What Tomatoes Taught Me

Some stories define character. This is one of them.

My Story:

The idea sprouted as I was a sophomore in high school. My friend Nate Brooks and I were interested in getting involved with his Father’s nursery business. We wanted to bring indoor houseplants to office centers across the valley. But, as his Dad initially pointed out, our idea was backwards. I knew zero about selling anything let alone selling Dieffenbachia Perf Compacta plants. What made mecompetent enough to run this business? Most startups fail, what made me different? Besides, I did not even have a driver’s permit.

Valid Point

But I still wanted to get involved. I wanted to learn. I wanted tocreate something. I just needed a chance.

Luckily, someone took a chance on me.

We structured a deal with the nursery and began offering a couple varieties of indoor and outdoor plants within a couple weeks of ideation. Rather than launch wide-scale, worldwide operations, we started small. Really small.About 6 x 8 feet to be exact, located near the intersection of the local freeway at theRoadrunner Park Farmer’s Market. I went out and got a tent from Costco, plastic tables stolen from my family’s Chanukah party cache, a fanny pack (crucial), and, with much help from mentors, was ready to open for business. We were one person at one booth in one market once a week.

Competent business owner yet? No. There was so much to learn. Turns out some of the most valuable experiences you will ever learn occur in the most unexpected places; for me, it was at the Farmer’s Market.

Whether I was prepared or not, I was going to learn. A LOT. Retrospectively, it is easy to see the impact of those first few months. For a number of reasons, they tested me. They challenged my mental and physical strength: my ability to win and lose. They challenged me to talk to people about things I never thought I would ever be talking about. For 2 and 1/2 months, I begged my parents to drive me to the Farmer’s Market at 5:30 in the morning every Saturday so I could “fanny-pack-up” and sell local plants and produce for 7 hours. And this was just the beginning. What more could I get myself into?

I continued selling from my stand until it was too hot for dogs to walk on the pavement. Even at 115 degrees, I, the 15 and a half year old, was there.And it was not because of the money. I was constantly learning. For every good day there were ten bad ones. The friend I started it with stopped working. I could have easily given it all up. But I didn’t. It took me a while to understand the virtue of patience and hard work.

Stop seeking immediate gratification.

I have a big mouth: I talk a lot. I told everyone I knew about the projects I was working on. I’d invite my friends to get them involved working. Everyone said no. Either they were afraid to wake up that early (god forbid) or they were hyperfocused on short term takeaways.

Everyone wants to know how much money you are making on your venture. And at first, that answer is underwhelming and unattractive. It is difficult for outsiders to see the potential value of getting long-run return and intangible experience. But I saw what others did not see in this opportunity.

Founders see value in something most people initially say no to.

As a founder, the hard (nearly impossible) part is proving doubters wrong. For me, that meant turning this “project” into something larger than myself. And that is what I set out to do.

The next two years were serious game changers, marked by periods of growth and development. I owe the success of the venture to help from powerful mentorship, lots of luck, an incredible team, and hard work. We continued iterating over the things we did correctly and trimming the fat from the business.

***Forewarning: I do not go into great detail about most of it but if you are interested I am more than happy to share.

Here is What Happened:

  • We began selling hydroponic produce: 23 varieties of tomatoes (indigo rose, gourmata, cherry), the hottest peppers in the world, and beautiful lettuce heads.
  • We sourced produce from several local distributors and offered dozens of new products: grafiti cauliflower, romanesco, and fingerling potatoes.
  • We expanded to 8 Farmer’s Market locations open throughout the week.
  • We hired 10+ employees.
  • We bought 100 chickens and I (with the help of my dad) raised them in my backyard.
  • We sold thousands of pounds of tomatoes.
  • We got creative and cut out tomato waste by repurposing over ripe tomatoes into hot salsas.
  • We got down and dirty and repurposed herb pots to use as displays: customers loved it.
  • We had a ton of fun.
  • We told people that our tomatoes were gluten free, vegan, and grass fed.
  • We sold to restaurants and grocery stores (big ones).
  • We had people thinking our purple cauliflower was spray-painted
  • We partnered with Chowlocally, sending our tomatoes everywhere in the valley.
  • We built our sales up, TEN FOLD.

I never stopped caring and I continued doing things that do not scale.

I learned to be a salesman, a truck driver, a farmer, a construction man, a coach, a manager, and a teacher.

What separated my booth from the competition was not just the quality of the product, but also the quality of the team. The reason that the team led by the high school kid grew faster than the “tenured” booths is not because the kid is some sort of genius. It’s not because the kid knew more about produce. And it is certainly not because the kid had more money. It’s because the kid worked harder and thought differently:

For two years, he was the very first person at the Farmer’s Market. He showed up at 4:45 am on his Saturdays and Sundays while the rest of the competition, and his peers for that matter, were sleeping. He built a modern brand in a space antiquated by legislation and out of date farming antics. He disrupted (BUZZWORD ALERT) an industry marked by growing health trends but stagnated by monopolistic culture. My goal was to create something bigger than myself or my Honda Civic*. I think I did. If you ever want tomatoes.

Looking Back:

While the noble goal of creating something is great, I also worked hard for selfish reasons. Of the many incredible things I learned (message me, I’d love to share more), I think there are three stand-out lessons that I am beyond grateful for.

  • Communication: As of late (Jan. 2016), I have been involved in the world of Venture Capital. Perhaps the most surprising observation that I have made is that Founders often fail to deliver a base-line purpose for their company. I have seen, now countless times, investors question if they understand the company after the founder pitches. How in the world is someone going to give you money if they do not understand what you do? As a founder, you are constantly selling your product, whether you are in line at Starbucks or on stage — be prepared.
  • Hard work: When hiring someone, there is a good chance they will tell you how hard working they are. In what sense is it valuable? I look for people that go out of their way to make a difference, even if there is no immediate gratification for doing so. Internally motivated people do not run out of gas. Hell, I RAISED 100 CHICKENS?!?
  • Change: Change is hard. People hate change. Founders have the impossible task of convincing people to love change. For me, the Farmer’s Market was the perfect representation of a business sphere that needs change. Many competitors were monopolistic, antiquated, and lackluster.The space needed innovation and creativity: a shot of youth. This was the perfect opportunity.

Working at the Farmer’s Market and in the agricultural industry was one of the best experiences I have had thus far. I learned so many things. While I could talk about hydroponic tomatoes for hours, I can also now talk about business development as a whole.

Let’s talk! Ping me a message, either on here or via email tojordangonen@wustl.edu . I want to get involved in interesting projects.

I am currently working on a really cool company! http://trytomo.com/

My final thought is a bit selfish, but not a bad idea to throw it in now… I have seen too many people turn down job applicants solely based off of their age. My question is why? Talent is age-blind. Someone will take a chance on young talent…Neal Brooks did for me…Why not you?

Hire Young People

*Honda Civic: I think I hold the record for the most tomatoes ever to fit in a Honda Civic. Would have been the perfect Honda advertisement.

Thanks

About the Author:

jordangonen


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