Alexander Kunz: A Navy SEAL's Voyage Off the Beaten Path
Alexander Kunz is the CEO and co-founder of nutritional supplements company OP2 Labs, one of INC’s 5,000 fastest growing businesses of 2020. He's also a former Navy SEAL, a person who has been challenged, has deep-dived into freezing sea water, crawled through jungle floors, and jumped from airplanes into unknown places— a life he chose despite what was prescribed for him.
“My mother was very strict in raising me,” said Alexander. “She was raised with the fundamental belief that you’re either a doctor, or a lawyer, or you’re nothing.”
Alexander’s father was a flight surgeon, meaning he was both a doctor and a pilot in the Navy. Alex was set to follow in his father’s footsteps in medicine until one day his dad told him he wanted to talk to him about his future.
“I know your experience has been through my lens in the medical field,” said his father. “But I want to tell you that I don’t think you're going to be happy in this career. The reality is that medicine's moving away from true patient care to how many patients you can see in a day. I'm telling you this because what you see now is not what your future is going to be.”
At the time, Alexander was in his second year studying medicine at the University of Arizona. He was walking across campus wondering what he was going to do with his life when he ran into a Navy recruiter with a gold emblem on his chest.
“He asked me, ‘Do you want to do the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life?”
“—We talked for about 30 minutes, and that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I realized I’d have to tell my mother I was going to pursue a career that in her mind was not a respectable career. So I went home and I told my mother, ‘Hey, I'm dropping out of college. And I want to become a Navy SEAL.’”
“And she told me, ‘Well, if you drop out of school and join the military, you're no longer my son.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I guess I'm no longer your son.’ And I left.”
“That’s not to make it appear that my mother is a bad person by any means,” Alexander explained. “She ended up understanding what the SEAL program is about at a later date, and we reconnected. And of course she's still my mother. But that’s how I started my career.”
The Search for Self-Improvement
At 19, Alexander went into the Navy and passed the grueling SEALs training program, including the infamous Hell Week, in which candidates sleep only four hours across five-and-a-half days while running more than 200 miles and training physically for more than 20 hours a day. (Back then, SEAL training also involved waterboarding, a practice which has since been outlawed in U.S. military training).
He then served 10 years in the SEALs as an Operator, Scout Sniper, Department Head and an Advanced Weapons and Tactics Instructor. Though Alex’s experience in the military was invaluable, like many veterans, he was faced with the challenge of readjusting to civilian life after his service.
“When you become a SEAL, you're operating at a very high level with just phenomenal people,” said Alexander. “Everybody's like you, same standards, same level of performance. There is a pride and ego about it because you had to build yourself up from nothing. So now you've got this reputation, but you're stepping into this world where nobody knows who you are and nobody cares.”
“Sure, there's respect for you being a SEAL, but that doesn't mean you can work at my company and perform a job. It might get your foot in the door, but at the end of the day, you still need to know what you're doing.”
“For me, I didn't know what the path was to get there. What I knew I needed was experience.”
Forever pragmatic, Alexander looked at his skills and realized his writing had suffered in the SEALs, as well as his critical thinking and speech. He enrolled in classes at the University of California San Diego to improve these areas and advance professionally, but in the meantime, he also needed to earn a living.
“I found out I was most prepared for technical work,” he said. “What I realized is just from my knowledge of being a SEAL, I understood cybersecurity very well. And that's why I went from not knowing that field to running an entire cyber department from one of the largest energy companies in the world.”
Alexander’s first job out of the SEALs was building network operation centers for the Navy Marine Corps, where he received certifications for networking cybersecurity. Within a few years, he went from being a consultant to managing departments at two Fortune 250 companies.
“[But] everyday going into work, I felt like I was stressed out about something. The stack of papers was building up. Your workload just builds and builds and builds, but nobody ever really takes accountability for anything, so nothing ever gets done.”
“Then 9-11 happened,” he explained. “And I felt I needed to do something. “[I wanted to go back into the SEALs] but I couldn’t afford to do that financially. So I decided to go the contract route.”
Alex became a military contractor for ‘Other Government Agency’ (a generic term used to discreetly refer to three-letter government agencies) working on various Special Operations & Intelligence missions in the Middle East. Though it wasn’t quite as raw as his work in SEALs combat units, it was a return to something familiar.
“[One day] we got onto a small plane and we were flying over the Afghanistan mountains. And I remember flying over this peak and looking down, and as we cleared the peak.... I actually felt at home— it felt like I needed to be there.”
Four years later, after reconnecting with his time in the military, Alex returned to cybersecurity and began working as a manager for Sempra Energy, while also working long nights and weekends as SVP for Strategic Planning for the former CEO of Westinghouse. It was there that he learned corporate skills that would be invaluable when he launched his own company.
“I learned about building global companies. I had the responsibility of looking at acquisitions, at different types of technology, and how to build a company around it. So it was really about globalization and how to take a commodity and make it successful on a global scale.”
For 10 years, he stayed at Sempra— until he was faced with a choice.
“I was offered an advancement, and I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do," he said. "You know, I had an entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted to start my own company.”
Brave New Ventures
In 2014, Alexander launched a nutrition business with his friend and former fellow Navy SEAL, Jeff Byers. —For three years, he didn’t pay himself a salary.
“I just lived off savings and selling things,” he said. “—Yes, I had already bought a house. And yes, working at Sempra Energy, I had made a lot of money. But when I left, we bootstrapped our company. I didn't have investor money.”
“My wife and I went into a lifestyle of poverty, which I'm not really inflating. It's the truth. I had bought a house and had put a lot of money into it. We loved the house, but I had to sell it, amongst many other things, to survive.”
While it may sound like Alexander is recalling these memories with a layer of regret, in reality, he thinks of them with a SEAL-like reverence and gratitude for the experience.
“The funny thing is that it's the memories that are most important in life, not the money,” he reflected. “And that's what I really realized. It wasn't a struggle. It was the memories along the way that made a difference, and to be honest with you, looking back, I wouldn't have done it any differently.”
To date, OP2 Labs has two brands: Frog Fuel and ProT Gold. Frog Fuel is a liquid collagen protein that’s nano-hydrolyzed to digest completely in less than 15 minutes, and offers a ready-to-drink replacement to whey protein, while ProT Gold is a collagen supplement proven to heal wounds two times faster, aiding in rapid wound healing, injury recovery, joint pain, malnutrition, and general nutrition.
Over the years, a combination of intelligent strategy and lessons learned in the military have enabled Alex and Jeff to expand both Frog Fuel and ProT Gold into over 4,000 medical facilities worldwide for their healing and regenerative properties, and the products have also gained popularity among professional athletes.
But the product development didn’t come easy.
“At first, we didn't really understand the industry that we were getting into,” he explained. “So we spent a lot of time doing research reading through different types of scientific studies— medical information to really learn the industry. And we ended up partnering with another group of medical professionals to actually create the formulation. They created one formulation, Jeff and I created another.”
“The agreement there was [a partnership] to combine resources and funding, because we didn’t have the capital. They started a medical company and we [Jeff and I] started the human performance consumer product company, Frog Fuel. Then we decided to make an offer to acquire the medical business because we realized the opportunity existed to bridge medical and consumer nutrition. We took it over, and we combined it under OP2 Labs.”
Alexander also says that, other than his own strategic planning, Brex has also been instrumental in keeping OP2 Labs alive and thriving.
“When we moved over to Brex for a business credit card, our credit limit became three times that of what any other financial institution would give us,” Alexander explained.
“Suddenly, my company’s credit limit wasn't based off of how well I was doing— it was based off of how well my company was performing. Almost immediately, our credit limit was so distinguishable for us that we were actually able to grow beyond our current capabilities.”
“Before Brex, we used to spend 20 to 30 hours a week performing manual reconciliation. So we would have to download these huge bank statements, and then we would have to parse the data in an Excel spreadsheet and then upload all that data into our ERP system. We don't have to do that with Brex.”
“Not only is Brex facilitating our business growth, but it's actually saving us money,” he added. “By my last calculations, we’re saving almost $4,000 a month. And in general, I feel like the future of Brex is really well aligned with the future of my company, because they're taking the time to get input on the problems that are impacting my business the most.”
The Value of Life's Experiences
However, in terms of what prepared him for being an entrepreneur, Alexander is most thankful for his time in the Navy.
“There’s a lot of similarities between the SEAL community and an entrepreneurial lifestyle,” he said. “How you educate yourself, how you train yourself, and how you approach your day is one hundred percent on you.”
“I think people tend to look at education as the important aspect of being successful. But for me, what I learned is that it's about leadership, experience, and being adaptable, right? Anybody can do a great job at anything,” Alexander explained. “You just have to be willing to adapt and overcome.”
OP2 Labs is a leading nutrition company voted one of INC’s 5,000 fastest growing businesses of 2020. Learn more here.