“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Dr. Glen Miller of Vera Roasting Company

Don’t be afraid to re-brand if needed. Most start-ups begin with a product, not a brand. As one adds more products, customers can get confused. The brand needs to hold it all together. If it doesn’t, re-brand to get it right. As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun […]

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Don’t be afraid to re-brand if needed. Most start-ups begin with a product, not a brand. As one adds more products, customers can get confused. The brand needs to hold it all together. If it doesn’t, re-brand to get it right.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Glen Miller, Professor of Organic Chemistry & Chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of New Hampshire. He is also Founder, CTO and Chair of Vera Roasting Company, makers of the first and only coffee infused with resveratrol, the beneficial antioxidant found naturally in red wine. In his academic life, he is an authority in the area of organic chemistry and nanotechnology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born in a very small town in central New York state called Chittenango, perhaps best known as the birthplace of Lyman Frank Baum, author of the American fairytale “The Wizard of Oz.” At the age of 9, I somehow contracted rheumatic fever which forced me out of school for the better part of a year, and this experience changed my life’s path. Until then, I was primarily concerned with football and basketball and other pursuits of an energetic and competitive young boy.

Forced to stay home (primarily in bed) for several months left me with nothing to do except read my school books and try to avoid falling behind. During this time, I became an independent learner in math, science, history and English.

When I returned to school, I realized that I was not behind, but well ahead of my peers in these subjects. That experience changed my perspective on learning and allowed me to channel my competitive nature into being the very student I could be.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I’m an organic chemist and have been for many years. Over this time, I’ve studied many interesting organic compounds, including all-natural compounds that exhibit interesting physical and chemical properties. For years, I was keenly aware of resveratrol, the beneficial antioxidant found in red wine that gives red wine it’s heart healthy reputation. As an organic chemist, I understood at the molecular level how resveratrol was capable of quenching nasty free radicals that can be associated with the early onset of disease. It is indeed a remarkable antioxidant. I also understood that our bodies do not produce resveratrol. So, the only way we can benefit from resveratrol is to make it a regular part of our diet. And by “regular”, I mean every day. Few foods contain resveratrol at a significant concentration, red wine being the exception. Like most Americans, I do not drink red wine on a daily basis, so I was not deriving the benefits of resveratrol. Resveratrol supplements in pill form are largely ineffective due to a lack of solubility.

These facts were lingering in the back of my mind when, quite literally, while showering one morning it hit me! Coffee could be the perfect vehicle for resveratrol. A little research bolstered the idea: 82% of all US adults drink coffee and the average coffee drinker consumes 3.1 cups per day. Some “kitchen research” revealed to me that I could, in fact, take a page out of red wine’s playbook to infuse resveratrol into coffee beans and make resveratrol soluble (and therefore bioavailable) in coffee. That part is proprietary knowledge, but it ultimately led to Vera Roasting Company, a US Patent, and our signature coffee infused with resveratrol.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

This is so true. Good ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s the execution that counts. Since Vera Roasting Company was launched in December 2015, we’ve had some great luck and done some things by design really well, but we’ve also made some mistakes, been distracted by the wrong things at times, and missed out on some opportunities. It’s been a constant learning curve for me, especially as I had zero training in running a business prior to Vera’s launch. The key is to keep learning and continuously improve execution.

Since day one, I have brought the expertise of business professionals into the company. This has included folks with experience in areas like creating a business plan, marketing, accounting, etc. Even so, the road to success has still been paved with potholes (and an occasional land mine). I’ve had to make some tough decisions along the way, but we find ourselves in a great spot now. Nearly a year ago, I was fortunate to bring on an investor who has great vision, great energy and a wealth of valuable experience and contacts.

We also have a CEO, Tom Polcaro, who understands the unique value that we offer and who is working around the clock to grow the business. With their leadership, Vera Roasting Company has successfully rebranded with new packaging, a new website, new product offerings, new partners and collaborations, and a great buzz. We’ve always had the healthiest and best tasting coffee on the market. Now we have a great plan forward to share this beneficial product with as many people as possible.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I think the advice I’d give would be a function of their age, experience and situation. I started this business at the age of 50 while in the midst of a successful career in academia. The advice I’d give to someone in a similar situation would be a bit different than the advice I’d give to a 20-something, straight-out-of-college entrepreneur. But in the end, my message to both would be this: you’ve got to be passionate about your ideas and your business in order to be successful. Surround yourself with knowledgeable, dedicated, positive people that share your vision and passion, and then go for it.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

I’ve had a lot of fun on this journey. There have certainly been some challenging times but my overall experience has been quite favorable and full of rewards. I think the thing that keeps it fresh and interesting for me is that I love to take on new challenges and learn new things. Vera Roasting Company enables me to create and innovate on a regular basis, and to continue learning. Since our launch, I’ve learned so many things, like how to create a business plan, how to raise capital, how to market using social media, the nuances associated with branding, etc. Vera Roasting has also allowed me to meet and partner with many smart, passionate people that I would not have met otherwise.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I am the Founder, Chair and CTO of Vera Roasting Company, but I am not the CEO. Still, I stay heavily involved in all the company’s business and have done so since our launch. One of the things I enjoy most about my role is the opportunity to further innovate and create new products.

Some time after our signature coffee with resveratrol was launched, I developed a Sunshine Blend coffee that is infused with both resveratrol and vitamin D3. Like all our coffees, our Sunshine Blend is super smooth and delicious, but it also delivers 400 IU of vitamin D3 per cup in order to help fight epidemic vitamin D3 deficiencies. A full 40% of all US adults have a vitamin D3 deficiency. I expected that our Sunshine Blend coffee would be popular with customers in Northern states, especially in the winter months when exposure to sunshine is reduced. However, to my great surprise, our Sunshine Blend is popular with customers all over the US, including southern states, and in every season including the summer.

It turns out that sunscreen and make-up on our faces and arms all but shut down natural vitamin D production for millions of Americans, so customers located in all corners of the US and during all seasons enjoy the benefits of our Sunshine Blend. This is the sort of outcome that really fires me up and keeps me motivated to continue to innovate.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Because I founded Vera Roasting Company while such a business novice, I really had no preconceived notions of what my job at Vera would entail. You could say that I was naïve.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Start-ups can be difficult and there were certainly moments when I wondered if I’d done the right thing by investing so much time, energy and effort into Vera Roasting Company. But throughout my life, I’ve always been just stubborn enough to refuse the urge to quit. I’m passionate about changing people’s lives, one cup of coffee at a time, and I just couldn’t quit on my opportunity to do exactly that. During those trying times, I did what I’ve always done in similarly trying times. I put my head down, jumped into the ditch and started digging. One shovel at a time.

Before I knew it, some serious headway had been made and things started looking a lot brighter. I’m so glad I was stubborn. Vera Roasting Company has come a long way. We are growing into the world’s premier functional coffee company. I’ve never been more optimistic about our company and its potential to improve lives, one cup at a time. I can hardly wait to see where we are a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. But for now, it’s head down and back to work!

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?

Well, it’s not really a mistake but I have a funny story from the time when the company was just getting started. A few days before our official launch in December 2015, a local reporter prepared a story about Vera Roasting Company that ran in a local newspaper, the Portsmouth Herald. The story generated a little bit of local buzz about Vera Roasting and our unique coffee that delivered the same health benefits as red wine. Some orders trickled in over that weekend, as locals read the article.

The following Monday morning, I was wrapping up my semester of teaching organic chemistry at the University of New Hampshire. It was a few days before the final exam, and I was offering an optional review class which was attended by approximately 200 students. Unbeknownst to me, the local newspaper story was picked up by the AP and published in about 300 newspapers around the country, all while I was teaching my organic chemistry review class. I had set up my Vera Roasting email account on my cell phone such that whenever an order was received, I felt a buzz.

As I was reviewing organic chemistry with 200 students, my cell phone began to buzz. Within a matter of minutes, the frequency of buzzes increased dramatically. Students in the review class could not help but notice that my pants were buzzing loudly. Very soon, there were no longer individual buzzes, but instead a steady stream of endless buzzing noises. I set it on a table in front of me. The table was facing my students and they laughed as it danced across the table from the endless stream of buzzing vibrations. My students and I thought that my phone was defective!

I turned it off until my review class ended, after which time I realized that my phone was not, in fact, defective. We had received hundreds of orders during my review class! We would continue to receive hundreds of orders over the next several days. And so, Vera Roasting Company was born.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I don’t consider myself to be a great leader, but I like to lead. I’ve always liked to take the reins and I’ve never been afraid to do so. But leadership should be a shared endeavor. I like to work with others on a journey where a set of shared goals exists. This creates a true team atmosphere where we all look out for each other and enjoy each other’s accomplishments as much as our own. On a few occasions, I’ve seen or worked in an organization that had a decided lack of leadership. It wasn’t enjoyable.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Success at Vera Roasting means that we are favorably impacting the lives of our customers. I derive great satisfaction knowing that our customers are improving their cardiovascular health with our coffee. All of our coffees are infused with this beneficial antioxidant. Our Sunshine Blend is additionally infused with vitamin D3 and is helping those with a vitamin D deficiency.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Traditional advertising is all but dead. This would have saved us time and money!

Packaging is every bit as important as the quality of a product. I was slow to figure this out.

Big retail is expensive. Between distributors, listing fees, buy-backs and the like, retail can be prohibitively expensive for a start-up.

Know your customers. Learning as much about your customers — why they buy, why they don’t, their expectations, etc. — is critical.

Don’t be afraid to re-brand if needed. Most start-ups begin with a product, not a brand. As one adds more products, customers can get confused. The brand needs to hold it all together. If it doesn’t, re-brand to get it right.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. 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.

There are several potential movements I’d love to inspire. I haven’t given much thought about how one would get such a thing moving, but here’s one I’ve been thinking about lately:

I’d love to see us, as a society, shift away from our pursuit of recognition and instead concern ourselves with the pursuit of excellence. I see so many people at so many levels, from adolescents to young adults to experienced leaders in their respective fields, that work so hard and spend so much time and energy pursuing recognition — whether it be a pat on the back, an award, a special designation, likes or follows on social media, or some other “feather in our cap.”

We’re so obsessed with recognition that we’ve forgotten what really matters — excellence, and in particular, the pursuit of excellence. If we focus on excellence, recognition will come. The pursuit of recognition places the cart ahead of the horse, turns us into shallow human beings, and reinforces some of our least desirable qualities like selfishness, self-centered behavior and greed. The pursuit of excellence, on the other hand, builds self-confidence and reinforces some of our most desirable characteristics like honesty, integrity and respect.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I still teach organic chemistry to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Many of them wish to pursue careers in chemistry, biochemistry and medicine, to name a few. I am routinely sharing Life Lesson Quotes with these students. Most of these are as relevant to business endeavors as they are to any other pursuit. One of my favorites is…

“There is a direction correlation between preparation and performance.”

So simple, but so important.

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 with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d like to share a meal and discussion with many different people including:

Indra Nooyi. She is, of course, one of the most successful business persons in the world with a wealth of knowledge in multiple industries including the beverage industry. She was trained in chemistry and physics, much like me, before moving into business. And of course, she must have fought her way through male dominated industries. Assuming she’d be willing to share some stories, I suspect it would be a great conversation. This aspect of her career is especially interesting to me, not just because I have four daughters, but because I’m always interested and intrigued when the underdog prevails. In her case, the underdog not only prevailed, but absolutely kicked a$%&.

Kevin O’Leary, a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful. I find his brutally honest, no-nonsense style to be refreshing and I know that he is heavily invested in the wine industry which has some obvious parallels to Vera Roasting Company. I think he’d be intrigued by Vera Roasting and I’d be intrigued to pick his entrepreneurial brain.

Charles Barkley, a.k.a. the round mound of rebound! I love that Charles Barkley is never afraid to speak his mind, and I find that I agree with his no-nonsense perspective most of the time. He’s very smart, has great instincts and I think we’d have a lot to discuss. I also love that he comes from the highly competitive world of professional basketball before moving into entrepreneurial activities.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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