Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez are the Co-Founders of Back To The Roots (BTTR Ventures) – a Oakland, CA based company that has a very interesting product: homegrown mushroom kits. After graduating from Berkeley, Nikhil and Alejandro turned down corporate job offers to grow their environmentally sustainable startup that originated in a fraternity basement while they were still students.
BTTR has collected, diverted and reused over a million pounds of coffee grounds and helped families grow over 250,000+ pounds of fresh mushrooms at home. As an added bonus – turns out mushroom substrate is quite valuable for composting – so they’ve managed to turn a profit even after the end of the product cycle. Not only that, partnerships with Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Whole Foods Market has also led their product to be on hundreds of stores across the nation and has been a hit among mushroom lovers and foodies alike. Initially, the product itself drew me in, but the more I dug deeper, the more I began to realize how harmoniously their company operated with nature – it’s an ecosystem that is very much in sync with the environment and I think it’s fascinating how each element of the business perfectly fits the next. It’s environmental sustainability at it’s best.
If you are a consumer, you might have seen companies flaunting green paraphernalia to seem to care about the environment – but the truth is: most companies that fly under the banner of “green” are full of shit – and their customers are even less aware of their pretentious efforts. This is why I found BTTR to be a refreshing outlier among an industry full of crooks.
Naturally, I had a few questions for Nikhil and Alejandro. The following is a summary of our conversation.
DW: Let’s rewind a bit. Prior to founding Back To The Roots in 2009 – did you start any ventures on your own back in Berkeley or even before? And if so, did they work out? And if not what were the venture(s) and why do you believe they failed?
Nikhil/Alex: Alex spearheaded the Sage Mentorship Project – now the largest mentorship organization on campus; it focuses on connecting college students from Cal with local elementary school students, But other than that – Back To The Roots was pretty much our first real venture. We are fortunate that it gained the traction it did in such a short time.
DW: A lot of companies struggle to differentiate themselves as “environmentally friendly” and desperately label themselves as “green” in an attempt to connect with the consumer. This not only dilutes the entire notion of being environmentally friendly – it begins to have to reverse effect as the category becomes crowded. Your company on the other hand, does not need any fancy advertising campaigns or flashy packaging in an attempt to convince customers that your product is environmentally friendly and sustainable. While it sounds like it was ‘pure chance’ that all the elements of your business eventually came together full circle (ie: whole foods, peets, mushroom soil, etc.) – I don’t believe that it ‘just happened magically’. What mindset and actions on your part do you think helped you the most in influencing these events?
Nikhil/Alex: We do believe things happen for a reason, but luck is only a function of hard-work/hustle. If you hustle hard enough, work hard enough, some things will fall your way and work out – it’s just a numbers game. We have had so many things that did not work out for us — but those that did, we grabbed them, didn’t let go, and ran with it. Our two biggest values we feel we’ve built this company on are Hustle + Passion.
DW: Distribution is tricky business. What event’s led you to getting a 300+ store distribution deal with Whole Foods and what advice do you have for someone attempting to get their product on the shelf?
Nikhil/Alex: Be ready to hustle. We spent our first 1.5 years almost just on the floor demoing every single day; and our team is still demoing a ton. We built those connections – store by store (with store team members), and customer by customer. The truth is, this type of grassroots marketing is difficult and boring and it does not appeal to most people – so, if you have a great product and are willing to put in the time/effort you can really build a passionate following. You cannot just throw your product into the marketplace and expect it to be successful – you have to build that buzz and respect from the ground up.
DW: Can you share revenue/margins/financials/employee/facility details if possible? If not, a rough ballpark would suffice.
Nikhil/Alex: We did 240K our first year, 1.3MM our 2nd year, and aiming for $5M this year. We are now in a 10,000 Sqft warehouse in the Bay, with a team of almost 30 strong.
DW: What is one thing you learned that was least expected and/or counterintuitive in your business and educational career thus far?
Nikhil/Alex: Do not diversify your products/scope. Pick one thing and pour your heart and soul into it – as a startup you need to just pick one thing and give it everything you got it till it’s successful; then build off from there.
DW: If you could recommend one or two books that you have found instrumental in your personal development, what would they be and why?
Nikhil/Alex: The Alchemist and It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. Those two books have helped us immensely in shaping our outlook on life/business. The Alchemist is required reading for anyone interested in steering their own destiny.
DW: What is next for you and Back To The Roots? Are you planning on expanding your company and potentially developing new products in the future?
Nikhil/Alex: Yes. our vision is to make food personal again. We are in this for the long run – we want to build a brand that lasts generations to come. We would like to be the default brand people think about when referring to local/fresh food.
DW: What do you consider to be your deepest fear?
Nikhil/Alex: Biggest fear is the fear of fear itself – I hate that feeling of not doing something or not being able to give something my all, because of fear. Indecisiveness is a huge culprit.
DW: What would be the most important life or business advice you could give to aspiring young folks who wants to make an impact in the world/become successful?
Nikhil/Alex: Focus :) Pick one thing and give it your all. There are so many distractions each and every day – new opportunities, new partnerships; new products; etc. It’s important to find something you are passionate about and devote your life and soul to doing that better than anyone else on Earth. The problem these days is not lack of opportunities – it’s being overwhelmed by too many.
DW: While you are fairly young, you possess a decent amount of experience in the business/start-up phase of a venture. – If you were to rewind back as far back as possible – what would you consider to be your absolute biggest regret in relation to business or life and how did it affect your overall outlook on life?
Nikhil/Alex: Don’t really believe in regrets – I think everything happens for a reason. Every adverse experience you go through is actually an important life lesson in disguise and is often a key element in succeeding later on. One of the most important business lessons we learned was the importance of investing in branding and design early on – at the end of the day, the brand of your company and look/feel of your product is a representation of yourself and your team – don’t settle there for anything but greatness. A quick warning though: if you have a great logo/design and a crappy product – the entire structure/business is useless and will inevitably collapse.
DW: What are your predictions for the future of business?
Nikhil/Alex: As communication and interdependency on this planet grow; businesses are going to have to become more and more transparent of their practices and – hopefully for the better. Businesses will be less able to hide behind the veil of a big corporate structure and the digital age will create a more just and responsible business community. This is already in heavy motion and if you are a business lagging behind – might as well close down your doors.
Enjoy the following TED talk from Alejandro and Nikhil about the inception of Back To The Roots:
9/11/2012 Update: Nikhil & Arora’s 2nd TED Talk