This VP of Marketing Left Ballet for the Beauty Industry
"You are given exactly what you need exactly when you need it. Trust the process and grow through it."
It doesn't seem fair that one woman can be beautiful, intelligent, hardworking, and have the wardrobe of a modern day Carrie Bradshaw to boot, but that's exactly what you'll find when you sit down to talk to Caryn Johnson, the VP of Marketing at Vital Proteins. If you had asked Caryn's 18-year-old self where she saw her career heading, she would have told you that her calling was dance. "When I got to college, my eyes were opened; there were so many different career paths to really consider. "
Ultimately, she chose to hone her writing and people skills, and laid the foundation for her career as the quintessential fashion and lifestyle PR professional. After years of long but fulfilling hours at Skirt PR, she eventually followed her heart to the beauty industry, and began a year of working from home for a boutique skincare brand. Ultimately, she found herself ready to take the plunge back into office culture (and engage in water cooler chatter with someone other than her rescue dog, Bart.)
Today she's sharing how her "practice" interview as a Digital Marketing Strategist with Vital Proteins turned into a full-time offer as the Business Development Manager, and then ultimately landed her as the VP of Marketing only a few months later.
Name: Caryn Johnson
Location: Chicago, IL
Current title: Vice President of Marketing at Vital Proteins
Education: Bachelor of Arts from University of Illinois
Let's start from the beginning. You began college as a dance major, but ultimately switched your focus to journalism. What went into that decision? Why journalism?
When I was younger, I was especially good at dancing, particularly ballet. I really wanted to skip college and be a dancer (and also a model, which is totally laughable now) in New York. My parents – like most parents would be – were really resistant to the idea and just wanted me to go to college to get an education. They said they would help me through any college degree I wanted, as long as I went to college. So I got out a map of the US, closed my eyes, and pointed my finger. No, but really, I picked the University of Illinois as a dance major because at that point in my life I thought that dance was my true calling. Plus, I had family in the area so it was a nice home-away- from-home (I grew up in northern New Jersey).
I think when you’re younger and really good at one particular thing, you don’t really take account of the other things you’re also good at. I mean why would you? People who are good at everything are terribly annoying, aren’t they? I had great grades and a lot going for me, but I was so focused on dance that I couldn’t see outside of those blinders. When I got to college, my eyes were opened; there were so many different career paths to really consider. I became worried about what would come of me after graduation with a degree in dance. It looked like struggle city to me. My father, who at the time was the Vice President of Babies “R” Us, was a strong influence in my life and helped guide me into marketing. He told me that if I could write and talk to people, I could do anything in life. At the time, I thought this advice was silly, but it turned out to be some of the best advice I have been given – and advice that turned out to be true.
Your first internship was at Weber Shandwick. How did that experience ultimately shape your career path moving forward?
My first real internship was no joke – Weber Shandwick was really hard work! My college job had been working at Toys “R” Us headquarters (thanks dad!) where I clipped placements out of newspapers and rode the Ferris Wheel round and round at the Times Square flagship store. So when I got to Weber Shandwick I was in for a bit of a shock. I had just graduated college and I was living on my own in Chicago on an intern paycheck ($10 an hour). I had to pay my rent and feed myself, so I had to make it work. I’ll always remember this one time my Aunt came to town and asked me out to dinner. I had five dollars in my bank account and was scared I wouldn’t be able to afford a ride home, let alone dinner. Thankfully, she picked up the dinner tab and slipped $20 in my pocket for later. My pores must have been sweating young and poor. I had to get serious!
Weber taught me a lot about having a strong work ethic, as well as the world of Public Relations. At times the projects were excruciatingly boring and monotonous – but hey, that’s part of the gig. It also helped guide me away from what I didn’t want to do. I wanted to work for clients that I really felt a true connection with and passion for; I didn’t feel that connection with clients like the High Fructose Corn Refiners Association. I have, and always have, wanted to work in the beauty industry. And I wanted to work for a smaller company where I could effect change sooner in my career. I believe that younger people bring an unparalleled level of fresh ideas and creativity to the table. I had a lot to offer early on in my career and I wanted to be in a place where I felt like I was being heard.
Eventually, you landed a position at Skirt Public Relations as an assistant account executive, and ended your five years there as an account director. Talk us through those five years, and how you consistently worked your way up.
My years at Skirt PR were some of the best years of my life. And I’ll admit after I left, I truly wondered if the satisfaction I found in my career during those five years would ever be the same. I put a ton of passion and hard work into the company and the clients that I had and loved. I started out with clients like KN Karen Neuberger (famous for their cozy, comfy socks – an Oprah fave!) and graduated to working with brands I lived and died for like Birchbox and Jouer Cosmetics. I did everything from event planning and garnering press to getting celeb fans and sending out far too intricate mailings. My first two months on the job I had to travel to Miami and throw an event with Kim Kardashian as the host. She was dating Reggie Bush back then (#throwback). Every day on the job was make or break – if clients weren’t happy you heard about it immediately and that ultimately affected the company. But as the saying goes – the cream will eventually rise to the top and the s!@t will always sink. I gained experience which allowed me to continue to rise to bigger and better occasions – and bigger and better positions within the company.
I’ll always remember this one time my Aunt came to town and asked me out to dinner. I had five dollars in my bank account and was scared I wouldn’t be able to afford a ride home let alone dinner. Thankfully, she picked up the dinner tab and slipped $20 in my pocket for later. My pores must have been sweating young and poor.
Your next step was to go in-house at Indie Lee, where you helped develop the business and marketing side of the brand. What made you decide to take that leap, and how did that experience differ from agency life?
After five years at Skirt PR, I felt it was time to take the leap into working in-house. I was pining to work directly for a beauty brand and loved Indie Lee’s collection of eco-chic skincare products. She was growing really rapidly and she needed someone to help her run all of her marketing. For me, promoting a beauty brand that was clean and effective was really a dream come true! I came onboard as the singular marketing person, working out of my home office living room for a company that was based in New York. I didn’t have a team of people to help brainstorm ideas with, and, working for a startup, I didn’t have much of a marketing budget. It was a simple time where I got to build my marketing skill set very grass-roots. I dabbled in more than just PR, strategizing the blog and email campaign, working on retailer presentations, brainstorming new product ideas, and more. And I had an arsenal of natural beauty products that any girl would be jealous of!
What challenges did you face in the transition, and how did you work through them?
The hardest part for me was working alone all day. Some people are built for that type of setting, but I’m too much of a people person to not let that affect me. I went from a lively office scenario to having the mailman and the dry cleaner as my only daytime friends. I knew the daytime TV schedule by heart (I needed background noise!) and would live for the hour my husband got home from work at night. It’s really not for everyone and you have to be really self-aware to know if it will work for you. When you’re working remotely for a small company you also have to be independent – you have to be willing to go days without speaking to anyone and not take it personally, you have to be able to execute on your own. During that year on my own, I did concentrate on self-development and learned a lot about myself. I became more spiritual & super healthy. I learned that feeling good on the inside is just as integral to being beautiful as looking good on the outside. I listened to podcasts and took online seminars. I did everything possible to stay immersed in the world of marketing, but in the end, I didn’t feel like I was a catalyst of true change and I didn’t feel fulfilled.
Interesting that you then made the switch from a skincare brand to a wellness company. How did that happen?
When it came time for me to look for new jobs, I interviewed at just about every beauty company in the Chicagoland area. While some people find interviewing to be a scary and daunting process, it was like a natural high for me. Not normal, I know, but I loved the reassurance of my resume/portfolio and enjoyed meeting with new companies and learning about their businesses. I think I originally applied for the position of Digital Marketing Strategist at Vital Proteins because the idea of a startup beauty & wellness company really peaked my interest. The CEO called me at least two months after I sent my resume over and I took the interview as practice, certain that I was going to accept a job at another beauty company that I was really into. If there’s one thing I learned from this experience, it’s to be open-minded, to say yes, to look at every opportunity without bias before judging. The minute I met our founder Kurt, I felt an instant connection to the company. We talked a lot about the intersection of beauty and wellness and the science behind drinkable collagen. It was a major moment for me; I saw it as the perfect blend of beauty meets wellness and my instinct told me that this was going to take off and not only be successful, but a catalyst for helping others with their own health. I’m all about trusting the gut. When it comes to picking a new company, always trust your instincts. In the interview, Kurt drew me an org chart of the positions he needed to fill & I pointed to the top of that chart and explained how I fit the position of Business Development Manager for the beauty vertical. I felt weirdly confident. A week later he called me and offered the job a bit higher on that org chart than what I originally applied for.
If there’s one thing I learned from this experience, it’s to be open minded, to say yes, to look at every opportunity without bias before judging.
You joined Vital Proteins in February 2016 to first help develop the beauty vertical of the collagen-based company, but you were quickly promoted to VP of Marketing within just a few months. Tell us about that! How did that happen? What new perspective or challenges has this position brought you?
When you work in a startup environment, things move pretty quickly. I came into the position and realized that the job was more than just growing the beauty side of the business (we consider ourselves to function in three verticals: beauty, fitness, and wellness), it was developing the entire marketing department. I visualized a plan and launched a full strategy for the company. I helped double our marketing staff to meet our growing needs. I transitioned the company from a WeWork facility to our first office – a 5,000 sq. ft., 3 story loft that I hand-picked and built out. I dragged my husband to IKEA on Saturdays to design that office. This period is the hardest I’ve worked, but being a catalyst to the company’s growth has been the biggest reward I’ve reaped in my career. I think the biggest challenge, or as I call it a “champagne problem”, is keeping up with the growth. There’s so much going on and I always feel like there’s more that we could be doing. And sometimes I have to remind myself to think bigger picture. Come on, Caryn, think topline strategy! Think how we are going to triple the company growth over the next year. Stop saying no and find a way to say yes instead. But these are the golden days and I’m pushing myself to celebrate this journey. There’s an electricity in the air here and it’s intoxicating. At the end of the day, it’s hard to feel anything other than grateful.
Stop saying no and find a way to say yes instead.
What kind of projects are you working on currently? Tell us about the process of creating and executing new campaign ideas.
One of our big projects right now is our #conversation campaign. We’re all about getting out there digitally as well as in person. Our team is working with digital influencers that have amazing names like @shutthekaleup and @bucknakedpaleo. We’re quadrupling our event presence and traveling to awesome places like Brooklyn and Malibu to meet like-minded fans and share our story face-to-face. I love coming up with the start of a new idea and then working with my colleagues to really develop it out. Everyone has different interests and strengths, and it’s great to work on a team that really balances each other out. That’s when the best projects come to life.
What was one of the most difficult obstacles when you first started out in PR and marketing?
Finding the confidence to believe in yourself and to really sell in and stand by your own ideas. There are a lot of opinions out there and sometimes PR requires a lot of trial and error… there isn’t always an easy answer. Really stick by your vision and fight the need to seek (too much) external validation.
It's no secret that marketing and PR require long hours. Do you ever find yourself feeling burnt out, and if so, how do you move past it?
Yes! I am prone to burn out and have gone through really bad bouts of it before. And I’ve learned that it’s okay to admit that. I’m the type of person that self-inflicts a lot of stress and that means it’s hard to turn the burn out on and off, or ask for help. I believe in real vacations (without work) and unplugging at least one day a week. And eating healthy! I now edit out dairy, gluten and processed sugar to regulate stress levels and fight adrenal fatigue – you wouldn’t believe how much that has helped.
What qualities would you say are most important to being successful in your field?
It all comes full circle to my dad’s advice – being able to write and talk to people. Also, I always say that some people hold a certain ability to “just get it.” Common sense and an intuitive ability to read how others are feeling goes a long way (and it keeps you out of trouble ;)).
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
You are given exactly what you need exactly when you need it. Trust the process and grow through it.
Caryn Johnson is The Everygirl...
I wish I knew how to ________.
Read minds. But only when I wanted to. I wouldn’t want to hear everyone’s thoughts all the time, just when I tapped in.
Green tea w/ a scoop of our Marine Collagen (for a boost of protein, obvs).
Favorite way to unwind after work?
Taking my dog, Bart, for a long walk or cooking dinner with the husb.
Reality TV. I’m an addict and I’m not willing to seek help. Right now my go-to show is Bachelor in Paradise.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Beyoncé . I mean, who wouldn’t? #allhail