I’ll interview a crowdfunding success story, an inspirational entrepreneur, or a business expert in order to help you take your startup to the next level with crowdfunding.
Art of the Kickstart is honored to be sponsored by Backerkit and The Gadget Flow. Backerkit makes software that crowdfunding project creators use to survey backers, organize data, and manage orders for fulfillment by automating your operations and helping you print and ship faster. The Gadget Flow is a product discovery platform that helps you discover, save, and buy awesome products. It is the ultimate buyer’s guide for luxury gadgets and creative gifts.
Now let’s get on with the show.
Welcome to another edition of Art of the Kickstart. Today I am joined with Chris Tolles, co-founder and CEO of Sundots. Chris, thanks so much for being on the show today.

Chris Tolles: Absolutely, happy to chat.

Roy Morejon: So Sundots, sun protection in a daily gummy. This looks awesome, so you guys are claiming it to be the world’s first gummy for sun protection. Let’s talk about where this began, what’s the story here?

Chris Tolles: So the story starts with my co-founder, Dr. Emilia Javorski. She had done dermatology research for many years at Harvard Medical School and had a real passion for the public health problem of sun protection. She’s actually an MD by training and got her MPH, or Masters of Public Health, and started to take a look at what kind of broad skin and sun health challenges are out there. She was working at a photo medicine lab at Harvard called the Wellman Center, and was just pretty much blown away by how little innovation there had been within the category of sun protection in quite some time. We take sunscreen for granted. It’s a remarkable product, but she was pretty surprised to see what gaps there were. Namely, we don’t use it the way we’re supposed to, it doesn’t provide the kind of protection we think it does, there’s a whole category of chemical sunscreens that may have some scary endocrine disruption problems, and she set out to find a better way.
She had become an expert in a variety of botanical approaches to skin health, and did a research review with the lead investigator of her program to look at botanical approaches to sun protection, found this body of evidence around a fern called polypodium leucotomos, and was struck by the quality of the science behind it. Namely, that these were peer-reviewed studies, there were human trials, they were done at places like Harvard. That was a number of years ago, it took her awhile to kind of put the pieces together, which included meeting me, looking for a commercial co-founder, somebody who can really be passionate about product development and marketing and those sorts of things. But we’ve been working together on Sundots for quite some time, basically inspired by the quality of the research, and observing the big gap we do have in sun protection solutions. This fern extract really deserves to be a super compelling, accessible product.
Sundots is our first product, there’s a whole portfolio behind it that we’re really excited about for the future. But so far there’s been enormous enthusiasm from the market and we’re really excited to see where it goes.

Roy Morejon: Absolutely. So, when you guys were creating Sundots or thinking of Sundots and you know, all the product development that goes into that, we don’t really get many people on the show that are doing let’s say, like a vitamin or an ingestible. So what’s the process look like there, for the audience to know?

Chris Tolles: So obviously you know safety, purity, quality, efficacy, those things are really central to our brand. And just from a values perspective they’re sort of non-negotiables for us. That’s what a lot of the product development is. It’s defining what it means for an ingredient, for example, to be effective. In our case, our active ingredient is this fern extract, polypodium leucotomos, it’s a bit of a mouthful so we can call it PLE if you want. So that’s identifying what are the compounds within the ingredient that are actually doing the work. We did a whole bunch of work with Worcester Polytechnic Institute up here in Boston to look at different suppliers of the fern extract and use a super-complicated million dollar sort of gas chromatography machine to kind of pull apart different suppliers, and basically establish deep down inside, what are the compounds doing the work, to make sure we’re choosing ingredients that we can really stand behind.
After that, it’s really a chemistry problem. So gummies look simple, you know, they’re very friendly. But it’s actually a pretty profound chemical reaction that’s happening. We work with pectin, which is vegan. That’s a big part of why we choose pectin instead of gelatin, which is animal based. And then it’s about how do you take a pretty intense fern and stick it in something that can then be tasty. We also obviously want to minimize sugar and all those sorts of things. So it’s about how do you deliver something that’s super potent without it tasting too medicinal, and that was a big part of the challenge for us as well as obviously all the standard supply chain issues of bottling and that sort of thing.
So it was quite a number of different revisions, but we’re really excited to feel like we ended up with a product that’s absolutely effective in terms of that fundamental science we’re doing to validate it, and you know, really accessible, friendly, tasty, you’re-gonna-make-a-habit-of-it because it is so fun to enjoy. And that’s a big part of our skin health mission, is it’s gotta be an everyday thing because that’s where the risk comes from. It’s an everyday risk.

Roy Morejon: So who did all the taste-testing?

Chris Tolles: Yeah, family and friends. The first gummies were decidedly less tasty than the ones we’ll ship with. I highly appreciate my dear wife and neighbors for subjecting themselves. But now we’ve got a pretty good feeling about it so they don’t mind the current revisions.

Roy Morejon: Nice. What would you say was the biggest challenge you encountered when you were designing the product?

Chris Tolles: Polypodium is a rare ingredient. I mentioned the strength of the evidence. For a bunch of reasons, that has not translated into market awareness. So the example I always give is vitamin C. If you wanted to make your gummy with vitamin C, vitamin C is vitamin C is vitamin C. It’s incredibly standardized, because it’s so broadly used, the industry has just come up with a set of criteria that define it. Polypodium is a niche ingredient. So while there are a variety of ways we can get it, it’s very difficult to be sure that the material we’re getting really works the way it’s supposed to. So that’s why I mentioned that work with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, like we needed to do our own fundamental science to establish that the active ingredient we’re putting on the label is really going to do the work that we claim it does. And that included a machine that’s literally a million dollars and requires multiple PhD’s to operate. Thankfully Emilia, my co-founder, our chief scientific officer, she is a research scientist, she understands that science at an incredibly detailed level, and was able to take point on those pieces of the equation. But it was pretty shocking how difficult it was to identify an active ingredient that we could really stand behind. That was the bulk of the product development challenge, for sure.

Roy Morejon: Got it. So jumping into the active Indiegogo campaign, we always talk a lot about how important the pre-campaign effort is before launch. What did you guys end up doing to set yourself in such a good position?

Chris Tolles: Some of it is things that are very obvious but very difficult to stay devoted to. One of those for example, is just talk to your customer. We’ve had an incredible group of people that we’ve connected with both in real life and on the internet to help us understand, what are the real pinpoints of people who are facing sun protection as a challenge? Who is sensitive to our perspective that the protection we do have is insufficient? Whole bunch of different kinds of customers there within, that could be a whole separate conversation in its own right. But basically making sure that even though there’s something in our hands that we’re excited about, that Chris and Emilia are excited about, ultimately, we live and die by our customer.
The beauty of crowdfunding is that you’re raising money from your customers. And so, it needs to resonate with them, not some hypothetical investor who may or may not have the same kind of pinpoints as the people you’re ultimately selling it to. That meant consistently going back with new prototypes, with new samples, understanding both from a product perspective, whether we’re hitting on that, and then from a storytelling perspective.
In America, we perceive sun and UV risk to primarily be about the beach, right? You know, “you’re going to the beach, wear your sunscreen!” And that’s accurate, but when you do the math, it’s actually the overwhelming majority of UV radiation comes from the other 355 days a year when you’re not wearing sunscreen. That’s a pretty nuanced story to tell, and it took us months of iteration to say, “how do we take a normal person and get them from their current state, to one where they really understand the health challenge that they’re facing by going through their life unprotected, you know 95% of the days of each year.” Being able to iterate very closely with our customer, both in terms of product and in terms of that storytelling has been absolutely essential. A consequence of that is also that we were able to gather a strong group of email addresses of people who are passionate, keeping them in the loop on our progress so that when we do launch on Day One we’ve got a strong cohort to reach out to. But that email collection was really a byproduct of just trying to stay close to our customer and get inside their heart and their head.

Roy Morejon: So it’s gotta be difficult, right? Like your target audience is anybody that goes outside, right? How do you go about deciding how to filter that down into a more targeted audience?

Chris Tolles: For us, it was initially, have as many random conversations as you can with folks that you think might be interested. For better or worse, it is more art than science with this next step, which is starting to identify themes within those groups of people. I’m a designer by training, I went to RISD undergrad, and so listening to your customer and drawing out what’s going on inside them is, I think, a big part of what motivates me as a creative problem solver. Those first few patterns that we started to identify were really around folks that had families and understood the threat of sun protection. I have a daughter who’s almost two years old. It is a giant pain to keep her covered all the time. And while, as a company, Sundots is totally devoted to quality sunscreen and making sure that that’s absolutely a part of everybody’s toolkit, we also know that we don’t always use it exactly the way we should. So starting to understand the kind of psychological challenge of being a parent, feeling like I’m always missing the mark, I’m never keeping my family protected the way I am, and feeling like that’s something that we could click into with a solution that offers to fill the gaps, that was an initial pattern we identified.
And then the second initial pattern that we’ve doubled-down on is really understanding the beauty perspective on UV radiation. According to the WHO, 80-90% of skin aging is driven by UV radiation by sun exposure. That means all the lotions in the world, all the sleep, all the hydration, all the goop, none of it matters compared to staying protected from the sun. We kind of knew that as like a concept going in, but until we really started to hear, primarily women in this case, say to us, “Oh my gosh, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t want to end up feeling old and wrinkly. I know sun protection is the most important thing. It’s really hard to do.” Again, there’s that psyche that’s coming out. “I know there’s a thing I’m trying to do. It’s really hard to do well. I sure wish I had another tool in my toolkit alongside with sunscreen and UPF-rated clothing.”
Those were the two segmentation pieces that really popped out to us early on that had stayed true throughout our campaign.

Roy Morejon: Nice. So crowdfunding is all about establishing trust. One, from the entrepreneur, the startup creating the product and two, are you actually going to deliver what you said. Obviously you guys have backgrounds in medicine and degrees from Harvard and RISD and all of that, do you think it’s harder for a consumer to trust the product with this being your first one, or any of the medical claims around the product itself?

Chris Tolles: Absolutely. A big part of why we have committed ourselves to this product is not just that we believe in the product, but we think we are the right team to bring it to market and to build that trust.
Emilia has spent her entire career building a portfolio of credibility that we want to use in pursuit of something that’s got real, tangible benefit for people. In our case, we didn’t have to make up anything. We didn’t have to try very hard for her to be like a strong, scientific personality. And also, because she’s a doctor and she cares about people from a public health perspective, she’s really good at translating scientific concepts into insights that normal people can understand. I consider myself a highly scientifically-literate normal person, but like a normal person nonetheless, and when I started to feel in the early days of our collaboration, “Wow, she could really take PhD level, post-doc level, dermatology research and help me understand what’s actually going on,” I knew that was a key part of our marketing message.
So if you take a look at our website or our medium publication you can see we’ve got a lot of content out there and we’ll have more in the future, trying to kind of own the conversation around sun protection, because there is a ton of misinformation and that does need to be accurate in a way that helps people.
And then the second piece of it was, given that credibility that we do feel like we have, how do we tell a story that doesn’t just say “trust me,” but “go ahead, look into it for yourself.” And in this case what that meant is being really transparent about the research that is out there. The beauty of polypodium is that if you go to PubMed and take a look for it yourself, don’t let us guide you. Just go ahead and google PubMed for polypodium leucotomos. All the research you find points you in the same direction that it pointed to us, which is that these are demonstrable benefits that are not difficult to support. Basically zap somebody with UV radiation, give them PLE, zap them again, take a skin biopsy. We site this in our Indiegogo campaign, but a 2017 study with skin biopsies, like deep, deep looking at a cellular level, 76% fewer additional sunburn cells were taken with polypodium. We don’t have to curate the conversation all that specifically, because we know when people go ask their dermatologist, when people go check it out themselves, they’ll find that the answers are right there the same way we’re trying to represent them.

Roy Morejon: Nice. So we’ve been working with the campaign for you, so far the campaign’s launched, you’ve got hundreds of backers, tens of thousands of dollars in it so far so early on in the campaign. What’s been the biggest surprise so far?

Chris Tolles: The biggest surprise is actually that the majority of our backers prefer the multi-month perks. Our goal after Indiegogo is that Sundots is a subscription product, and again that’s because the best evidence is that UV radiation is an everyday risk, we should have an everyday solution for it. Obviously you can’t do subscription products on Indiegogo, so instead we have perks at one, three, six, and twelve months. Of course, you get a bigger discount if you commit to a longer term product. And because we were totally sold by the quality of the science behind polypodium but we knew most people had never heard of this before, we were expecting the overwhelming majority to be choosing the one month option, “Hey this sounds cool, but like honestly until I try it for myself, I’m not so sure.” And instead, I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but well over 50% of our backers are choosing the three, six, and twelve month multi-month perk. That’s been really encouraging because that means we’re doing our job of telling the story well. Ultimately, we thought this would be 90% on the one month, and then a few people that are willing to take the jump. And instead it’s been really rewarding to feel like that time we spent crafting a compelling, credible story is paying off, and that backers are choosing those multi-month perks in a way that really validates the storytelling we’re doing.

Roy Morejon: That’s the beauty of crowdfunding, right? Put the product out there and let the crowd decide what fits them best.

Chris Tolles: Absolutely. We can have all the theory in the world, we can talk to all the friends and family we want, but until you really put it out there you don’t know whether you’ve got resonance. And of course it’s early days, there’s a lot of work to be done before Sundots is successful and we have the impact the way we want to, but those early signals are really encouraging to us, that we’re onto something.

Roy Morejon: Absolutely. So Chris, what advice would you give to some other entrepreneur looking to crowdfund their health product like this?

Chris Tolles: One is less about tactics and more just about the fundamentals, like work on a product that has real benefit. We don’t talk about this much publicly because our customers don’t care, but part of our mission is to sort of reform how supplements are practiced. There’s very little evidence that many of them have a meaningful impact on your health. There is really shocking over-promising of benefits that aren’t likely to be there when you dig into the science behind them, it can be spotty and not even human-based. So one, I’d really encourage people to start with something that you feel like does have a strong body of evidence.
And then from that, it’s really understand what are the barriers between the truth that you know is there, for us polypodium totally works, and the reality that exists in normal people’s minds. “Yeah right, a gummy for sun protection. That sounds too good to be true.” Most things that sound too good to be true, are too good to be true. There are exceptions though, we deeply believe that our product is one of them. The only way, I feel like we were able to really successfully iterate on that message and launch with an Indiegogo campaign that really tells that story in a credible way, is that our campaign today probably shares 5% resemblance with the campaign of months ago. It was a constant … we probably have a V26 pdf somewhere of us working through different copying and imagery to really tell that story. And that’s because we just didn’t take it for granted that people would believe us. It’s not my wife and my parents that need convinced, it’s normal people out there. And that’s only going to be had through consistent iteration and testing of what you believe is true.

Roy Morejon: Yeah, so where are you guys headed next when the project ends?

Chris Tolles: The purpose of our campaign is to give us capital for an initial manufacturing run. If we size that right, that’ll also give us some inventory to sell beyond. After our Indiegogo campaign, we’re going to primarily be focused on direct sales as an eCommerce brand. We want to stay as close to our customer as possible, as well as some kind of key partnerships with specialty retailers that can really help us tell our story in a scientifically legitimate and nuanced way, as well as working with influencers where we feel like they’re really helping advance an understanding of science and consumer products on the internet. That is a pretty modest group of people, there’s a lot of soft soap out there so we want to be really intentional to choose those advocates that we come alongside. Thankfully sun protection is a topic of profound interest among a lot of people on the internet, and as I mentioned previously, there’s been a significant lack of innovation in the category for a long time, so people are eager for new solutions and we’re hoping to start to identify some of those communities that we can come alongside with as a new solution to compliment sunscreen and UPF-rated clothing.

Roy Morejon: Nice. Alright Chris, this is going to get us into our launch round where I’m going to rapid-fire a handful of questions at you. You good to go?

Chris Tolles: Let’s do it.

Roy Morejon: So what inspired you to be an entrepreneur?

Chris Tolles: I’m not good at working for other people.

Roy Morejon: Fair enough. So if you could go to the beach with any entrepreneur throughout history, who would it be?

Chris Tolles: Oh man, any entrepreneur … Jesus.

Roy Morejon: Alright, what would have been your first question?

Chris Tolles: Oh man, “How do I get the good life, man?”

Roy Morejon: Who did you look up to when you were growing up as a kid?

Chris Tolles: The Mets logo.

Roy Morejon: Why?

Chris Tolles: It just really inspired me. It was high contrast. I didn’t even self-identify as a designer until much later in life, but that was always like, “Bam! I want that. That’s bold.”

Roy Morejon: Alright that’s a first. What book would you recommend to our audience?

Chris Tolles: How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen.

Roy Morejon: Nice. Last question Chris, what does the future of crowdfunding look like?

Chris Tolles: Greater demands on campaigners to not screw it up on the back end. I think there’s a real black mark on it as a system because there’s been so many challenges in fulfilling on time, on spec. And I think we’re going to see an emergence of really interesting new tools for insuring that the likelihood that you’ll get what you are asking for increases.

Roy Morejon: Solid. Chris, thank you, this is your opportunity to give the audience your pitch, tell them what you’re all about, where people should go, and why they should check you out.

Chris Tolles: Thanks so much. Sundots is the world’s first gummy for sun protection. We’re based on 30 years of skin and sun health research into our active ingredient, which is called polypodium leucotomos. I can barely spell it now after working with it for a long time so don’t worry about it. You can check out our website, getsundots.com, we’d love your support. Feel free to reach out at info@getsundots.com if you have any questions.

Roy Morejon: Awesome. Well audience, thank you again for tuning in, make sure to visit artofthekickstart.com for all the notes, transcript, and links to everything we talked about today, and of course thank you to our crowdfunding podcast sponsors The Gadget Flow and Backerkit. And if you liked this episode be sure to leave us a review on iTunes. Chris, thank you so much for being on Art of the Kickstart.

Chris Tolles: Thanks so much Roy.

Roy Morejon: Thanks for tuning into another episode of Art of the Kickstart. The show about building a business, world, and life with crowdfunding. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, awesome. Make sure to visit artofthekickstart.com and tell us all about it. There you’ll find additional information about past episodes, our Kickstarter Guide to Crushing It, and of course if you loved this episode a lot, leave us a review at artofthekickstart.com/itunes. It helps more inventors, entrepreneurs, and startups find this show and helps us get better guests to help you build a better business. If you need more hands-on crowdfunding strategy advice, please feel free to request a quote on enventyspartners.com. Thanks again for tuning in and we’ll see you again next week.