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From 1 500 USD to a Billion: he built a Unicorn selling UGLY vegetables that “no one will want buy"

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

Unicorn Safaris Monthly Series by Shadrack Kubyane

PC: Coronet Blockchain

Salutations to my fellow brave souls and welcome the 3rd edition of the Unicorn Safaris, diary entry. An exciting space, where we closely observe these thorough bred entities, called Unicorns. They are a special breed of businesses, valued at 1 billion USD and more, but moving with a lightning speed agility, across the markets they call home. Catching a glimpse of the lessons they avail for us, makes for a monthly highlight on our calendar.

Firstly, thank you so much, to the 8 800 of you that have already subscribed, and if you haven’t done so already, please hit that subscribe button, so you will not miss out on this once a month diary entry. Let’s make this a community of 10 000, shall we? Let’s jump right into this Safari. You can Follow me here

For me today’s Unicorn Safari is both inspiring and much like a de javu. Jotting down my diary notes and entries felt much like I have been down this road before. Maybe it’s because I have so much I can relate to with the Founder’s business path, marked with so many failures and crazy comebacks.

I am sure you will find a lot of things that you can relate to as well. Things that are not often spoken about, are in this diary read. Things like: failure in favourable conditions, and logic defying success, during unfavourable conditions. Starting from nothing, failing and daring to get back up.

What stands out most from this particular Unicorn Safari?

What stands out the most about this particular Unicorn, as highlighted above: failure before COVID only to succeed (and clock a billion) when growing something during COVID. I personally do not reference my own story enough: when I left corporate, thinking that being in business was going to be all rosy and kumbaya,

I was wrong. I personally failed numerous times, with some highlights of success in between. Eventually, after 10 years in business, I began a journey via co-Founding Coronet Blockchain, raising two funding tranches from IBM, in the thick of Covid and taking off, with agility across the continent. I did not see it coming, that our aptly timed start will coincide with the inaugural launch of The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, a great alignment.

I’m sure a lot of you have started new things (maybe even during COVID?). Maybe some of you failed at many things but didn't give up. It will be great to learn from each other, please share your lessons learnt so that we can inspire other people.

What you can expect to take away from this Unicorn Safari today:
  • Get inspired

  • 7 lessons

  • Gain clarity for your own journey

Here’s a quick recap on how the Misfits Unicorn herder begun his journey

Abhi Ramesh founded Misfits Market in 2018: an online grocery delivery service that sells “ugly” organic produce for cheap. After starting and running 6 failed businesses, the idea of starting Misfits came to Abhi Ramesh back in 2018, during a visit to a farm in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend. It was while they were picking apples, on that farm, that he discovered that ugly fruits and vegetables were deemed “unfit” to be sold to mainstream retail stores.

As a result, farmers usually sold the unwanted fruits and veggies, the ugly ones, to their neighbours (at a bargain). But they had very few neighbours at the time (offline not online). Most crops were wasted.

At that shocking realisation, the entrepreneurial energy kicked in, and Abhi Ramesh began digging a little deeper into these unwanted fruits and vegetables, which have nothing wrong with them, apart from looking ugly, but they are written off by the market, destroyed or thrown away.

Fast forward 2020, 2 years since founding Misfits Market, Abhi Ramesh’s business shipped 35 million kilograms of food to more than 400,000 households across the U.S. Since launching in 2018, Misfits Market has hired over 1,000 employees and received over 300 million USD in funding. 😎 Not bad for a business that was born on a farm, as a random idea, whilst picking ugly fruits that no one wanted. Bloomberg reports its valuation tops $1 billion, putting it into unicorn territory.

PC: Make it (Humble beginnings, Abhi Ramesh, on the right: growing up)

A quick spotlight on: Abhi Ramesh (the making of a Unicorn Herder)

When Abhi Ramesh’s parents were 28 years, they left India, risked everything to move to Atlanta USA, looking to start a new life. Making Abhi Ramesh, a son of immigrants, who pursued the American dream. His dad had hoped to start a business in America, but never got around to doing so, due to demands placed on him by his day job, and the need to provide for his family, a level of security, in a foreign country. Our parents sacrifice a lot so that we can have a better future than they did, we must never take this for granted.

PC: Abhi Ramesh EY

So here we go, 7 lessons or inspiring reminders for us:

1) Start early, start now and get in the habit of solving every problem on your path:

Most Unicorn founders start solving problems very early, years if not decades before they become unicorn headers. It was in his early days back in high school that Abhi commenced experimenting with his first rodeo, a business he started from scratch.

He spotted an opportunity to meet the needs of high school students needing affordable second hand books. He swung into action, to meet this market gap. By buying used books from outgoing students, leaving school, then selling them on Amazon, to incoming students, for that class. This was his first time building a business from the ground.

When that fizzled away, he then started an SAT tutoring company, because he excelled academically back in high school. Which gave him an idea, to gather a few friends who also did well in school, to build a tutoring program to sell the private tutoring services to other students.

PC: Art in context

2) Don’t be intimidated or discouraged by failure

I have never met a single person wildly successful but has not failed before. Most Unicorn founders failed in multiple businesses before building a thriving unicorn. For Abhi, he failed at 6 businesses but succeeded on the 7th time. In his 2nd year studying finance in College, he dropped out of College and moved to San Francisco to take a gap year so that he can revisit his high school tutoring company. This time he built it into a software solution.

He raised 25 000 USD from an incubator to start something, to give business another shot. With that 25 000 USD, he “diversified” by starting 3 companies, one after the other. First: a men’s shopping platform, which failed. Then, a social media shopping application, which failed. Then he tried out something in healthcare, which also failed. Bringing to a total, 6 company starting attempts on his part, that all did not work out.

After failing at all 6 companies, he quit and went back to school, telling himself maybe business is not for him. He finished his degree, then landed himself a job in an investment company. Coincidentally, he was deployed into a department called opportunistic investing.

3) Don’t wait for the dream job, be faithful where you are:

Even if you’re not working at your dream job, or serving clients you desire or your business is not where you wish it was, be excellent where you are. Make it a point to build relationships with people around you. You will never know who you will need later.

While he was at the investment company one of his colleagues who became good friends with him, left the investment company to work for a prominent VC. This move, by his friend, came handy for Abhi, later on.

After 11 months he left his job, not because it was bad, but he was tormented, daily, because his job involved him meeting with management teams of incredible startups who started from zero and went on to run successful businesses. Each day, he watched these adventurous entrepreneurs live their best life, and he wished he was on the other side of the table as a founder of a thriving start-up.

Reflecting on my own 🤔 personal journey, some of you may recall that a few weeks ago: I shared through my gratitude Sunday segment, about my ex-corporate boss who was difficult and did not treat me well. No matter how tempted I was to retaliate, I never dishonoured her. Instead, I treated her with respect and I excelled at my job, despite the tormenting toxic environment she created for me and my colleagues. So much so that I got promoted 3 positions above her, I still did not laud that promotion over her. When I later left corporate to start my own management consulting, she was among my first 10 clients. Believe me, she remains amongst my high ticket clients to this date.

4) When you are intentional about your life: nothing goes to waste, everything converges

Everything you learn along the way, even the things that may seem as big mistakes and irrelevant will come handy when destiny calls. One of my mentors calls this phenomenon, Convergence. That’s when all your skills, background, life experiences and professional experiences (the good, the bad and the ugly) converges into shaping what you do:

In 2014 Abhi moved back to San Fransisco to start a coding bootcamp company with 2 co-founders, the company only lasted 2 years and it closed down, that’s the 6th company to fail.

That takes us back to that fateful day, of him visiting the apple farm. It was during that picking of apples on that rural farm in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend, that the light bulb moment hit him. How weird is that? Much like that popular Isaac Newton’s moment, of an apple falling onto him from the tree above.

Discovering that these scattered apples he was picking were destined to be sold to a tiny group of neighbours, with the rest thrown away, because they were ugly looking. These ugly crops were as equally good if not better than the good looking organic ones.

Thanks to his experience of buying books cheaper and reselling them, plus the experience he gained through the men shopping platform which came with lots of distributions and managing a supply chain. Along the way, he also picked up coding skills coupled with his experience at the investment company he felt that he had more experience and a better shot at succeeding.

So he moved to Philadelphia to start a company to solve this post harvest waste for farmers. So he drove back to the same farm, and after some digging around, he found a USDA list of 50 organic farmers. He called all of them, he then started spending time with about 12 of them building relationships and convincing them to sell their unfit ugly produce really cheap since they were destined for waste anyways.

His experience of sourcing products that were of less value from the supply side, from his second hand book trading days, but have value on the demand side, he swung into action to apply the same value proposition from his high school days. This deep knowing that was a part of him, came very handy as he mobilised to sell these ugly unfit organic fresh produce.

PC: Misfits Market (warehouse)

5) Make tough decision and take the necessary risks along your journey:

At some point in our entrepreneurship journeys we will have to make tough decisions and take risks, after all the very dictionary definition of an entrepreneur is “a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.”

Abhi took out about 5 credit cards and maxed all of them out on marketing campaigns (don’t try this at home, unless you know what you are doing). Thank goodness for friends who believed in him, he was given a relief angel investment by a friend so that he can pay off the credit cards and start focusing on building his business.

Some of you may recall that Elon Musk, a Unicorn Herder to observe on another day, the richest man in the world today, became so broke on his business journey, that a friend bailed him out, with a Christmas gift, of 1 million USD. May we have those kinds of friends on our path. Even better, may we become those friends. It was the friend who bailed Abhi out that ended up being luckier than Abhi. As a result of backing the right person, instead of judging him, he reaped great rewards.

To keep his expenses low Abhi rented everything, from warehousing, to fridges and other equipment he needed, he even used his own vehicle to deliver the produce. By the end 2018 Misfits Markets was shipping to the value of a mere 200 USD a week.

This tiny but significant traction got the attention of his friend, working at the prominent investment company. You recall: the friend who left to work to join a prominent Venture Capital firm. They say some doors open from the inside. It was that friend's hand that turned the knob, from the inside, for Abhi, to come through and pitch Edward’s VC team.

PC: Make it. Friends Abhi Ramesh (right), with Angel Investor, Edward Lando (left)

6) Build strong Relationships: Some doors do open from the inside

Raising capital can be a full-time job on its own, further to running your startup, and can be very exhausting. According to 500 Start-Ups, which is one of the best Start-Up accelerators: on average, founders have to pitch 100 investors, just to raise 500K USD. That’s the industry average, despite exceptions in between.

The amount of work and expertise required can be an expensive exercise, especially for an early stage start-up with founders who do not have rich uncles somewhere. At times you will have to update and tweak your Pitch Deck multiple times in one week, before meeting certain investors, to align with their expectations. A friend once told us they edited their deck 148 times before landing funding, after pitching that multi-revised deck to 245 investors. Imagine that, hearing the word NO over 240 times, now that can be very discouraging.

Abhi’s wisdom and humility to build relationships, long before he needed those relationships, saved him a lot of time and money. From this one pitch, to Edward’s VC firm, he was funded 2 million USD, seed capital. He did not have to shop around for other investors, nor did he have a company valuation (at the time) or an investor pack.

He reaped a great harvest, from a relationship he has been cultivating, for a while, like a wise farmer. Are you cultivating good relationships right now? I am not referring to ones you need now, but one day.Be intentional but sincere and authentic. Give, more than you expect to take. See what happens.

The funding gave him enough money to invest in all areas of business: hiring full staff, renting a proper warehouse and buying his own equipment. In less than a year his warehouse space moved from 700ft to 10000ft and his customer base doubled every month. Purchasing bigger volumes enabled him to lower his prices. He passed the savings onto his consumers. Partnering with 3rd party logistic companies, for last mile deliveries, he expanded faster.

A flash back on my own journey, 🤔 of raising funds. It was during dinner when a family friend to us, shared with us about a project recently done by his company (yep: IBM), recently solved similar pain points we were trying to solve.

Not only that he introduced us to technical experts and later to an investment committee in his company that gave us two tranches of funding during COVID, but he walked alongside us, advising us. See, some doors do open from the inside. Let’s look for these types of friends, and as I said, more than that, let’s become them.

7) In times of destruction, new kings and bold market leaders always emerge:

Boom!!! Ever read the book, a novel by James Patterson or watched a 2001 movie by the same title, called: “Along came a spider”? Yes, along came COVID, and that’s when everything went crazy. All supply chains went into a supply chain shock and transit routes were grinding to a halt.

Abhi and his team had to close their checkout page as they could not fulfil the orders anymore. They had to navigate more than 40 days of backlog orders, as people could not go anywhere due to lockdown. By march 2021, Misfit customer base grew so fast, the company was 5x larger with an evaluation of US$1.1Bn. In April last year Misfits received a series C funding of 300 million USD.

PC: Coronet Blockchain What’s your resurrection comeback moment? Got one? Do share

Conclusion: as I put my camera and diary down (to wrap this Safari)

A leader we respect as a family, once explained entrepreneurship using the analogy of 2 men who set out to uproot a certain tree, we will call them Founder A and Founder B:

Founder A understood that this kind of a tree grows in secluded places. Meaning, he has to travel a long journey to reach the tree and back. He also understood that this kind of a tree has a complex root system beneath its surface, he must be ready to displace that root system to uproot the tree and he may need bigger tools and lots of energy and some help.

Founder B is totally clueless all he has was passion and excitement looking forward to enjoying the benefits that comes with owning that tree.

As you can guess, it will be a tough day at the office for Founder B, as everything, such as resistance from life, catches him off guard. Are you prepared for the road ahead? The purpose of this Unicorn Safaris series has always been, to enable you and I to borrow maps from people who are ahead of us on their journey, to know how to navigate sharp bends.

My learned friends call such learning, from other leaders: Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Sounds mouthful (and private school-ish), but NLP is simple: make it a habit to look around you and learn from people’s pitfalls or strengths, and yes, borrow their map.

Which Founder would you opt to be: A or B? The reality is: the entrepreneurship journey is hard as it is, and yes, we must expect it to be hard, that’s what makes it worthwhile. The least we can do for ourselves, on this journey, is be honest with ourselves, at all times. Never lying to ourselves, at any given moment. No room for illusions, but neither is there room to be negative or entertain bad vibes. There will be tears, there will be hardships, there will be dips along the road. Cry if you have to, but soldier on, towards your true north.

Yes, there will be great victories if we don’t give up, the most important thing is to keep our eyes on the prize.. We risk, and we believe, even when/if it hurts. We keep to our true north, and yes, we defend our convictions. As another mentor of mine says: we find a way to win.

Let them laugh or judge, if they wish to judge. A thousand unicorns are roaming the earth, every day. Companies worth more than a billion USD each. As living testaments, unicorns are possible. Success is possible. A dawn after the darkest of nights is possible.

You are possible. Your Unicorn is possible!!!

Your Unicorn, might begin its life as a little cute pony, but who knows?

Whilst everyone fears a recession, decide to be on a progression.

To be continued…📷😎🎥

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