KANSAS CITY — Set clear boundaries. Forgive any failures. Trust and let go.
The entrepreneurs behind two food technology companies shared insights during the Institute of Food Technologists’ FIRST virtual conference. The theme of the discussion, titled “If I Knew Then,” centered on the unexpected challenges of launching a business.
A core trait of every successful founder is resilience, said Michelle Egger, co-founder and chief executive officer of Biomilq, a Durham, NC-based developer of cultured breastmilk.
“Nobody likes to think about failing, and everyone talks about failing fast in startups,” she said. “It doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
Ms. Egger, a food scientist who previously worked at General Mills, founded Biomilq with biologist Leila Strickland, PhD, in 2019. The startup, which produces nutritionally equivalent breastmilk from cultured human mammary cells, has encountered its share of obstacles, but a few things have gone surprisingly well, Ms. Egger said.
“Nobody likes to think about failing, and everyone talks about failing fast in startups.” — Michelle Egger, Biomilq
“Honestly I thought it would be much harder to gain consumer acceptance,” she admitted. “We had this thought that there would be a lot of negative reaction around the idea of creating breastmilk outside of the body… Frankly been a lot easier than we expected.”
Acceptance among venture capital partners exceeded her expectations, too.
“In general, it’s a much friendlier process than I expected and much more collaborative in many ways,” Ms. Egger said, adding, “Getting to know investors, genuinely understanding their motivators, knowing why they’re interested in you or your business, what challenges they’ve helped other founders solve, all of these things are actually much more important and not what anybody prepares you for as part of VC fundraising and discussions early on.”
Yoni Medhin, co-founder and CEO of Grain4Grain, San Antonio, said he also faced less resistance raising capital than he anticipated. His startup developed technology to dry and mill the leftover barley grains from beermaking in under 20 minutes. Grain4Grain supplies the nutritious, versatile flour to food manufacturers, in addition to marketing a low-carbohydrate pancake and waffle mix online and in grocery stores throughout Texas. The company also plans to transform byproducts of tequila, whiskey and winemaking into food-grade ingredients.
“We have a very cool following in San Antonio and Austin,” Mr. Medhin said. “Now we’re hoping to use that momentum to see if we get similar acceptance outside of Texas as we start branching out this year and next year.”
Ms. Egger and Mr. Medhin offered perspectives on team building and maintaining strong professional relationships in difficult times.
“One of the early pieces of advice I got from one of our angel investors is you’re going to make a mistake in hiring, so just grieve that now before you even start it; just tell yourself you’re going to mess it up, and that’s okay and you’re going to fix it,” Ms. Egger said. “Removing the pressure of having to have the perfect team from day one makes it much more natural to find people who are incredibly mission aligned or really believe in what you’re doing but maybe have some skills to learn and build still, or vice versa, have incredibly deep skills, deep mission alignment but maybe have some other coachable leadership opportunities that would make them more successful employees anywhere, not just here with us at Biomilq.”
Mr. Medhin, who met his co-founder, Matthew Mechtly, while both were undergraduates studying petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, cited the pair’s compatible strengths and “tremendous amount of communication” as foundational to Grain4Grain’s success.
“Matt asks very good questions and is very analytical whereas I’m the guy that’s willing to pull the trigger on a decision,” he said. “When we’re working well in sync it works really well.”
Promoting a healthy work culture is another key to running a successful startup, Ms. Egger noted. She discovered the importance of achieving balance to avoid burnout, flouting the non-stop hustle mentality often associated with entrepreneurship.
“I don’t work weekends, which probably for many entrepreneurs sounds blasphemous, but I honestly can’t continue to work at breakneck paces,” she said. “I had to set that boundary pretty early on, that occasionally I’ll answer an email on a Saturday, but I’m not setting aside time to get more work done…
“(Modeling healthy balance) is what helps my team have healthy balance. It’s what helps all of us be able to show up energized and ready to get an incredible amount of work done smarter, not harder.”
“I always have some idea in my mind and want it to T that way. There’s no better way to stamp down any development or innovation or growth than operating that way.” — Yoni Medhin, Grain4Grain
Both speakers acknowledged the need to “let go.” Mr. Medhin disclosed the difficulty of delegating tasks to others.
“Not that I’m necessarily a control freak…” Mr. Medhin said. “But I always have some idea in my mind and want it to T that way. There’s no better way to stamp down any development or innovation or growth than operating that way.”
Ms. Egger, a self-described “Type A personality,” said, “When I started this process, I knew one of the hardest things for me emotionally, mentally, physically was going to be figuring out when to let go of things.”
“Learning when things are less important to let it go, when you’ve made a mistake and to let it go, when you’re frustrated with someone else and to let it go, because it’s just not adding value, it’s not healthy or helpful,” she added. “I knew that was going to be a journey. I don’t think I had mentally prepared myself for how much of a daily struggle that was going to be.
“I wish I had known how resilient I am and given myself the grace to know I’d recover more quickly.”