Summer startups: Back to the Roots

Silicon Prairie News/Courtesy

It’s heard all the time: The Bay Area is bursting at the seams with start-ups. Investing in a tiny, short-lived company trying to make ends meet in a shared warehouse office space isn’t for everyone. While the start-up life may not be glamorous by conventional standards (it has yet to be featured on an HBO show), Nikhil Arora, UC Berkeley alumnus and co-founder of Oakland startup Back to the Roots, shows us that working with a startup can be extremely rewarding.

Founded in 2009 in the kitchen of a Berkeley fraternity house, Back to the Roots creates sustainable, easy-to-use mushroom-growing kits, as well as self-cleaning fish tanks that grow food. What now seems like an elaborate operation has its own roots in a Berkeley business ethics class, where professor Alan Ross connected co-founders Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez because they were both intrigued upon learning that coffee grounds could grow mushrooms. After a set of makeshift mushroom-growing test runs in Velez’s fraternity kitchen, the two finally gained success, giving up their lucrative consulting and investment banking job offers to become full-time mushroom farmers.

Today, the two work with a team almost eight times as large as the one they started with, have been featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and have even raised more than a quarter of a million dollars within a month to launch a new product. The two have been hugely successful, and they’ve never looked back since. So what can potential UC Berkeley entrepreneurs learn from Back to the Roots? Co-founder Arora sat down with The Daily Californian to answer some of the questions that run through every student entrepreneur’s mind.

The Daily Californian: Back to the Roots started a few months before summer, allowing its founders to make use of Berkeley’s resources for a few months before graduating and devoting themselves to the company full time. Is it better to start a company over the summer or during the school year?

Nikhil Arora: There are pros and cons for both. Starting during the school year allows easier access to faculty, other students and classes that can directly help your business. In the summer you have access to summer interns and can focus 24/7 on your business.

DC: As a prominent research university located right in the middle of the Bay Area start-up culture, Berkeley provides students with access to resources that students often take for granted. What does UC Berkeley add to the experience of being an entrepreneur?

NA: UC Berkeley is an incredibly fertile environment for innovation and entrepreneurship — great faculty, a student body interested in entrepreneurship and being located in the Bay Area is a huge plus.

DC: Working with a start-up isn’t always seen as a traditionally glamorous role. How rewarding has your experience with Back to the Roots been?

NA: It’s been incredibly rewarding. We both give the business our all but we also have received so much from it that we could not imagine doing anything else – we’ve made some amazing friends in our employees and business partners, we’ve learned a ton and continue to do so every day, and the most important thing is we absolutely love to get up every single morning to come to work. I think our mission … is a huge driver for us.

DC: Investing in a start-up is a huge commitment that often involves little short-term reward in exchange for high risks. Berkeley students may have a hard time jumping into the entrepreneurial unknown, particularly when it comes to leaving behind internships or job offers. What was the experience of leaving those offers like?

NA: Alex had an offer from an investment bank, and I was to start at a consulting company in San Francisco. It was a huge decision, but the seed of the idea so gripped us that once we grew that initial bucket, we looked at each other and decided we wanted to see this idea through fruition. We have never second-guessed that decision since.

Check out Back to the Roots’s innovative product line here. 

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