Stefany Nieto is the founder of Gwella / Mojo Microdose, a health and wellness company that offers mushroom-based products, content and tools. In 2020, she and her cofounders unveiled their Mojo line of gummies, which promise a microdose experience with a blend of functional mushrooms, herbs, and roots. The product is now available in more than 500 retail locations across North America.
Nieto recently described the early vision for Gwella, the hard lessons she and her team made with their first launch, and some of her viewpoints on the broader functional-mushroom marketplace.
When did you first become interested in psychedelics?
Well, I was born in Venezuela, and though we immigrated to Canada, I grew up very much in a standard Spanish Catholic household. All drugs were bad. It was like: If you smoke a joint, you will die. So I had no understanding or exposure to psychedelics in any way, shape or form.
Then of course, you go to university and you start to experiment. You find your way to cannabis. You find your way to mushrooms. The first time I tried mushrooms, I thought, “How is this illegal?” Especially in comparison with alcohol, which can be so damaging to your body and your relationships.
But I had a fantastic first trip on my 23rd birthday with a bunch of friends. It changed everything. I started becoming an underground advocate for psychedelics, helping friends source product and architect trips, figuring out what they wanted out of the experience, what concoction would work best. I researched tons of species of mushrooms, both functional and psychedelic. It really became a big hobby for me.
I understand that during college you also started a company that built greenhouses in the Arctic?
Yes, Green Iglu, which was dedicated to food sovereignty and food security in remote communities across Canada. I did that for 8 years. Then the pandemic hit, life stopped, and all of a sudden my company couldn’t go to the remote communities that we were working with. It made me realize I’d changed a lot over those 8 years, and the next question was, “If I’m not the greenhouse girl anymore, then what is my identity?” A friend pointed out how much I love the field of drugs, in general. But how does one switch into psychedelics and a space that’s obviously illegal? That’s where my journey began, and I started meeting with people who were searching for the same answers. That’s how I met my cofounders, we all shared the same vision of making psychedelics more accessible to people.
As you made this career change into psychedelics, how did you explain it to your Spanish Catholic family? What was their reaction?
Oh that was quite an experience. I’m pretty public with how I build my companies and generally my life. But I didn’t want my family or my partner’s family to find out about my involvement via Instagram. So I actually scheduled private chats with everybody individually in both our families. I explained my idea of a career shift into the psychedelics industry. I was terrified to have these conversations. Of course, the No. 1 question everyone asked was, “Have you actually tried these drugs?” So I was honest and explained my trips and my experiences and all of it. Surprisingly, I didn’t get any negative feedback. My mom actually was very open to it. She said when she was in school a lot of her friends would go to Peru and do ayahuasca. She said she also knows a guy who grows mushrooms. I was like, “What?!” I had no idea she was familiar with the psychedelics space at all. My partner’s parents too. It turned out to be such a great opportunity to grow closer to them.
So let’s talk about the beginnings of Gwella. How did you envision the company?
I knew I wanted to create a product. When I looked around the psychedelic universe, I saw a lot of people were doing content, a lot were on the research side, and a lot were in the training and conference communities. But I knew that my next thing would be a product. It’s what I was most interested in. My cofounders had the same idea. We also knew we didn’t want to be dealers or underground at all. So what could we make that would bring the benefits of psychedelics without actually using illegal compounds?
My cofounder Daniel is a biochemist, and when he was in university 10 years ago, he concocted a formula for himself that was intended to be a focus enhancer to help him get through school — without getting hooked on any pharmaceuticals students use. And it worked for him.
So we started with that as a base form. Our goal was to reverse-engineer a microdose experience without the psilocybin, where you get focused, your mood elevates, your mind feels clearer, you have a boost of energy. We spent about a year and a half tweaking and testing and trying different formulas until we finally found it. We got all those benefits without the hallucinogenic experience. Our recipe used a bunch of different functional mushrooms and other nootropics that worked really well together. That’s how we came up with Mojo.
What differentiates Mojo from the competition?
A lot of companies offer energy blends, focus blends, different varieties with different benefits. Typically, they’re either a tincture or a powder or a pill. We realized that our blends were just as effective as anything out there, but we wanted Mojo to be a gummy. That was very important to us. Gummies are tastier and more convenient, and invite a casual atmosphere instead of a medical experience. Personally, I hate messing with my coffee routine or adding powers or tinctures to my drinks so we wanted a convenient form factor. And the gummies that were out there had some of the functional mushroom ingredients, but nothing like our recipe. Most of them also have CBD or THC. We wanted ours to be 100% legal everywhere. We wanted it available at Walmart, that type of legal. So that was our goal. And we ended up testing tons of different versions on ourselves for a year before finally finding the Mojo product we took to market with.
That was in 2020, correct? And has the formula changed at all since then?
Yes, and it’s changed a lot. We originally used gelatin, which is not vegan/vegetarian — and which a lot of our customers were interested in. So that was a big iteration. Also, we’ve managed to make it 92% all natural ingredients, but we’re working to get that to 100% by this Fall. Mostly by switching our sweeteners to be 100% naturally derived from fruits and veggies. We also added a new line of extra strength Mojo. So we’re continually evolving and improving.
How did the launch go?
Oh, our first launch was a disaster. We had this hypothesis that gamers would want it, basically a healthier version of those five-hour energy drinks, like Red Bull. That was our idea anyway. But we found that a big part of gaming culture are these insane energy drinks and edibles, which aren’t good for you at all, but are super tasty and really inexpensive. Our first launch did not go well. Gamers just want the performance rush, they don’t care about the crash afterward.
So we went back to the drawing table and really reflected on why we started the company. We realized that we’d actually started it for ourselves. We were the target audience. We switched around our packaging and messaging to reflect that. And second launch just took off. We beat our forecast by like 50% or 60%. We went viral on TikTok about two months in. Everything went a lot better once we figured out we were just targeting ourselves.
And how you describe yourself as a target audience?
Well, among the three founders, we’re all pretty different and at different life stage. You have Pete, who now has two kids and is a seasoned entrepreneur, so I’d categorize him as an occasionally stressed-out Millennial parent. Then you have Daniel, who is way more into the science and research side of what Mojo can do. He’s also a night owl, works the weirdest hours, and wants a natural boost when he needs it. And then me: I’m very creative, but more of an operations person, a master generalist. I’m also a Millennial, I also have stress, but I don’t like to take Mojo during the workday. Instead, I take it for working out, or at a party, or if I’m having any kind of social anxiety. Between the three of us, that’s how we started messaging the benefits of Mojo.
Are you selling more through your web site, or through retail stores?
We’re still more direct-to-consumer. That said, our retail sales are climbing rapidly. We’re in about 500 stores and dispensaries across the U.S. right now. And we’re actively growing that. I actually spent most of my morning today talking to buyers. 7-Eleven would be my dream retail partner and we’re working on growing the retailer network.
It’s been three years since you launched. Are you profitable?
Yes! We actually very recently had our first profitable month, and I was very excited. We’re still very much in startup mode and in the midst of figuring out how the best way to manage that profitability. But yeah, we were over the moon about it.
How much are you watching developments in psilocybin legalization? Are you planning to enter the microdosing market when and if psilocybin is made legal either in Canada or the United States?
Yeah, psychedelic legalization is definitely something we think about on our horizon. Ideally we would be playing in that space when we can. And we’ve done some prep work there, as well. Microdosing is obviously where we would start. Personally, I love to create a solid macrodose product. But we haven’t given it too much thought quite yet.
What do you think of the broader functional mushroom industry? There are many health and wellness claims, but the research to support them seems relatively light. Do you see a disconnect between the promise and the reality of the products out there?
Yeah, I think some products out there make a lot of empty promises. Some are certainly misleading about their ingredients and benefits. And I think many of them just taste awful. It’s hard because some companies don’t even want to reveal their ingredients or why they added them, whether it’s nootropics or specific functional mushrooms. They just want to get on the bandwagon and market things as general wellness. I love trying to be part of the solution by being very transparent about our ingredients and what they do to our bodies. And while I do love this industry, I also sometimes I just want a fizzy water that doesn’t have adaptogens in it.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that, yes, functional mushrooms are having a moment. And now functional snacks and drinks and supplements are having a moment. But I think that moment is slowly going away. Functional ingredients are still going to continue to be researched, and I think mushrooms are still in the spotlight. But I also think other things are coming up. For us, we’re just so motivated by positive customer feedback that confirms our products are helping people enjoy their lives. Giving people a lift when they need it. That’s what keeps us going, not trying to chase a fad.