Over the past two years, working as a journalist in Silicon Valley, I've interviewed around 100 entrepreneurs for TV news reports and Founder Stories. My encounters with these men and women, and hearing what's motivated them, has been the most satisfying part of my work.
Without exception, the founders I've met have been extremely smart idea-vangelists, bubbling with contagious enthusiasm and tenacity. They have a vision to make a change; they're facing down a problem and applying all of their nouse to render it obsolete. In many cases, they're giving up a lot of safety nets to do so -- selling their homes, exhausting their bank accounts and cashing in their pensions.
Their fields may be as diverse as food tech and pet care, but they all have common qualities, and if these are qualities you can identify in yourself, entrepreneurship might just be for you.
1. You're a status quo-buster
Spotted a problem that's like an itch you need to scratch? Dissatisfied with the inefficiency, complexity or inelegance of something? Want to bring an industry into the internet age? "As an entrepreneur, you're always in this position where you see a problem and you want to solve it," says Offir Gutelzon, CEO of Keepy, a mobile app that allows parents to collect and record memories of their children's development. "It's a constant state of frustration due to inefficiencies", says Xander Schultz, CEO of Complete, an app for tracking and fulfilling intentions. "I'm always looking for that one click, that simple solution."
2. You have a healthy relationship with risk
This doesn't mean you'll throw caution to the wind. The entrepreneurs who make it take calculated risks by sizing up the market opportunity -- and checking out their competitors -- before plunging in. Jason Demant, CEO of Asian food delivery service, Bento, says: "There are ways to start, working nights and weekends, testing your idea, building a customer base so when you do take a leap, you're certain you're not throwing everything away on some chance."
You also have to be self-aware enough to understand your own tolerance of risk. Sonny Tosco, CEO of image crowd-sourcing app Limelight, left a stable job to found his startup with neither a tech background nor a network. "I decided to leave corporate America and forego a pay check with a wife and kid to start Limelight," he says. "I'm the poorest I've been but the richest at heart I've been."
3. You're not afraid to ask for help
To be an entrepreneur, it's really beneficial to like people! Not only because people are ultimately your customers, and you need to find out what they want, but because no entrepreneur is ever successful in a vacuum. Finding good partners and good mentors is a major part of the process. According to Yosi Taguri, CTO of telecoms app Yallo, "it's simply impossible to do anything alone. It's all about complimenting yourself and complimenting your partners… it's like getting married, for the better and worse."
Fashion app Trench's CEO Adi Shemesh has this advice: "Find the people who are experts in the field you want to learn about and make sure that's what you get from them. It's a lot about chemistry."
4. You're a square peg in a round hole
Did you struggle to flourish at school under traditional teaching methods? Then you're like Julien Barbier, co-founder of jobs website TechMeAbroad. Have you toiled away at a big firm, trying to climb the corporate ladder but it just didn't suit? That's how it felt for Eve Peters, now CEO of instant dating app, Whim: "In my 20s, I kept jumping from one office job to another. I'd work for a year somewhere, then quit and try something else. Nothing ever felt right until I went off to pursue my own venture. That was the first time I felt aligned in my adult life." So if fitting into an established niche doesn't quite work for you, maybe it's time to create your own. That way you can determine its shape and size. "I always say that entrepreneurs are unemployable people!" jokes Offir Gutelzon.
5. You can turn a concept into cash
It helps to be able to spot a financial opportunity in whatever project you're cooking up. Voyages of exploration and discovery are great, but in the end, don't you want to make a living from all your hard work? If you can identify the utility in what you're offering, the demographic that will exchange hard cash for your product and service, and the best way to get them on board, then you're half way there.
Russian entrepreneur, Anton Yakovlev, who founded business contact marketplace SAEX, says: " [In the U.S.], the whole country is geared to work for entrepreneurs. Even if someone works for Google, he has something personal -- his own website or a blog -- and he's thinking about how to monetize. At some point it becomes a viable business and goes all the way."
6. You believe in, and forgive, yourself
You need to feel secure in what you have to offer the world, because you're going to have to convince others of it too. Employees will need to have faith in your vision and ability to lead. Investors will need to be won round by your self-belief and grit. Adi Shemesh says "your biggest limitation is yourself. Try to break all the barriers you have in your head. Don't make yourself, your business, the potential of it all small because it's not."
Xander Schultz says you also need to know when to forgive yourself. "when you're being entrepreneurial, there are a lot of failures throughout the process […] it's important to understand you can improve and having a hunger to improve without beating yourself up, eating yourself alive when you make mistakes."
7. You have a support network
You may not know all the right people to kickstart your business just yet -- but hopefully you know some who are going to support you emotionally through the highs and lows. Entrepreneurship can be lonely, and really helps to have a trusted circle of people around you to let off steam to.
Sonny Tosco says his support network has been a pivotal determining factor in his success: "Two of my best friends are founders of their own companies so they understand the highs and lows of running a business. I have had multiple Heinekens with them in order to celebrate and vent about milestones in the Limelight journey."
invisu.me CEO Donna Griffit started her company -- which helps startups create one-pagers for investors -- with her husband, Jonathan "who's been doing this since the age of 19 and who believes in me and coaches me through it. It's amazing working together!", she says.
8. You value flexibility over routine
The freedom to determine your own working hours at the helm of a startup is something Jason Demant really values: "I get to set my calendar every day, I'm setting the direction of the company with my co-founders and employees -- we get to decide where we go and how we get there and that's an extremely satisfying way to live a life in terms of business." If the neat structure of a 9-5, 40 hour working week really appeals, then the freewheeling timetable of an entrepreneurial venture probably won't.
You have to be prepared to pull immensely long hours -- but you can equally give yourself time off when needed. And of course you don't mind getting your hands dirty, or wearing many hats. "CEO stands for Chief Everything Officer," quips Offir Gutzelson.
9. You're decisive
There isn't much space in entrepreneurship for wavering. You'll be deluged with information and advice but it's up to you to cut through all the noise. Adi Shemesh warns that "everyone has an opinion but in the end I'm the only one who has all the necessary information to make decisions about my business. I'm the only one with the full picture." The "just do it" mentality is one close to Yosi Taguri's heart: "We're living very short lives - so I don't want to look back on the way out and say, oh I should have done this or that."
10. You dream big but think small
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" -- the well-known Chinese proverb is also Anton Yakovlev's motto. High aspirations are important for anyone who wants to make a difference, but it's important not to overwhelm yourself with trying to have a huge impact in the first month. Break it down.
Successful entrepreneurs "have huge goals that they want to reach but sprint towards short term milestones," says Xander Schultz. "Yes they want to get to a million users but they ask what's actionable this month, this week?"
Wine from water. Milk from yeast. Both may sound miraculous, but the second one is actually happening. San Francisco startup Muufri is taking the moo out of milk by rethinking the way it's industrially produced.
Muufri is the brainchild of vegan bioengineers Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi. It's not that they're against milk -- they just believe it can be produced more humanely, cheaply and sustainably, and in order to do that, they're swapping the dairy farm for the lab.
Of course there are already plenty of milk alternatives on the market, including soy, almond and coconut. But Team Muufri says its project isn't about creating a substitute, it's about "reimagining what milk production looks like."
Muufri is not alone in its quest to create an artificial food product. San Francisco-based Hampton Creek is already selling egg-free mayonnaise and is now working on an egg-free (vegan) egg, based on a top secret plant protein mix. Not surprisingly, these bioengineered alternatives have had some industry groups up in arms. Investors, on the other hand, see huge potential for disrupting the agricultural sector. Muufri received $2 million in seed funding last autumn.
To find out more about Muufri's vision for animal-free dairy, the customers they're targeting, and the positive environmental impact they aspire to create, I put some probing questions to CEO and co-founder, Ryan Pandya.
Tell us about the science behind Muufri -- how do you go about synthesizing it?
It's brewed the same way you'd make beer. Once we perfect our method, it'll be possible for hobbyists, enthusiasts, craft brewers, or larger dairy producers all to make milk our way. Because it's essentially the same as making beer or wine -- you're feeding sugar, controlling the operating conditions for a few days, and then harvesting the product -- it's easy for anyone to understand and pick up, and it should actually be possible to use existing beer equipment to make milk (with a few retrofits). It's much, much cleaner and more efficient than working with cows, too.
You guys are vegans, with a deep concern for sustainability. What problems did you identify that you are trying to solve with Muufri? Could it even help California's drought problem?
The company doesn't take a stance on the vegan issue, and most of our employees aren't vegan. I should point out that vegans are definitely not our target market - we're making milk to appeal to regular people who love dairy products as much as we do, but who are deeply concerned with sustainability and food safety.
As you may know, 47% of the water in California is used for animal agriculture, so I always find it sort of amusing to go to a restaurant with a really meat and dairy-heavy menu and a little thing on the table that says they won't serve water unless you ask -- you know, because of the drought. It's totally backwards. I think if all of the milk in America was made in breweries instead of animal farms, we'd see a massive decrease in water consumption. I really think it could help the drought. Meanwhile, animal agriculture has been found to contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation sector. Per year, a single cow has a greater carbon impact than driving 10,000 km.
From a food safety perspective, there is a serious amount of saturated fat and cholesterol found in dairy, along with a whole bunch of junk that ends up in our milk through factory farming: antibiotics, hormones, pus. Who wants that in their Cheerios?
I think if everyone gave up dairy products, the environment and our collective public health would both improve. But it'd be a loss - we've been using dairy products for 10,000 years all over the world. It'd be a shame to give it up if we don't have to.
We asked ourselves what it would have to look like for the dairy industry to make a real, tangible dent in these global problems. And I think the only way is to find a better way to make milk - a way that eliminates the inefficiencies and the contaminants. I'm happy to say that we're making progress.
What is the timeline for and scalability of the project?
We're developing a prototype right now, which should be ready by the end of the year. It'll be a sample of milk, with that classic creamy milk flavor, but for the first time in history we'll be able to say that no animals were involved in its production. From there, it'll take a few years to develop market-ready products and start distributing. And in the background we'll be developing the scalable, plug-and-play microbrewery that we can share with the whole world to really kick things into high gear. I hesitate to give exact dates - it's tough to say.
Have you conducted taste tests and if so, what have been the results?
It's still a month or two until our animal-free milk proteins become available for us to play with. In the meantime, we've made samples of milk with under ten components - super minimal milk. We've verified that it tastes like milk and has the same protein content, which are our two highest priorities.
Some people believe humans shouldn't drink cow's milk at all, and others would be worried about a product that's been genetically engineered in the first place -- what would you say to those naysayers?
It doesn't really matter to me whether or not we "should" be drinking cow's milk. The reality is that we are doing it, hundreds of kilograms per person per year, and it's beginning to break our planet's back. As long as people are going to be consuming tons of dairy, we may as well do it in a way that can be sustained for the thousands of generations who live after us on Earth.
I will say, though, that if you think we shouldn't be drinking milk because it's optimized by Nature for baby cows to drink, then you may take solace in the fact that we are now optimizing milk for adult humans to consume, so hopefully all of the allergies, side effects and health concerns will disappear in the next few years.
Regarding your second point, in my perspective our method is a much safer alternative to what people are doing now, which is to put engineered feed and hormones and antibiotics into animals and just sort of hope that the milk we get is still healthy.
I won't take a black-or-white stance on genetic engineering, because it can be good or bad depending on the motives and the competence of the people involved. It's sort of like asking if wood carving is good or bad. That depends - are you carving a knife or a pretty little pony? Are you a good carver, or is your pony going to have some sharp edges that could give someone a splinter?
I like this metaphor because you can ask yourself what it would have to look like for it not to be scary. You'd want it to be something relatively simple, with good-hearted intentions, and have the smartest and most talented people working on it. We've got all three, so there's nothing to worry about.
Can Muufri be turned into artificial cow milk ice cream, yoghurt, butter etc.?
Yes! Definitely. If we can't turn into ice cream, yogurt, butter, and everything else, there will still be hundreds of millions of dairy cows on farms and our planet will be doomed. We will do it all, don't worry. Muufri's on it.