The Come Up
The Come Up
Mar 17, 2021
Aditi Dash — Partner at CircleUp on Surprise FDA Visits, Clubhouse, and Consumer Investing
Play • 1 hr 13 min

Aditi Dash is a Partner at CircleUp and invests in consumer brands like Beyond Meat, nutpods, and Black Medicine. We discuss emigrating from India at age 8, being told to "not sit at the table" while working at Morgan Stanley, taking the advice to "get out of the building" during a surprise FDA visit at La Colombe Coffee, and why hormone health and the convergence of Media x Consumer excite her as an investor.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Erwin:

Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.

Aditi Dash:

The FDA showed up at the plant that I was running, and I'd had almost a meltdown, and I was freaking out and was given the advice to, "Hey, you just need to leave. You need to trust that the production manager and the warehouse manager have everything under control, and that the processes that you've put in place by this point are going to work."

 

Chris Erwin:

This week's episode features Aditi Dash, a partner at CircleUp. CircleUp is a consumer investor in companies like Beyond Meat, nutpods, Rebel, Black Medicine and more. Aditi was born in India and came to the US with her family at the age of eight. They spent time in Boulder, Colorado, then she went to the East Coast. After undergrad, she joined Morgan Stanley as an investment banker, and in her first week received the shocking advice of, "Never sit at the table."

After a couple of years in banking, she went to the buy-side and was a consumer investor at Stripes Group. But while there, she felt disingenuous sitting across the table from founders, realizing that she wanted more operating experience so that she could give better advice. So she went to business school at Harvard, and shortly thereafter joined La Colombe, a coffee manufacturer. She has some pretty crazy stories from there, like when the FDA gave one of her plants a surprise visit, almost caused her a personal meltdown until her team told her to just get out of the building and trust the processes that she's built.

Afterwards, Aditi went back to the buy-side and joined CircleUp as a partner. So at the end of our interview, we talk about what investment themes get her excited for 2021, like hormone health as purchase criteria and the convergence of media and direct-to-consumer brands. We also talk about why so many people don't get the basics of business and why Clubhouse is so exhausting. All right. This was a super fun interview with Aditi, I'm pumped to tell you her story, let's get into it. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up. What was your household like?

 

Aditi Dash:

Sure. So I grew up in a few different places. I'll start all the way at the beginning. I was born in this town called Dhanbad. It's in India, it's in Eastern India, and it is the coal mining capital of the country. Think West Virginia coal mines, a lot of the coal in India comes from this town, and that is what this town is known for. So I was born there at my grandmother's house, on my maternal grandmother's house, and lived there for a little bit, and then my family moved to Calcutta, which is now known as Kolkata. And that is the first real memory I have of a household.

 

Aditi Dash:

I lived in an apartment, two bedroom apartment with my parents. I have a younger brother. It was as far as I can remember full of joy and fun. We were middle class in India, and we were from a small town in a big city. So I guess the reason I'm saying that is that it felt like even just being in Kolkata was a big move for me and my family.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. Totally. How old were you when you came over to the US?

 

Aditi Dash:

I was eight years old when I came to the US. And we moved to Milpitas in California, which is in the Bay Area. And it's like a tech hub today, it's in the center of Silicon Valley. And my dad was brought here in order to work in the tech industry.

 

Chris Erwin:

Was your father working in the technology industry back in India?

 

Aditi Dash:

Exactly. He was working in the tech industry back in India. I guess it's the reverse of outsourcing, but the-

 

Chris Erwin:

Insourcing.

 

Aditi Dash:

They insourced him and then three months later my mom and my brother joined him in California. Again, we had this great apartment in Milpitas. It was a two bedroom apartment that I recently went back to the complex and realized how tiny it was. But it was big in my eyes and my dad worked at Sun Microsystems, my mom was stay-at-home. I had a lot of fun, interesting memories from that point, but it was very community-driven. In that apartment complex, my parents got to know all the other Indians, and we hung out almost every single day if not every week, and it just was a really strong Indian community within that apartment and some of my parents best friends to this day are from there. They still see them on a weekly basis, which is kind of crazy.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wow. My mother was born in Italy, and then she migrated to the US. And I think they first landed in Erie, Pennsylvania when she was four years old. And a key part of that was that there was a lot of other local Italian community nearby to help to ease the transition and the logistics, and then just to feel that there was a support network. So did you actually move with whether other family members or other people from your Indian community back in India, when you made this move at age eight?

 

Aditi Dash:

No. It was a new community here. I think my dad may have had some friends that he was working with in India that also moved here at the same time, but for me it was a completely new thing.

 

Chris Erwin:

Do you remember being really excited or were you scared? What was going through your mind?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yes. I was really excited. I had a shirt that I would wear all the time that said baseball on it. I couldn't wait to move here. Just the things that were super exciting once I got here were like carpet. We didn't really have carpet in India, and so it was just I remember being fascinated by it, and volunteering to clean it whenever I could.

 

Chris Erwin:

That's a rare thing for a kid at that age, wanting to do chores like clean the carpet.

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. It felt like an adventure, but I'm sure that my parents telling me something along the lines of "Hey, this is going to be fun," had something to do with that.

 

Chris Erwin:

And so I know that you then end up at Brown, but in that interim period, what were you getting into a groove in? Were there certain sports or like now you're a consumer investor, were there any glimpses into your current career back then in your childhood?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. A few things. So at the age of 12, we moved to Boulder, Colorado. And so in Colorado, in Boulder is where I really had my formative years, my rebellious years, my years to just figure out who I was. And weirdly enough, Boulder today is a hub for consumer products and for consumer products businesses, especially in the world of food and beverage. And I think that part of the reason that it became a hub is encompassed in some of the glimpses that I saw back then of this desire to live a healthier life, people even back then were very focused on natural ingredients, knowing where products came from, local, and then health and wellness, like running, yoga, skiing, physical activity. There was just a big focus on continuous improvement at least for the body and soul, that I just think that it impacted me in ways that maybe I didn't get, and attracted me to the world of natural foods, natural products, natural living and just consumer in general.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. It's funny, there's this like big westward migration from India to California, and then it's Boulder, Colorado, and then it's-

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. It's off to Rhode Island and Brown.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. And when you went to Brown, what was in your eyes then of what you wanted to do with your life?

 

Aditi Dash:

I filled out all my applications that I wanted to be a biomedical engineer, but I had a few different things that I wanted to do. I was interested in potentially doing something more political. I was working at the senator's office in Colorado, when I worked there. I was interested in potentially becoming a doctor, which is what I had always thought I'd want to do. I was really into writing as well, and I'd written my essay to apply to Brown about hamburgers and hot dogs and moving to America. So I wanted to do a little bit of something in writing. But I ended up starting as a engineering major, and I finished as an engineering major, and I studied economics as well.

 

Chris Erwin:

Aditi, before we move on from Brown, I just saw that on your LinkedIn that you founded I think a tutor network called BearPaw Tutors. What was that?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yes. Two of my best friends from engineering lab and I founded this company called BearPaw Tutors. And it was really fun. But basically, it was a business that would hire tutors from Brown and pay them $1 more than they could make tutoring Brown students, and then go out in the community starting with private schools, and find parents that were looking for SAT tutors for their kids and charge them less than they would have to pay Kaplan. Our costs were really low, because at the time, I think Brown students could make $8 an hour tutoring, and so we'd pay them $10 an hour. And then the parents were paying us like $30 an hour for the tutoring. And so we'd make a pretty good margin on that relationship, and our kind of angle was that we would allow parents to book online, pay online and leave a review online. So it was early in just doing all this online tutoring, and it was local and it was profitable, and it was really, really, really fun.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. That's a pretty good spread for a business that kicks off in college, so kudos.

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. And so my friend Matt, who was the CEO and it was his idea, and he now works at Square. And my friend Tito, who was helping with just kind of building out the basic tech side of things is now an air miner.

 

Chris Erwin:

What's an air miner?

 

Aditi Dash:

An air miner, his vision is to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon-based products.

 

Chris Erwin:

Is that kind of like carbon capture in a way?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah, exactly. Carbon capture.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Cool. So after Brown, you go to investment banking at Morgan Stanley in New York City, and I think you start in the TMT group and then you go over to healthcare. But I'm curious, why did you want to go to banking in New York?

 

Aditi Dash:

I didn't know much about business or finance, but I had so much fun doing this BearPaw Tutors thing, that I was trying to figure out what I should do. And the advice I was given was, "You got to go into banking or consulting, if you like business." And so I started applying to all the consulting and banking firms and was lucky to get an internship at Morgan Stanley. And honestly, I didn't know what I was doing. I did not know what LevFin was, I didn't know what high yield bonds were. I felt like I just walked into this crazy finance party, and I was like, "This is great. I can do this." It was a blast. I had a great time.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. Yeah. You're definitely not learning like LevFin and LBO models when you're an undergrad. You're learning like trade theory and very abstract concepts. Very different. So you're there, and is the experience what you expected? I think you were there for maybe two to three years.

 

Aditi Dash:

The experience was not what I expected. I expected cubicles, but I was placed on a trading floor because that's where the leveraged finance TMT team was, so TVs everywhere, rows and rows of desks and no privacy whatsoever. So not just for me, but for anybody. Incredible learning experience. Whether I liked it or not, I was on like all the calls with important clients, because they were happening right next to me. I sat next to my boss, and I got a lot of responsibilities, I got yelled at. And at some point, and it was just, it was wild in that way. And then I also didn't expect the market to crash and people to lose their shit, because to me it was the first job, and I didn't realize how historical the Lehman bankruptcy was when I first started the gig. So I didn't realize the impact that it was having on individuals across the US. I didn't internalize that.

 

Chris Erwin:

It's interesting you say that, because I was also in banking from 2005 to 2010, pre-business school. So I was there during the whole debt crisis and market downturn. And I remember we were working on these really big landmark transactions, our buyers couldn't get the debt to complete them. So the markets fell through, and it was devastating. But I don't think I realized like not until hindsight, because I was kind of in my mid 20s. I don't think I fully acknowledged how severe the situation it was and how difficult it was for so many people. I was just concerned about myself and being like, "Oh, my comp is impacted." And I was like, well, in retrospect, so many people are losing their jobs, these venerable institutions are going away, like this is a really big deal. Do you feel that you felt what was actually happening in that moment or not?

 

Aditi Dash:

No. I was too young to feel it, and I don't think I quite got it. And I just hadn't seen enough, and maybe I still haven't seen enough of how the world works.

 

Chris Erwin:

Totally. So you mentioned, Aditi, in another chat we had that there was a piece of advice that you got about sitting at the table from an associate. Why don't you talk about that?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. So I think this is on one of my first days at Morgan Stanley like post-training, and one of the associates told me, "Never sit at the table." And that was the first thing that he said to me, because we had our start date on a Monday and every Monday started with a Monday morning meeting. And so I showed up and I was told, "Hey, never sit at the table." And as I look back on that, I didn't think it was a huge deal. I was like, "Okay, I'll sit on the sides." But as I think back to that moment, and I think about every individual that has gotten into a job like that, and the first thing they hear is, "Never sit at the table," I get a little bit upset to be honest, because I don't think that's necessarily the message that we want to be sending to people that are starting new jobs.

 

Aditi Dash:

I think that we don't have to say, "Hey, sit at the table and say something," it's important to convey respect and know what you know and know what you don't know, but I don't think that just having a consistent never sit at the table messaging leads to confidence or people speaking up. I think you have to break out of that in order to be successful.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. I think you also said it sets you up for second guessing yourself. And in life where you can second guess yourself everywhere, but you need confidence. And that if you feel that you have researched the topic, have spoken with credible advisors about something, that's like you have to go forth and trust yourself. Just hearing this story, there's a few layers to it, where it's almost like, "Hey, one, we don't want to hear from you. Don't sit at the table, your voice doesn't matter." But two, also like, "Maybe we don't want you to hear everything that we're saying as well." What a terrible message for someone that's just entering the workforce?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. I think it goes both ways. And I think that it's also part of the culture of banking, or it was back then.

 

Chris Erwin:

I think you transition from TMT and then into healthcare, but then you make a transition to become part of the growth investment team at Morgan Stanley, and you move west to San Francisco. I think you went to Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. So what was that move about?

 

Aditi Dash:

So at the end of three years of banking, most people have to decide if they're going to stay in banking or leave banking. And for me, I liked banking but I had this feeling in the back of my mind that maybe there's something that I could like more. And so I told the banking team, I was in the healthcare group at the time, that I would be leaving. And so they were gracious enough to help make introductions, and it's a whole process where the analyst then starts being able to have time to go on interviews and interviewed at some funds, and tried to find a good gig.

 

Aditi Dash:

And then this was an inbound opportunity. It came in through somebody I knew at Morgan Stanley, who said, "Hey, I know you're looking to move to the buy-side, and we're rebuilding our team. It used to be called Morgan Stanley Venture Partners, now it's going to be called Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. We're rebuilding our team, and we need our first associate to join." And so I had wanted to move to California for a little bit. I had lived here as a child, and I had gotten in my head that I didn't like California. But I wanted to just test it out and see if that was actually true or not.

 

Aditi Dash:

So I interviewed for the job and thought, "Hey, this is a great way to learn investing." And my future boss gave me this advice that, "Hey, don't change more than two things at once," which I still try to do today. So he said, "If you're changing job and changing city, try not to change company. Or if you're changing company and job, try not to change city, because it's really, really hard to change more than two things at once." And that made a lot of sense to me. So I said, "Yeah. I'm going from banking to investing, and I'm moving cities, it would be good, it makes sense to stay at Morgan Stanley." So I was lucky enough to get that gig and moved out to the Bay Area to work for some incredible people on the investing side.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. I think clearly, this is the beginning of your buy-side career, because shortly after this, you then go to the Stripes Group, which is back east, which was a buy-side fund focused on tech, consumer and healthcare. And there's probably a point where I assume that at Morgan Stanley kind of you're young associate, learning just how to prepare things for an investment committee, learning from the partners, understanding what the lens is for making the right investments. And then at Stripes Group, it starts to probably be like founder and relationship building and potentially even some deal sourcing. When you go to Stripes, why did you make that move, and how did your role change there?

 

Aditi Dash:

I made the move for I would say 75% personal reasons and 25% professional. So I was dating somebody, and this person who is my husband today, lived in New York.

 

Chris Erwin:

So it was a good move, it worked out.

 

Aditi Dash:

It was a good move so far. Yes. But I thought to myself, "I'm willing to move all the way across the country for a job, and this could be a much bigger impact on my life than any job that I have. So if this feels real, I should be willing to move to the other side of the country to kind of see this through." And he already had a New York gig lined up, so he could move out to California. And he hated California, still kind of does, I think.

 

Chris Erwin:

Why did he hate California?

 

Aditi Dash:

I don't know. I think that he's very much a East Coaster, so he likes the weather, he doesn't like the taxes. We could get into it. So I told my boss, I was like, "Hey, look. This could be the real thing, so I have to go back to New York to be closer to him." That's why I ended up just putting fillers out and had a recruiting firm contact me about a role at an up and coming fund called Stripes Group. And at the time, I think it was Fund II that they had raised, and my job changed a lot in that it became much more sourcing-based and diligence whenever I wasn't sourcing and bigger deals. So Expansion Capital was doing smaller investments at the time, and Stripes was doing slightly bigger investments.

 

Chris Erwin:

And what types of deals were you particularly sourcing?

 

Aditi Dash:

Mostly in tech, SAS, consumer and media.

 

Chris Erwin:

Was that scary for you? To say like in your younger career, it's kind of like you have a boss to tell you what to do, you go do some analysis, you come back to them. And if you do it with high quality work and you're organized, it's a good look. But now it's like, hey, there's not necessarily a playbook here that I know, you kind of got to figure it out for yourself, how to build these relationships. How did you approach it?

 

Aditi Dash:

I don't think it was scary. I think that it was overwhelming and draining at times. I still feel this way. I feel like I have to be on my A game. It's all about building a relationship, connecting with the people. Totally different skill set, trying to be helpful without draining your own time. So I think I kind of approached it as like, hey, I had interest areas that I was covering, so I was looking at some healthcare companies back then and that was a big interest area, so I just made it a point to get to know everybody at the companies that I was trying to target.

 

Aditi Dash:

I went to all the healthcare events, I got to know healthcare investors, I got to know hospital people, and just started just representing Stripes at these events, and just going to conferences, going down to Baltimore, to DC, to New Orleans, and just kind of pounding the pavement for lack of a better word. And then making sure I brought that back to the team and kind of said, "Hey, if these are good companies, we should be looking at them, we should be looking into them," and kept iterating things that I was interested in, things I wanted to do. I think it's as much about external sourcing and external relationships, as it is about internal relationships, and that's a skill that I think is important to keep building continuously.

 

Chris Erwin:

And we'll get into this question a little bit more when we talk about CircleUp, but what do you think your personal investor brand that you're building back then, what were you trying to be known for that was different from, call it associates or principals that were at other funds relative to you?

 

Aditi Dash:

I was trying to be known for one, being thoughtful in my approach and outreach. Two was making connections between people who might be able to help each other or people who might like to know each other. Three as the person that can identify some interesting trends. And so I love being the person that said, "Oh, XYZ reminds me of this, and nobody else has kind of made that connection before." So making unique connections, which I think help people remember me and remember some of the ideas that I have. So connecting sometimes totally disparate things is something that I'd like to be known for. And then back then the other thing was just, I was doing a lot of brand building for Stripes, too. So kind of being known as one of the people that was at Stripes at the time. So if you thought of Stripes, you thought of me.

 

Chris Erwin:

I have to ask in terms of identifying trends, hearing what you're saying, a lot of my friends who are current venture capitalists or investors, and particularly when they were younger, like coming right out of business school, everyone thought that those were the most glamorous jobs and most in demand. And they were in very high demand and short supply. But those peers, I've never seen anyone work as hard as them. It's like they had to be everywhere. They were getting up early, they were preparing for investment committee meetings, they were constantly on panels, attending different webinars and conferences. And I was like, "When do you guys sleep? This feels exhausting and wanting to be always available to founders or texting with them or emailing them. This always on mentality." And I don't know if a lot of people see that part of it. It's a very, very difficult role.

 

Aditi Dash:

I think you have to have fun while doing it, otherwise it gets draining. Work from home helps.

 

Chris Erwin:

But it's clear that you wanted something different or something more after Stripes, and you end up going to business school.

 

Aditi Dash:

I felt as myself really disingenuous when I was telling a founder, "Hey, I think you should do this." I don't think every investor needs this, which is operating experience or just some experience and having done a startup. I just was having a really hard time saying with a straight face, "Hey, one of the things that I recommend is X for your SAS business, or Y for your consumer brand, or Z." I felt like that's what I needed to get really good at if I was going to be an investor, actually giving advice that is helpful and actionable to founders when they need it.

 

Aditi Dash:

And so I told my boss, I said, "Hey, I don't think I can quite get there yet." And asked if he would write a recommendation letter for me to business school. And not just him but a few other people at Stripes as well. So I applied to HBS and Stanford, because I wanted to take a break from the investing side, explore a few different industries, hopefully make a move over to the operating side, and just get a little bit more experience before I started telling other people what to do.

 

Chris Erwin:

So then you head to HBS in 2014, and what is that first set of operating experience that you start to get while you're there?

 

Aditi Dash:

There were a couple of things. One was starting a small company and a product management class, so just kind of thinking about that. Another was an internship at Blue Apron, which was the last investment that I completed during my time at Stripes. And three was an entrepreneurship course that I took where we were building a startup idea for the healthcare space. And so just like testing these in real life and in test environments.

 

Chris Erwin:

So what did you feel that you learned from that operating experience that was revelatory to you?

 

Aditi Dash:

I felt like a lot of people don't get the basics, and that a lot of running a company comes down to some pretty basic things, and along the lines of, do you make more money than you spend, over can you buy something for $20 and sell it for $40? And are you giving the person who's buying your product what they actually want or need? And I just felt like a big disconnect between the investing world and the people who were actually like working in the Blue Apron warehouse, or the Blue Apron fulfillment center. And so I felt like some of those basic questions that a company was trying to solve at the high level, I thought different people couldn't answer them along the company ladder.

 

Aditi Dash:

I think that was eye-opening in that, I realized that operating experience isn't necessarily about learning these complicated things that nobody else understands. I realized that operating experience is more about simplifying the mumbo jumbo and the finance terms and the legal ease into basic business principles that really lead somebody to think about, "Hey, is this a good thing for the community, the country, the customer?"

 

Chris Erwin:

That's actually a really good point, thinking about how you take the focus of profitability and a sustainable business and good unit economics, translate that to a clear message, but then having that message permeate the ranks. Everyone thinks through every single decision with that lens. I remember, when I joined Big Frame right out of grad school, we had a part-time CFO come in, and his name is Steve Hendry. When he kicked off his work with our team, he said, "I'm empowering everyone on this team, from the CEO down to the support analysts, the producers, the editors. Think like an owner. Think about what business decisions make sense." Now, that was easy for him to do because we were a 25 person team and he could say that in a room. But for a really big company, how do you get that message to everybody? And did you learn any techniques while you were getting these internships of how to do that?

 

Aditi Dash:

I actually think it's very basic. I think it comes down to overcommunicating and oversimplifying. I don't think business and finance is and should be complicated. I think that it's important to go out of your way to not say ROAS, like talk about, "Hey, we're spending this much money on marketing, and it needs to generate more sales." So I think it comes down to simplicity and just consistency and overcommunication, but I don't think it's rocket science. I think anyone can do it. And I think I have to get better at it. It's weird, I feel like it's almost easier to overcomplicate something than to simplify it. But I was going to ask you, why did you decide to leave the world of investment banking?

 

Chris Erwin:

In my last year and a half that I was there, I was working with a lot of early stage technology and media startups. And we were helping a company, Ingrooves actually, with a capital raise that was based out of San Francisco. I loved working with that team, the founder was Robb McDaniels, shout out to him. I loved working with that team, I loved their energy. They were building something that was disruptive. But it was still early, and they were just grinding it out. And I was like, "Oh, I love this energy. This feels fun. I want to do this."

 

Chris Erwin:

In banking, I had just been as an advisor and operating outside the company, and I wanted to see the guts from the inside. And then I was also attracted to the West Coast. I was like a Jersey Shore kid for my entire life, so I wanted to switch up the terrain a bit too, that's why I did it.

 

Aditi Dash:

That's cool.

 

Chris Erwin:

Closing out that last point. I think you're right, that things can be a lot simpler. And I just heard this on the Shaughnessy podcast, I think he was interviewing a coach at Berkeley, if I remember correctly. And the coach referenced fence posting, where it's that notion of you put the fence post in so you make the point, you communicate something clearly, and then three feet down the line, you put another fence post in. And you just keep repeating the same message until it's drilled into everyone's brains. Can you just be as simple as that? I love that analogy.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. So you're at HBS for a couple years, and then you're getting this operate experience, and then you decide to transition to La Colombe, a coffee manufacturer afterwards. Was that still part of the same vein of like, "I just want deeper operate experience. This feels right," or was there something else you were thinking about?

 

Aditi Dash:

I had gotten interested in the coffee industry when I was at Stripes, and we'd started looking at a number of companies in the space. And I also was fascinated By the coffee supply chain. And so I took a class on just international trade relations and started diving into the coffee supply chain and wrote an interesting paper on it, and started just putting out into the HBS Universe that I really want to work in coffee like, "This seems really cool. I love the product. I think it's a really interesting area." And the Universe presented an opportunity to do so while I was at HBS. So I did this independent study with La Colombe and with Chobani, on potential ways for Chobani and La Colombe to partner with two friends at HBS.

 

Aditi Dash:

And Diana, Elizabeth and I worked on this project to help think about ways that Chobani and La Colombe could partner to create new retail concepts. And so just like a consulting project, where we didn't get paid but we got credit for doing the work. And through that process, I got to know the La Colombe team. And then the other thing is just before the project started, my husband was living in Philly, and he was attending Wharton, and I asked him to go to the Wharton career fair. And I heard that the La Colombe team was going to be there. And I asked him to give them my contact information and get theirs so that I could talk to them about a potential opportunity.

 

Chris Erwin:

So you're recruiting to Colombe via like a Wharton career fair?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. So I said, "Hey, can you please go? And then just drop my name and then get their card so I can email them, so they know who I am." And then that happened right before this project started. So it all kind of came together at the same time. And then I ended up applying for a full-time role, and because of the project they'd already gotten to know me. And so I received an offer in July about two and a half months after graduating from HBS and accepted the offer to start at La Colombe working for the COO. Initially working for the COO, working on some new products, figuring out margins and demand planning. And then I transitioned to working for the CEO on new products innovation, and overseeing the pilot production facility.

 

Chris Erwin:

How big was the team when you joined?

 

Aditi Dash:

It was probably in the office close to 20 people when I joined, and it grew over the two years I was there because they doubled down on CPG distribution. So they created cans, and we were selling them in places like Whole Foods and Walmart and brought on a big sales team to support that. That happened around the time I was joining/right afterwards.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. You mentioned in our pre-chat that I think a big thing for you there was that you were learning how to launch new product. But you are making these pretty big directional decisions for the company with not a lot of necessarily data and insights. Talk about that.

 

Aditi Dash:

So my job was to just take any idea from any part of the company and try to bring it to life working with the team. And a lot of the ideas came from the CEO and founders mind. I mean, he was the kind of guy where he had gotten to where he was by trusting his gut and his gut instincts. And so some of the products he wanted to create didn't even exist yet, and it would just be impossible to get data or market insights on those products. Like there's nowhere I could look to figure out, "Hey, would this kind of product make sense in any way? Would Nitro juice make sense?" We were working on Nitro coffee, but he said, "The world needs Nitro juice." So there's just no way to search for Nitro juice. But you can actually create it and see if it sells, and go from there, which is what we did.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Was there any other type of analysis like trying to extrapolate insights from other tangential product launches to kind of fill some of the early data gaps, anything like that?

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. We used a lot of data from existing product launches just to see hey, like a new can in our store sells this much, and we can kind of think about that. We looked at other products and adjacent or similar categories. At the time, we didn't even have a lot of Nielsen or IRI data, so we took what we could get from wherever. I think now the company probably pays for a lot more data than we did back then.

 

Chris Erwin:

You did launch this, remind me, this Nitro product.

 

Aditi Dash:

Yes. We launched a Nitro juice, Nitro lemon and Nitro orange juice that we created in the pilot production facility and went through like hundreds of suppliers and thousands of tests and iterations, and started selling it in the cafes and people like at least in the cafes, were obsessed with it.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. In terms of getting that initial data upon launch, were you doing just kind of focus groups and surveys or just using the initial sales data? How were you getting that need in information?

 

Aditi Dash:

We'd do a little bit of testing and sampling in store. The cool thing about having just a physical space and working out of a cafe all day, is that you have instant access to customers all the time all day. And so we were leveraging those customers to test out new products. And that was like the easiest thing to do. And I think that was really, really great, and I recommend a lot of the brands I talk to today to find a channel or path where they can test that in. So some days, it would literally be, hey, like making the product, and then having the baristas taste it later on.

 

Aditi Dash:

I actually ended up leveraging the baristas a lot as well, just because they were part of the company, so we could use them to test different products and they would be able to fill out surveys or be required to fill out surveys, but they were also kind of consumers because of their day-to-day lives and their interaction with consumers help them understand people a lot more. So I think leveraging the baristas was one unique source of at least limited data. And then we would basically test online where the marketing team would post something and see how much engagement it got. And that would inform sometimes product names, sometimes product directions.

 

Aditi Dash:

We had the Instagram followers vote on the next flavor. Whatever you could to leverage existing customers in different channels, was important to testing out and gathering early data. And then once we got the process approved for making the juice by the FDA process authority, then we started making just a handful of cans and selling it, adding it to things like cocktails. So it just became part of, "Hey, let's just do this every single day to see how people are responding."

 

Chris Erwin:

And in this role, were you managing a team or was your role kind of spread across different groups?

 

Aditi Dash:

I had a team that I was managing. It was made up of R&D, pilot production facility, and employees that worked at the plant.

 

Chris Erwin:

Was this the first time that you'd actually managed a team, or did you have that responsibility before?

 

Aditi Dash:

This was the first time I had managed a team, and I don't know, it might even be the last because investors don't really manage teams. The way that the investor role works, it's not about managing massive teams. But it was a really fun and unique experience.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. What did you like most about managing the team?

 

Aditi Dash:

I like the feeling of being part of a crew, a squad. I like the feeling that, "Hey, if we put our heads together, we could get something done." I like feeling important as a team to the organization. I think it's harder to do that as an individual than it is a team. And I liked being able to see the progress that different types of people were making, where my success was related to small successes of others that you could really see happening. And that was just, it's just a good feeling.

 

Chris Erwin:

Well, having other people to celebrate with when there's wins and there's a successful product launch. But also if things go bad, being able to commiserate with others is a nice thing, part of that whole crew dynamic. What did you find to be the hardest thing about managing a team?

 

Aditi Dash:

Convincing people that I was on their side, negotiating things like offers and raises, being the middle woman between the CEO, and people who were actually working on the production floor making the product. And so, the vision is so big and it's so amazing, and it's so exciting, but translating it into the day-to-day of like, "Hey, you need to dump these beans into the tin consistently every single day in order to make that vision come true," I think that bridging that gap of vision with execution was challenging. Definitely rewarding, but definitely challenging.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. What do you think was your tactic to convince people and get buy-in on what you wanted?

 

Aditi Dash:

I tried to do a couple of things, and who knows how well it worked and how much people saw it as like, "Hey, you're pushing me," as opposed to, "You're encouraging me."? But the things that I tried to do, were giving people a glimpse into where the product was going early on, so setting like a product mission as well as that fit into the company mission. And messaging that early on saying, "Hey, this is what we're trying to do." Asking for input from people who were supposed to be giving input early on and saying, "Hey, at X date, I stop taking input just because I have to keep moving forward," setting a stop date for that.

 

Aditi Dash:

Just consistent updates on how things were going, figuring out what data points to track, so you could show performance improving, whether it was like pounds of beans processed per day, or number of cans made or number of gallons of concentrate created, figuring out those data points and writing it on a whiteboard in the production floor, so people saw it and saw the trend. I think those things were helpful.

 

Chris Erwin:

I agree. I think when teams know what they're working towards, what's the bigger mission, whether it's these really small menial tasks or big tasks, it's all in support of what the whole team is working towards. And when there's transparency and understanding, I think that's a very powerful motivator. I also believe, yeah, and empowering people. Some of the greatest advice I got from my old CEO at Big Frame was, "Hire great people and get out of their way." And I love that. And holding people big.

 

Chris Erwin:

Like if you went through the rigmarole to hire great people, then you have to trust them, and know that they're capable of great work. And I think that trust is a key thing that I constantly learn every day with my team, being able to let go. All right. We just came back from a quick break, and Aditi, you were mentioning that you have some war stories from the trenches at La Colombe. Why don't you tell me about those?

 

Aditi Dash:

There's a couple of stories that I think stick in my mind as to the highs and lows of La Colombe. One is where the FDA showed up at the plant that I was running. And I personally had almost a meltdown, because the FDA was there to check on the plant and talk to the production manager. And I actually was freaking out and was given the advice to, "Hey, you just need to leave. You need to trust that the production manager and the warehouse manager have everything under control, and that the processes that you've put in place by this point are going to work. So the best thing that you can do is actually leave. They don't want to talk to you, they want to talk to the person who is actually the production and warehouse manager, like actually working on the floor."

 

Aditi Dash:

So I let them in, talked to them briefly and just backed away, which was the best thing I could have done and ended up being a really positive review of the plant. They were very impressed with some of the changes we'd made, and ended up being a really positive thing, but helped me realize, "Hey, sometimes you just need to back away and do what needs to get done."

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. And did you say this was a routine check or a surprise check?

 

Aditi Dash:

Surprise. It was a surprise check.

 

Chris Erwin:

What were you concerned about going through your head of like, why you were afraid?

 

Aditi Dash:

Well, the first thing that I was afraid of was that I wore the wrong thing, because I was worried that food production facilities have specific rules on wearing lab coats inside and hairnets, and I was worried that, "Oh my God. I wore the wrong outfit on FDA day." The second thing I was worried about was that we had turned this plant around. It didn't use to be a production plant, it was just like a warehouse. And so doing food production plant and a warehouse/storage facility, you just have to follow a lot of new rules to make sure everything is in compliance. And so I was worried that we missed something or skipped something. And then I was just worried about the team. I was like, "How are they going to be able to take the FDA through what they need to know," and it was all unnecessary worries.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. Going back to that theme of just like trusting the work that you've done that you did it right, and trusting the team like the team's got it.

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah, exactly. The team's got it. The other thing that sticks out is when I think we needed a water heater, we needed hot water for something. We were trying to figure out where to get a hot water, and the folks that we were talking to stuck it out or just quoting really high prices. And this was just needed to heat incoming water from the existing water line, and it wasn't going to be interacting with the water in a negative way. It was just needed to heat the actual water through the pipes. And the quotes that we were getting were so high so it just didn't make sense for the plant. So me and the engineering manager just went to Home Depot, and he bought a water heater for the home to jerry-rig the system until we could get a proper heater installed in place.

 

Chris Erwin:

You were deep in the operational weeds, like figuring this out, going to Home Depot, getting the right parts. That's awesome.

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah. Sometimes I was doing that. And the Home Depot there had this incredible sandwich place outside, right outside Home Depot, like a food truck. And it was just the best sandwich in Philly.

 

Chris Erwin:

Do you remember? Was it like a Philly cheesesteak type sandwich or what was it?

 

Aditi Dash:

No. It was like, you could get different meats sauteed on the grill, just like a street meat kind of cart on a sandwich. So kind of like a Philly cheesesteak, but you could also get like the whole piece of meat with peppers sauteed on it.

 

Chris Erwin:

What an added bonus. Yeah.

 

Aditi Dash:

Yeah.

 

Chris Erwin:

We're about to get to your role at CircleUp, but do you miss getting in the weeds like that with the team and figuring out those really micro ops problems?

 

Aditi Dash:

Oh my God, yeah. I do miss it a lot of times. Sometimes I walk into a warehouse or I walk into a Costco and that smell of just being in a warehouse or it's like sight of the racks just brings me back to having to go to a facility every single day.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. I just watched a video on YouTube of just people really don't understand how the infrastructure of our world works. And I think this was a big theme that came out of the power grid shut down in Texas of like, "Do you know what a water pump is? Do you know what a sump system is? Do you know how electricity actually gets to your home from the grid?" These are a lot of things like, we're all connected on Zoom and we're on Clubhouse, we take a lot of things for granted. And I think that, that knowledge not only just from a survival perspective but just awareness, is really, really important.

 

Aditi Dash:

I don't think people know a lot of those basic things, and it's really sad. And I feel like, I learned a lot of those basic things by not only being in the weeds operationally, but also just by being around people whose job it was to work with their hands to fix things, to build things, to create things. We don't really do that. Mo…

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