Episode 002 - Thriving Under Uncertainty
Thriving Under Uncertainty with Brooks Powell '17 and Pilar Castro-Kiltz '10
Learn more about Princeton Arts Alumni and their "Alumni in the Arts" programming.
Learn more about More Canvas Consulting: Business Management for the Arts.
Produced by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. Music by Wright Seneres. Theme music by the Treadmills (Wright Seneres, electric guitar and electric bass; John Damond, Jr., drums). Engineered by Dan Kearns and Dan Quiyu at the Princeton Broadcast Center. Edited and mixed by Wright Seneres. Promotional readings by Megan Donahey '20.
From the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, this is the Princeton Spark. I’m Wright Seneres.
The various people that make up the Princeton entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem have long been at work, taking risks to bring transformational ideas and companies to the world, in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity. These are the stories of Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way.
At PEC, we support Princeton-connected startups and help to build the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Jersey and beyond.
In our series opening three episodes, we are exploring three important aspects of entrepreneurship. If you haven’t heard the first episode on taking risks, it is available now at princetonspark.com or wherever you get your podcasts, so do check that out.
The very nature of entrepreneurship is doing something new and innovative, and so there is always some uncertainty involved. Navigating this uncertainty is something all entrepreneurs need to do if they want to thrive. So how do they do this? For one answer, we turned to Brooks Powell.
Brooks is the founder of Cheers Health, which used to be called Thrive Plus. So in an episode on thriving, I thought I’d go to an expert.
My name is Brooks Powell. I graduated from Princeton in the class of 2017. And I founded a company called Cheers, which we like to call an alcohol related health company.
I came across an article that just been published in 2012. I was reading this a few months after it being published, titled "Dihydromyricetin as a novel anti-intoxication medication". And in this article, they showed that DHM, which is a chemical extract, like caffeine to coffee, or THC is marijuana, is basically the active ingredient that makes the plant work. Well, basically, in Asian countries, people will steep this leaf in hot water and drink it after consuming alcohol. And evidently, it made them feel better in the moment. And then it also made them feel better the next day. A team at UCLA, they took that, they took the chemical extract, dihydromyricetin, injected it into rats, and they found that they can instantly sober up rats. They can prevent rats from becoming alcoholics. They can cure alcoholism and rats and oh, yeah, rats given DHM show no sign of hangovers. Basically, I took this study, I found it really compelling. I brought it straight to my neuroscience professor, he thought it was compelling. He scrapped the planned class lecture and lectured on this instead. Within a month or so all of my sort of post graduation career ideas, and totally transformed to me basically thinking, you know what, I'm gonna try to start a company off of this dihydromyricetin.
Starting an alcohol related health company is sure to have much uncertainty around it.
I think our uncertainty is really sort of related to the market that we're in. So, you know, there's never really been this concern that, could we make a working product? Would we be able to figure out the supply chain, etc, especially hardware companies, and they fail all the time, because it's just so hard to build a hardware company, such as, like Ring doorbells successfully accomplished. For us, the challenge was, was this idea of, could you actually raise money for something that is alcohol-related. You know, would you be able to employ people on something that is alcohol-related? And the reason is, is that specifically for the VC community, you know, VC, you always think of VCs, as the investors, the people that give other people money, but VCs really have to deal with people called limited partners, which are universities, like Princeton, or state pension funds, or high net worth individuals, and some LPs are having to raise money every five years. So our sorry, venture capitalists are having to raise money from LPs every five years or so. Meaning that every investment they make, they don't want some LP looking at it going like, "Well, why did you invest in that company?" So for the longest time, as we're sort of building this company, you know, we would have 50 conversations with VP and 60, or 70% of them, who wouldn't really want to take past the first meeting, primarily because they didn't know what their LPs would think of them investing in something that might be able to be characterized as a hangover cure. And so that was one of the things that we really sort of the uncertainty of, we knew that that sort of category of alcohol related health was going to become a thing because we were going to make it a thing. But you still have to convince other people, the sort of gatekeepers the funding, that is going to become a good thing. And 10 years from now, everyone's going to look back and go, Oh, alcohol related health category makes so much sense. Just like the immunity section of supplements of the supplement aisle, or the sleep section of the vitamin supplement aisle, or the vitamin C section of the vitamin and supplement aisle, right? Soon, there'll be sort of be an alcohol related health section. And there's sort of that uncertainty like, "Could we grow the company big enough where we can start getting funding from these institutional partners? Or, you know, would we ever be able to sort of get funding from these institutional partners?"
Through this uncertainty, Brooks’s startup is thriving. They raised a $1.2 million seed round in 2018. And they brought a very thoughtful and well-researched effort on a major rebranding to their investors. The result of which? Say hello to Cheers.
To put it lightly, the consumption of alcohol has its good and bad sides. Even though Cheers’s customers call it a hangover cure, Brooks is careful to use other nomenclature. It’s a long explanation and it involves the federal Food and Drug Administration, but the end result is they are a dietary supplement in the eyes of the FDA.
For us, we have to leave it a bit vague. We have to say, “after alcohol aid”, you know? Feel better. Support your liver. But that enough is enough for consumers to come to their own conclusions about the products.
In 2018, Brooks appeared on ABC’s popular television program Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs pitch in front of a panel of investors, led by Mark Cuban. Just to get to that point might have been harder than even getting into Princeton. After the break, he’ll tell us about it.
Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. When we left off, Brooks was about to pitch to the sharks on Shark Tank, but just getting into the TV studio was a very uncertain process.
Every year, every season, there's about 90 companies that get on the Shark Tank. So they'll do about 25 episodes, sometimes it's about 20 episodes. And they usually have three to four companies per episode, right, little 10 minute segments. But they also have the press release and that says, that every year, there's somewhere between 35 and 55,000 people or companies that have applied to Shark Tank. So doing the math on that, it's about 20 times harder to get on the Shark Tank than it is to get into Princeton. Which Princeton is already very hard to get into. You know, people that apply to Princeton usually have a shot to get in, but it's sort of self selecting. But it's still it's still a pretty peculiar fact. The other thing, I think people don't sort of know about Shark Tank, which really how long the casting process for them to go from 35 to 55,000 applications each year, it's actually getting on the show, it takes, you know, six to nine months of casting. So you have to go through all of these different rounds and different steps, some of its written, some of it is video pitches. And then finally, they get to California, they have the pitch in front of them live and answer questions. And, you know, there's a lot that happens before you actually get onto the stage. But despite all of that sort of being such a fine-tuned machine, When you get out on stage, what you see is what you get.
However, Mark Cuban traditionally does not put dietary supplements on the show.
Basically, what ended up happening for us is Mark Cuban traditionally just hates dietary supplements. Because the truth is, in the dietary supplement industry, more stuff doesn't work than works. Right? And so Mark Cuban's point of view is, you know, we don't want to bring anything onto the show that could be deceptive towards consumers. Right? So if you actually watch the episode, that's why he's asking so many questions about science.
Originally, the producers didn't want to let me and Thrive+ on the show, because they're like, "Yeah, it's just going to make Mark Cuban mad, he's going to make it bad TV. So what I did is I actually wrote the producers this 15 page, back and forth Q&A. If Mark says this, I'll say that. Mark says this, I'll say this. Mark says that, I'll say that. At that point, I get this email back, talk to some of the producers, they bring me to California, they say, "In the history of Shark Tank, we've been doing this for 10 years now. And we have never seen somebody do what you just did. We would love to put you in the Tank and see what happens between you and Mark Cuban."
Brooks won Shark Tank’s producers over, and went on the show and pitched. In the end, Brooks made a valiant effort, but there was no deal. They did get a lot of exposure, which made a nice bump in their sales figures. And they are continuing to build and build.
You can read about Cheers’s alcohol health products, maybe buy some for yourself at cheershealth.com.
After the break, we’ll talk about the arts and entrepreneurship. You may be wondering: what do arts and entrepreneurship have to do with each other?
Creating art for public consumption is some of the most entrepreneurial and uncertain endeavors that you can undertake. We’ll meet an artist and founder who knows this intersection intimately well. She happens to also have both an MFA in dance from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and an MBA from Wharton, so she is uniquely positioned for this conversation.
Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. There are aspects that apply universally to entrepreneurial pursuits, whether your stage is attached to a microscope, or set under the bright lights of a theater. One of these aspects is how to thrive under uncertainty. Meet Pilar Castro-Kiltz.
Hi, my name is Pilar Castro-Kiltz, class of 2010. I am an artist and an entrepreneur.
WS: Elliot McGucken, also a Princeton alum – he says, “Every artist is an entrepreneur, and every entrepreneur is an artist.” How do you react to that statement?
I completely agree. I think that artists are entrepreneurs in the sense that they are creating something new. They are building out of nothing something whether that's a painting a poem, a piece of theatre, whatever it is, they're crafting something that didn't exist before. And there's uncertainty, there's danger, there's excitement. And I think that for entrepreneurs, they're just as creative as artists, I think that's the thing that brings the two of them together, is making something where there wasn't something before.
But the truth is, you know, the arts, a piece of art is a product, an individual is providing a service when they create an experience for others to consume, to change their minds to open their eyes. And as an artist, I think that I came to realize that the arts and business live together when I wanted to sell out the house, you know, I wanted there to be people to share my art with and I wanted to be creating a piece of theatre, that could bring people into a room who are from diverse backgrounds, from diverse experiences, and make a place for them to meet one another talk about something. And in order to do that, you have to market and you have to advertise, and you have to create something, that's appealing. Product market fit.
WS: Yes, product market fit. We talk about that a lot in tech entrepreneurship and other entrepreneurship. But it really matters for arts entrepreneurship too. Tell me more about that. What you think of when you say that?
Yes, when I think about product market fit in the arts. It's a word that's used in tech entrepreneurship, that in the arts, I think it's sometimes “community building”, bringing people – there other words for this idea of “make something that gets people to come out, buy a ticket and be a part of that.” And you know, when you look around a packed gallery of people loving a certain artist, no one says, “Wow, this is real product market fit.” But that's not the conversation. That's not the vocabulary that’s used. But that's what's happened. Someone has tapped into a need or a desire, and created something that meets that, which is what product market fit is.
WS: How would you characterize the uncertainty that you face, say running a dance production or putting on a show?
Wow, that's a big question. There are many stages of uncertainty in putting together a Dance Theatre production. So I was the executive artistic director of this Dance Theatre Company. And I wrote, directed, choreographed the productions, produced it. And the first stage of uncertainty is, “What are we going to make?” You know, it's sort of from the the internal mind of the artist. I would say like, the first question of uncertainty is getting the collaborators together? Is it how are we going to create a team that's going to bring this to fruition? And that's from composers, dancers, actors, musicians? There's the uncertainty of where we are going to put this up? Is there is there a channel that I can distribute this product to my eventual customers? And for many artists, that's about, you know, there's that difference between, I just keep thinking of like, you know, there's direct to consumer. If you're creating a digital product, you can get it right to people. But if you're creating a live piece of theatre and dance, you need a partner, you need a theater to say yes. We need enough funds to rent the theater. And sometimes the latter doesn't happen. So I think that there's uncertainty in are you putting together a team of people that are going to be able to collaborate effectively? There's uncertainty in in the people, are you going to be able to put together a team of collaborators of dancers, actors, musicians, you can pull this pull this off? There's even just the piece itself, it changes and it evolves as you're going. So sure, the piece of art you think you're making at the beginning? What goes on on stage is totally different. There's that there's also the uncertainty of, especially for one night only productions. Are people going to come? Are we going to sell enough tickets? Are people going to like it? I did one show that there's a fire on the F train. And five minutes before curtain, there wasn't a soul in the house. Even though we had almost sold out the tickets, there wasn't anybody there. And we realized, yeah, there's a fire in the subway. Sometimes there's a fire in the subway, and no one comes to the show. Luckily, they kept the house open. And we just started 30 minutes late. Everybody showed up. Late in the game. Which made the whole thing more fun, because it was a play about dating. So you know, that's uncertain.
WS: Sure. The most uncertain thing of all.
The most uncertain thing of all, will there be a subway fire? And will you find love?
WS: Yeah. So it’s the same question.
It’s the same question.
WS: It's the same thing.
It’s the same thing.
After putting on these various shows, Pilar identified something that didn’t exist in the market, that she wished she had. This is often the spark that turns an idea into an impact. After the break, she’ll take us through the founding of the Princeton Arts Alumni.
Welcome back to the Princeton Spark. Before the break, Pilar had talked about product market fit, and the stages of uncertainty in the arts. It’s always nice to lean on a network of mentors when faced with these uncertainties. Except...
I founded the Princeton arts alumni in 2013.
WS: Okay. And so what did you see out in the market that required the creation of this group?
It was actually the late Tim Vasen, who was then the director of the theater program at Princeton. I was at his New Year's Eve party. And I went up to him and I said, “Tim, I'm ready to talk to the arts mafia.” And he's like, “What's the arts mafia?” And I said, you know, “The Princeton arts mafia, just like, Princeton has this community of lawyers and bankers and doctors, you can call up and find mentorship. I've written the play, I'm ready to like, contact the people.” And he said, “There's no such thing. What are you talking about?"
WS: Is he like, sworn to silence though? Because it's the mafia?
Yeah, I know. Exactly.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I just said “It would be great. Like, I want to talk to people and tell them about my play, I want to get mentorship, I want to learn about it”. And I think I went on and on and on, as I sometimes can. And he said, “That sounds great. Do you want to start it?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You know, we can make this, that the university can give you funding for two years, kind of let you launch it, then you'll be financially independent. If it works, great. And if it doesn't, we’ll tell nobody. It will be our secret.” And so, you know, it's very grateful that when, when I approached him and said I think that I think we need a community of alumni to support each other, and to find mentorship and collaboration, find fans and funding and whatever that is, that that he and Michael Cadden were both very supportive of making that happen. So they sponsored two big parties in New York, two annual parties to kind of launch it to get the community together. And ever since then, we've been financially independent since 2015.
Having founded the Princeton Arts Alumni group, she then noticed another critical need in the arts market. The next year, she founded an arts consulting company. If this isn’t entrepreneurial, then there is no entrepreneurial.
So the company is called More Canvas Consulting. And it started in 2014, when I was working as a playwright, director, choreographer, artist in New York, and I wanted somebody who could run the business side of the art, somebody who could take care of some of those day-to-day administrative issues, and also answer the big questions that I didn't know, in terms of strategy and marketing and growth. So I could focus on the art. And I asked around, and no one knew of a company who would do that for individual artists and small companies. Many people are familiar with management consultants. McKinsey. Bain. BCG. The big ones. But someone who is familiar with the arts and who could be nimble and affordable. And what I didn't find one, I decided to start it. And yeah, I think that More Canvas, really what we do is we take care of the administrative, so our clients can focus on the creative.
In our show notes for this episode at princetonspark.com, you can find links to More Canvas Consulting and Princeton Arts Alumni.
In our next episode, we will talk about persisting through failure. We will resume our conversation with Pilar, and also with Vaidhy Murti, whom we talked to in the first episode of the Princeton Spark.
But before that, we will talk to Stuart Ahlum, co-founder of sustainable sneaker company Thousand Fell. His first sneaker company ended without making as big as an impact as he had hoped. But in this venture, he hopes his newest line of sneakers has as little impact as possible. Download the next episode of the Princeton Spark, and you’ll find out what I mean.
Many thanks to Brooks Powell and Pilar Castro-Kiltz.
The Princeton Spark is a production of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council.
Engineered by Dan Kearns and Dan Quiyu at the Princeton Broadcast Center and produced by me, Wright Seneres.
Music for this episode is by me, Wright Seneres. Our theme music is by the Treadmills.
Special thanks to Rose Kelly, David Hopkins, Elio Lleo, Tiger Gao, Margaret Koval, Beth Jarvie, Kristin Haraldsdottir, Daniella DeLorenzo, Megan Donahey, Josh Carter, Morgan Spencer, and the whole Princeton Entrepreneurship Council team, which is Anne-Marie Maman, Don Seitz, Lauren Bender, Diane DeLorenzo, Neal Bituin, and me, Wright Seneres.
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