As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Bota.
Entrepreneur Adrian Bota is the co-founder and CEO of Origin Milk. Adrian is committed to leading the shift away from“big dairy, ” which is reliant on legacy cows, to a regenerative, organic, always local model of “clean dairy.”
Adrian’s roots in farming go back to his father working on a farm in Romania. Adrian’s parents and four siblings escaped from Romania right before the fall of Communism, immigrating to the U.S. and arriving in Cleveland in 1991. While Adrian’s father imagined his children would seek careers in medicine or law, Adrian drew on his background in business and health to enter the farming industry.
Prior to launching Origin, Adrian began his career in business and health, helping to define Pfizer Pharmaceuticals’ approach to the changing healthcare marketplace in the U.S. He also worked at Cleveland Clinic Innovations Group to manage new ventures in healthcare technology, genetics, and health and wellness.
Led by his passion for nutrition and innovation, coupled with searching for the best options in nutrition for his new child, Adrian embarked on the journey of utilizing his background in the pharma/biotech sector to rethink human nutrition from the ground up. In 2015, Adrian shifted from biotech and pharma to wholesome, nature-led nutrition. Adrian established Origin, a trailblazing regenerative A2 Guernsey dairy brand. Adrian founded Origin in Cleveland, Ohio, first partnering with small farmers in Ohio. He has since grown the operation, partnering with small, family-owned farms in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Adrian Bota’s deep expertise in product development and knowledge of emerging consumer demands has led Origin to expand its portfolio into multiple verticals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Iwas born and raised in Communist Romania during the 1980s. I came in as the fourth of five kids and my parents were interested in providing a better life for their kids somewhere in the West, eventually hoping to make their way to America. However, Romania was completely closed, and there was no way out. In 1988 when my mom was pregnant with the fifth child, Anamaria, the Romanian government finally relented and allowed her to immigrate to the U.S. on a 30-day visitors visa on the condition that Anamaria be held back, as collateral, assuring my mom‘s return to Romania. After my mom arrived stateside, my father had a conversation with her letting her know that he’s going to bring the kids to her in America.
She nearly had a heart attack, knowing that he was bold enough to try to escape the country with five children. No one had ever done this in Romania’s history. Soon thereafter, and several weeks of us kids being kept in hiding in a small village, my father shows up and tells us all to put as many layers of clothing on as possible telling us we’re going to go on a hiking trip so no talking, sneezing, coughing or noise of any kind or else an avalanche would come. We crossed into Hungary that night and turned ourselves over to the authorities there. We were sent to a refugee camp, but before making our way there, my father snuck us away. On a very rainy fall Friday night, we showed up at the American Embassy in Budapest trying to explain our story to two Marines at the gate.
The gates eventually opened with American officials welcoming us into the embassy. They were somewhat expecting us to arrive as they informed my dad that they heard chatter over the wires of Romanian authorities trying to track down a large family who had potentially escaped. There we were. They couldn’t do much for us except help us to get to Austria — the free West where we could then eventually make our way to America to be reunited with our mother. The U.S. government helped make arrangements for us to be smuggled into Austria. Unfortunately, the first time around, we got caught and the entire family spent some time in an Hungarian prison. The two girls, Anca and Anamaria, got the cot and the boys were on the floor. We went back to refugee camps and had another unsuccessful attempt, which almost led to us getting captured for a second time. Finally, through an amazing set of circumstances and a complete side story of its own, we made it safely into Austria on November 14, 1989, Anamaria‘s first birthday and the beginning of the end for communism in Eastern Europe as the Berlin Wall was beginning to crumble. After almost two years in refugee camps (a whole other story) in Austria, we were finally reunited with our mom in America. There’s a bit more to my childhood backstory but that’s a pretty annotated summary.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
The aha moment for us as co-founders was when we understood two things: 1. that dairy is the basis for much of the nutrition in the world, but it is an absolutely broken system in dire need of a complete paradigm shift AND 2. that one breed, namely the Guernsey breed, produces dairy that is genetically the same as mothers milk, nutritionally superior to all other breeds, better tasting, more sustainable and inherently better for the planet. Understanding all of this was the “ah ha” moment that told us we needed to look at dairy in a completely different way. ORIGIN is really about elevating the role of the dairy farmer to farmer-physician, regenerative a2 dairy as food as medicine, and looking at a sustainable, living ecosystem. If done right, it can help heal the planet, human health, and bring back balance to all the interconnected systems. We have always been ethos-driven and it has been about the movement and the story as opposed to just starting a brand and selling some products.
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?
There are a lot of funny stories about taking this dude (me) whose background is in Pfizer pharmaceuticals, The Cleveland Clinic, Wall Street and corporate America and smashing this with dairy farmers from around the country. This dynamic translates into many many funny and cringe-worthy moments. Needless to say, mistakes still abound. One very interesting and absolutely cringe moment was when I was on a panel presenting ORIGIN to a large group of dairy farmers at a national dairy conference and I presented a two-minute video highlighting ORIGIN. The video featured an Amish farmer milking by hand and talking about going back to nature, not using chemicals, etc and the ENTIRE audience, several hundred farmers just shook their heads. Turns out that they were ALL conventional farmers and they just were not having it — they weren’t into discussions of regenerative practices, using tinctures instead of antibiotics, biodiversity of soil, heritage breeds, etc. During the Q&A follow-up, hands went up and one representative farmer said “Adrian, if what you are talking about is true and that is where dairy farming is going, then we are all going to be out of business!” When the organizers tallied the four days worth of feedback and comment cards for all of the presentations and break-outs, they told us that our panel discussion and presentation garnered the most comments — mostly negative ones. The organizers thanked us and gave us positive feedback and invited us back the following year.
What I’ve learned along the way is to absolutely value those around me, especially those people in the regenerative community, more than I value myself. Humans have infinite value in the eyes of their creator, and we often forget that or gloss over it. We tend to let our own pride shine and bring the spotlight on us when we would do so much better to learn from others and humbly be teachable at every level.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Most common mistakes:
- Accepting the current paradigm and not pushing back against large producers, farmers, distributors, stores, buyers, all others up and down the chain
- Not fully starting with the end in mind, which is the customer and what she wants
- Overly branding and overly packaging in a way that seems like you’re trying to compensate for something like lack of true differentiation in quality or lack of a story
- Food startups can fall into the trap of just making minor tweaks here and there without truly being innovative and just having some marginal improvement on a previous product
- Not fully being engaged from the ground level, including with farmers to help build that living ecosystem and that network from the ground up.
- Being too far out in terms of ethos/change than the customer and not being close enough to where the consumer is currently. You want to help the consumer move along that continuum if they are perhaps not where you’d like them to be
To avoid these errors, start with the end in mind and keep the customer first and foremost, do something truly innovative and push the envelope, get your hands dirty on the ground understanding the entire ecosystem from the soil to the next step, learn about every little intricate detail of what is happening, push people into uncomfortable positions, and craft deals/relationships that push boundaries and are truly innovative
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
First, identify your idea/product’s true innovation, sustainable competitive advantage, or any other truly distinct features and then make sure you can build a differentiated platform off of this idea/product.
Make sure that two things are true: 1) that your idea/product is truly best-in-class and 2) that there is a captivating and compelling story behind it. True brands don’t simply sell products but rather a story or perhaps an “image” in certain categories. Focus on storytelling, speaking to or leading a movement, and engaging people (not just customers) with your story/message and sales will come. Whatever product you are considering, look at it upside down, left and right in every direction and every angle possible and ask questions that no one else is asking. Then, get on the ground and meet everyone involved in the production of that product. Reverse engineer it to every single tiny ingredient or every ancillary thing and understand it intimately. Go back in history and understand how perhaps something like this was done completely differently in the past. Ask all the questions around why things are being done in the way that they are in this category today and challenge every single assumption. Get ready to hear a bunch of “NOs” and “that can’t be done… it’s never been done”. I guarantee you, other than some very very small exceptions, 99% of the time when someone tells you that can’t be done or it hasn’t been done before or it’s impossible, it is absolutely doable and likely worthwhile.
Perhaps most importantly, consider the following two things: is your product of superior quality and markedly better than anything else available? And two, is your product backed by a unique and captivating story? These are the two main components as far as I’m concerned. Now the only thing left to do is to get that message out to consumers, and you have a sustainable business with truly sustainable competitive advantages.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Are you struggling to take a good idea into an actual business because you have a full-time job and cannot commit the adequate amount of time? Are you struggling because you don’t know what initial steps to take or because you don’t have the money? Are you struggling with taking your idea and turning it into an actual business because they are artisans, scientists, etc. and simply don’t know the basics principles of business?
What I can say is that regardless of the hurdles or barriers, tenacity and grit are key to starting and growing a business. Just having the stomach to bear risk and the unknown is such a large part of the startup world.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I would advise entrepreneurs to delay hiring consultants for as long as possible. Do everything you possibly can, especially early on, to work within your network and to use your position as a new entrepreneur just trying to figure things out (and therefore getting a lot of free insight/consulting/help) as that is a good asset early on. If you’ve got something technical that requires consultants, go for it without hesitation.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
In my mind that all depends on your ultimate goals for your business, goals for yourself AND the type of product/product category. If you have a very long-term goal of starting, growing, and managing a business for the long term, then bootstrap for as long as you can or bootstrap it all the way. Conversely, if you are more of a risk taker, but not necessarily a manager, and you don’t see yourself at the helm of this venture for 10, 20, or 30 years, then bringing in venture-capital early on to grow it quickly and get it to scale is probably a better option than bootstrapping. Again, it depends on the type of business and the goals you have for the business as well as your personal goals and future plans.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
If you’re going to file a patent, then absolutely make sure you hire an attorney. I’ve learned on many different occasions that even very simple legal review work for a contract or anything that requires a signature, it’s a good idea to have an attorney look at it first. The best advice I can give anyone about raw ingredients is get to know the producers intimately. Try to create your own ingredients platform if at all possible. Do not settle for simply sourcing raw ingredients, but rather look at the people who produce those raw ingredients as your true partners and know them, partner with them, fund them, help them in any way you can. As your true partners continue to ask the question “how can I make things markedly better for these partners than what is currently accepted in the market?“ When it comes to distributors and retailers, if you have a product that is superior in quality and is backed by a captivating and engaging story, distributors and retailers will be easy to lock down. Pick up the phone and share your story directly in a passionate and captivating way and people will listen.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A superior-quality, differentiated product. This is food we are talking about so quality and taste are paramount. We looked to take a deep dive into dairy to understand that different breeds produce different levels of quality of milk. We found the breed that produces the highest quality milk (defined officially by components such as fat, protein, vitamins, etc.) and had the “innovative” idea of separating those cows from all others and focusing on superior quality dairy products, sourced from the premium heritage breed. Make it first and foremost about quality and building a name around superior-quality, just like some of the premiere food names or certifications that often come to mind i.e. Certified Black Angus Steaks, wild-caught Salmon, etc.
- A uniquely compelling and captivating story. Many companies have a superior quality product. Many companies have a really cool story. Few companies or products get to have both. In today’s world, having a great story behind your food brand really connects with foodie culture and is essential to your launch and to building lasting success. People want to know the origin story or the backstory of what they are eating. For us, it’s the famed Guernsey cow which was found on the legendary and mysterious Isle of Guernsey in English Channel between France and England. In 962, a group of monks decided to build a monastery, and they kept to themselves until the 1800s. Word spread throughout the 1800s of the golden “milk of the gods”, the golden-hued milk of the Isle of Guernsey. Like so many other things that are now ubiquitous, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts had to have this milk for themselves so they brought in cows from the island and started a vanity herd of Guernsey cows in upstate New York and that’s how Guernseys made it to the U.S.
- More than just a product or a brand but rather a movement-driven, differentiated platform. It’s just so much better, easier, happier over the long term (not at first) to build your company around a movement — to really be ethos driven and to connect on that level with consumers. Build a platform that can be the basis for multiple products in different categories. A good example might be CAULIPOWER where they are using cauliflower as the base for pizza, rice and a myriad of other products. They created a platform and built multiple verticals off of that platform to cater to different demographics and sub-categories, all built on one foundation. Many of these companies have built a platform and can then produce different products in different categories based on that platform. This helps make a larger impact, build brand equity with multiple categories and customer demographics, and gives you more messaging power.
- A strong stomach for risk and persistence when hearing the words “NO” and “THAT CAN’T BE DONE, IT’S NEVER BEEN DONE” over and over again.
- Dedicated partners throughout the ecosystem who are as ethos driven and passionate as you. You can do it alone, and you don’t want to. Build community and true partnerships with others and you can do infinitely more than you first thought.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I think it comes back to the following:
- Have a captivating and compelling story. Dig deep around your products’ origin story or the way it’s farmed, produced or processed; its unique characteristics, features, affect on people/cultures or affect on the environment. People love stories, and they especially love the back stories to the food they eat and feed their families.
- Make sure you are movement and ethos-driven: does your product make people want to eat it or use it because it means more to them than just your product? Does it inspire them or allow them to truly feel like they are doing something impactful and are part of a movement?
- Focus on quality and ask the question “Is the product noticeably better/higher quality than anything else?” Quality parameters will vary based on category so really dig deep to understand this
- Become a consumer education expert. If you’re doing something unique and superior, you will likely have to educate consumers and done the right way, this can be an awesome opportunity to turn a hurdle into a platform for engaging with customers
- Turn your customers into evangelists because they are crazy about the quality, captivated by the story, empowered by the education and thrilled to be part of a movement that is making a difference, and not just a customer.
- We are talking about food so make sure that it tastes REALLY great and discernibly better than your competition.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We have been focused on doing good first and foremost from day one. The mere fact that we only utilize A2 Guernsey nutrition means that we are making the food we eat every day — from milk to butter and cheese and all the way to nutritional products for children and adults. The products are more nutrient dense and rich than any other dairy-based food or nutrition products. Inherent to using heritage a2 Guernsey Cow Association is the fact that we are bringing much-needed biodiversity back to dairy given that 96–98% of all dairy in America comes from modified, black and white Holstein cows that have essentially been turned into unnatural milk factories. Heritage breeds are also inherently more sustainable and better for our planet as Guernsey cows drink and eat 20–30% less food and water, compared with production Holstein breeds. This helps conserve precious resources, such as water, and puts fewer methane emissions into the atmosphere.
From our founding, one of our core principles was to pay close attention to our farmer physicians as we truly see our products as food is medicine and so much more than just dairy. Therefore, we honor our partner farmers by paying between 50% and 100% more for their milk. We look at our work as being regenerative all around: we want to regenerate the soil, we want to regenerate biodiversity, we want to regenerate nutrition, and we want to regenerate the financial outcomes of farmers and elevate each one of these components of the living ecosystem that we touch. Done well, wisely and correctly in balance, we make the world a better place.
You are an 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.
This might sound self-serving but I absolutely believe that addressing the general problem of NUTRITION — with its two main drivers of malnutrition for those who do not have access to food and malnutrition/poor nutrition choices for those who have abundant access to food — would change the world. Think about it: developing nations have the problem of a lack of food or nutrient-poor foods, a lack of bio and nutrient diversity and people subsist on very little. This causes hunger and myriad healthcare problems, stunted growth, and ultimately death for many around the world.
On the flip side, in the developed world, you have a nutrition problem that’s at the opposite side of the spectrum with unlimited access to all kinds of food and still people making poor food decisions/eating horribly. This is absolutely at the core of poor health outcomes, the leading factor in healthcare costs, disease, and, ultimately, death. The common denominator? Nutrition — the right nutrition getting to the right people in the right proportions.
Doing nutrition right will help both developing and developed countries, eliminate waste, reduce pollution, decrease healthcare costs, decrease deforestation, boost rural communities, reallocate resources, and so much more.
If you solve the nutrition problem of developed countries, then you allow people to move beyond daily food-seeking activities and into education, jobs, and opportunities to flourish. If you solve the nutrition problems of the developed world you greatly reduce waste and pollution, decrease healthcare costs tremendously, decrease deforestation and the myriad ecological issues caused by aggressive, factory-style over farming, boost rural communities and reallocate resources.
We are very blessed that 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The guys from the All In podcast — Jason Calacanis, Chamath Palihapitiya, David Sacks and David Friedberg. These guys are bright, they have solid startup and VC/investing chops, care deeply about founders, and they have a very pragmatic and realistic approach to problem solving for policy, society, education, etc. Lunch with them would be very interesting, educational, fun and just overall engaging.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About The Interviewer: Vicky Colas, Chef Vicky, is an award-winning chef in the Caribbean food arena. In 2012, Chef Vicky was awarded a silver medal for Caribbean Chef of The Year at the Taste of the Islands completion hosted by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. She was called to represent her country and be a part of the Culinary Team Haiti as a Culinary Chef Ambassador competing with 10 other Caribbean nations. The team was also awarded a silver medal for the Caribbean Team of the Year and received an Award for “Best Team for Taste of the Islands”. A published nutrition researcher, her study was selected in 2013 in the International Journal of Child Nutrition. Her recipe and interview have been featured in Essence Magazine online, Island Origin, and most recently the cookbook Toques in Black: A Celebration of 101 Black Chefs in America. In 2019, she was nominated in the “40 under 40” class of Legacy Magazine as one of South Florida’s “Black Leaders of Today and Tomorrow”.
Most recently, Chef Vicky was selected as one of twenty women candidates awarded for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Women Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) fellowship and is also part of a selective group of talented Chefs in the James Beard Foundation local food advocacy training programs. She is a wife, a proud mother of 3 boys, a business, and a food influencer in her community. Chef Vicky has been featured in her local news stations such as WSVN CH 7, Deco Drive, WPLG Local 10 News, 6 on the mix CH 6 and Good Morning Miramar.
Vicky is also a subject matter expert in the Hospitality, Culinary Arts, Restaurant Management, and Public Health (Dietetics and Nutrition) arena. She is a graduate of Florida International University (FIU) and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.