Two urban mushroom farmers -- and the founders of Back to the Roots -- reflect on the valuable mistakes they've made on the road to becoming successful entrepreneurs.

By Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora
June 26, 2014
Credit: Kyle Johnson

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." This quote by Thomas Edison rings as true today as it did a hundred years ago. It's still a guidepost for anyone looking to try something new or create something different.

People have asked us what it takes to be an "entrepreneur" –– to be honest, it's nothing special at all. It's just deciding to be okay with feeling uncomfortable, and not letting setbacks get you down. If there's one thing we've found to be true for a startup, it's that more things will go wrong than right, and it's the way you deal with your failures that keeps you growing.

Here are the five biggest mistakes we made at Back to the Roots, and what we've learned from them. We hope they'll help you save some blood, sweat, and dollars.


When we started Back to the Roots, we did it all ourselves –– collecting coffee grounds, planting mushrooms, harvesting the crop, making sales, marketing the product, and customer service. We were trying to build a company that excelled at everything. What we've since learned is that as a business (especially a small startup), you're normally good at a few things and you should try to become better at those than anyone else.

After a few years of mushroom farming (and not being that good at it) we partnered up with Gourmet Mushrooms Inc., an awesome farm in Northern California that now grows all our mushroom kits at a higher quality, consistency, and volume than we ever could have. This lets us work on what we're best at –– creating new products that connect families to food and building a community around them.


Our first mushroom kit was a big, bulky, basketball-size bag of fungus with a sticker slapped on –– something most shoppers would not want to touch with a barge pole. Since then, we've invested considerable time and resources into the user experience, packaging, and design and distilled the Mushroom Farm into a fun and attractive box that can now be found at high-end retailers like Nordstrom and Dean & Deluca as well as larger retailers like Whole Foods and Home Depot.

It's great to be scrappy –– work out of a garage, get free Wi-Fi at cafes, etc. –– but when it comes to product, take a lesson from our mistake and invest in product development early!

Credit: Kyle Johnson


"Una escoba nueva siempre barre bien." This is a quote that our colleague Osvaldo loves. It translates as, "A new broom always sweeps clean." To us, it means not getting caught up in the hype, in the rush, and the adrenaline of short-term wins.

When it came to our new product, the AquaFarm, we didn't do a good enough job of vetting one of the key components –– the air pump that was at the heart of the system. Caught up in the rush to deliver, we didn't test our product enough, and we shipped out a not-so-great pump that started failing quickly. We spent that summer replacing a lot of pumps and wishing we had taken the few extra weeks to really vet it, and not getting swept up with the "clean broom".


This one is easy –– if you're selling a retail product, don't expand beyond your means to support the in-store success. Sell-through is more important than sell-in. We've made the mistake of getting too much product out there when we weren't staffed properly to make sure we could guarantee sell-through. We learned that lesson quickly: sell-through is king.


One of the best pieces of advice we received was to focus, even if it meant saying no to things we really want to do. For a while, we were pursuing a number of product concepts, and we weren't focusing on the opportunity at hand with current products. We almost went out of business by spending time and money chasing these ideas. After some good advice, we decided early on to focus on one thing –– the mushroom kit –– and make it the best kit anyone has ever seen. And that focus made all the difference.

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