There are combined elements of being a tightrope walker and a workaholic that I have found necessary to found and manage a startup, which is essentially creating its own market niche. Working 100 hours weeks is never fun but in your twenties it is at least more practical than if you have a family or are working another full time job. Graham and I got very lucky when we met at UVa and realized that we were both willing to do whatever it took to make Babylon successful. Looking back, we had absolutely NO idea what that was actually going to mean but we did it.
As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Olesen, CEO, and Co-founder of Babylon Micro-Farms, has embraced and excelled at every opportunity he has encountered, from academic challenges to bootstrapping his second company, Babylon Micro-Farms, at the age of just 21 while still taking a full course load at the University of Virginia. Originally from England, Alexander relocated to attend the University and was actively involved in the Social Entrepreneur Program, a reflection of his values and determination to incubate a socially good company. The original research into the technology that became the basis for Babylon’s success was based on research to provide low-cost food systems for refugees.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?
I grew up on a farm in the UK and after moving to London I was shocked at the difference in the food. Everything was encased in plastic and there was no real sense of being connected to any of what you were buying and eating. It was an eye-opening experience and stayed with me. I moved to the US to study at the University of Virginia and enrolled in the Social Entrepreneurship where I met Graham Smith, my co-founder. It turned out to be the course that launched a thousand Micro-Farms. The first prototype we built was designed to alleviate hunger in refugee camps in the Middle East. Sadly, the bureaucratic reality of making that happen long distance while in school made it impossible to implement but we still believe that our tech will be able to provide fresh food to people who need it the most.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?
Back in our early days we were a team of six and had a chance to demo our product at the local farmer’s market. The catch was that we had to be there at 5:30 am on a Saturday morning to set up. It was a much smaller farm and simpler to transport and set up, but asking people that were already working at least 80 hours a week to get up at the crack of dawn and spend their day talking to the public was a bit of a stretch. We were happily surprised by the response and had a great day out together and ended up selling a tabletop farm to our first customer who is still with us today. That experience affirmed two things — we were creating something that people would want to buy and there was nothing our team was not up for. It’s a long way from a chilly predawn parking lot to pitching in a boardroom to C-suite execs but the skills developed in talking to people about what you are passionate about never leave you, they just get better with experience. Don’t be afraid to ask for things that seem crazy at the time, you never know where they will lead.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our extraordinary team. It’s our culture that sets us apart and that is because we are mission-driven and care passionately about what we are doing on a daily basis. From our uber-dedicated field techs and customer support team to engineers that spend their spare time dreaming up better solutions — every member of our team is dedicated to our success.
During our first round of quarterly reviews it was uncanny how many responses were almost identical when we asked what was the most important part of working at Babylon. Out of our original 14 team members they all answered that it was the culture that made being part of the team worthwhile. Recently our new Director of Business Development told her colleague that she had never had a job where she was so excited to get to work. I think that says something about what matters to us and how we have built a company based on a shared vision.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mother has always been a huge influence for me. Her work ethic and ability to see through to the end of a problem using her formidable analytical skills have influenced the way I look at the world. I was recently back in the UK for the holidays and while I was there a tighter travel ban was put into place with requirements that were not to be found anywhere — absolutely no information on any website — resulted in me being turned away at the airport. Given we were moving into a new corporate headquarters the following week it was more than a bit stressful. Her advice was to be methodical and and simply check off the boxes of what was required, including a letter from the American Embassy and not to take no for an answer. I was home a week later, instead of the month it could have taken.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We absolutely are and plan to announce mid-2021, so stay tuned! So much has been happening lately I can share some recents wins — we partnered with Harvest Table, which is a company that is truly changing the way foodservice is being delivered at universities and colleges across the country. They are a game-changer — their focus on fresh food and diverse menus is a night and day from standard cafeteria fare. As a recent graduate, I am just sorry they weren’t around when I was at university. The best part is that the first farms were installed at UVa, which is where Graham and I founded Babylon as a project for a Social Entrepreneurship course.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Every day our farms make an impact on the world — by reducing the carbon footprint of fresh produce, our food miles are literally food feet. Bringing the most nutritious food available to people makes a huge difference in their nutrient intake, on average food that has been shipped loses a minimum of 40% of its nutrient value, As our success grows so will our impact, we founded Babylon in the premise that a socially good company was our highest priority.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Currently, I am recommending Play Bigger by Christopher Lochhead, Al Ramadan et al. I have actually implemented changes at Babylon to power our momentum. We doubled the goal of our seed round based on many of the lessons I have learned.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each
1) Being a young entrepreneur comes with many challenges, the most common being that people underestimate you based on your youthful appearance. My co-founder actually grew a beard to look older and it worked!
2) There are combined elements of being a tightrope walker and a workaholic that I have found necessary to found and manage a startup, which is essentially creating its own market niche. Working 100 hours weeks is never fun but in your twenties, it is at least more practical than if you have a family or are working another full-time job. Graham and I got very lucky when we met at UVa and realized that we were both willing to do whatever it took to make Babylon successful. Looking back, we had absolutely NO idea what that was actually going to mean but we did it.
3) There is an overload of “greatest new ideas,” that are going to be game-changers, the internet is saturated with them. Hence the healthy scepticism and killer due diligence processes that many young founders of startups face. Turn that concept around — do your research to find the best fit for your idea, not all investors are going to be suitable. Find those people that believe it is a) a great idea and b) that you are the person that can make it happen. Many startups die unnecessary deaths not because the idea won’t work, but because the chemistry doesn’t. One of our early supporters — Plug and Play Ventures out of Silicon Valley — didn’t just recognize the viability of our short term strategy in vertical farming, they absolutely got our long term vision that we believe will be truly disruptive.
4) We love what we do. The most exciting part of what we do is continuing to build a team that gets it and is passionate about what we are doing. For all the challenges, including getting drop-kicked into a virtual world due to COVID, I can’t imagine working a 40 hour week and not being the igniter of fires for our team members. When they come to us and say “What about this?” and we say “YES!” is an experience for which there is no substitute. We also do have to say no, of course.
5) Explaining how our technology works and watching the people in a pitch — who are usually used to being the smartest people in the room and rightfully so — begin to understand not just the financial possibilities but what the truly valuable environmental impact is for what we are doing. You can tell immediately who gets it, even over Zoom! Those moments make it easier to put yourself out there and the no’s you inevitably face fade a bit. Having a thick skin is required when you are asking people to invest, don’t take it personally.
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?
Believe you can do it, no matter what it takes. Understand that failures are part of the process, you don’t have to like them but use them to hasten your learning curve, not impede it. Find people who have tons of experience and listen to them, mentors are key. Never be afraid to ask for what you need, the worst you are going to hear is no. And then you ask the next person on your list. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are at what they do. Build a team that matches your core values.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Elon Musk. We want to be the first to farm in space and we have already thought through some of the challenges.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
LinkedIn is a great way to follow us, as is Instagram and we are on Facebook.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!