Interview with Nikhil Arora, Co-founder, Back to the Roots
Back to the Roots got its start in 2009 when co-founders Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez produced their first tabletop mushroom farm. These mushroom farms mix agricultural waste, such as recycled coffee grounds, sawdust, wheat bran, and corn cobs, with mushroom seeds to create a grow-your-own Mushroom Farm that produces gourmet Pearl Oyster mushrooms in just ten days. The mushroom kits took the market by storm, selling over 800,000 to date.
Following the huge success of their initial product, Arora and Velez set out to find a way to bring aquaponics into the home and soon developed the AquaFarm. This closed loop, sustainable mini farming system uses fish waste to grow plants indoors. Similar to their Mushroom Farms, customers have fallen in love with the AquaFarm and the new product has taken off in the marketplace. By successfully combining education with sustainability, the two have created a thriving food business that continues to grow. Oh yeah, and did we mention that both founders are under 30?
Meghan French Dunbar: You guys have an amazing story. Can you tell us how Back to the Roots came to life?
Nikhil Arora: Alex, my co-founder, and I were both at Berkeley in our last semester in school and we both had job offers to go into the corporate world in consulting and investment banking. We both thought we knew what we were doing. We were in a class together and the professor brought up the fact that you can grow mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. The idea inspired both of us. So, we reached out to get more information and ended up meeting up. We both thought, “forget investment banking, forget consulting,” and we’ve been mushroom farming ever since.
MFD: You guys have a new product on the market, the AquaFarm. How did that come about?
NA: We brought mushroom growing into the classroom and into the home and that has become a big inspiration and passion for us. With that mindset, we started getting deep into farming and came across this new trend called aquaponics. We ended up visiting one of the largest aquaponics farms in the country outside of Milwaukee. This place was incredible. Will Allan, who founded it, literally had thousands of tilapia and all of the fish waste was fertilizing tons of food for the local community there. We were so inspired by that concept. We started asking ourselves if we could do what we did with the mushroom kit and take a big mushroom farm and shrink it down into a tabletop experience, but see if we could do the same thing with aquaponics. All of this eventually turned into the AquaFarm.
MFD: You guys have now launched two very successful products. What’s behind that success?
NA: At the end of the day it’s passion and purpose. The team lives and breathes this and really gives this their all. We’ve also been surrounded by incredible mentors and partners. There’s that saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I think that’s true for a company, too. We’ve just tried to take all of that support and energy and inspiration around us and be the ones who can channel that and work our butts off to make it a reality. There are a lot of people who have been involved in helping us get here.
"There’s that saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I think that’s true for a company, too."
MFD: What insights do you have regarding building a quality, effective team?
NA: We hire with passion as one of our number ones. Having people who are willing to give it everything they have is really important. The rest of it can be learned. Also, looking for people who can do things better than you is critical. We’ve been really fortunate to build such a great team. We’ve tried to stay lean and find the right folks who can specialize in certain areas and then leverage that as much as possible.
MFD: Where are the best places to find mentors for budding entrepreneurs?
NA: Most cities have start-up and entrepreneur hubs. Being a part of some of those has led us to some awesome mentors. Also, honestly, you can just cold email people and tell them what you’re working on. Especially in this space of natural foods and values-based and passion-driven businesses, people are willing to support entrepreneurs. Annie’s [Homegrown, Inc.] is an example. They’re a huge company and they have been a mentor of ours since day one. We either met them at a conference or cold emailed them and then we got the chance to know them really well and they have opened up so many doors for us. So, there are formal ways and informal ways, but never be afraid to share what you’re working on. You never know who will resonate with it and support you.
MFD: So, we’ve got building an amazing team, driving your company with passion and purpose, and finding great mentors. What other wisdom would you impart to people trying to launch their own business?
NA: One of the best pieces of advice that I got was, “true focus is saying ‘no’ to the things that you really want to do.” Especially when we were a bit younger, there were so many products and so many different ways that we could take the company. For a while, we were doing a lot of different things and half-assing all of them. At some point, we got to the point where we realized we needed to pick one thing and put all of our energy and focus on just that one thing. We decided to put that energy into making our little mushroom kit the very best mushroom kit and it was cool to see the effect of that decision. Early on, you’ve got to hone in on one thing and say, “I want to do that better than anyone else out there,” and see where it takes you.
MFD: What is your favorite part about being an entrepreneur?
NA: I think it’s about being able to chart your own path. There is something really cool about that. Every day you get to wake up and do what you want to do. It’s probably the most challenging thing, but also the most rewarding thing. You have no one telling you what to do so you have to look to yourself. You get to curate your own future though. It’s exciting, but also very challenging as well. Alex and I are incredibly close and work so well together – that’s another thing that I appreciate.
MFD: Who or what is inspiring you right now?
NA: It’s great to see all of our hard work paying off and there are so many people who respond to our product. We recently sponsored a music festival in DC and half of the people that came up to us had pictures of their AquaFarms on their phones. It’s been unbelievable to see the emotional response that this product has had on people. The whole team has been putting in so much work and so many hours and to see something like that, it’s one of the best feelings. Having someone come up and be so excited about your product that they want to show it to you on their phone is exciting. It’s a really cool feeling.