Alex Abelin had an early exposure to sports, theater, arts, and traveling, yet his hidden passion is in business. At 30, the entrepreneurship calling grew louder that he decided to transition away from his comfortable job in Google to be a trailblazer in tech. Alex launched two tech startups: LiquidTalent and LQD Wifi. The acquisition of LQD Wifi by telco giant Verizon in 2016 marked his successful exit from the company. As part of the deal, he had to reintegrate back to the corporate office and manage the Urban Affairs for Verizon.
A few months after his son Alakai was born, Alex discovered a major gap in the infant formula market: no plant-based, soy-free, and dairy-free options are available. This led him to build a business around solving his own pain point. His guiding principle is to create something that brings people life, positivity, happiness, joy, and vitality.
Alex is BA 2005 alum at Berkeley Haas. In this episode, he takes us back to his favorite college memories, his experience working at two Fortune 50 companies, launching three startups, and now working towards a sustainable future through plant-based foods and beverages.
On having his parents as role models
[02:49.23] I had two role models and parents who really kind of shone the light on what the working world was like. I learned a lot from them about the value of hard work and commitment. What I think my parents did is they brought a lot of heart to their organizations. My parents brought their full selves to their work, always led with their hearts, and were always very compassionate and spirited. So, I get a lot of that from them.
On his experience moving from San Diego to Berkeley for college
[00:15:05] For me, this was the first time living alone. It felt empowering. It felt great just the simple stuff of making sure I had three meals a day, knowing how to do my laundry, and making sure I show up to class on time. You know, these kinds of social life skills came into play. I think half the fun and half the reason to do a four-year institution is to acquire those resilience skills and the autonomy and the sovereignty. It’s a huge rite of passage. It was so nourishing, so fun, so expansive. Looking at photos of me going into Cal and looking at photos of me going out to Cal, you could see a real, much more mature, and different human. Those four years really did a lot for me, a lot of good.
On transitioning from corporate career to entrepreneurship
[00:13:52] I was about to turn 30, and I used that as my fire under my butt to become the entrepreneur I always knew I was. The first thing I did was travel to Asia solo. I gave myself a couple of months to exhale and transition from my Google career to my future entrepreneur career. I know I’m blessed and very humbled to be able to do that. It’s not the same for everybody, but I took those months, and I recalibrated. I spent that time traveling alone, thinking about what I wanted to build and what the world needed.
On his motivation for his third startup, PlantBaby
[00:22:49] PlantBaby, for me, is the first time I’m building a business around solving my own pain point, which I always wanted to do. PlantBaby is coming from the gut. It’s coming from the heart. And that gives you so much more passion, motivation, and enthusiasm to see this succeed because you want to solve your own problem. It’s great, and I also knew that sage advice always was out there is to solve your own problem.
Advice for people who might be interested in going to school or straight into entrepreneurship for food or sustainability
Build it if you want to be the consumer of it. Don’t build anything that’s a fun or smart, profitable business. Build it up as you want to buy it. That’s a good piece of advice that I think will drive you when the nights are long and cold, and you need something to drive you. Solve your own need, buy your own product. Think about the environment. Think about different stakeholders than just yourself. Don’t be intimidated by the entrenched, established players. They were small at one time too. There’s enough success to go around. Change the way you look at competition. We all can win. It is not a zero-sum game.
- Alex Abelin on LinkedIn
- Alex Abelin on Twitter
- Alex Abelin Official Website
- PlantBaby Official Website
- Kiki Milk Official Website
- Kiki Milk Instagram
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00:00] Chris Kim: Welcome to the OneHaas podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Alex Abelin, co-Founder and co-CEO of PlantBaby and Kiki Milk. Alex is a Haas undergrad alum with experience as an executive founding multiple companies, as well as time at Google and Verizon. Alex is a creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial professional who measures his success on the positive impact he makes for others. Welcome, Alex, and great to have you on the show.
[00:00:34] Alex Abelin: Thank you, Chris. It’s really awesome to be here.
[00:00:37] Chris Kim: Could you share a bit about your origin story? Where did you grow up and what was your journey before you got to Haas?
[00:00:42] Alex Abelin: Totally. Yeah. So I’m born and raised in San Diego. Spent my whole life at the same house in Claremont. Haas and UC Berkeley were always on my radar. Actually, it was on the vision board as a young kid to go to Cal. My uncle has a degree from Berkeley and funny enough when I was 13 in my 7th-grade yearbook photo, I’m wearing a Cal Berkeley T-shirt in the yearbook photo. And it was foreboding for six years later when I got admitted to Cal.
I’m an only child. I come from two parents, Brooklyn hippies that migrated from New York to San Diego in ’75. And they have me in ’83. Had a really sweet childhood. My grandmother was very involved in my upbringing. My parents exposed me to sports and theater and art, travel. And business was always kind of like my secret passion. I always enjoyed the idea of business and entrepreneurship and economics and finance. My grandfather was an accountant and was very good with numbers, math, and money. And I think I captured some of his passion for those skills in mine. And when I got into Cal, I was just immediately looking at Haas. I knew I wanted to study business. There was no other major that really captured what my interests were and I was just grateful that I was admitted into Berkeley. Equally grateful that I was admitted into Haas.
[00:02:01] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. There are definitely folks in the Cal ecosystem that are from San Diego, but maybe could you share a bit about any early experiences that maybe shaped the way that you approach life or the way that you work today?
[00:02:11] Alex Abelin: Well, both my parents worked full-time so I saw two, 9 to 5 professionals growing up and very committed to their organizations and their craft. My mom worked in human resources and was one of the senior female leaders and executives of the Cubic Corporation, where she ran HR and people operations and developing culture and training programs and hiring practices and performance reports. Like this is all kind of part of the around the kitchen table conversation. My dad has a law degree, his focus was on negotiations, contract law. He worked for Pepsi in the county of San Diego. So I had two role models and parents who really kind of shine the light on what the working world was like. And I learned a lot from them just by clearly being their son and being in the home with them every day, the value of hard work and commitment. And what I think my parents did is they brought a lot of heart to organizations where I think a lot of professionals go in, they do their time and they come home. My parents really brought their full selves to their work, always led with their hearts, and were always very compassionate and spirited. So I get a lot of that from them.
[00:03:20] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. Can you explain, there are definitely probably parents of folks who are in high school and maybe in the California area that definitely know Berkeley and definitely know Haas but could you explain a bit about what that undergrad experience is like? What was it like for you, coming up to Berkeley, and any words of wisdom that you give to prospective undergrads who are thinking about going to Haas?
[00:03:40] Alex Abelin: Well, bring tissues for the parents when they drive home. My mom likes to share the story that when they drove that long ride home from the Bay Area to San Diego, there were a lot of tears. As an only child and now they were empty nesters, it’s perhaps even a bigger transition for the parents as it is for the child. For me, this was the first time living alone. It felt really empowering. It felt great, just the simple stuff of making sure I had three meals a day and I knew how to do my laundry. You know, these like kind of social life skills that came into play. Making sure I show up to class on time. My mom and dad weren’t there knocking on my door to wake me up for school. That’s I think half the fun and half the reason to do a four-year institution is to acquire those resilience skills and the autonomy and the sovereignty. It’s a huge rite of passage.
I loved my time at Cal. I look back on my four years at Berkeley as some of my favorite memories of my life. It’s kinda crazy. I’m 38 now. So Cal is like a midway point in my life. Right in that center point, 19. I look back on it, the friends I made, the classes I was in. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. I serve as president of my fraternity at Cal at CBT. I loved my time at Haas, yeah. I just have nothing but fond memories, Chris. So those four years it was so nourishing, so fun. So expansive. Looking at photos of me going into Cal and looking at photos of me going out to Cal, you could see a real, much more mature, and different human. Those four years really did a lot for me, a lot of good.
[00:05:12] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. Any memories that stick out? I know everybody seems to have one or two memories that stick out. I know we had the Berkeley Stanford game recently out with the win.
[00:05:22] Alex Abelin: I keep my eyes on the whole game. I always get my, you know what, 41-11, that’s a nice win. I was in Calgary at the time of Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, and Sean Jackson. I was spoiled with a stellar football team and all three of those are some of my favorite NFL athletes as well. We were number two in the country at one point during my Cal time. And we were knocking on the door of number one, we didn’t get it, but it was a really good time. Gosh, it’s flooded with memories.
I remember getting the Haas letter. I remember opening that letter. I wasn’t sure if it was thick or thin. I wasn’t sure if it was an admittance or an apologies letter. I remember calling my mom after hearing that and sharing the joy of getting accepted. My dad actually taught a class in negotiations for Holly Schroth. I’m not sure if she’s still at Cal, but he was a sub-in teacher for a day. It was really fun to see my dad up there. I’ve actually spoken at Haas a few years ago, which was great. You know, the memories are like the moments in between: the lunches and salads, Intermezzo, you know, I still think about the poppy seed dressing. Oh, my God.
[00:06:28] Chris Kim: It’s iconic Cal for sure.
[00:06:30] Alex Abelin: Totally. Is the frozen yogurt spot still up and running?
[00:06:33] Chris Kim: I’m not sure.
[00:06:34] Alex Abelin: Okay. There was a frozen yogurt spot. Too many soft serves from there, I recall. I loved running up the strawberry creek up into the hills to work off that yogurt, playing intramural sports, soccer, and basketball, just some really, really great memories. Now I have a son who’s two and I wonder what college will be like for his generation. If it will be relevant and if he’ll want to go. And if my experience at Cal has any reference for him. I think he’ll be encouraged to look at a four-year school like Cal or Cal itself because of not just the degree and the prestige and the doors it opens, but those life experiences that only a four-year institution like Cal can provide. You’re making me really nostalgic, Chris, thinking about 2001 to 2005.
[00:07:24] Chris Kim: Yeah. And for folks who are thinking about coming to Cal, the best advice I ever heard is if you’re thinking of applying, just do it. There’s nothing to lose. And it’s just such an amazing experience regardless of what you’re doing.
[00:07:38] Alex Abelin: Yeah, and you can always transfer in. A lot of my friends came in their junior year and they just did well in their community college or safe school and were able to come in and have a great two years and get a degree. There are other ways to do it.
[00:07:50] Chris Kim: Absolutely. Well, Alex, you talked about open doors, you know, what did you do after you left Cal and Haas? Where did that take you? What was that experience like?
[00:07:58] Alex Abelin: I was an intern at NBC in San Diego, my junior year. And my plan was to graduate next year and go into entertainment. I was looking at production studios like Universal, Dreamworks, HBO. I wanted it to be in entertainment. I want to be in the business side of the house, but I did have a theater background. I acted at both Cal and at my high school. So I thought my Haas learnings would bode well in LA in doing entertainment. And I applied to all these great brands and none of them responded to me and I was like, wow, I did everything I thought I needed to do. Got a great internship, had a great degree. And it was a pretty humbling summer.
And then, it was August and I’ll never forget it. I think it was August 12th, my dad came knocking into my childhood bedroom door three months after graduating from Berkeley. And he said, okay, time’s up, you did it. You know, the summer’s up, time to go get a job. Like, what are you going to do with your life? And that afternoon, I applied to Google.
My buddy at Cal, his sister was early at Google and she showed me around during our finals week, during senior year. I was like, what Disneyland playground for adults is this place? That seemed back in 2005. It was 4,000 employees but the company definitely had a certain level of prestige and success under its belt. It was founded in ’98, so seven years old, just IPOed. Certainly being at Berkeley, there was this kind of tech allure to the whole thing. And I felt well, if no entertainment production studio wants to talk to me, maybe Google does. And literally the next day they responded, setting up an interview. And the rest is history. I started at Google, on Halloween ‘05. So I stretched out a little bit more summer there. My career at Google went from Halloween ‘05 to April Fool’s Day, 2013.
[00:09:45] Chris Kim: Oh my goodness.
[00:09:46] Alex Abelin: So seven and a half years at Google. Basically, my entire twenties was spent there. Thinking about my time at Cal, I looked back on my time at Google. A similar fondness of maturation and new experiences and growing up and being on my own and understanding of 401k. And I studied abroad at Cal in Italy, and then I worked abroad at Google in Dublin, Ireland. So I had a really great abroad experience there. I spent seven and a half years between four cities. So, mountain view in Dublin. I opened up the San Francisco office back in 07. I was one of the first employees to break that ground which was really cool. And then I transferred to New York in 2010.
My parents were from Brooklyn. My grandparents are from Brooklyn. I was 26 at the time and said if I don’t live in New York in my mid-twenties, when am I going to do it? So I made the big move from the Bay Area to New York through Google and went from a sales role in California to a policy role in New York. And that’s where I spent my last three-plus years at Google in New York policy.
[00:10:48] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. Alex, some folks might be aware of how Google operates both on the account side and also in the public policy area. Could you share a little bit about what those different roles do and what that experience is like for folks coming out of Cal and maybe ending up at Google or a similar tech company like that?
[00:11:06] Alex Abelin: Yeah. Sales was a great entry point into the professional world. I spoke with companies that were starting their digital marketing strategies and using AdWords to drive traffic to their businesses. And you know, the world of SEO and SEM has definitely only increased since ‘05, ‘06, ‘07 when I was in it then. It was a very powerful tool at that time as well. Yeah. I had about a dozen managers in four years in sales so I was able to glean a lot of great advice and professional knowledge from my seniors who were at the time probably 27. I was, you know, 22, 23. So, they seem like young kids to me now but then they were like these veteran seasoned professionals. And yeah, a lot of reporting and analytics, understanding what keywords are driving traffic, what ad techs were converting. It’s all about what your conversion numbers are and your cost per conversion. We then acquired YouTube and started building on Androids and platforms, went into more video and mobile, and just had a really high growth period in Google sales from ‘05 to ‘10.
And then I transitioned to New York and I took on a policy role and I was able to do that because I started a local nonprofit give-back donation organization if you will. It’s called Google Cares. And Google Cares was really rallying the local San Francisco employee base to do good in San Francisco. I figured we were the first Google employees in San Francisco. We got to do more than just report in and report out. Let’s see how we can improve the neighborhood and give back. So you know, me kind of doing that in a 20% role, I got tapped on the shoulder and said, do it more professionally for Google in New York.
So, I was the first public affairs manager for Google New York. I was one of four public affairs managers at the time in 2010 at Google. So, I had quite a large regional portfolio. I managed all of our data center regions which we had 6 at the time. I worked in New York and a bit of Pittsburgh and Boston. It was awesome. It was a really amazing time. We had real resources to give back. We wifi-ed neighborhoods. We thought, how do we improve the lives of our local community members? And it was a really wonderful role for me. I loved it. It was hard to leave. I could have honestly done that work for decades and been happy but there was this inner entrepreneur that kept yelling in my ear that it’s time to go build and go create and leave the confines of Google. But I loved my last job there as public affairs manager.
[00:13:35] Chris Kim: Could you talk a little bit about I mean, you kind of alluded to it already, just what that experience is like, leaving a huge, amazing brand organization like Google and spinning off to say, “Hey, I’m going to start my own organizations.” And if I understand correctly, you start up not just one but multiple, right?
[00:13:51] Alex Abelin: So, I was 29. I was about to turn 30 and I used that as my fire under my butt to become the entrepreneur that I always knew I was. The first thing I did was travel to Asia solo. I gave myself a couple of months just to exhale and transition from my Google career to my future entrepreneur career. I know I’m blessed and very humbled to be able to do that. It’s not the same for everybody, but I took those months and I recalibrated. And I really spent that time traveling alone, thinking about what I wanted to build and what the world needed. And that’s where both LiquidTalent and LQD Wifi came into my consciousness.
And so, LiquidTalent, we started that in October of ‘13. It was a web and mobile application to connect developers and designers to short-term project opportunities. Ahead of its time for the world we’re in now where remote work and contract work are surging. This was the future of work play where we could contract, we could pay, we could search, interview, and do a lot of that human resource recruiting needs through your phone and through social connection and geographic proximity. You know, a lot of that came from my mom being an HR and I saw how she did it. And then Google, which was a world-class people operations organization. A lot of that was in LiquidTalent.
And then LQD Wifi really was built on my experience wifi-ing neighborhoods. So at Google, I wified eight neighborhoods in my public affairs role. And I was like, well, this is interesting. I can wifi public spaces and internet interests in accesses, up into the right, people who want more connectivity. So, that’s where that company was really seeded. That was in January of ‘14. That company evolved into basically a payphone. We re-imagined the payphone and we made it like an iPad for the street. So, the payphones are this old decrepit, very unhygienic technology, and clearly out of date at this point in 2021. And we said, well, if we’re going to re-imagine the payphone, this was in 2014, what would it look like? And we basically designed a 3-screen, 13-foot kiosk. We called it Palo. And that’s the organization that was acquired by Verizon as they were starting to build out their smart city solutions. They saw our kiosk as a great product to acquire. And so LQD Wifi was sold to Verizon in 2016.
[00:16:06] Chris Kim: I’m sure folks would love to have an exit like that. Can you talk about that experience? Cause I know there are a ton of Haasies who have that entrepreneurial spirit and it’s definitely a joy when it happens, but there’s probably a lot behind that and we’d love to hear a bit of that.
[00:16:20] Alex Abelin: Well, I’ll tell you, in 2016, LiquidTalent went out of business. We ran out of capital. We couldn’t raise the next round of funding. And then LQD Wifi in the fall sold to Verizon. So, within six months, I had one “fail” which I don’t like to use that word because LiquidTalent is the opposite of a failure in my eyes. Then LQD Wifi which sold and exited, and was acquired by a Fortune 50. It was a high-pressure time. It was an emotional time for a lot of reasons. It was tough leaving Google because of the cushiness and the compensation and the security of that job. And at that point now I was three and a half years on my own and kind of eating into my savings. And clearly wasn’t really paying myself well at either startup. So it was a really great win. It was an awesome win. And it took five months from courtship to exit my team at LQD Wifi. There were about seven of us who helped with the sale.
I give my team a lot of credit for the way they packaged the business up from a legal and financial standpoint to Verizon, which Verizon is a beast of an organization and their corporate M&A team is very corporate. So it was a very different world from the startup culture when I was building LiquidTalent and LQD Wi-Fi and the Google culture that I just came out of in the Berkeley culture from a few years before that. So we had to kind of evolve and transition the way that we approached it, how we spoke about it, how we showed up in in-person meetings. Luckily, we were able to thread the needle and be acquired back in 2016 and it felt great. And honestly, it just made me want to do more of it.
I think you see athletes who win a championship and they go back to the gym and train harder because they want another one, right? Like one ring is great but the two rings is even better. You see Jordan, LeBron, Brady, and these iconic GOATs of their era went multiple times because it just makes them hungrier and it makes them more motivated to feel it again and to achieve success again. So selling one in ‘16 and one going under in ‘16 was an incredible six months learning experience for me.
I had to spend two years at Verizon for the sale. So that was part of the deal which was worth it. It was financially worth it for me to be there for two years, but it was the opposite reason of what I left Google for. I was leaving Google to go on the unknown and be a trailblazer and build and create and be innovative. And then here I was a few years later now in a very dry corporate environment. I said, well, how the heck did this all happen? But you have to look at it from a bird’s eye view of your life and understand that you’re playing a long-term chess game. This was a two-year move that I needed to make which would allow me to hopefully achieve future successes from there.
[00:18:57] Chris Kim: It’s great to hear kind of the candid experience. You know you hear all the good stories and the bylines and TechCrunch and all the outlets but you never hear about the true stories, which is you haven’t paid yourself in multiple years adequately and you got all the jitters. That’s the reality for what a startup experience is like, but to have that win and to have a team pull off that win it’s an amazing story to hear.
Alex, could you share a bit about, you sold the company to Verizon, you’re at Verizon, and transitioning with the team there? How does the idea for your company that you co-founded and are co-leading today, PlantBaby and your product Kiki Milk, where did that idea come from? Could you share a bit about how you came up with the formation of the company?
[00:19:38] Alex Abelin: Yeah. So when my two years were wrapping up at Verizon, my fiance at the time, Lauren, was also wrapping up her career. She was building a nonprofit under The Art of Living organization and she was teaching mindfulness and meditation to students. She was wrapping up her five-year run there. I was wrapping up my two-year run at Verizon. We were engaged and we were both ready for the next chapter. And we looked on a map, and we were living in Manhattan and Union Square at the time, and we said, well, where do we want to get married? And we pointed to Hawaii and we said, where in Hawaii? And we pointed to the north shore of Kauai and we said, well, we’re ready to leave our jobs. And this is a moment of transition. Let’s just move there and see what happens.
So, that was early ‘19. We landed in Hawaii in March of ‘19. Ten days after we arrived in Hawaii, we found out we were pregnant, which was quite a surprise because our wedding was in June. So, our son, Alakai, came earlier than we expected, but very much perfect timing as these things tend to go. So the wedding was on June ‘19. Alakai was born in November of ‘19. He just celebrated his second birthday last week. So, now we’re six months into Alakai’s life and I am starting to get the itch again if I’m ready to build. I have a break there between Verizon and a year of getting married and having a baby. And I was very much eager to get back in the game. And that’s when we couldn’t find an infant formula, which I had no idea was going to be my third company.
Six months old Alakai had colic. He couldn’t drink dairy or soy. All the infant formulas on the market were either dairy-based or soy-based. Lauren and I looked at each other. We were shocked that we couldn’t find a suitable clean-label, dairy-free, soy-free infant formula. And I knew we weren’t the only families looking for a plant-based solution. Even if their son didn’t have a dairy or soy aversion, I think some families just want to go plant-based for there are a lot of reasons why you may want to go plant-based and not dairy or soy. So we looked at each other and said, should we do this? Should we build a company that is geared to bringing this to market? So, that was March of ‘20. In May of ‘20, we were incorporated. We seek corp at Delaware, PlantBaby, Inc. In July, I pitched to one of my favorite VCs who is behind my first company. He said it checks all the boxes, except the fact the FDA is so involved in infant formula. It’s a highly sensitive, very complex regulatory environment with a lot of compliance and you need to go through trials and it’s very expensive to get an infant formula in the market. And you know, as it should because it’s such a sensitive product.
So, we looked at each other, Lauren and I said, well, if we’re going to design and manufacture this one day, how do we get there? So, we reverse-engineered it and we thought, well, let’s build a portfolio of plant-based products for kids, infant formula, it can just be one of a myriad of solutions for us. So, we started thinking about toddler milk, and then we started thinking about dairy-free milk for kids. And then we started thinking about a breakfast blend, and yogurt, an ice cream, and a product we’re calling superfood sprinkles. And we started just coming out with these ideas over the summer of ‘20. And we looked at them and we said, wow, these are really good. As parents, I’d want to buy them.
So, PlantBaby for me is the first time I’m building a business around solving my own pain point, which I always wanted to do. In LiquidTalent and LQD Wifi, we’re more kind of theoretical and what I thought would make good businesses and good profit. PlantBaby is coming from the gut. It’s coming from the heart. It’s coming from a personal pain point. And that gives you so much more passion and motivation and enthusiasm to see this succeed because you want to solve your own problem. It’s great and I also knew that sage advice always was out there to solve your own problem. That’s a business. I always wanted to do it. PlantBaby is my way of doing it. I have always wanted to do a physical product, LiquidTalent and LQD Wifi were communications and digital, and it was a bit in the air. I wanted to actually hold and touch and taste something that I made. So, that also checks the box for me.
Most importantly this third one was how do I spend as much time as possible with my wife and my son, but that’s where it kind of started. It’s like life is short. Life is precious. You don’t know how much time you have. I am going to look back on my life and care much more about quality time spent with those I love than anything else. So, how do I design a professional existence that basically captures that? And building this with my wife, building it from home, doing it, and inspired by my son. All these things really go into play here. So yeah, this has been a round three, it’s a whole different ball game because we’re doing food and beverage. I’m learning a ton. I’m really enjoying it, the beginner’s mind. I’m bringing a lot of humility and I’m just like a sponge. How do you do this? How do you build a CPG company? So it’s been a lot of fun.
[00:24:30] Chris Kim: Absolutely, Alex. I mean, two things come to mind if you could just share, especially when it comes to children, a lot of the time you don’t realize what choices are out there and also what’s not there. Like, I’m sure as you’re saying, like, Hey, a good plant-based product that is healthy and good for kids, you know, there’s definitely something out there. And we were sharing earlier, that experience is not always the case for a lot of folks who have kids. Could you explain, maybe for folks who don’t understand that experience, like, what does it feel like? Or what’s the frustration like, when you’re in that situation when you have like a calling, like what’s running through your mind and why something like this would be so important for our folks who are going through that.
[00:25:09] Abelin: You know, you’re shocked. You’re like, is this 2020, 2021? How does this product not exist? You search Google or Amazon, you could search green neon sunglasses with blue tents and it’s like, okay, here are 17 different choices, right? The amount of products out here is exhausting. So, when we searched for infant formula with what we thought was a pretty basic requirement: clean label, dairy-free. And there was nothing. We’re like, wait a minute, this is insane. So, first, we were shocked. Then we got really angry and frustrated because it’s our son and we need to find something for him. So, we ultimately ended up going with a product overseas that was goat-based, still dairy but had a better protein level and better on the digestion than cow dairy. And it was very much a temporary solution. But we knew what we wanted. We said, hopefully, we can design and manufacture it commercially by the time we have our second child. But even if not, this needs to happen. This needs to be out there in the world. So, shock into frustration, into anger, into motivation.
And that was like the 12-step recovery program and the four-step phase. And that motivation now is just eternally burning, which is awesome because that pain, you can tap right back in it. Now Alakai is two and he’s healthy, thank God. And everything’s fine. And we figured it out and we were able to kind of band-aid it all together but that frustration and pain are very easy to tap back into and that motivation for Lauren and I never leaves us at all. We are dialed into doing this and we know it’s going to take time. We know it’s a long game. This is very much a chess match. We’re just setting up the board. And we’re having a lot of fun doing it. This third company has been more fun to simply put, doing it with Lauren, the response we’re getting from consumers, the brand we’re building, the playfulness, the spirit, the art, the color, the quality of product, the way that we’ve tapped into nature and hearing what families are responding with and how much they’ve been waiting for it and wanting it. The response from investors has been awesome.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely a startup and it’s definitely an entrepreneurial journey, which means it’s a roller coaster, but it’s just a lot more fun this time around.
[00:27:29] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. Alex, I feel like your approach is really backing the trend or at least the marketing that’s out there, you know. And I would love it if you could just share some of the misconceptions that people might have around running a company. We see the tormented CEO who never spends time at home, never spends time with the family, but for you and PlantBaby, the team that you have there, it’s almost the anti misconception. What’s that like? And how are you combating that?
[00:27:52] Alex Abelin: One is hiring great people and hiring people that know their disciplines way better than you do. Bring a lot of humility to the table, that beginner’s mind. So, that’s huge. Creating boundaries and containers in your personal life. If you are to build a company with your wife or your best friend or a family member, you need to know when to turn it off. My wife is better at that than me, but she really sets the tone. After dinner, you basically have to ask permission to go back to the business world. Or on a weekend, you have to be like, “Hey, I need to speak, saying it’s timely or sensitive. Can we talk about it?” So asking permission, setting containers, seeing the forest from the trees, right?
My initial intention to build this company was to get quality time with my wife and my son. So if that ever gets lost, then the whole thing is kind of for not so that keeping that top of mind. I’m very much aware of the impermanence of this whole experiment. I’ve had friends pass and family members pass, and I just know that there’s no guaranteed amount of time out there. So, if this is your last day or month or a year, how do you want to spend it? I want to be doing it with people I love, and I want to be building something of consequence, something that matters, something that brings life and positivity and happiness and joy to people and health and vitality.
So, the purpose is very much underlining this whole thing, which feels really good. And we’re doing it in a category that’s also just like very much of a family and fun. I would imagine Disney felt the same way. It’s like, how could they have a bad day at work when he’s drawing cartoons for families and kind of the same thing like what can we see the kids’ responses and the parents’ responses to what we’re doing, it’s inspiring and it puts it in perspective.
[00:29:32] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. Alex, how has it been like, co-leading a company during the pandemic? I know, there’s been so much change and it’s probably flexing all these different areas of your background as a leader. Can you explain a bit what that’s been like, especially with uncertainty, and how you manage that with the folks here working with for PlantBaby?
[00:29:50] Alex Abelin: We started March of ‘20 and we started the month when Tom Hanks got Covid, right? That was March of ‘20. For America, at least, it was the beginning of this whole thing. And we’re doing it from Hawaii, which in itself has its own set of separation and vulnerability. And it’s a very different environment to build a company here than it was in California or New York.
During this Covid, I think for us, we’ve seen the toll it’s taken on physical health and mental wellbeing. So, our company is trying to curb some of that and offer content and art and inspiration and food and beverage products that restore health and vitality. We’re building a Kiki Milk, which is dairy-free milk that is shelf-stable. So, there’s a little bit of that type of mentality and products of the future, I think, we are gonna be looking for more of that direct to consumer shelf, stable product. We’re in a vulnerable macro system and it’s fragile. We’ve seen what that means in the last 18 months, the fragility of this whole structure, this whole system. So for us, how do we build an organization regardless of what product or service we’re making, that empowers employees, that protects people’s mental health, that gives people unlimited vacation?
We’re not micromanagers. We are offering health care and dental as a pre-seed company. We’re doing the things that make us really proud of the quality of the organization we’re building, the benefits, and the quality of work-life that our employees were getting here. Our employees feel so mission-aligned, which feels really great. It’s really important for you to believe in the product or service you’re working for. So all those things check out and yeah, we’ll just be remote. We’ll hire the best talent no matter where they are, what time zone they’re in. It’s opened up for us a global network of talent. And that is just, you know, you unlock this huge amount of workforce and there are benefits of a remote workforce and how they can cover different areas and different times. This is just the way of the future. We were going here already with LiquidTalent, we were predicting this back in ‘13. Covid and epidemic accelerated it. None of this is terribly shocking, the way that we’re working together just makes more environmental sense and more personal sense.
[00:32:03] Chris Kim: Alex, do you have any advice for people who might be interested in going to school or maybe even just going straight into entrepreneurship for food or sustainability?
[00:32:13] Alex Abelin: Yeah. Build it if you want to be the consumer of it. Don’t build if you think that’s going to be fun or a smart profitable business. Build it up as you want to buy it. That’s a good piece of advice that I think will drive you when the nights are long and cold and you need something to drive you. Solve your own need, you want to buy your own product. Think about the environment, think about different stakeholders than just yourself. Don’t be intimidated by the entrenched established players. They were small at one time too. There’s enough success to go around. Change the way you look at the competition. We all can win. This is not a zero-sum game. Those are some tidbits I leave behind.
[00:32:52] Chris Kim: That’s awesome. Probably soon after this call, I’ll be buying my own Kiki Milk, but do you want to share with folks the best ways to get and experience it for themselves?
[00:33:01] Alex Abelin: Yeah, kikimilk.com. We launched on October 19th, so about five weeks ago. We’re in pre-order mode with the original and chocolate. We’re selling eight-ounce, 12 packs. It’s the best tasting, most nutrient-dense, plant-based milk on earth. We made it for kids, but all ages are enjoying it. It’s nut-free, gum-free, additive-free, and preservative-free. It’s climate-friendly milk, a hundred percent happiness guarantee. So if you don’t like it, just let us know. We’ll refund you. It’s great in cereal. It’s great in coffee. It’s great by itself. Original and chocolate are now available. We’re going full launch mode in December. We’ll be launching new SKUs and new flavors and new products too through Kiki Milk in different sizes and are excited to bring out even more innovations in this space in ‘22 and beyond.
[00:33:44] Chris Kim: I will definitely be one of your advocates, Alex. Can’t wait to experience it for myself. It’s been great and super inspiring to just have you here today and to talk about the company and everything you’re doing. Before we end we like to do kind of a fun, nostalgic lightning round, bring back some Haas or Berkeley memories but also love to just pick your brain a bit.
[00:34:04] Alex Abelin: Sounds good.
[00:34:05] Chris Kim: Hopefully. Alex, none of these are super controversial, but we know they can be divisive in a fun way. Favorite class at Haas or Berkeley that maybe is relevant to how you lead today?
[00:34:15] Alex Abelin: My favorite class is Intro to Astro with Alex Filippenko. Most relevant is either the Haas Ethics class or the Haas Negotiations class. Loved all those classes. But that intro to astronomy changed the game.
[00:34:30] Chris Kim: Really?
[00:34:31] Alex Abelin: Yeah. I loved it.
[00:34:32] Chris Kim: Current students, if you haven’t taken it, put it on your list. Favorite place to eat when you were at Berkeley?
[00:34:38] Alex Abelin: Intermezzo, hands down. Avocado, poppy seed, huge salad. You can do a half salad, half sandwich with a chicken salad or tuna salad. It was pretty damn good but the big bowl salads worked out.
[00:34:53] Chris Kim: I’ve definitely had my fair share. If you haven’t had it, definitely go grab it. A leader or a person that inspires you or motivates you?
[00:35:01] Alex Abelin: Gonna go with Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. It’s funny, I was going through a lot of the tech CEOs and I couldn’t give you one. So, let’s go with a political leader that I think has his heart in the right place. And also Michelle who’s equally as impressive. So yeah, Barack and Michelle Obama.
[00:35:17] Chris Kim: Oh, that’s good. And the last one, a little bit inspirational. What’s something that gets you excited about the future?
[00:35:23] Alex Abelin: Well, my son. I spend all my mornings with him and as much time as I can with him and seeing a two-year-old experience the world makes me want to protect his innocence and his connection to source and make sure that global warming and climate change… we can somehow curb these trend lines because it’s really frightening as a parent to see what’s happening to planet earth and our ecosystems. And we’re in a mass extinction phase now. And I’m nervous about water quality and nervous about what the next hundred years look like on earth.
So for PlantBaby, a major motivation is to design all of our products and logistics with a very strong sustainability backbone. And that if you’re going to build a company for the future and build products for kids, you better be thinking about the environment. Otherwise, what are you doing? That’s something that I’m thinking a lot about. We’re partnered with Planet Forward and Farmer’s Footprint, and we’re designing products that are climate-friendly and we’re actually going carbon neutral in ‘22.
[00:36:20] Chris Kim: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. Well, Alex, it’s been awesome to have you on the show today. I definitely wish you and the company all the best and I’m sure any Cal grad knows, we always sign off with the Go Bears phrase. So, Go Bears!
[00:36:35] Alex Abelin: Go Bears! Yeah, great to be here. Thank you all for listening. Please visit kikimilk.com and PlantBaby.co for more. Find me on LinkedIn and really good to reconnect with Haas and Berkeley and another big Go Bears for me.