2013 Award winner
Nikhil Arora & Alejandro Velez
Turned down the corporate world after college for mushroom farming. On a mission now to create fun products connecting families to food.
When Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez walked into Chez Panisse one day in 2009, they were entirely unaware of the restaurant’s reputation or that of its founder, locavore guru Alice Waters. “We had just asked around for the best restaurant in Berkeley, because we wanted to see if we could sell our mushrooms,” recalls Arora, who was a University of California, Berkeley, student at the time. Their oyster-mushroom crop, such as it was, had been grown in Velez’s fraternity-house kitchen from coffee grounds and was carried in a large plastic bucket. As luck would have it, Waters herself was there, and she asked her chef to cook the mushrooms on the spot. It was quite the vote of confidence, especially considering that up to that point, “we’d been too afraid to try them ourselves,” Arora says, shaking his head at his naïveté. With Waters’s support, initial orders from Berkeley’s Whole Foods, and a $5,000 chancellor’s grant from UC Berkeley, the two friends, now 26, turned down corporate job offers to launch a mushroom business. When they learned that 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, they decided to try selling products that would let families grow their own mushrooms from food waste. “We wanted to share the growing experience with children and families,” says Velez. To that end, they now sell compact oyster-mushroom kits, as well as a fish tank/aquaponics system that grows herbs in its lid. And, Arora says confidently, “we’re just getting started. We believe in making the process of having fresh food something anyone can do.”
Do you remember the moment you decided to start your business? What was it like? We were sitting in a car in a parking lot near the Haas Business School building at UC Berkeley. We had met 2 months ago or so, had grown some test buckets, received some initial support from Whole Foods, Chez Panisse, and our Chancellor ($5000 grant). We both still so vividly remember that moment –– looking at each other, and saying "you in this?" "ya, you?" "we gotta be ALL IN though" "you ALL IN?" "ya, you?" "yup." We looked at each other, and said "let's do it." After that we called who we had to call to cancel our offers and other plans after graduation, and decided full-time mushroom farming was for us!
What advice do you have for others who want to turn their passion into a business? Get out there and demo and talk to customers! Share your idea –– don't get caught in the idea that "someone will steal this." A passion or idea is 1% of the challenge, executing is the other 99%. Sharing your passion with others –– customers, partners, friends –– and getting their feedback and thoughts will help you see where the opportunity exists. What about it gets them most excited? Just share and talk to as many people as possible. Get a booth at farmer's market, and don't leave till you talk to 200 people. You'll leave with a much better business plan than any online research will get you!
We’re just getting started. We believe in making the process of having fresh food something anyone can do. Nikhil Arora
What advice do you wish you had when you started?Focus. Pick one thing and pour every ounce of your heart and soul into it to do it better than anyone else on Earth. That creates success. Partnership. Find those who can do things way better than you can, partner with them, and work with them. Don't try to do everything yourself. Find your strengths and grow with those.
What do you think is the key to being a successful startup?Hustle and passion. Do you believe what you're working on has to exist in this world, and are you willing to sacrifice everything you have to make it happen? If the answer to both those questions is "yes" –– success will come. There's no secret sauce –– just hustle and passion.
Tell us about your workspace. We just moved into an awesome new office in Jack London Square in Oakland. It was an old art studio, right in the middle of the Oakland Produce Market. In the mornings, we're surrounded by pallets and pallets of fruits and vegetables –– you can barely walk through them all. It's the perfect vibe for what we're working on –– connecting families to food again. Inside is a great 2 story space (with a roof deck too!); exposed brick, wooden rafters, a tree growing inside, and just a very open and creative space. There's always music playing too; that's essential to a great environment.
Jack London Square, Oakland, CA
What inspires you? Passion. We love being around those who are pursuing their passion, whatever that maybe. Being around those who you can tell are "alive" –– they're doing what they love, and that energy rubs off on all around them. Seeing others pursue their passions inspires us to keep on working hard too. And to be honest, probably the biggest inspiration for us, is the both of us. We both look to each other for inspiration, during the ups/downs, for that balance and energy. We are each other's bosses, mentors, inspirations - starting a company is not easy, and it's amazing to be able to share that experience and the high/lows with someone you respect so much and enjoy working with so much!
What technology do you depend on to run your business? Do you do anything the “old-fashioned” way? If so, why? Email. If managed right, it's an incredible tool to help you stay in touch and keep many projects moving forward at the same time. That said, nothing is still as important as face to face meetings - we try to get out and meet with our customers, buyers, partners in-person as much as possible through demos and roadtrips.
What tools or techniques help you stay organized? Google is huge for me; using one platform for most of my work. From gmail, to Google Calendar, to Google Drive/Docs, I try to keep as much of my life on the cloud/digital, so I can always access it if needed, no matter where I am. Also, we both use the MacBookAir which is an incredible tool for entrepreneurs –– perfect for those on the go constantly, who need long battery life, it's easy to carry/pop up in meetings, etc. –– just a great device for those running around a ton!
How do you use social media to promote your business? Social media has been huge for us. Our products, the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm, are so visual and platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube have been huge. At the end of the day it's all about transparency. If you embrace that core ethos on social media, your community will respond. We also have a one-for-one campaign; for anyone who posts a photo of their fully grown mushroom kit on our Facebook page, we'll donate a kit to an elementary school classroom of their choice!
What's your next business goal or project? Execute on our brand new product, the AquaFarm (self-cleaning fish tank that grows food). Our goal is that every kitchen counter and classroom has a Mushroom Kit & AquaFarm - and hopefully they inspire families to connect with all their food again! Our goal is to build a brand that lasts for generations - we want to change the way people think about food through fun, beautifully designed, and educational products!