Making a Splash in Alt-Protein
Episode 75
October 12, 2021

Making a Splash in Alt-Protein

with Jacek Prus is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kuleana

Jacek Prus is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kuleana. Based in San Francisco, Kuleana is a food technology company with a mission to recreate nutrient-rich, tasty, and sustainable seafood from plants starting with raw tuna. In this episode, Jacek shares with us his journey from growing up in Houston, Texas, with aspirations to become an astronaut, to studying entrepreneurship at Acton, to working at a plant-based incubator in Berlin, to starting Kuleana after watching the Earthlings documentary. He talks with us about the seasonality of fundraising and what it was like to go through a thousand iterations and tastings of raw tuna before landing on the perfect one.

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In This Episode You’ll Hear About:

  • Why he became passionate about alternative protein and animal rights while in college 
  • How his time at Acton School of Business helped him learn a lot of what he needed to know about entrepreneurship and how he started an internship with ProVeg Incubator in Berlin, Germany
  • What led to the idea of a seafood alternative, specifically raw tuna substitute, and what the iteration process was like at the beginning 
  • What fundraising has been like for Jacek and his team, and what they have learned throughout the process
  • Why Jacek believes that making alternative proteins is not just about making a product “like” something, but actually better than that something and why the possibilities are more exciting that way
  • What strategies he has found helpful when hiring and ways he has been intentional about building a solid team at Kuleana
  • What he learned from hard times, how he has overcome them, and why his passion for the mission continues to drive him through any pain and struggle
  • What advice he has for other Founders and what is next and exciting for Kuleana

To Find Out More:


“Going for raw tuna, I was like, ok, we'll have to actually innovate on the process to create products, and I thought that was just really, really exciting for me.”

“Investing, in a very large sense, is a game of momentum.”

“We can be something similar to, but also better than a product.”

“It's a little bit of this fun game in food like innovating and making things better than, and at the same time, people like somewhat of familiarity with food. And I think that's what a lot of companies and Founders are trying to reconcile in the alternative protein space is how do you make it familiar, but you want to make it better?”

“When it comes to hiring, it should kind of take a while. And if it's not, then maybe draw that process out just because obviously those are the people who really build that company. You only do so much. You do a lot as a founder, but it's really that initial group of people who multiply that impact.”

“When people believe in it, they just work harder. They stick through the pain. So try to unravel that and identify whether somebody really cares about that mission”

“It felt like something that needs to be done, and then it becomes a lot less about you. That's really, really cool because your pain then matters less. And when your pain matters less, you become more pain tolerant.”

“If you look at professional athletes they have coaches, multiple coaches, right? It's like, why aren't professional business people having coaches? We should all have them.”

“The reality is you start to recognize that if you don't prioritize your sleep and those other things, your work quality just drops tremendously and you make more mistakes.”

“Some of the best advice I ever heard was, "Just do what excites you.’"

“Sometimes as an entrepreneur, we feel like we have to invent everything, but it's a lot of times the best things are just small improvements and small iterations, or merging of multiple ideas and not feeling bad about that. But I think copy and paste is really underrated.”

Lee: [00:00:03] Welcome to episode 75 of the Stairway to CEO podcast. I'm your host, Lee Greene, and today I spoke with Jacek Prus, the Co-Founder and CEO of Kuleana. Based in San Francisco, Kuleana is a food technology company with a mission to recreate nutrient rich, tasty, and sustainable seafood from plants starting with raw tuna. In this episode, Jacek shares with us his journey from growing up in Houston, Texas, with aspirations to become an astronaut, to studying entrepreneurship at Acton, to working at a plant based incubator in Berlin, to starting Kuleana after watching the Earthlings documentary. He talks with us about the seasonality of fundraising and what it was like to go through a thousand iterations and tastings of raw tuna before landing on the perfect one. If you like what you're hearing on the Stairway to CEO podcast, don't forget to click subscribe. Or you can text me at 310.510.6044 to enter to win free products and get special discounts from some of your favorite brands. They're my favorite, too, so shoot me a text, say hi, or tell me your favorite brand and we'll try to hook you up. I'm so excited to hear from you, and I hope you enjoy this episode.

Lee: [00:02:08] Jacek, thank you so much for being on the show today. I'm really excited to hear your story in building Kuleana. Thanks for joining us.

Jacek: [00:02:15] Thanks, Lee. Excited to be here and tell you all about it.

Lee: [00:02:19] Definitely. So you are from Texas. You grew up as a meat eater and now you started this plant based company. Tell me about a little bit about your background growing up and how did you turn plant based?

Jacek: [00:02:33] Yeah, it was definitely not the Orthodox journey, I'll say. I remember I was just turning twenty one and instead of going on a college rampage and getting drunk like most people do when they turned twenty one, I actually saw some documentaries and one of them was called Earthlings, and it just showed me the inside of a factory farm. And it's one of the most difficult things I think I've ever sat through, but it was really profound. I just kind of got struck by it to see this was happening on such a large level, and it's like the worst horror movie you see, because it's real and it's happening.

Lee: [00:03:14] Yeah.

Jacek: [00:03:14] Billions of lives continuously. And that's what really set me and kind of shook me.

Lee: [00:03:22] So I find it interesting because we people are like, "Oh yeah, there's billions of animals, but there's so many. That's why they need to die." And you're like, Wait a minute. But we're the ones like making them reproduce at such an incredible speed and level that that's why there's billions. Because we're eating that much. That's why.

Jacek: [00:03:39] Yeah.

Lee: [00:03:40] And with these movies, I'm the same. You know, these documentaries are pretty tough to watch sometimes, but I've always kind of taken the perspective of, I'd rather be knowing what's going on, than kind of blind and ignorant to what's happening in the world. But I understand also it's really hard to watch, especially abuse in a movie. I don't know, what do you say to the people that kind of turn a blind eye? You know, I feel like I've had conversations before and they're like, "I can't. Oh, yeah, yeah, I can't watch that." And you're like, "Well, okay, well," it's kind of like, "You want to live in the dark? Ok."

Jacek: [00:04:15] Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it's a good good, good point and question. I used to try to get people to watch it all the time. I think I pivoted away from that myself just because you can show people what it's like behind the curtain and statistically, if you appeal to morality two percent of people actually will change their behavior.

Lee: [00:04:45] Wow.

Jacek: [00:04:46] A little like depressing. But it's also like, that's the curtain behind humanity. That's like a decision making process, then the strategy in which we want to implement change has to change too. And so I used to, you know, go around and like, really talk to people to show those documentaries. And I think Cowspiracy was another good one that was less based on suffering,  but just how animal agriculture is incredibly wasteful and the environmental impact that has. But, you know, after doing that, I did that at Texas for like a year and a half, being an animal rights activist, being all over that stuff. And I realized the hit rate was really low. Most people just didn't change their behavior. And so that's kind of why when people say they don't want to know, I just I kind of get it and I don't use that strategy anymore, though I think there needs to be people out there doing that because those people are the people who changed my mind. But for the 98 percent of other people, you know, we kind of have to think about what really changes behavior is usually things that appeal more to the self, and that's things like convenience and with food specifically, taste. Something has to just taste awesome. I'm going on a little bit of a tirade here.

Lee: [00:06:04] No, it's good. It's good. I didn't know that two percent stat. That's really interesting. That explains a lot. Yeah. So I guess a little bit about your childhood real quick. Were you entrepreneurial as a kid?

Jacek: [00:06:19] I don't know, a little bit. Like I definitely swung at a few things from like 16 to 20. I had a bunch of different ideas of companies I wanted to start. I think some of them were like one was like a lawn mowing company. Another one was a composting company. I remember I wanted to start a bar in college and I was like, "Wow, this is like..."

Lee: [00:06:40] The best job ever.

Jacek: [00:06:42] Yeah, it would have been so cool. But to be honest, I think I just wasn't passionate enough about any of those things to actually put in the hard work. So yeah, it was more of kind of just a fun thing that I wanted to get into, but I never did.

Lee: [00:06:57] Yeah. So what did you want to be when you grew up?

Jacek: [00:07:01] Oh, yeah, it depends. I think when, you know, classic, when you're a kid being an astronaut. I think that was definitely on the top of the list.

Lee: [00:07:08] Is that a classic, really? I never thought about that one. I was like, I'm good. I don't need to go up there.

Jacek: [00:07:13] Come on. I thought, like, everybody wanted to do that. Yeah, that was definitely out there for a while. But then I was like, oh, that's all I don't know. You really don't even spend that much time at space. And like, if you're lucky, you just get out to orbit, you're not even going to get to the Moon. It's not like Star Trek or any of the games I played as a kid, so I was like, well, maybe that's not as cool as I thought.

Lee: [00:07:34] The games inspired you wanting to be an astronaut?

Jacek: [00:07:37] Yeah, I think so. So I also grew up in Houston. I grew up right by NASA, which was really cool.

Lee: [00:07:43] Oh that explains it.

Jacek: [00:07:43] Our neighborhood literally had people who were on like the cutting edge of where humanity is reached. You know, we're like right on the edge. It was so cool. I think that was really inspiring. I think I also like, grew up with an older brother and we really I remember reading Dune at the age of like nine or 10. I know they're coming out with that movie soon, so everyone's getting into that. But just the concepts of like how vast the universe is and how much there is to see were really, really fun and inspiring for me. So, yeah, kind of funny started that way. Now I'm working on stuff that's very earthly. Food.

Lee: [00:08:21] Yeah, I can't wait to hear what your story is and how you came up with the idea. I know that you attended Acton School of Business. I actually heard a lot about that. I had a previous episode. I think it's episode 20 with Adelle Archer from Eterneva.

Jacek: [00:08:35] Oh. Good.

Lee: [00:08:36] Yeah, she went to Acton and told me all about it. It's pretty incredible. I didn't know about the experience. So for those listening, if you want to know about Acton, tune into that episode. But so I know you got your Master's of Business there. What kind of happened from there and how did you start Kuleana?

Jacek: [00:08:56] Yeah. Well, so I went to Acton. Just an additional shout out because it's so awesome. I went there. I didn't even want to go to school any further after my undergrad, but specifically to start a company in alternative protein. And so I was like, ok, if I need to learn entrepreneurship that program was really good for it. But anyways, afterwards, I knew I wanted to be an alt protein, and I wanted to still start a company. I was looking at starting like a chicken nugget company at the time. I think it was 2017. It was, you know, I didn't really have the network or the industry knowledge, so it was really difficult. I was kind of operating in a silo in some regard in Texas, and I had applied to one job. It was in the alternative protein space, and I was confident I was going to get it. I knew everyone at the organization. I did not. There was a really good other candidate who's now a friend of mine who got that job. So I ended up working construction and delivering food for seven months with an MBA, which was very humbling, very humbling, but really a cool experience. And I got kind of lucky. I went to a conference in Washington, DC. It was an animal rights conference. I met some really, really cool people there. And specifically, Leah from ProVeg Incubator. She told me about this organization called ProVeg. And there she was, like, "Hey, we are combining business and animal rights." And I was like, "That's right up my alley." And after that, I went to Germany to go do an internship there, which was pretty weird because I sold like all the stuff I had, which wasn't much. It was like a truck and a motorcycle, and I packed up my suitcases, went for that internship over in Berlin. And again, I got really lucky because as I got there, they just secured some funding to create an accelerator for alternative protein companies.

Lee: [00:11:03] Pretty good timing.

Jacek: [00:11:04] Yeah, it was really, really lucky. And Acton was a school for entrepreneurs. That was kind of what the accelerator was supposed to be, right? Like, that's like we were designing it to support entrepreneurs. So I kind of pushed to help start that, you know, start that program up. And I got lucky because I had some friends in ProVeg, and they were like, "Hey, this guys should do it." And yeah, I got to do that full time. I was the first full time member for that part of the company, and I learned a ton. It was really cool. It's like building a mini Acton, except I had way less experience. So yeah, pretty tough, but it was really fun.

Lee: [00:11:49] That's awesome, so you were working at ProVeg Incubator and did you get the idea for the company there?

Jacek: [00:11:58] Yeah. So Kuleana. I had the idea. I think it was about after a year and a half of working at ProVeg that I had the idea for Kuleana. And it was really just seeing like alternative protein had not really done so much in seafood at the time. Actually, I have to credit that to my ex girlfriend. So she's the one who said, "Hey, like, check out seafood," and I was like, "Hey, that's a really good point. Seafood isn't targeted very well."

Lee: [00:12:31] Yeah. Well, and now the movie Seaspiracy is out on Netflix, which I've seen, which is like, whoa. It's like you know that it's bad and until you see this and you're like, wow, it's actually really bad. So your ex-girlfriend kind of brought this idea to you. And then you were like, "Actually, you're right. Let me dive into this." What were some of the first steps that you did to kind of validate that this is really what you wanted to pursue and that there was a market for it?

Jacek: [00:13:00] Yeah. So I'm kind of fortunate because there's a good organization called Good Food Institute, and they published some cool stuff. And one of it, I think I still remember the paper name was like "Ocean of Opportunity," and it talked about how seafood was neglected. It's obviously a huge food category. And what I really got from that too was they also broke down the different kind of strategies you could use about what products to target. And they said, "Hey, why not go for like high priced items within food service? Because there you can kind of have some better unit economics." And I thought that was really inspiring because then I was like, ok, you know what? I think tuna was the one that really stuck out, like tuna was a product that you could sell for a relatively high price. And so the business model kind of made sense in my mind, but it was also really cool because I knew I wanted to work on a company in which we would innovate the technology around creating food products. And what I mean by that is like targeting raw tuna was really kind of a cool product to go after because most alternative meat products are created through the process of extrusion or high moisture extrusion. There's other subsets of that, or there's...cells and power heaters kind of things that have some similar technology, but all of those create like cooked meat products. So we're [00:14:32] going for raw tuna. I was like, ok, we'll have to actually innovate on the process to create products, and I thought that was just really, really exciting for me. [00:14:42] Sometimes I wish I was like a scientist because I think that stuff is like the coolest work.

Lee: [00:14:46] Ok, so you have this idea, you're like, I'm definitely going to go after raw tuna. Going through that product development phase must be pretty intense. Can you kind of talk about what that's been like through product development?

Jacek: [00:15:00] Yeah, that's a lot of fun. Yeah, it was pretty... That was a lot. We actually tried a lot of different methods at the beginning. I remember at first we thought of thinking, like, can you take like high protein algae and these different things and like, you know, just maybe run it on extrusion or some format of extrusion that might not use as much heat? And then another concept we had at the time was like more similar to what some of Ocean Hugger, one of the first companies that did like a tuna substitute. They did it with tomatoes. We thought, maybe could we do it with like beets or something? So we were just trying everything. We were trying all these different ideas. And yeah, that product development process was interesting because we had gone down two ways and one was this like, you know, almost like Clif Bar looking high protein, but like, frankly, really bad tasting like algae bar. And the other was this beet root that was like somewhat treated, but just it was still vegetables like very much a kind of a vegan product. And we had some pretty cool people who are ready to back us after just a few months and they were like, "You guys are going to be our spearhead company of this new project. We just need you to pitch this one investor." And we flew to New York to the pitch to this investor, and we showed her these two products, and it just did not land at all. We were so unfocused. Like I remember had no money at the time because I was kind of working at a non profit and just total flop. And yeah, that was pretty tough.

Lee: [00:16:44] You mean flop from what perspective? Like all? Like the pitch was horrible and so was the product? Or just the product was really bad?

Jacek: [00:16:50] Think, yeah, I think a) I probably could have pitched better, and b) yeah, the product was kind of all over the place showing two different ideas there. It just really like identified how early stage we were and there were other challenges too around coordinating more of the meeting time. I think I just really also wasn't like I didn't know how to pitch properly so.

Lee: [00:17:17] Right.

Jacek: [00:17:18] Yeah. Overall, it was pretty tough, but that was really good because in that we kind of learned those two approaches weren't going to work for us, and we really pivoted to another one that we've been using for kind of our 1.0 products. Obviously, it's been refined a lot since then, but that was a good learning. It's painful, but necessary.

Lee: [00:17:44] So how many iterations have you had to go through to get to where you are now with your current product?

Jacek: [00:17:49] Yeah, we're actually finalizing our memo right now for our Series A raise, and I just saw it in there. I think it was over a thousand.

Lee: [00:18:02] A thousand iterations?

Jacek: [00:18:05] Yeah.

Lee: [00:18:06] Yeah, I think this is one thing people don't really think about. It's like, you launch, you're out there. Everyone's like, oh, it looks so great, but they don't even realize, wow, that took a thousand different iterations and tries and testing and taste testing. I mean, you must be exhausted from trying to taste different types of tuna, plant based tuna, right?

Jacek: [00:18:28] Yeah, I'm not eating that much Plant-Based tuna right now. I mean, I'm eating it all the time, but maybe I'm just not swallowing at this point. It's just kind of funny. It's like what you're supposed to do in a taste test. You're not supposed to swallow the product.

Lee: [00:18:43] Like wine.

Jacek: [00:18:43] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So, yeah, trying definitely a lot. But fortunately, that's more of my Co-Founder has done a lot more of the heavy lifting in product development. I've definitely been involved, but she's really, you know, with her background she's been a food technologist for like over 17 years, and she and the R&D team have been carrying it a lot more. I did a little bit more in the beginning, but now I kind of just do more of the talking.

Lee: [00:19:12] For the thousand over a thousand iterations, how long did that take? Are we talking like three years or what?

Jacek: [00:19:19] Yeah, I mean, so I would say we started in March of 2019. So what is that? Two years now? Two years and a couple of months?

Lee: [00:19:29] Not bad. I mean, I was like kind of expecting like five years. {laughter} To kind of do something like a raw tuna really good, I imagine takes a lot of time.

Speaker4: [00:19:41] Yeah, I think it's a good... So that's an interesting point you bring up because like if you look at Impossible Foods, it took them five years and about $80 million to create their first commercial product.

Lee: [00:19:50] Exactly.

Jacek: [00:19:51] Yeah. So yeah, I think we had a bit of help because the space has been evolving a little bit more, so we didn't have to start completely from the ground up. But yeah, it's usually that's one of the hardest parts about food is like creating good products, usually takes money, otherwise you're not really like.. It either takes money or you're really not innovating that much.

Lee: [00:20:14] Right.

Jacek: [00:20:16] Or you are just super smart. Sorry, I should not try to make it that black or white.

Lee: [00:20:21] I tend to do that. So don't worry about it. I tend to make things look black and white, I feel like, a lot. But in terms of fundraising. Talk to me about fundraising. How much have you raised so far and what has that process been like? I know you guys have investors like the Founder of Reddit. You were in Y Combinator. Maybe you can talk a little bit about your experience at YC and just fundraising in general.

Jacek: [00:20:45] Yeah, fundraising has been a really fun journey. So it started, I would say, the most with that trip I told you out in July, in 2019 in New York, which was again pretty big flop. So that sucked. But we, you know, that year we got a pretty good angel who they kind of believed in us. He was actually a mentor at the ProVeg incubator, so I'd built a relationship for a while. He kind of saw the work I did there. And through their group Good Seed Ventures, they gave us like a $25,000 check and that was like our first investment. And that was cool. We did it on a convertible note.

Lee: [00:21:26] Yeah.

Jacek: [00:21:27] He gave us enough like a little bit more money to do more prototypes. And with that, we were actually able to get a prototype that definitely was not a finished product, but it looked pretty good. And I remember we gave that prototype to a pretty kick ass like entrepreneur who then was investing in this space, and he was like, "Wow, this is good." And they offered us like, you know, a couple of hundred thousand dollars. We ended up not taking it because we think the model just wasn't the right fit. But they were really cool. And I think it could have gone that route and probably would have been accelerated with our company development. And we were just going to raise like priced round pretty aggressively. That was in December 2019. We totally screwed up there. We didn't know anything about the fact that like, hey, like people stop. Like they're doing the tail end of their investment rounds. What's interesting about VC fundraising is it has these like ebbs and flows and timings. You probably know this, but we didn't know that. And you know, we like started raising like beginning December.

Lee: [00:22:29] Oh God. Why don't we take a second to talk about that? Because that's really important. These ebbs and flows of like the best times to fundraise during the year. Can you kind of tell me how you see it? Because this isn't actually something we've kind of discussed specifically on the show. So I'd love to hear your take on it.

Jacek: [00:22:46] Sure. I am by no means an authority, but just from experience what I have seen is often like right now, like August, a lot of times kind of has this gap where a lot of VCs are taking breaks and then they start ramping up again in like early September, October, November, and then they're closing everything off, like early December. Mid December it's all closed and then they like reopen and reemerge, kind of like in January, mid January. It's kind of like vacation time. I think that's like what's going on there. And then I think from January on there or like a little bit later, I've seen a lot of them start reinvesting. And the thing is, it's weird. It's like there's no calendar anywhere talking about this. It's like hey, this is just kind of how it's moving and the feedback you get.

Lee: [00:23:29] Right. Yeah.

Jacek: [00:23:30] And yeah, besides that, I really, I really don't know. But that's what I've experienced. [00:23:36] There's definitely these like lulls and highs, and that is really important because a lot of investors are follows, like they don't lead rounds, and that means that investing, in a very large sense, is a game of momentum. [00:23:50]

Lee: [00:23:50] Yes, it is.

Jacek: [00:23:52] It's like a stock market. It's not always rational, like it's emotional, it's supply and demand. And investors are super smart people. It's just also that, like, investing is really hard and usually to do a very thorough diligence to understand if a company within its industry is going to succeed, is the time right, there are just so many variables that I think a lot of it's created this dynamic of momentum investing and usually there's this kind of like pointing or like waiting for an authority investor.

Lee: [00:24:24] Yeah, exactly. And yeah, right. So they all kind of join arms are like, "Well, if you do it, then I will," you know, it's kind of like they have their trusted kind of partners, right? You're exactly right with this kind of seasonality of fundraising. And it does affect the amount of time it will take you to close. If people are on vacation, it takes longer. And, you know, like you said towards the end of the year, they've kind of allocated all that year's funds by November, right? Or it's kind of the reverse could be helpful where they have to write the checks, they have to get them written before the end of the year. And so they're looking to invest actually quite a bit, but it's kind of more the latter. Because in my experience, what I've seen like the best times to fundraise are kind of January to June, like get your raise kind of closed before the summer or if you're going to raise again, like if you have to raise in September and you better hope you get closed by November, or like mid-October, preferably because it gets a little, I don't know, people go away for Thanksgiving. They go away for the holidays in December. I mean, December is not even like a work month, I feel like. What do people do in December?

Jacek: [00:25:33] Yeah, my birthday's in December. That's all. Oh yeah, Christmas. Oh yeah, New Year's. Yeah. Right. I know it's so true. That's funny. It's cool to hear from your perspective. Yeah, like summer. There's that summer lull, too. And yeah, back to that point, your trusted... That was really, I thought that was astute. Your trusted network. Actually humans make so many decisions that way.

Lee: [00:25:55] Oh yeah.

Jacek: [00:25:56] It's like hiring. It's like career choices. It's even like dating. Like so many things, it's like, who do you know and does somebody I know know you or trust you? Like, we're incredibly... I think that's like humanity's incredible tool is alliances and like knowledge through others. And I'm heavily a person like this. So I think it's quite reflective of us as human beings.

Lee: [00:26:22] It's like, we depend on our community.

Jacek: [00:26:24] Right? No person is an island.

Lee: [00:26:28] I know you guys are available in Erewhon. I haven't had a chance to go down there and check it out. I'm really bummed out that I didn't get a chance before called to do that. But where else can we find the product and tell us more about it?

Jacek: [00:26:44] Sure. Yeah. So we're in Erewhon, like you said. You can actually order it online through Erewhon, too. So but you're in San Francisco, is that right?

Lee: [00:26:53] Los Angeles.

Jacek: [00:26:54] Oh, wait, ok, well, then you can literally, yeah, you can just order it to your place, and you can also let us know. We literally have like a team now who's like sending product to people who want to try it. Yeah. So you can get it at Erewhon. There's also a Poké chain we've been launching with there, called Poké Bar. So we've been launching with them. We did like a nationwide launch, which has been really cool.

Lee: [00:27:16] Cool.

Jacek: [00:27:18] We actually have an eCommerce partner, and we plan to launch with them next month. So probably towards the tail end of next month, but that would be fun. That's going to be like a direct to consumer approach, which is not how we've started. So we've started food service. In Erewhon it's in the sushi counter. And this will be like a much less prepared version. And we want to use this kind of as like a place to get more feedback to see how does a product perform when it's not already prepared in a sushi roll or Poké Bowl.

Lee: [00:27:48] Right.

Jacek: [00:27:49] It also is a testing ground for retail products, so we have some pretty cool SKUs that we're excited to launch on there, too. Some of them are going to be like a marinated Poké cube, so somebody can just like open it and like pretty much eat it, after thawing of course, or like putting it into like a bowl. And another one would be like a smoked salmon product, so it will be cool.

Lee: [00:28:10] Nice. Smoked salmon. So how much does this product, this raw tuna product, actually taste like tuna? How close do you think you guys have gotten in terms of accuracy?

Jacek: [00:28:22] Yeah, yeah, that's a great question. So we kind of use the Impossible Foods approach, like they put it in a burger, right? So like, it works really well in like a Poké bowl and in a sushi roll. And usually like unless you're specifically looking for it, you can't really you can't tell in those formats. I think color wise, our color is a little two hued on the purple end right now. So we've actually rapidly changed that. So it's got a better color close to tuna. Yeah. And then I think, you know, if you're going to eat it like completely just by itself, you're going to still be able to tell a difference. But you know, it's a big part of its presentation and a big part of it is, are people looking for it? Because I actually had... This was funny. Last year, so the product was not even, you know, not nearly as good as it is now. I went to Dolores Park during the pandemic, and I went with a bunch of Poké cubes, and I put like a little bit of seasoning on them. And I went over to people and I was like, "Hey, we're a new tuna company. I want you to try our product." And I had my roommate recording these videos, and almost everyone was like, "Oh, this is good. Good product. Nice, nice." And I was like, "Yeah, what you think?" "Yeah, it's good. It's a good tuna." And then I was like, "Yeah, like, what if I told you it was plant based?" And then they were like, "Oh yeah, I mean, I guess I could tell now that I'm looking for it." So it's like, that's kind of a bit of, I think, a really good example of how it happens.

Lee: [00:29:55] That's funny. What percentage of the people thought it was real tuna?

Jacek: [00:30:00] Well, so I didn't ever really ask that question. The way I presented it was that it is tuna. And then they just ate it and they didn't say like, "Well, this is plants." They were just like, "OK." But then when I told them afterwards, if I told you was plant based, I would say probably most of them were like, "Yeah, I mean, I guess I could tell."

Lee: [00:30:19] You should do one of those tests where it's like real tuna and then your tuna and see which one they like.

Jacek: [00:30:24] Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, so again, if you eat it like raw side by side, you're going to tell the difference. Like raw tuna has like almost no flavor. So that's really interesting. I would say, our product has like more flavor than raw tuna, which I actually think is like a benefit, right? Like sometimes I think we aim to be. [00:30:49].. We can be something similar to, but also better than a product. And the analogy that I heard that I really liked was with Tesla, like they didn't try to just recreate gas cars. Yeah, they wanted to recreate the range. But if you go into a Tesla now like and you get like even a Model 3, or like some of the Model S's, you will drive faster than a Ferrari and a Lamborghini zero to 60. [00:31:14]

Lee: [00:31:14] Right. You want it to be better than tuna.

Jacek: [00:31:18] Exactly.

Lee: [00:31:19] Yeah.

Jacek: [00:31:19] That's the aim, right? We don't have to be exactly like tuna, like we can actually just have if you see, like how people eat tuna, they usually put soy sauce or something on it. So we can just put flavor right into the product. And it has like a really deep umami flavor. So, yeah, [00:31:35] it's a little bit of this fun game in food like innovating and making things better than, and at the same time, people like somewhat of a familiarity with food. And I think that's what a lot of companies and Founders are trying to reconcile in the alternative protein space is how do you make it familiar, but you want to make it better? [00:31:55]

Lee: [00:31:55] Yeah. So that's really cool. I can't believe that I was reading the other day that the plant based market is now over $13 billion. I think that's just insane and really exciting, though. I mean, I'm plant based and I have been loving seeing the growth of all these cool companies pop up. You know, I had the founder of Daring on the show. I'm such a big fan of of that product. They're at Costco now, and I'm buying it all the time. But you have some really incredible ingredients in your product as well. You've got the iron, pea protein, beet root, and you've got vitamin B 12, omega 3s. It's packed with some really healthy stuff. And not to mention the no mercury and the no microplastics, which we all kind of forget about existing in our fish.

Jacek: [00:32:47] I know, right? Yeah, I think nutritional profile is huge. I mean, especially when it comes to like the kind of cognizant eaters. Yeah, that was one reason. So that was one of the reasons we in the very beginning wanted to use like algae as a base just like this algae protein. It was like, "Oh, it would taste exactly like fish." And yeah, one thing that we're pretty happy about since you're bringing up nutrition is we have quite a lot of omega 3 DHA in the product, and that comes from algae oil. So it's actually what makes fish kind of taste fishy. So it's ironic that it's plants that make you taste a fishy component.

Lee: [00:33:29] {laughter} Right.

Jacek: [00:33:30] It's the good old algae there. And yeah, that omega 3 DHA is actually pretty cool because the body processes omega 3 DHA, obviously has a lot of neural benefits, but the plant, often the other plant equivalent is omega 3 ALA. And it just doesn't process nearly the same way, nor convert with the same benefits as omega 3 DHA. And I don't think this is I talked about that often, but like it's a pretty important and health promoting ingredient. I think the challenge was with algae oil is it's a little bit more expensive and it's also pretty difficult to work with. Like it's really easy for that algae oil to get rancid because you didn't have control it right or you maybe exposed it to too much heat. And so, yeah, that's been a fun like thing that we have in our product. And one of the reasons I like to eat it is like, "Oh, I'm like, maybe getting smarter from this."

Lee: [00:34:30] Right, exactly.

Jacek: [00:34:31] At least I like to tell myself.

Lee: [00:34:34] Getting some brain food in there, too. It's great.

Jacek: [00:34:37] Yeah.

Lee: [00:34:38] So how big is the team now?

Jacek: [00:34:41] We are about 12. Yeah.

Lee: [00:34:45] And so what advice do you have around hiring? Hiring a team is pretty key into having a successful company. What are some of the lessons you've learned around hiring a great team?

Jacek: [00:34:57] Nice. Yeah. So actually, this one was from Acton. I really liked what they had. This mantra is like hire slow, fire fast. I think that's really true.  [00:35:07]When it comes to hiring, it should kind of take a while. And if it's not, then maybe draw that process out just because I think obviously those are the people who really build that company. You only do so much. You do a lot as a founder, but it's really that initial group of people who multiply that impact. [00:35:31] So, yeah, some lessons I learned... I think it's great to meet someone in person. I know during COVID, that's a little hard, but I think it's kind of important to get a feel. I think really trying to understand someone's motivations, which can be hard to unravel, but really thinking, "Does this person..." I think a startup is pretty hard and usually there's going to be some kind of pay hit, obviously, you can economically argue that the equity will make up for that. But often I think there has to be somewhat of a belief in what you're doing, right?

Lee: [00:36:13] Yeah.

Jacek: [00:36:14] And some companies don't really have that and that's totally fine. Like this is going to be a kick ass business model. But if for our company mission is really important, I think mission alignment and having someone who kind of also is motivated by that has proven pretty true.  [00:36:30]When people believe in it, they just kind of work harder. They stick through the pain. So trying to unravel that and identify does somebody really care about that mission? And [00:36:42] that's difficult. I think what I've really liked during the hiring process is like stepping away, if you're like trying to assess a candidate's skill set, is put them through like a work trial, and it's a little tricky sometimes. Because you know, you don't want to be like having people do work and then using that work later, but really try to understand the way a candidate thinks. And one that I really liked... We did this for a Chief of Staff position was we actually did an Acton case study, which is, we'd like put them through a case study that was like just to understand how does the candidate think? And I think we made a really good hire there because we were able to see like, wow, this person could take a bunch of ambiguous information, which is often a case study. And that's like a startup. There's tons of ambiguous, distracting shit out there, and you have to process it and prioritize it and then communicate it well to somebody else. So I really like that interview process. I thought that was really good.

Lee: [00:37:44] That's interesting. Yeah that is a really valuable skill set to be able to be thrown a bunch of things. And like you said, just kind of like be able to interpret it, but also then communicate it to other people in a much simpler way and organize it. Yeah, that's interesting.

Jacek: [00:38:01] Yeah. I think that's part of what an entrepreneur does, right?

Lee: [00:38:04] Yeah. Well, that's exactly where I was going. And I'm like, "Yeah, that's all... That's what I do."

Jacek: [00:38:09] Right? And then it's like, ideally, what you could do is like, you could hire a bunch of like entrepreneurs to come work for you. But the reality is, like most of those people are just going to go off and do their own thing, Like finding this person who believes in your mission and thinks like this is still big enough for me. And has that capability and really, you know, always speaking to that person's, speaking to that person's like values, like, what do they want? I think that's been really cool is like developing people. The people that work at Kuleana, a lot of them are just like, they're like, smarter than me for sure and more experienced than me.

Lee: [00:38:44] That's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to hire people smarter than you. You know, you don't want to be the smartest person in the room. You're not going to get very far.

Jacek: [00:38:52] True. Very true. So, yeah, I think really like supporting your team and helping them grow, giving them... There's a really cool book shout out to one of our incubator companies, Christopher Kong. He did a pretty cool tempeh company, but he showed me that book. It's called Drive by Daniel Pink. And he says, like the three things that motivate people are... Have you read that one?

Lee: [00:39:21] Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.

Jacek: [00:39:23] So you know, yeah. So it's like meaning, autonomy, and mastery. And so like, how do you speak to those three points for people all the time? And I think our company is lucky, like meaning is pretty prevalent through our company. Autonomy comes down to an active management and how do we give people autonomy yet keep people aligned because if we're not aligned, then we're just going to be screwed. Doing a bunch of random stuff. And I think that comes down to really letting people make decisions and frankly, if they're smarter than you and you hired them like, they probably should be just making the decisions and you pretty much come in there to make sure that it's aligned and it's like quality controlled. And then the mastery component is interesting because I guess, you know, that's like, are they challenged or are they working on the things that they want to be developing? Yeah.

Lee: [00:40:13] That's cool. So tell us about one of the most challenging moments you've had in building the company and how have you overcome it?

Jacek: [00:40:22] Challenging moments.

Lee: [00:40:24] Yeah, when did shit really hit the fan and was there a moment you thought it was all over?

Jacek: [00:40:29] Yeah. You know, I think the beginning was really hard. So I remember when I had the idea for Kuleana, I worked with actually my old classmate from Acton. He's a really cool guy. His name was well, whatever... Swiss, maybe we'll send it to you later. But he's a really smart classmate. We were working on it together, and I remember we then a couple of months into it, we met with Sònia. We were introduced to her and she came on board. I think a really hard moment was because Swiss was pretty integral to the company, like he had been there practically since, like a few weeks after having the idea. When he decided to leave because he felt he was on the West Coast. I was in Berlin. Sònia was in Barcelona. There was a lot of timing challenges. I think we were both very much CEO mentality. And I think he's smarter than me. So he was probably just fed up with my dumbness. When he left that was really tough. I got to say because I was like, "Wow, this sucks. This is one of my best friends." And frankly, we found a lot of the base of the company together. And then having him leave was really hard. I think that was hard for Sònia as well because we both really liked him. And then just kind of reconciling like, how are we going to move forward? Because the beginning is such a fragile time and it's like, we didn't have any money then. So I think that was hard because that was also not like that long after we also got kind of smashed on that trip to New York to pitch to that investor. It was like a collapsing thing. It was like I'd spent a bunch of money like, I didn't have that much money. I like flew out to New York to pitch, and it just totally, totally flopped. And then you know, him leaving. And then I know Sònia was really busy. I mean, she was a pretty accomplished food scientist. There were a lot of people trying to yank her into other projects and stuff. And I was like, oh man. That was really hard. And I think, honestly leaning, probably, that was a question, right? When was it really hard?

Lee: [00:42:45] How did you overcome it, though? What kept you going? Is it really the passion for the space and wanting to...?

Jacek: [00:42:50] Yeah. I think ultimately like it comes down to that moment and that feeling I had when I saw that documentary [00:42:59]. It felt like something that needs to be done, and then it becomes a lot less about you. That's really, really cool because your pain then matters less. And when your pain matters less, you become more pain tolerant. [00:43:10] And I think Elon Musk is really smart. And he talks about, when you have a startup, pain tolerance is one of the biggest things you need because you are just going to get hit in the face over and over again.

Lee: [00:43:21] So true.

Jacek: [00:43:22] Because the reality is it's really complex. You have to iterate, you have to pivot, most of your ideas, some of them may prove outright, but a lot of the hypothesis will prove out wrong. And so, yeah, I think it's having a strong belief that something should be done. And yeah, when it's not about you and you just getting rich or you just building your own fame, because the funny thing about that is that drives us and that self-importance drives us than pain is magnified and becomes less bearable. So it's actually forgetting yourself in a way. Maybe that's like the healthiest psychological thing. Our executive coach might be like, "My God, this is what he's doing. This is why he's so psychologically ruined."

Lee: [00:44:10] {laughter} Well, you just said you have an executive coach. How's that going? And do you recommend it?

Jacek: [00:44:14] Yeah, I think, I haven't talked to too many other Founders who have their own executive coach, but ours is really great. She helped us work through some conflict. I mean, frankly, I think like they're kind of a therapist, and I think everyone should have a therapist. I don't care who you are, just living as a human a therapist is great because it's like a live journal that is way better at processing.

Lee: [00:44:36] But as a founder, I mean, to have somebody... I mean, because you can't always talk to your investors about things, or you can't always talk to even your advisors who are stakeholders and shareholders. You can't talk to your team because you don't want them to be worried. So then you end up... That's why they say it's so lonely at the top. So I always talk about a little bit on my shows how it's important to kind of have this boat of people. Who would you put in your boat or in your tribe that help you in all different aspects of your life? Like in business, have an executive coach to help you. Have someone maybe like my uncle has been a great mentor and kind of like emotional support in business that maybe an executive coach wouldn't be, because that's more strategy and more strategic. So, yeah, you kind of are like, where's the support system? You have to build your support system to get through life, to get through business, to get through parenthood, to get through maybe a lot of things. So I think executive coaching is highly underrated.

Jacek: [00:45:30] Totally agree. The best analogy I heard to was like, [00:45:33] if you look at professional athletes like they have coaches, multiple coaches, right? It's like, why aren't professional business people having coaches? We should all have them.  [00:45:44]

Lee: [00:45:44] Yes, a hundred percent.

Jacek: [00:45:45] I'm with you, and I think it makes it's a game changer. One of my investors who I am actually really close with and feel fortunate that I can tell him a lot of the struggles because we had just had a good relationship already. He was like, Yeah, I think it's super smart.

Lee: [00:46:00] Yeah, because we're all running marathons here. Like if you're a Founder, you're running a marathon, and you probably should get some coaching on keeping the sanity level healthy and everything else, making sure you have everything you need.

Jacek: [00:46:15] Yeah. And a lot of the best founders I know, like, they're really good about that. I'm actually working on that all the time. Like, I have this thing in my head where I'm like, I should be working. I should be doing more. Like people gave you money, you need to do everything, and then you start to realize and I recognized wow, I just become incredibly inefficient when I'm overworked. You actually are spinning your wheels. And that's what I realized in Acton, too. I think one of the big lessons in Acton that wasn't talked about was like, they give you literally like a hundred hours worth of work a week and they keep pushing you to do that.  [00:46:47]The reality is you start to recognize that if you don't prioritize your sleep and those other things, your work quality just drops tremendously and you make more mistakes. [00:46:59] And so the trick is actually, and my buddy Swiss is really good about this, and my other Founder friends like Nicholas Hartman, he founded a really good company called Fly Foods in Berlin. They're super good about taking care of themselves, and so they're smart and make good choices. And I think especially when you're like, you know, a Founder, that's like a big part of your job is just making the right choices.

Lee: [00:47:22] Totally. You got to know when you've got to chill out or get more sleep. I mean, I'm pretty sure I sent an email today... And you know, when

Speaker4: [00:47:28] You say, like "Moving you to BCC to spare your inbox," but you don't move them to BCC. {laughter} That's what I did today, and that means I need more sleep. Start making stupid mistakes like that. And you're so annoyed at yourself. That's when you're like, OK, thank God, it's Friday. You can snap over the weekend, right?

Jacek: [00:47:49] Yeah, there's a good famous quote on it, too. That was by Lincoln. And he said, like, if you gave me seven hours to chop down a bunch of trees, I'll spend the first, like six hours sharpening my ax.

Lee: [00:48:02] Yeah. Good point. Yeah. Well, before we wrap up here, do you have any final advice for any aspiring entrepreneurs that are tuning in? And second question is what's next for Kuleana?

Jacek: [00:48:14] Yeah. So I would say, yeah, like find what really gets you excited. [00:48:21] Some of the best advice I ever heard was like, "Just do what excites you." And [00:48:24] it's very much an emotional thing, too. It's emotional and it's got to be logical. But obviously that. And I think a lot of Founders probably know that. Really take your time getting to know your Co-Founders and being super clear about like, you know, who's going to do what?

Lee: [00:48:40] Yeah, writing down the responsibilities, role and responsibilities, for each Co-Founder, I think is really key so that you can each stay in your own lane so you can move effectively and faster.

Jacek: [00:48:51] Exactly. And in tandem, like not letting ego get in the way, right? Because sometimes I've had things where, like Sònia stepped into something with like sales or even fundraising, and it's been really helpful. And sometimes I catch myself being like, you know, maybe egotistical, like, "Wait, this is my job," and I actually think that thinking is really counterproductive. So being open minded, but knowing who in the end has like kind of the decision capability to make the decision allows it, like you say, to flow really smoothly. Yeah. And then I think I don't know, like I think working on product is really fun and super necessary and just spending a lot of time there. I think, like one of my friends said, something really cool. Copy and paste.  [00:49:36]Sometimes as an entrepreneur, we feel like we have to invent everything, but it's like a lot of times the best things are like just small improvements and small iterations, or merging of multiple ideas and not feeling bad about that. But I think copy and paste is really underrated. [00:49:54] We really like the Amazon leadership principles. I think their culture is pretty brutal over there, so we don't want to replicate everything but their leadership principles are incredible. And you can find them online. And we printed them out. We put them all over the office. We like talk about those when we do our like shout outs for people doing great work. And that saves us so much time because I know we had like a few of our own little principles we were developing, But this was like way more fleshed out. So, yeah, I think copy and paste is awesome.

Lee: [00:50:23] Yeah, yeah, I agree with you. Principles are great. Interview process, not so much. Probably other things as well, maybe not. But the principles are on point. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jacek: [00:50:34] So the principles are fun.

Lee: [00:50:36] And so what's next? What's next for Kuleana? What are we going to see? Sushi rolls?

Jacek: [00:50:42] Yeah, yeah. So we're doing we're doing good ole sushi rolls, Poké Balls. We're actually in conversations with some really, really big food service partners. We'll be on eCommerce soon.

Lee: [00:50:56] End of September, right?

Jacek: [00:50:57] Yeah, yeah, exactly. We are going to be looking at retail for next year as well because we have had a lot of really big retailers ask us for retail SKUs. And so we're pretty excited to present those to them. We are... What else? Yeah, I mean, well, getting on the road for our Series A, and then we'll just constantly like improve our products. This is just our first version. So all the raw tuna products you see... Oh, we'll have a raw salmon products. That'll be fun. So that's going to be a whole nother product. And all the SKUs within raw salmon. So like cubes, filets, all the different ones we're looking at there.

Lee: [00:51:35] Yeah.

Jacek: [00:51:37] Yeah. And then I know we'll be on line quite a few events and maybe even some shows in the coming weeks or in the coming months, we'll be doing a lot of that. So that's going to be fun. We'll be making a much bigger splash in that way.

Lee: [00:51:51] Great.

Jacek: [00:51:52] But yeah, I think the coolest thing, anybody listening to this, maybe like find us on online in a couple of weeks, order our product and let us know what you think. Because I think in the end, focusing on the first principle of product is a really healthy mindset.

Lee: [00:52:09] Definitely. Yeah. So we'll be able to check you guys out and buy it online at

Jacek: [00:52:20] Yeah, exactly, and it'll be also on this website called GTFO. It's vegan.

Jacek: [00:52:25] Great. Awesome. Well, Jacek, thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate it, and it was fun hearing your story.

Jacek: [00:52:34] Yeah, it's great to meet you.

Lee: [00:52:38] Thank you so much for listening to the Stairway to CEO podcast. Once again, I'm your host, Lee Greene, and if you have any burning business questions, please feel free to reach us at StairwaytoCEO. We'd love to hear from you. And if you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe to the show, tell your friends, leave us a review, and follow us on Instagram @StairwaytoCEO. Until next time, guys, keep on climbing.

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