Princeton Spark – Episode 002: Thriving Under Uncertainty

Princeton Spark – Episode 002: Thriving Under Uncertainty


From the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council,
this is the Princeton Spark. I’m Wright Seneres. The various people that make up the Princeton
entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem have long been at work, taking risks to bring transformational
ideas and companies to the world, in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity. These
are the stories of Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way. At PEC, we support Princeton-connected startups
and help to build the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Jersey and beyond. In
our series opening three episodes, we are exploring three important aspects of entrepreneurship.
If you haven’t heard the first episode on taking risks, it is available now at princetonspark.com
or wherever you get your podcasts, so do check that out. The very nature of entrepreneurship is doing
something new and innovative, and so there is always some uncertainty involved. Navigating
this uncertainty is something all entrepreneurs need to do if they want to thrive. So how
do they do this? For one answer, we turned to Brooks Powell. Brooks is the founder of Cheers Health, which
used to be called Thrive Plus. So in an episode on thriving, I thought I’d go to an expert. My name is Brooks Powell. I graduated from
Princeton in the class of 2017. And I founded a company called Cheers, which we like to
call an alcohol related health company. I came across an article that just been published
in 2012. I was reading this a few months after it being published, titled “Dihydromyricetin
as a novel anti-intoxication medication”. And in this article, they showed that DHM,
which is a chemical extract, like caffeine to coffee, or THC is marijuana, is basically
the active ingredient that makes the plant work. Well, basically, in Asian countries,
people will steep this leaf in hot water and drink it after consuming alcohol. And evidently,
it made them feel better in the moment. And then it also made them feel better the next
day. A team at UCLA, they took that, they took the chemical extract, dihydromyricetin,
injected it into rats, and they found that they can instantly sober up rats. They can
prevent rats from becoming alcoholics. They can cure alcoholism and rats and oh, yeah,
rats given DHM show no sign of hangovers. Basically, I took this study, I found it really
compelling. I brought it straight to my neuroscience professor, he thought it was compelling. He
scrapped the planned class lecture and lectured on this instead. Within a month or so all
of my sort of post graduation career ideas, and totally transformed to me basically thinking,
you know what, I’m gonna try to start a company off of this dihydromyricetin. Starting an alcohol related health company
is sure to have much uncertainty around it. I think our uncertainty is really sort of
related to the market that we’re in. So, you know, there’s never really been this concern
that, could we make a working product? Would we be able to figure out the supply chain,
etc, especially hardware companies, and they fail all the time, because it’s just so hard
to build a hardware company, such as, like Ring doorbells successfully accomplished.
For us, the challenge was, was this idea of, could you actually raise money for something
that is alcohol-related. You know, would you be able to employ people on something that
is alcohol-related? And the reason is, is that specifically for the VC community, you
know, VC, you always think of VCs, as the investors, the people that give other people
money, but VCs really have to deal with people called limited partners, which are universities,
like Princeton, or state pension funds, or high net worth individuals, and some LPs are
having to raise money every five years. So our sorry, venture capitalists are having
to raise money from LPs every five years or so. Meaning that every investment they make,
they don’t want some LP looking at it going like, “Well, why did you invest in that company?”
So for the longest time, as we’re sort of building this company, you know, we would
have 50 conversations with VP and 60, or 70% of them, who wouldn’t really want to take
past the first meeting, primarily because they didn’t know what their LPs would think
of them investing in something that might be able to be characterized as a hangover
cure. And so that was one of the things that we really sort of the uncertainty of, we knew
that that sort of category of alcohol related health was going to become a thing because
we were going to make it a thing. But you still have to convince other people, the sort
of gatekeepers the funding, that is going to become a good thing. And 10 years from
now, everyone’s going to look back and go, Oh, alcohol related health category makes
so much sense. Just like the immunity section of supplements of the supplement aisle, or
the sleep section of the vitamin supplement aisle, or the vitamin C section of the vitamin
and supplement aisle, right? Soon, there’ll be sort of be an alcohol related health section.
And there’s sort of that uncertainty like, “Could we grow the company big enough where
we can start getting funding from these institutional partners? Or, you know, would we ever be able
to sort of get funding from these institutional partners?” Through this uncertainty, Brooks’s startup
is thriving. They raised a $1.2 million seed round in 2018. And they brought a very thoughtful
and well-researched effort on a major rebranding to their investors. The result of which? Say
hello to Cheers. To put it lightly, the consumption of alcohol
has its good and bad sides. Even though Cheers’s customers call it a hangover cure, Brooks
is careful to use other nomenclature. It’s a long explanation and it involves the federal
Food and Drug Administration, but the end result is they are a dietary supplement in
the eyes of the FDA. For us, we have to leave it a bit vague. We
have to say, “after alcohol aid”, you know? Feel better. Support your liver. But
that enough is enough for consumers to come to their own conclusions about the products. In 2018, Brooks appeared on ABC’s popular
television program Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs pitch in front of a panel of investors, led
by Mark Cuban. Just to get to that point might have been harder than even getting into Princeton.
After the break, he’ll tell us about it. The Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, Princeton
Department of Athletics, Princeton Association of New York City, and Princeton Alumni Angels
cordially invite you to join fellow Princeton alumni, students, and their guests at the
third Tiger Entrepreneurs Conference on Friday, November 8th in New York City. A one-day conference
featuring dynamic keynote speakers, panel discussions, workshops, and a startup showcase.
Our venue is the fabulous Altman Building, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
Tickets and more information are available at entrepreneurs.princeton.edu. Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. When
we left off, Brooks was about to pitch to the sharks on Shark Tank, but just getting
into the TV studio was a very uncertain process. Every year, every season, there’s about 90
companies that get on the Shark Tank. So they’ll do about 25 episodes, sometimes it’s about
20 episodes. And they usually have three to four companies per episode, right, little
10 minute segments. But they also have the press release and that says, that every year,
there’s somewhere between 35 and 55,000 people or companies that have applied to Shark Tank.
So doing the math on that, it’s about 20 times harder to get on the Shark Tank than it is
to get into Princeton. Which Princeton is already very hard to get into. You know, people
that apply to Princeton usually have a shot to get in, but it’s sort of self selecting.
But it’s still it’s still a pretty peculiar fact. The other thing, I think people don’t
sort of know about Shark Tank, which really how long the casting process for them to go
from 35 to 55,000 applications each year, it’s actually getting on the show, it takes,
you know, six to nine months of casting. So you have to go through all of these different
rounds and different steps, some of its written, some of it is video pitches. And then finally,
they get to California, they have the pitch in front of them live and answer questions.
And, you know, there’s a lot that happens before you actually get onto the stage. But
despite all of that sort of being such a fine-tuned machine, When you get out on stage, what you
see is what you get. However, Mark Cuban traditionally does not
put dietary supplements on the show. Basically, what ended up happening for us
is Mark Cuban traditionally just hates dietary supplements. Because the truth is, in the
dietary supplement industry, more stuff doesn’t work than works. Right? And so Mark Cuban’s
point of view is, you know, we don’t want to bring anything onto the show that could
be deceptive towards consumers. Right? So if you actually watch the episode, that’s
why he’s asking so many questions about science. Originally, the producers didn’t want to let
me and Thrive+ on the show, because they’re like, “Yeah, it’s just going to make Mark
Cuban mad, he’s going to make it bad TV. So what I did is I actually wrote the producers
this 15 page, back and forth Q&A. If Mark says this, I’ll say that. Mark says this,
I’ll say this. Mark says that, I’ll say that. At that point, I get this email back, talk
to some of the producers, they bring me to California, they say, “In the history of Shark
Tank, we’ve been doing this for 10 years now. And we have never seen somebody do what you
just did. We would love to put you in the Tank and see what happens between you and
Mark Cuban.” Brooks won Shark Tank’s producers over,
and went on the show and pitched. In the end, Brooks made a valiant effort, but there was
no deal. They did get a lot of exposure, which made a nice bump in their sales figures. And
they are continuing to build and build. You can read about Cheers’s alcohol health
products, maybe buy some for yourself at cheershealth.com. After the break, we’ll talk about the arts
and entrepreneurship. You may be wondering: what do arts and entrepreneurship have to
do with each other? Creating art for public consumption is some
of the most entrepreneurial and uncertain endeavors that you can undertake. We’ll
meet an artist and founder who knows this intersection intimately well. She happens
to also have both an MFA in dance from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and an MBA
from Wharton, so she is uniquely positioned for this conversation. Tigers don’t meow. They roar. From the Supreme
Court to the U.S. Congress; from operating rooms and newsrooms to boardrooms and classrooms;
from laboratories, war zones and trading floors to stages, startups and writing desks — Princeton
women have penetrating views on things that matter. These are change-makers in the service
of humanity. Listen to their stories. Check out the She Roars podcast wherever you get
your podcasts. Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. There
are aspects that apply universally to entrepreneurial pursuits, whether your stage is attached to
a microscope, or set under the bright lights of a theater. One of these aspects is how
to thrive under uncertainty. Meet Pilar Castro-Kiltz. Hi, my name is Pilar Castro-Kiltz, class of
2010. I am an artist and an entrepreneur. WS: Elliot McGucken, also a Princeton alum,
he says, “Every artist is an entrepreneur, and every entrepreneur is an artist.” How
do you react to that statement? I completely agree. I think that artists are
entrepreneurs in the sense that they are creating something new. They are building out of nothing
something whether that’s a painting a poem, a piece of theatre, whatever it is, they’re
crafting something that didn’t exist before. And there’s uncertainty, there’s danger, there’s
excitement. And I think that for entrepreneurs, they’re just as creative as artists, I think
that’s the thing that brings the two of them together, is making something where there
wasn’t something before. But the truth is, you know, the arts, a piece
of art is a product, an individual is providing a service when they create an experience for
others to consume, to change their minds to open their eyes. And as an artist, I think
that I came to realize that the arts and business live together when I wanted to sell out the
house, you know, I wanted there to be people to share my art with and I wanted to be creating
a piece of theatre, that could bring people into a room who are from diverse backgrounds,
from diverse experiences, and make a place for them to meet one another talk about something.
And in order to do that, you have to market and you have to advertise, and you have to
create something, that’s appealing. Product market fit. WS: Yes, product market fit. We talk about
that a lot in tech entrepreneurship and other entrepreneurship. But it really matters for
arts entrepreneurship too. Tell me more about that. What you think of when you say that? Yes, when I think about product market fit
in the arts. It’s a word that’s used in tech entrepreneurship, that in the arts, I think
it’s sometimes “community building”, bringing people – there other words for this idea
of “make something that gets people to come out, buy a ticket and be a part of that.”
And you know, when you look around a packed gallery of people loving a certain artist,
no one says, “Wow, this is real product market fit.” But that’s not the conversation.
That’s not the vocabulary that’s used. But that’s what’s happened. Someone has tapped
into a need or a desire, and created something that meets that, which is what product market
fit is. WS: How would you characterize the uncertainty
that you face, say running a dance production or putting on a show? Wow, that’s a big question. There are many
stages of uncertainty in putting together a Dance Theatre production. So I was the executive
artistic director of this Dance Theatre Company. And I wrote, directed, choreographed the productions,
produced it. And the first stage of uncertainty is, “What are we going to make?” You know,
it’s sort of from the the internal mind of the artist. I would say like, the first question
of uncertainty is getting the collaborators together? Is it how are we going to create
a team that’s going to bring this to fruition? And that’s from composers, dancers, actors,
musicians? There’s the uncertainty of where we are going to put this up? Is there is there
a channel that I can distribute this product to my eventual customers? And for many artists,
that’s about, you know, there’s that difference between, I just keep thinking of like, you
know, there’s direct to consumer. If you’re creating a digital product, you can get it
right to people. But if you’re creating a live piece of theatre and dance, you need
a partner, you need a theater to say yes. We need enough funds to rent the theater.
And sometimes the latter doesn’t happen. So I think that there’s uncertainty in are you
putting together a team of people that are going to be able to collaborate effectively?
There’s uncertainty in in the people, are you going to be able to put together a team
of collaborators of dancers, actors, musicians, you can pull this pull this off? There’s even
just the piece itself, it changes and it evolves as you’re going. So sure, the piece of art
you think you’re making at the beginning? What goes on on stage is totally different.
There’s that there’s also the uncertainty of, especially for one night only productions.
Are people going to come? Are we going to sell enough tickets? Are people going to like
it? I did one show that there’s a fire on the F train. And five minutes before curtain,
there wasn’t a soul in the house. Even though we had almost sold out the tickets, there
wasn’t anybody there. And we realized, yeah, there’s a fire in the subway. Sometimes there’s
a fire in the subway, and no one comes to the show. Luckily, they kept the house open.
And we just started 30 minutes late. Everybody showed up. Late in the game. Which made the
whole thing more fun, because it was a play about dating. So you know, that’s uncertain. WS: Sure. The most uncertain thing of all. The most uncertain thing of all, will there
be a subway fire? And will you find love? WS: Yeah. So it’s the same question. It’s the same question. WS: It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing After putting on these various shows, Pilar
identified something that didn’t exist in the market, that she wished she had. This
is often the spark that turns an idea into an impact. After the break, she’ll take
us through the founding of the Princeton Arts Alumni. Nominations for the 2019 Tiger Entrepreneur
Award are being accepted now, a prestigious award designed to celebrate the value of entrepreneurship
and innovation across the Princeton community and to emphasize the University’s commitment
to Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way. This annual award is given to up to four individuals
or teams of  undergraduate students, graduate students, or early-career alumni who demonstrate
success in entrepreneurship. Visit entrepreneurs.princeton.edu/award to
make a nomination today. Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. Before
the break, Pilar had talked about product market fit, and the stages of uncertainty
in the arts. It’s always nice to lean on a network of mentors when faced with these
uncertainties. Except… I founded the Princeton arts alumni in 2013. WS: Okay. And so what did you see out in the
market that required the creation of this group? It was actually the late Tim Vasen, who was
then the director of the theater program at Princeton. I was at his New Year’s Eve party.
And I went up to him and I said, “Tim, I’m ready to talk to the arts mafia.” And he’s
like, “What’s the arts mafia?” And I said, you know, “The Princeton arts mafia, just
like, Princeton has this community of lawyers and bankers and doctors, you can call up and
find mentorship. I’ve written the play, I’m ready to like, contact the people.” And
he said, “There’s no such thing.” What are you talking about? WS: Is he like, sworn to silence though? Because
it’s the mafia? Yeah, I know. Exactly. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I just said “It would
be great. Like, I want to talk to people and tell them about my play, I want to get mentorship,
I want to learn about it”. And I think I went on and on and on, as I sometimes can.
And he said, “That sounds great. Do you want to start it?” And I said, “What are
you talking about?” He said, “You know, we can make this, that the university can
give you funding for two years, kind of let you launch it, then you’ll be financially
independent. If it works, great. And if it doesn’t, we’ll tell nobody. It will be our
secret.” And so, you know, it’s very grateful that when, when I approached him and said
I think that I think we need a community of alumni to support each other, and to find
mentorship and collaboration, find fans and funding and whatever that is, that that he
and Michael Cadden were both very supportive of making that happen. So they sponsored two
big parties in New York, two annual parties to kind of launch it to get the community
together. And ever since then, we’ve been financially independent since 2015. Having founded the Princeton Arts Alumni group,
she then noticed another critical need in the arts market. The next year, she founded
an arts consulting company. If this isn’t entrepreneurial, then there is no entrepreneurial. So the company is called More Canvas Consulting.
And it started in 2014, when I was working as a playwright, director, choreographer,
artist in New York, and I wanted somebody who could run the business side of the art,
somebody who could take care of some of those day-to-day administrative issues, and also
answer the big questions that I didn’t know, in terms of strategy and marketing and growth.
So I could focus on the art. And I asked around, and no one knew of a company who would do
that for individual artists and small companies. Many people are familiar with management consultants.
McKinsey. Bain. BCG. The big ones. But someone who is familiar with the arts and who could
be nimble and affordable. And what I didn’t find one, I decided to start it. And yeah,
I think that More Canvas, really what we do is we take care of the administrative, so
our clients can focus on the creative. In our show notes for this episode at princetonspark.com,
you can find links to More Canvas Consulting and Princeton Arts Alumni. In our next episode, we will talk about persisting
through failure. We will resume our conversation with Pilar, and also with Vaidhy Murti, whom
we talked to in the first episode of the Princeton Spark. But before that, we will talk to Stuart Ahlum,
co-founder of sustainable sneaker company Thousand Fell. His first sneaker company ended
without making as big as an impact as he had hoped. But in this venture, he hopes his newest
line of sneakers has as little impact as possible. Download the next episode of the Princeton
Spark, and you’ll find out what I mean. Many thanks to Brooks Powell and Pilar Castro-Kiltz. The Princeton Spark is a production of the
Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. Engineered by Dan Kearns and Dan Quiyu at
the Princeton Broadcast Center and produced by me, Wright Seneres. Music for this episode is by me, Wright Seneres.
Our theme music is by the Treadmills. Special thanks to Rose Kelly, David Hopkins,
Elio Lleo, Tiger Gao, Margaret Koval, Beth Jarvie, Kristin Haraldsdottir, Daniella DeLorenzo,
Megan Donahey, Josh Carter, Morgan Spencer, and the whole Princeton Entrepreneurship Council
team, which is Anne-Marie Maman, Don Seitz, Lauren Bender, Diane DeLorenzo, Neal Bituin,
and me, Wright Seneres. You can read the show notes for this episode
at our website: princetonspark.com. The comments and suggestions box is always
open – send an email to [email protected] If there is a topic or a person that you think
we should talk to, please let us know! If you still can’t get enough of the Princeton
Spark, we’re on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram too @princetonspark. The views expressed by our guests on the show
are theirs and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Princeton Entrepreneurship
Council or Princeton University. If you rate and review us in the iTunes store,
it really does help people find the show. If you haven’t subscribed to the show yet,
please do so at princetonspark.com, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening! The Thrive Conference, celebrating and empowering
Princeton’s black alumni, returns to the Princeton campus from October 3rd through
the 5th. The Thrive Conference presents entrepreneurial content on the afternoon
of the 3rd, featuring keynote speakers, panel discussions, workshops, and a startup showcase.
Registration information is available at thrive.princeton.edu.

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