You Only Need 1 Yes: On Shark Tank, Unlocking the Power of Insect Protein, and Creating a More Sustainable FutureFeatured
I spoke with @lauradasaro, founder of Chirps, which makes and sells chips, cookie mixes, and protein powder made from crickets. Chirps’ mission is to normalize insect foods, starting with snacks. Their long term goal is to substitute animal protein with insect protein, thus converting livestock farming to insect farming. In this way, they are working toward a more sustainable future with reduced land and water usage and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Until recently, no one in the United States had heard much about eating insects (at most, some people, few and far between, had tried a chocolate covered insect). Laura was an African studies major at Harvard and spent time in East Africa where eating insects was a staple of local cuisine. People would eat buckets of grasshoppers or fried caterpillars as snacks, for example, and the practice was quite culturally normalized. Laura tried insects there and found the taste to be rather similar to more common animal meat in the United States. The caterpillar she tried, for example, tasted much like lobsters. Intrigued, Laura researched more on insects and found they were a more sustainable source of protein. Upon learning this, she sought to figure out why more people in the United States did not eat insects and whether she could change this. Laura had always wanted to pursue social entrepreneurship. When she was 15, she built a playground for her community solely using money she raised from her lemonade stand. In this formative moment, she realized the power of the individual to make a difference in society. For years afterwards, she kept searching for an idea to direct her efforts to. The insect eating idea really spoke to her, and she could truly see the entire future unfold, imagining her product in grocery stores and ultimately creating a more sustainable future globally. Laura did an internship in Portland after graduating college, but she could not stop thinking about the insects idea. She shared her thoughts with her friend (who would later become her co-founder) who had similar experiences trying a scorpion in Beijing. Laura’s idea seemed increasingly more compelling and possible, so she quit her internship and moved back to Boston to experiment with insects. Laura and her co-founder initially had limited space and resources to experiment. Fortunately, there was a course at Harvard on the science of cooking that was taught in part by local chefs. Laura reached out to every chef affiliated with the course, and after many rejections, one of them agreed to help. The Chirps team spent nights trying all kinds of recipes at his restaurant. Over time, they grew to work with a small, local commercial restaurant and through different partners with Harvard, gradually increasing their space and available resources. When it came time to finance the business, the team first sought investments through conferences and angels. However, one of the first investors they spoke with told them that it was “the worst idea he had ever heard of,” which was certainly incredibly discouraging and disheartening. But the team preserved and sought out more evidence of the viability of their idea. They launched a Kickstarer campaign and became one of the most highly funded food tech companies, raising $70K from 1,300 investors. From this, they received a substantial amount of media attention as well. During their first summer building Chirps, the team struggled to find a manufacturer. They hired interns and together called over 400 manufacturers. All but one said no. To garner regulatory support in Massachusetts, the team called the state’s health department for 9 months to provide evidence of the safety of crickets as food. The health department was initially shocked, responding that their role was “to keep insects out of the food not bring them inside!” but through the research the Chirps team presented, they were eventually won over. To find their first distributors, the team walked down each street of Boston to convince stores, receiving countless no’s but eventually more yes’s starting with their first natural food store in Porter Square. To further capitalize their business, Laura applied for fellowships and did many pitch competitions at Harvard and in the area, including winning MassChallenge, the Harvard Women in Business Pitch Competition, and Harvard Dean’s Challenge. In 2017, three years after the initial founding of Chirps Chips, they went on Shark Tank and successfully signed a deal with Mark Cuban, which marked a turning point for the company, giving them more media attention and broader legitimacy and brand awareness. Soon after, they rolled out their chips to 1,500 stores nationwide and online. They became the first insects to sell at Krogers and began selling in Barnes and Nobles and other bookstores at university campuses. Chirps started selling more than just chips and branched out to offer a recipe book, educational book (where they signed a book deal with Penguin Random House), cricket protein, cookie dough, and dining hall and catering offerings for special events. Reflecting on her incredible journey thus far, Laura shares her key advice and main learnings. Find creative ways to learn. Our generation thinks Google holds the answer to everything, but for Laura, there was no definitive manual on how to build a successful food business. So, she found companies 1 stage ahead of her (for example, companies in 5,000 stores when Chirps Chips was in 1,500) and built relationships with these teams to share notes and learn from their journey. More broadly, Laura recommends joining communities in your industry and posting on Facebook to ask for help and advice. Understand biases and make decisions with this awareness. When Laura was calling manufacturers, her co-founder told her she needed to lower the tone of her voice and speak more slowly to be taken seriously. Initially, Laura was taken aback by this advice but saw measurable results when she tried it. It is often debatable when we should change ourselves versus society, and frequently, doing the latter may be better long term but much less feasible. Consequently, it is important to at least understand potential unfortunate biases and their implications for our businesses. From there, we can make a decision and trade off. Get ahead of people’s assumptions and find your voice. When Laura travelled to conferences or events with male colleagues, people meeting them would often immediately assume that the guy was in charge. So, she learned to be more constructively aggressive and take the initiative to shake their hand and introduce herself at the start of each interaction to get ahead of these assumptions. As you grow and scale your business, write down everything you do and figure out if it is something you need to be doing. As your responsibilities grow with the business, tasks you had previously managed may no longer be your comparative advantage or most efficient use of time. Identify where you could outsource to others, such as a virtual assistant perhaps or another team member. Looking ahead, Laura is excited for the future of Chirps. She looks forward to exploring other insects and unlocking an entire, yet undiscovered food group with the protein levels of animals and the sustainability levels of plants. She is excited to create meat and egg replacements and create a more sustainable future.