The founder of wellness startup Mab & Stoke on the growth of ‘pay what you can’ options during the pandemic

September 20, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders on the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

After launching a career as an attorney, Christina Mace-Turner quickly realized that law wasn’t for her. A creative person at heart, Mace-Turner shifted gears in 2008 and joined Apple, where she led global business affairs and then content strategy for nearly four years. After Apple, she spent two years as head of partnerships at Flipboard, where her team planned, developed, and implemented key global partnerships with the likes of iTunes, Viacom, the New York Times, and Condé Nast.

Though these positions proved professionally rewarding, Mace-Turner says she wanted to start a business of her own. So in 2016 she cofounded natural skin-care line True Botanicals, overseeing three rounds of financing before exiting in the fall of 2018. 

Mace-Turner has since moved on to launch another wellness company, Mab & Stoke, which produces custom herbal supplements tabs, in 2019. She recently spoke with Fortune about her career, her new company, and what the future looks like after completing the startup’s first year in business.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Mab & Stoke founder Christina Mace-Turner
Christina Mace-Turner, founder of Mab & Stoke
Courtesy of Mab & Stoke

Fortune: The wellness industry is hotter than ever, but it’s also crowded. There are also a lot of questions about the effectiveness of ingestible products. What inspired the launch of Mab & Stoke? What makes it stand apart?

Mace-Turner: Honestly, when I left True Botanicals, I had absolutely no intention of starting another company, particularly in the “wellness” world. I was completely burnt out on the grueling hours of startup life. But, ironically, that was what inspired Mab & Stoke. I looked to herbal medicine to help relieve my fatigue, and once I figured out what herbs I should be taking and in what amounts, I was absolutely blown away by the results. In all of my years of dabbling in herbal remedies, I had never experienced the level of impact and efficacy that I did once I got into a daily routine of ingesting the appropriate herbs for my needs.

I’ve heard a lot of people question the efficacy of ingestible products, and while that makes sense on a product by product basis, it doesn’t make much sense to me for the category as a whole. I think people believe and understand things by doing. No one needs to prove to you that a glass of water will quench your thirst, because everyone has experienced that result firsthand. But just as it takes more than a drop of water to rehydrate a person, it also takes more than a scoop or two of plant powder in your latte to experience a plant’s optimal benefits. And if you want targeted results, it needs to be the right plants in a very specific amount with a regular frequency. I think most people never get the correct plants for their needs, or if they do, they rarely ingest enough of them to lead to a perceivable impact. Complicating matters further, our modern lifestyles in the U.S. rarely accommodate the frequency with which most traditional plant supplements need to be taken to be effective, often three times per day. 

Sometimes I think people question plant efficacy because so many medicinal plants are so abundant and readily available. The reality, though, is that plants are incredibly complex. Far more complex than water—two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Ginger, for example, is made up of over 700 individual compounds, most of which do not mimic compounds found in the human body, as vitamins do. The synergistic effect of these compounds when ingested is pain relief, digestive support, skin health, and numerous other benefits. We don’t know how all of these compounds work together through clinical trials, because there is so little in it for the drug companies to prove out the efficacy of ginger as a whole plant. You can’t get a patent on ginger. At the end of the day, to suggest that plant medicine is not efficacious feels pretty silly to me. Eighty percent of the world successfully relies on plant medicine for its primary health care and uses it in conjunction with allopathic medicine. Medical doctors outside the U.S. are routinely trained in plant medicine. The fact that plant medicine is not the norm in the United States is more a reflection of regulatory politics than whether or not plants actually work to help people live healthier lives.

I created Mab Tabs because I wanted to share my personal experience of using plants to feel wildly alive and empowered in a way I hadn’t in years. I wanted something my mother would take and my husband and friends. I knew that none of them would ever take something more than once a day and that it needed to be a product experience that was way more appealing than a capsule or bitter-tasting tincture. Most importantly, I wanted to create something where the blends were potent enough to deliver a whole day’s serving of all the herbs they should be taking in a single daily dissolvable tablet.

Mab Tabs are designed to address wellness goals such as physical energy, mental clarity, stress relief, sleep support, immune support, metabolism, and skin support.
Courtesy of Mab & Stoke

My initial research was really more personal curiosity than wanting to start another startup. I started seeking out experts in the field, phytochemists, MDs, botanists, and farmers, and, as a result, started contemplating an ideal supplement experience—an herbal super tab—with an elevated design and far greater likelihood of giving you exactly what you need. I learned that it’s not just a question of where plants come from but how and where they are sourced that determines their efficacy for a particular purpose. Deep involvement with the supply chain from farmer to final product was also essential in producing a product that would provide the optimal benefits.

Mab Tabs came about because I couldn’t find anything like them on the market; yet I felt their existence could make a really positive impact on the wellness of others. Mab Tabs are truly a unique product. We make them custom for most of our customers, and we also offer targeted blends that have both near-term discernible impacts (like Focus or Calm) as well as the long-term benefits that come with cumulative use. Each of our blends are carefully crafted and concentrates the power of six to 10 products in one, and can easily be dropped into your morning coffee, your favorite cocktail, or simply your water bottle. 

What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in launching the business? What surprised you the most?

We launched in late January 2020, and, of course, COVID-19 was a massive surprise. To launch into a pandemic has raised all sorts of questions and challenges that we didn’t see coming. One has been about how best to address the significant shift in the consumer market and the focus on products that feel familiar (flour, toilet paper, etc.). The other has been about economic inclusion as a long-term goal for our products, and how best to build a community that reflects all of the people we want to serve.

When I founded Mab & Stoke, my goal was to create a company to help people feel amazing. We all want and deserve good health, but the economic disparity amongst us is a giant hurdle to collective wellness. That’s not something new, but looking at it in the light of a global pandemic, I realized that we had positioned ourselves in the “affordable” luxury market.

That said, with over 51 million people unemployed, it was a trap set for ourselves and would have massively impacted our success had we not rethought how to address pricing. Our initial launch strategy was aimed at building a community of like-minded customers, but had failed to consider the longer-term implications of existing business models relative to economic accessibility.

As such, five months into our launch we introduced a “pay what you can” model. We slashed our margins and now offer three tiers of variable subscription pricing on all our products to allow everyone access to Mab Tabs. This is something we are very proud of and perhaps wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for COVID-19.

There are six to 10 full-day portions of herbs concentrated in a single tab.
Courtesy of Mab & Stoke

What kind of feedback have you received from your customers? Is there anywhere you found you needed to make adjustments quickly?

We’ve been amazed by how universally well received our pay-what-you-can program has been. Not only have our customers been highly enthusiastic about the model, they have felt more comfortable suggesting it to their friends and family regardless of economic means. As a result, we saw our subscription rate shoot up 714% in the first month after launch with continued excellent growth going into month two. The program works from a margins perspective because the lowest tier of pricing (basically at cost) is made possible by purchases in the higher two tiers. For every 10 products sold in the top two tiers, a new product is made available at the third and lowest price tier. In other words, our community is self-subsidized by customers who take what they need and enjoy the feeling of supporting others in the community.

One area of this program that we tested came from a number of customers asking us to add a fourth tier that offered subscriptions at a price above our regular retail pricing; this would be a way to give back even more to the community and create even more of the lowest-priced products. We figured why not try it out? For about one month, we tested 130% subscriptions, but there was little interest, so we turned it off. The fourth tier was likely good in theory for people, but when it came down to it, even those with greater resources didn’t want to pay that much for their products. I have found that Internet-based businesses often have this dynamic at play. People say they want a feature, but when you offer it to them, they don’t necessarily ever use it. We may experiment more in this area in the future, but for now we are back to three levels of pricing.

Customers can drop the Mab Tab in any drink—hot or cold—and stir or shake. Depending on the temperature of the beverage, dissolve times vary from one to three minutes.
Courtesy of Mab & Stoke

Given the pandemic and economic crisis, how does the current business and public health environment affect the future of the business, from product development to raising capital?

For us, it’s all about staying focused on continued education and making the very best products possible for our customers. We will continue to do this direct to consumers, but we have also started engaging in a number of key partnerships that will extend the reach of our distribution and where you will start to see products infused by Mab & Stoke. These collaborations extend far beyond beverage collaborations into a number of really exciting categories. Basically, if you can enhance the function of a product with plants, it’s in our field of possibilities for future partnerships and collaborations.

Looking down the road five years or so, what do you want Mab & Stoke to look like? Where do you hope it will be?

Without giving away too much, the goal for Mab & Stoke has always been to launch with Mab Tabs. But that remains a starting place, not a destination. Beyond Mab Tabs, if an efficacious product can be made from plants and delivered in a modern form factor, we have it in our sights. We are building the CPG [consumer packaged goods] company of the future; it’s a company that cares about the environment and the wellness of others, and it’s powered by plants.

More must-read lifestyle coverage from Fortune: