What’s the inspiration behind AKUA?
In 2016, I was invited to visit my first restorative kelp farm, which was about a 5-minute boat ride into the Thimble Islands near New Haven, CT – not too far from where I grew up actually.
The ocean farm structure is completely underwater except for a few buoys so it’s not even that impressive (or it’s very impressive depending on how you look at it!). But when I pulled a piece of kelp out of the water that had been grown from a rope and I took a bite, I was completely hooked. I learned that kelp, this virtuous sea veggie, was not only healthy for us to eat but also healthy for the planet and the local economy. I knew I had to get more people eating ocean-farmed kelp, so I set out to do just that with AKUA.
You started your career as a journalist at Forbes. How did you make the decision to switch careers and pursue your own company?
I started my career as a journalist writing about entrepreneurs. It wasn’t too long before I wanted to find out what it was like in their shoes. I still love writing, but I know I can become a journalist again at the age of 75. Meanwhile, I won’t have the energy to start, build, and scale a company at that age!
It wasn’t exactly the skip across the street from journalism to creating my own company. I took a break from journalism in 2012, and helped launch the company General Assembly (a school for entrepreneurship) in London and Berlin. From there, I started an agency called audience.io (now sold) that offered marketing and audience development services to early stage startups who wanted to have global companies. It was a blast working with founders and helping them to grow their customer base.
Then life brought me back to the U.S. with one phone call. A friend asked me to build a mountain town with him and his friends called Summit Powder Mountain, and so I packed up and moved to Eden, Utah. While this sounds like quite the life adjustment, I found myself yet again in the cradle of entrepreneurship. I was surrounded by extraordinary founders who’d built billion dollar companies. It was the founders who worked in food, health, wellness, and the environment that I found myself most drawn towards during those years. And so it was then, ladies and gentlemen, that I found the inspiration to strike out on my own and pursue the idea that is now AKUA.
How do you handle risk and competition?
Regarding risk, I have a pretty high-risk tolerance. However, I see myself as cautious (particularly with sports!). In business, I ask a lot of questions and I like to surround myself with people smarter than me whenever possible. Still, I rarely doubt myself and I am an eternal optimist. Part of the reason for this confidence is that I’ve built such a large network of support around me. So, “the worst that could happen” is never that bad. Really, the worst that could happen is actually just not trying or working smart enough for what you believe in (the “what-ifs,” the “wish-I-hads,” etc).
Competition wise, we are building something so unique and innovative at AKUA that competition from other seagreens based companies is welcome. I thoroughly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. That said, competition also makes us stronger, sharper, and more determined to succeed. Now, if someone were to actually copy what we have worked so hard to invent, as in to create their own Kelp Jerky or Kelp Burger…I would be ticked off. I think ripping off other people’s creativity is lame and, unfortunately, I see entrepreneurs doing this all the time. Shame on the investors who back them.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
#1 has been building an operational structure and manufacturing process that scales and can keep up with our sales demand and projections. Turns out the hardest part of building a food company is figuring out how to make the food at scale!
#2 has been fundraising during a pandemic. It was really tough meeting investors over Zoom and selling them on the vision for AKUA vs. being in person and biting into Kelp Burgers together over a cold IPA. During this year, everyone has felt varying degrees of fear and discomfort. This doesn’t make asking people for money any easier.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
I am a very collaborative person creatively, and I love working on teams and editing ideas with other people as they come to life. I’ve realized that in taking on the role of CEO, I’m often very alone in my decision making flows that decide the direction of the company. A ship needs a captain and you’re either going to go down with the ship or get it safely to its destination. I suppose I thought the role of CEO would create a lot of pressure on me that I wouldn’t be able to handle, but it didn’t.
Assuming the CEO position gave me clarity and a huge sense of pride. I have felt so incredibly supported in the process.
You’ve worked with numerous green and sustainable companies. What were some of the biggest things you've learned about this industry?
It’s been very exciting to meet so many people who want to work for green and sustainable companies, particularly the generation that’s just in college and graduating now. I think the world, and particularly the Greta Thunberg generation is rightfully fed up with how much corporate greed and government negligence have so violently impacted our planet and our human health. I think for the first time in the history of the world, we have as much to learn from our “youngers'' as we do from our elders.
In addition to advising GreenWave and starting AKUA, you’ve also created the Summit community. What is the goal of this organization? How does AKUA play into it?
Summit’s goal is to connect and foster a global community of today’s brightest creators. I helped to create and nurture that community for eight years. Summit has impacted my life more than any job I’ve ever had. The community and the company are my global family.
Life is hard, and building companies is hard. But when you have a network like Summit supporting you, suddenly the impossible becomes possible and the difficult becomes fun. The first check I raised for AKUA was actually at a Summit event in 2017. Over half of our first investment round that year came from people I met through Summit. I am going to guess that about a quarter of the total money we will raise on Republic when the campaign ends will have come directly through the people I met in the Summit community. That’s just incredible and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t fully realize how lucky I am to be a part of an organization like Summit.
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd via Republic?
At the heart of it is the fact that I am an intrepid community builder. I love the idea of building our AKUA tribe as large and wide as possible. Every $100 in investor support we receive through this campaign is one more person in the world who is fighting for us to succeed. For me, community is the energy that feeds me and the currency I trade. I have been brought to tears of joy so many times throughout this campaign already, interacting with our earliest customers and Kickstarter supporters who are now also our investors. We are so grateful and excited to be doing this raise on Republic right now.
What’s your team culture like?
Our team is small, but we have a lot of fun and we work very hard. We have always communicated remotely on Slack, so when the pandemic hit this year it didn’t shift things too much. Last year, for our company Christmas party, we drank beers and went to an Axe throwing spot in Brooklyn. This year, we are having drinks over Zoom and comparing our astrological compatibility charts. Next year, I’d like to take the team on a surf trip somewhere warm like Hawaii!
What is your superpower?
I am a superconnector!
What’s your kryptonite?
You were recognized as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business! What was that experience like?
Lists like this are great and I love Fast Company, but at the end of the day it’s just PR and it boils down to a blip on the radar of life. Yet, this honor came just after a very tough professional experience (unrelated to AKUA). I had stepped out of my comfort zone and was consulting with a Turkish hospitality group, and I totally failed to impress and came off as a loud, barefooted American. I was feeling really down and uncomfortable in my own skin. A few days later, the article came out profiling my work to build AKUA – this ocean-loving, save-the-world, sustainable food brand. It gave me a lot of confidence and crystallized how I need to create my own path in life so that I can continue to walk (barefoot) and be as loud and as proudly American as it feels right to me.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
Prior to launching AKUA, I had the immense pleasure of working with the Four Sigmatic team and got into the habit of drinking mushroom coffee every morning. I also started skipping breakfast because I found that if I only eat two meals a day, I don’t have to think about losing or maintaining my weight and can basically eat or drink whatever I want. That is a pretty amazing feeling at the age of 36! But for breakfast, my morning coffee is a pretty filling treat. I blend mushroom coffee, French press coffee, cashew butter, local honey, adaptogens (whatever I have/whatever I need), and warm oat milk together and that is my morning go-to-ritual that keeps me full until lunch!
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I don’t really have spare time but I make time for my two favorite sports: kitesurfing (whenever there’s wind) and yoga (every day for at least 20 minutes).
Are there any apps or gadgets that you can’t live without?
Yes! I worked in tech/startups for most of my career before AKUA, and am obsessed with apps and gadgets. I am the biggest fan of Slack for productivity as well as Captio for taking notes. I love Calm for meditation and the Public app for trading stocks!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I was going out a little bit too much in my early twenties. I was literally called “The Blogger Everybody Knows” by some now defunct media blog/rag. At this time, I remember my friend Colin James Nagy said to me, “CBM, you have got to manufacture your own scarcity." So I started staying in on Friday nights. It is now my favorite night to stay in, catch up on sleep and wake up on Saturday morning feeling wonderful.
What’s your experience been like as a female founder? Any advice for women looking to start their own company?
Since 2007, when I graduated from university to now, I think the landscape for women in entrepreneurship has changed so much for the better. Women unfortunately still receive a pitiful amount of venture capital compared to men. However, all in all, I think there are greater support networks for women today than ever before. The entrepreneurial world has shifted focus to supporting BIPOC founders and I think that’s long overdue. One day, I believe we will wake up in a world built from and for equal opportunities. But it won’t be in our lifetime. The white male patriarchy is real and it took centuries to build so it will take centuries to dismantle too. Also, mansplaining is totally real.