“Check in regularly” with Ben Larson and Len Giancola

What excites me most about the industry is the opportunity to participate in what is arguably the most exciting growth opportunity since the internet while simultaneously advocating for the most important public health policy shift of my generation. As an entrepreneur, nothing is more rewarding than having true multiple bottom-lines. I had the pleasure of […]

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What excites me most about the industry is the opportunity to participate in what is arguably the most exciting growth opportunity since the internet while simultaneously advocating for the most important public health policy shift of my generation. As an entrepreneur, nothing is more rewarding than having true multiple bottom-lines.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Larson, CEO of Vertosa. Calling upon his experience as a serial entrepreneur, investor, and startup adviser, Ben and the Vertosa team enable mainstream businesses to enter the growing industry by providing water soluble active ingredients to infuse beverages and other products. Previously, Ben co-founded Gateway, the premier startup accelerator based in Silicon Valley. Additionally, Ben is a Director and Mentor for the Founder Institute, where he formerly managed global operations and helped grow the program into over 100 cities around the world. He’s also active on several boards inside and out of the cannabis industry and travels the world for speaking engagements. Ben was recognized in the 40 Under 40 Class of 2018 by the San Francisco Business Times.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The most significant experiences of my career have involved launching new businesses. As a serial entrepreneur, I have a strong passion for helping fellow visionaries realize their dreams, and have an insatiable appetite for building great products and teams. Before delving into the space, I was the Director of Global Operations for the Founder Institute, where I helped launch over 100 startups locally, recruited and trained business leaders globally, and formed startup ecosystems around the world to spur economic growth outside Silicon Valley. I was instrumental in expanding the program into more than 100 cities around the world and on-boarded, trained and guided local leadership. I’m still a Director and Mentor at the Founder Institute, and love working with entrepreneurs to shape the next generation of companies.

By 2015, my career journey led me to focus on the burgeoning legal industry, where I wanted to pursue advocacy and innovation. With that in mind I co-founded Gateway, a full immersion business accelerator and seed investment program. We’ve followed through on our mission of connecting aspiring entrepreneurs to knowledge, capital and mainstream opportunities. Through my work and networking with Gateway, I met Harold Han, who at the time was the senior emulsion scientist at Bio-Rad Laboratories. We went on to found Vertosa (formerly Nanogen Labs) to help solve the emulsion issues within the infused marketplace and work with brands to create homogenous and stable customized infused products that maximize bioavailability, clarity and taste.

This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

Our company’s core values are trust, leadership, and community, and we build our marketing efforts around these values.

When our clients have questions regarding our products or the industry, we often push ourselves to not only deliver the most thorough and educated answers possible, we also ask ourselves if we believe others will have the same questions. And if so, we find the right medium in which to make the information widely available. White paper, article, or video, we ensure that we take the opportunity to educate others.

Furthermore, we understand how important visuals are, even for B2B companies. We are regularly updating our website and social media with compelling photos and videos illustrating our work, including research and development, client testimonials and their successful resulting products, speaker presentations from our internal team, and more. Visuals can make the science of much more engaging and accessible for everyone, which is a key part of our mission.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

What excites me most about the industry is the opportunity to participate in what is arguably the most exciting growth opportunity since the internet while simultaneously advocating for the most important public health policy shift of my generation. As an entrepreneur, nothing is more rewarding than having true multiple bottom-lines.

As for growth and innovation, I’m excited to be a part of developing the products of the future. I truly believe infused products are where we will see the greatest growth, especially as the mainstream consumers and medicinal applications take center stage. We’re focused on beverage currently because it’s the most challenging and allows us to show the range and scope of our technical capacity, but it’s also providing a very approachable consumption method that has a unique experience of its own. We already serve and will soon be expanding further into topicals, and eventually edibles.

Finally, I love the community aspect of the industry. It’s still a relatively small industry and those of us that have been operating in it for a while understand the value of a rising tide and are truly excited for each other’s wins.

On the flip side, I do have concerns, which I do view separately from constraints. Constraints are hurdles like banking and regulations; for that, I always recommend a fantastic book, A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business. My concerns, however, boil down to three things: bad intentions, bad business, and government-as-usual. When I say bad intentions, I’m generally referring to those that are out to make a quick buck, and how that can negatively impact everyone else trying to build a trustworthy and sustainable industry. Bad products break the trust of the consumer and regulators, which slows the trajectory of the industry. Bad business has a similar root, but generally results in opportunistic capital raising and irresponsible spending, which threatens investor confidence and negatively influences the macro trends and confidence in the industry. Finally, there are so many politicians and regulatory agencies standing between where we are today and where we need to be, and to be frank, yet completely vague, let’s just say some agencies are really great at preserving job security in spite of overwhelming evidence that they should get the hell out of the way.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Check in regularly with individuals on your team, both personally and professionally. Ensure they feel loved and heard; and understand that their daily drivers are likely very different than yours. You need to understand what drives them and how your company plays a role in their career trajectory.

Building personal relationships with your employees is important in helping them feel part of a strong, connected team and remain passionate about their work. Get their input and build consensus. Show your appreciation to employees early and often through company events like happy hours and other team building activities. It’s also important to keep communication lines open and embrace feedback from your employees on a regular basis.

For example, at Vertosa’s headquarters, we participate in Oakland’s First Friday every month. It’s another way for our employees, partners and industry friends in the neighborhood to connect, share ideas and foster a sense of community.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

In addition to the amazing clients we get to work with every day, ranging from new startups to international household brands, we’re also consistently launching new formulas and form factors that broaden the scope of products we get to help bring to market.

We’ve also recently rebranded our company, first launched one year ago as Nanogen, as Vertosa. The new branding signifies the continued elevation of our best-in-class emulsion technology, service and expertise alongside our entrepreneurial roots in the Bay Area. Our new name has a great deal of significance, as “vert” speaks to both green and truth, in line with our roots in and cutting-edge plant science. And “osa,” which is Spanish for female bear, speaks to our proud roots here in California, with an important nod to the power of the female plant in . And coinciding with our rebranding, five new hires have joined our company, a group of talented leaders with experiences in a wide range of fields, to continue our momentum and expansion.

We’ll also have exciting funding news to announce soon, so stay tuned. The next year is poised to be a major one for Vertosa!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In our most recent fundraising effort, one of our investors introduced me to another potential investor and asked if I could send some samples to an address posthaste. It was evident that it was a home address and was about 30 miles away from the office. After debating with myself about hiring a courier or not, I ultimately decided that I would just drive over and drop it off myself.

I showed up to this beautiful home with a view of the San Francisco bay. It was a gorgeous day, and there was a glass door open adjacent to the front door of the home. I wandered up onto the patio and saw a gentleman sitting just inside in a brown leather chair facing out towards the Bay. I asked him if he was the man whose name I had inscribed on the package. He said, “No.”

After being told to just leave it on the pile of packages near the front door, I began walking away. Then I heard, “wait, who are you?”

It was him, and he was stunned to learn that the CEO of a company whose deck he had just been reviewing had just appeared on his doorstep. It was a first for him. It was a first for me. He asked if I had a minute. I gave him 90.

His parting words: “This is the first time a CEO has shown up at my house, and this is the first time I’m going to invest in someone after meeting them for the first time.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The holy grail for us in the beginning was to achieve a clear and flavorless infusion in water. We’ve gotten pretty darn close. This makes clean-up after demoing VERY important; and yes, I learned that the hard way. The time I have in mind was following a golf tournament in Half Moon Bay. I was showing off the tech back at the hotel in some generic plastic water bottles. It was a long day and so I went off to bed shortly thereafter thinking I would just clean it all up in the morning. Unfortunately for me, I woke up rather thirsty and grabbed the water bottle nearest to me and began drinking. Not a good start to a day stacked with phone calls and meetings. Silver lining? I didn’t recognize it was infused until I was halfway through the bottle.

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 wife, Rashna Gandi Larson, for believing in me unconditionally. While I always had a lot of creative ideas and side projects, I used to live for the straight-and-narrow. I always thought I’d get a great engineering job and work my way up in a single company, which I began doing after graduating college. In fact, on my first day of work, I earned a bit of a name for myself after telling the CEO of the company that I was gunning for his job. Six years in, after earning my Professional Engineer license, and shortly after getting engaged to Rashna, I discovered I needed to pursue a different path — my own path.

We sat down to dinner one night, and I reluctantly explained to her how I was going to be quitting my steady and stable career as a civil engineer to pursue my first startup. With our wedding less than a year away, and her being raised in a conservative household of accountants, I was prepared for several potential outcomes, but couldn’t have anticipated what she did and said.

She stood up, walked over to me, hugged me, and said, “you’re going to be incredible at whatever it is you do.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I seek to inspire others to live in the service of others. My personal north star metric is the number of people’s lives I can positively and significantly impact. In my career, I’ve received great joy from breaking down barriers and helping others see their ideas to fruition, and as the CEO of Vertosa, every day, I seek to better serve our employees, our customers, and the broader community in a similar fashion. Of course, selfcare is extremely important, but a means to better serving those around you.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. You are . Your life will become consumed by the industry. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but being an entrepreneur in the space automatically makes you an advocate. You’re instantly labeled. You’re constantly educating others, breaking the stigma, and speaking out against injustice. Or at least you should be.

2. You’re also now the family doctor. So little information is available to the mainstream public via trusted sources, that family and friends now come to me with every kind of ailment you can imagine. I’ve helped my aunt who was undergoing chemotherapy, my second cousin whose Tourette’s was keeping him out of work, my friends with chronic migraines, a woman suffering from fibromyalgia for over two decades, and so many more. I’m happy to be helping people, but it’s an absolute tragedy that this information has to come from me.

3. Banking and services will be more frustrating than you can imagine. It’s difficult enough to run a business under normal circumstances, but to be constantly worried about your bank account being shut down, or being dropped by an insurance provider, inside or out of the workplace, is excruciating. Not to mention the embarrassment of being shunned by people that you had done business with for years.

4. Be VERY careful about whom you partner with. Things are moving so quickly in this industry, it’s sometimes hard to tell what and who is real. When we first launched Gateway, turned out our first capital partner didn’t have the capital. There’s a lot of big talk out there and many houses of cards. Proceed with extreme caution and make sure you really know your partners, especially if your business relies on them.

5. You’ll hate the government even more than you already do. So. Many. Lies.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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