The SUCCESS Interview: Puneet Nanda on Disrupting Industries and Making Wellness Products Accessible for All
You might not expect to find pulling oil, a product used in ancient Ayurvedic oral hygiene practices, on the shelves at your local Walmart. But thanks to Puneet Nanda, aka GuruNanda, you can.
Born in New Delhi, India, Nanda eventually moved to the U.S., where he managed a tiny family toothbrush company called Dr. Fresh Inc. By correctly identifying hesitancy from big companies such as Colgate and Procter & Gamble to sell their products in 99-cent stores, he moved into this gap in the market and built Dr. Fresh into a flourishing company that provides affordable products.
“They thought selling their product to a dollar store would kind of kill their brand,” Nanda says. “So I said, ‘OK, that leaves me with some opportunity here.’”
Today, after selling Dr. Fresh, the yogi and expert in Ayurvedic medicine brings the same egalitarian mindset to essential oils. In 2015, he launched GuruNanda, which makes typically pricey pure and natural essential oils affordable. We sat down with Nanda to learn how he identifies fields that are ripe for disruption and continues innovating with empathy.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about the early days, after you sold the toothbrush company and were thinking about what happens next?
Puneet Nanda: I took a sabbatical after that. I started learning yoga, meditating and kind of improving on my own personal health and goals. I did not know if I wanted to be doing business ever again. But then, there was an opportunity. In my yoga studio, there were a lot of young women using essential oils. They were buying it from Young Living, a multilevel marketing company. I saw that there was a gap, where they had an amazing product, but it was, like, 10 times more expensive than it should have been. And worse, I saw that a lot of online websites such as Amazon were selling mostly fake essential oils. I saw that there was a huge demand for real products. So I decided, OK, if I can establish a supply chain that can help me get a very high-quality product at retail costs that are 10 times lower than what these guys at Young Living are selling, but still give the customer the same product, I hope that the customer would recognize it and give me some love.
Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.
PN: Before I knew, it grew so quickly where Walmart gave us full, chain-wide distribution, exclusively. We also got into Walgreens, and we became the No. 1 aromatherapy brand in the U.S. in 2017. … But my heart and soul always has been in oral care. For example, oil pulling is one product I had been fanatic about during my yoga days. I still do it today. So we launched oil pulling in Walmart, which is a very unassuming place to launch oil pulling.
I also saw that most of the mouthwashes in the U.S. are either alcohol-based or cetylpyridinium chloride-based. These mouthwashes claim to kill all the germs, which means they’re also killing everything in the mouth that is good bacteria. Instead of putting synthetic stuff in there, I decided to make an essential oil-based mouthwash, and I also decided not to add any preservatives and keep it without water. In a regular mouthwash bottle, 98% of the bottle is water. So we took that concentrate, and we launched a product called concentrated mouthwash, and we based it on an essential oil formula. That, we also launched in Walmart.
And that seems like a unique product. I’ve never seen such a thing anywhere else.
PN: No, nobody in the country has ever done that. We are all about disruption. My aim is: How do I disrupt the old, tired ways that have been continuing since the industrial age? Things have moved on, the science behind everything, but some things have not changed. There’s an ad that used to run that said, “No burn? No benefit.” Which means, basically, if your mouthwash is not burning you, you’re not getting the benefit. … People, still, are stuck to that, so I want to disrupt. I know it is going to be very, very challenging, because people are going to sue me and do whatever to stop me, because that’s billions of dollars at stake. But I’m going to give it a shot.
How do you go about identifying some of the places that are ripe for disruption like that? To look at mouthwash, for example, which has been around for some time, and say, “We can do this differently”?
PN: I would tell you that what has happened over the past two, three decades is that, because of consolidations in Wall Street, the bigger companies keep gobbling up the smaller companies. And they become so big that it is very hard for new innovation to get fully marketed, to get their message across. It’s become a situation where these big companies, it’s impossible to unseat them. But at these big companies, everything moves like a snail. So they don’t innovate as often as they should. There’s too much bureaucracy, so even if there’s somebody who wants to innovate, they can’t. Somebody always stops them. I just feel that needs to change. Somebody has to take the lead. So, maybe me. … Nothing drives them more than profit, and that is not what drives me.
What would you say motivates you the most?
PN: I got lucky the first time. I was able to sell the company and have enough resources where, if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to work today. But what drives me is, No. 1, I love what I do. I’m very, very passionate. Extremely passionate. No. 2, I want to actually bridge the gap between Whole Foods and Walmart and actually get a very high-quality product that only a Whole Foods consumer is able to buy and bring it to a Walmart consumer. Why? Because I feel, as human beings and as fellow countrymen, we all deserve equally good products in life.
When I came from India, I saw that there was a huge gap between the very rich and the very poor… There’s a lot of good products that, whenever you talk to major company salespeople, they say, “Oh no, this is for Whole Foods. This is for Target. Oh no, this is not for Walmart.” That really makes me a little bit upset. Why do you consider a guy who’s not as fortunate, that this is not for him? This is something that I don’t feel good about. My vision is to bring a Whole Foods- or better-quality product to a Walmart consumer. I just want everybody to enjoy the best, equally.
That’s so important, because we always hear that healthy products, wellness products—these are things that might not otherwise be affordable to the average shopper.
PN: You know, in India growing up, there was the caste system. There were four castes. When I came to the U.S., I saw the same kind of caste system prevailing in this category. I saw videos on YouTube that are really, really pathetic, talking about Walmart customers. …
There was a whole website, People of Walmart, where they mocked people shopping there.
PN: There’s always people like that everywhere, right? It’s unfortunate that somebody would demean them. Like, if I go and shop at a Dollar Tree or a Walmart or a 99-cent store, I’m doing it because I feel like I can’t afford, and I need to make my ends meet. It doesn’t mean that I’m a crappy person. I just felt that somehow, somebody needs to think about that. It may be a drop in the ocean, but that’s OK.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos courtesy of Puneet Nanda
Cassel is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, a co-owner of Racket MN, and a VHS collector.
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