What’s the inspiration behind PittMoss? How did you get started?
Mont: The initial inspiration behind the product was an article in the mid-90s in Sierra Magazine about the devastating consequences of extracting peat moss from wetlands. I had always been into gardening and plants. I was managing a retail nursery, where we were selling truckloads of Canadian Peat Moss when I read the article. I thought that someone should invent an alternative.
What were you doing before founding this company? How did you get here?
Mont: I spent five years after graduating college managing the landscape departments of multiple locations of a retail nursery in the Chicago suburbs.
Brian: I have been part of seven other startups or turnarounds (both for profit and nonprofit) in my career. I was an early angel investor in PittMoss because I believed in Mont’s mission. I became so passionate about it, it was an easy decision when I was asked to become CEO in 2016.
I have also worked in commercial real estate, rent-to-own (lease/purchase) as the CIO, managing technical IT people, short-term lending, and online auction site. I've also worked with non-profits supporting entrepreneurs and in the tall ships industry. All really random, very different industries.
This is not your first time running a company—what do you think is the most important skill leaders need to succeed?
Brian: I would have to say there are two skills. The first is good listening, the other is strategic thinking. Especially with startups, it is so important to listen to customer feedback for product/market fit and to understand what co-workers need to keep them happy and engaged.
Listening to customer feedback is critical for product/market fit. In other words, we listen and adjust the product based on customer needs, the same with packaging. Listening to employee feedback is critical to keeping them happy and engaged. If they are not happy and engaged, they are not going to stick around at a relatively low-paying startup. The strategic thinking is critical because of the long sales cycle. If you do not plan ahead or "miss" on something, you may need to wait another full year before you get a shot at it again.
In addition to good listening, strategic thinking is critical to product development, market development and managing a small team.
How do you handle risk and competition?
Brian: I LOVE competition. Competition ensures that you must develop the best products, pricing and programs to win in the marketplace. To be the best, you need to beat the best competition. At PittMoss, we believe we are doing that every single day. It is what keeps the team focused and energized. Because we have a patent-pending on our products and are seeing amazing results when compared to the competition, I feel confident that we are in a very solid competitive position.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
Mont: Discovering a viable manufacturing process at a scalable level was the greatest challenge I faced. Creating the unique fiber structure of PittMoss was possible in small, single batch machines. I researched dozens of machines that promised to produce the same fiber structure on continuous flow machines. They all failed to produce the desired results so my research pivoted to the idea of a supersized single batch version of the lab scale machines that always worked. We re-imagined the machine from a piece of dairy equipment is still being used to make PittMoss.
Brian: Go-to-market. Managing the long sales cycle (typically multi-year) and seasonality in our industry is a challenge. Also, financing the company while building the growth to be self-sustaining has not been easy. Our investors truly believe in our product and its ability to disrupt an old, dirty industry that really needs to be disrupted. Our solution to this is simply patience, working with growers to ensure positive results, and building upon those results year after year.
As more customers have positive experiences, they tell others and we can grow much quicker through word of mouth. We find that growers consistently increase their orders with us because they have such fantastic results.
What was it like going on Shark Tank?
Mont: By the time PittMoss was asked to be on Shark Tank, we'd already gained a commitment from angel investors in Pittsburgh. I felt that win or lose, there really was no downside to going on the show. A team of producers started to prepare me for the show every week for a few months. They had me working on that initial canned pitch everyone does when they first come out. As much as I tried to memorize it, I could just not get it right, even in the moments before heading on to the sound stage.
Both of the young producers who were responsible for prepping me had pained looks on their faces when I bumbled it in the greenroom for the last time. Then a stage hand came for me to show me the marks on the floor where I should stand. He said once you finish your pitch and say goodbye to the sharks, you will walk down the hallway and stand on this mark for two minutes while we film your reaction to being in the tank.
Well, I started to think about what my reaction would be and began getting nervous about that. I worried so much that I stopped being nervous about my pitch and went out and nailed it for the first and only time on camera. The rest of the show went well and walked out with a deal. I don't really remember what I did for those two minutes.
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd?
We heard about Republic from a friend that completed a fundraise there. We have always had a lot of customers and Shark Tank fans asking us if they could invest, and Republic gave us an outlet to do that. More important than the funds raised is the ability to get more of our fans actively engaged with the company. Using our product and experiencing the results, it has helped us to spread the word!
How are you adapting your business to respond to COVID-19?
The main adaptation has been safety and social distancing, working remotely, and finding ways to sell our products without hosting events and doing demos. Our business has actually been stronger than, ever with the stay at home economy and an ever-growing desire to be less dependent on foreign countries for food.
What’s your team culture like?
We have a PEET culture. Ironic right? It stands for…
That really says it all about our company. Our team lives it every day!
What is your superpower?
Brian: Selflessness. I have always believed in Karma and “giving away what you want to receive”. I genuinely enjoy helping others. It has served me well in my personal life (with very strong, long-term relationships) and in my professional career with co-workers, customers, and investors.
Mont: Radical Candor. Although my real superpower is editing what forms in my head before it exits my mouth.
What’s your kryptonite?
Brian: Patience with myself. When things don’t happen as quickly as I would like, I can get frustrated. My response is typically to work harder and push more. However, I know that is not always the best answer. I’m extremely patient with others, just not myself.
Mont: The phrase, "We’ve never done that here before.” I hate that phrase and struggle with responding without four letter words.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
Brian: Yes, I do always drink out of the same coffee cup, LOL. My biggest routine (and probably worst habit) is checking social media (personal and company) every time I am in the restroom. It seems like the only time I have to do it, and turns downtime into productive time.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
Brian: Well, I am single with no children. I live in the PittMoss factory and have no TV. In any free time that I do have, I like to go on long walks, go to the gym (pre-COVID-19), and drive my 1966 Mustang Convertible. All three things free me for a short period of time from my focus on the company.
Mont: Living near the Indiana Dunes National Park and The Coffee Creek Nature Preserve allows me to take my Shiba Inu, Yoko, out on long walks through wooded and wetland nature trails every morning at sunrise. That is the very best part of my day.
As teachers, what’s your #1 piece of advice for students looking to become entrepreneurs?
Mont: If they want to become an entrepreneur, they need to realize it is like they are moving to a new continent. They not only need to learn to speak the language of entrepreneurship, business formation and venture financing, but they need to master it.
Brian: Be 100% committed and pay yourself last. I know that flies in the face of most advice, but one helps with the other and both are required to get you through the hard times. If failure is not an option, you have to do these two things. If you pay yourself first, or think of your startup as just a fun lifestyle, it makes it very difficult to make it through the leanest of times that are sure to come.