Decision Dialogues
Decision Dialogues

Episode 26 · 9 months ago

A Whole New Kind of Agribusiness


On Episode 26 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby is joined by Mark Rioboli, who has a chat with Shelby Smith of Gym-N-Eat Crickets, a small startup with the goal of making insect protein more accessible to health- and environment-conscious people. Shelby discusses her early career, which took her overseas into the investment banking world, and how and why she ended up making the decision to return Stateside to start such an unusual enterprise.

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Are you paving the way for the life you want facing decisions that may affect you personally and financially? The decision dialogs podcast, brought to you by Modera Wealth Management, presents personal stories about navigating through life's pivotal moments, narratives that we hope will inspire you as you create your own story. You'll learn what influence their next steps and gain insights that could help you with your own critical choices. Welcome to decision dialogs. Thanks for joining us on decision dialogs or thrilled to have you along. My name is mark, will it be? I'm a principle and wealth manager at Madera Wealth Management LLC and today my colleague markery a bully, another principle and wealth manager at Maderia, and I will be chatting with Shelby Smith Shelby is owner and founder of Jiminy crickets and her firm's mission is to deliver a high quality, highly sustainable source of protein. From start to finish. They raise every cricket that goes in their product. So I'm going to hand over to mark now and mark will get US started. Thank you, mark. It's a pleasure to be here. I think this is going to be a lot of fun. Shelby, I've known you since two thousand and twelve when you did an internship with our firm and you enjoyed it so much you hopped on a plane and left the country. So what led you to that decision? Yes, I did. I ran kicking and screaming from Philadelphia as fast as I could away from mark. No, I'm kidding, you know, after I graduated from St Joe's there in Philly with my finance degree, I didn't quite go in your footsteps. I was one class way, I think it was intro to tax, from finishing up my double major in financial planning. But it was an thirty second semester senior year and I just could not justify getting up betterally when I only had two classes total. So that dropped it down to just one and it was only an independent study. I did finish that independent study, but so I did not get my double major and financial planning, but I had the degree in finance. And then I had the opportunity to go over to Ireland and be part of a program called sport changes life. So it was a three part program. It was part service, so we coached in under privileged areas part education. So I earned my master's in finance from Trinity College in Dublin and then we got to continue our playing career in the Irish Premier League, so that was cool. Basically, what happened is everybody kept giving me free school because I was good at basketball, so I just kept taking it great. Now you just hit a chord with mark because, as you could tell, he's from Ireland. Yes, I was detecting and I promised I wouldn't. I was. I was promising not to interrupt mark, but you know I so Dublin shall be yes, you are not Dublin, based on your accent,...

...correct and and Trinity College, that's a very posh college. You know that it is indeed. And then I worked it in Dublin for down in Ballsbridge afterwards, so I was I was very positive, posh, a posh neighborhood. So you get a you got a very good experience of Dublin then assured it. And I'm gonna Guess, with your accent being what it is, you might be a Waterford potentially, but I don't know. Did you do finance in college or linguistics? I spent five years in Ireland and I became very well versed in the variety of accents around the country, let's put it that way. So, in order to get this interview back on track, I will say you're exactly correct, and I'm now going to hand it back to mark, because otherwise we could be here for another twenty minutes. Well, thank you. So what took you into you were working for five years at the bank and from what I remember, it was a very good position. What led you to decide, Hey, I want to get out of corporate America, get back to the US and get back get into some sort of farming? Yeah, man, I wasn't even in corporate America. I would call this corporate Ireland Canada, because I was actually so the original plan was to go over to Ireland to just get my master's degree, play for a year over there and then I would come back and at the time, so I actually took my l s ats my second semester, my senior year, because before I got picked up by the program called sport changes life, I had the intention of going and getting my law degree and my Mba at the same time. You can do those hybrid programs for four years. The academic athletic advisor had suggested that I go that route to get both my MBA and my law degree at the same time. So I'd actually taken my l sats and then I got accepted into sport changes life and their master's programs over there are only about a year and length, so that would have worked out perfect. I would have got my master's and finance, come back to the US three years for law school and a way we would go. But I ended up falling in love with Ireland and really loving the team that I was playing with. So I finished up my courses at trinity in April of Two Thousand and fourteen and then I needed to write a dissertation. And the option for people to continue playing in Ireland generally is to coach in the schools. I really don't like coaching, so that was not going to be a good fit. So I needed to go use this brand new finance degree, and the team that I was playing on liked having me as a part of their team for whatever reason, and so they actually originally set me up with in interview at an accountancy firm in Dublin and I got offered a position as an intern there. And accepted it. And then a few months later before...

I was due to start that position, another position came up on this trading desk for a Canadian bank that had just been established in Dublin, and I thought, you know, I'll just go interview and see what happens. I would rather do that than accountancy anyways, and ended up getting that position as a risk management intern on, like said, brand new trading desk. When I started I was the seventh employee and we had about thirty million in trades on the book, so we were teeny tiny. There was no risk department, there were no risk systems, so basically I had to build that from scratch. Fast forward about three months and I had five interns of my own, and then fast forward another three months and they moved me into a junior trading position. So we did mainly securities, borrowing and lending. Equity Derivatives is the major umbrella that it falls underneath. So I did that for a few years but I just was bored. It was fourteen hours a day stuck at a computer. Mark you've known me for a while, I am not the type to just kind of sit around like it's just not in my nature right in retrospect to a lot, a lot easier for me to see. But so I just really was not enjoying it but didn't really have a plan and I saw the golden handcuffs getting sparklier and sparklier the longer I stayed. So I said, you know what, I think I'll go home. I don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I think I'll go home. The wonderful thing was because everybody kept giving Me Free School for basketball, I had no student debt, so I was essentially free and clear after graduating from all of my different degrees, which gave me a lot of flexibility and a little bit of safety net so that I could just kind of be like, well, I'm going to go figure it out because I had no bills to pay. Essentially, that's fantastic. Did you save? Did you follow good financial planning advice and did you save while you were at the bank? Of course I did. There are times now, when I am, what four years out of it, that I wish that I had had roommates and maybe had a little bit lower rent, had lowered some of my living expenses so that I would have had a larger nest egg to throw into my entire business. But you know what it is, what it is like, I said, I'm not strapped down with lots of student loan payments and everything else, which I know a lot of my peers are. So I come at it from I feel very blessed in that respect, absolutely so. When you got back to the US, both of your parents were far worse. I remember you telling me that you would never be a farmer. How did you get from there to crickets? Yes, I told just about everyone growing up that would listen, and even people who would not listen, that I was not going to do anything in egg and I was not going to be in the state of Iowa. Oh how the tables have turned. But I guess,... the way, I guess short for agriculture, right. Yes, I get short for agriculture, the entire industry. It's very broad and a lot more variety than I ever appreciated growing up, but that's another story for another day. So it was. Honestly, when I moved back, like I said, I did not have a plan. When I moved back, it was October, one of two thousand and seventeen, and harvest was in full swing at that point. So it just made sense for me to hop in and help during harvest while I, quote unquote, figured out what I was going to do next. The other portion of it is is maybe a little bit of secession planning on the part of my parents. I am one of two kids, so my brother is four years older than me and he's actually in a sixteen pilot in the air force. So he graduated from the Air Force Academy in two thousand and nine. He is way cooler than me. No matter what I do. He has a way cooler job and I'm totally okay with that. So that be said, growing up he would have been the one that would have made way more sense to come back and take over the farm. Needless to say, he's slightly busy. He actually also has four kids under the age of Eight, so he is really busy, but he has taken all that grandkid pressure off of me, so it is fantastic. Wows. So my parents really had nobody to come back and take over the farm. My Dad's one of ten kids. He grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Iowa, came down here to central Iowa and started from scratch. And so everything he is built. Obviously, you know, I think ideally my parents would love to be able to leave something to a next generation. So that was kind of when I came back. It was dabbling in like hey, what I like to do, this kind of agriculture, just traditional monocrops, corn and soybeans, things like that. Turns out I'm not really cut out for that in many ways, shapes and forms. But it was a really interesting experience and it gave me a very different contrast and off ramp from the banking world to, shall we say, a more blue collar, salt of the earth kind of a situation. So that was a good transition. It's just a little bit it's just a little bit different. Yes, right now, not much of a culture shock, shall we say. So how did you then decide? I remember you've told me in the past your father never wanted to deal with live stock because they require fair amount of attention on an ongoing basis and you can't disappear for a week for vacation with live stock. And so, knowing that, you went into I guess you would call crickets live stock, right. Yes, well, so I would not say that it was my dad so much that had the issue with live stock. I think that he originally would have liked to continue the dairy farming. It was my mother, I believe, that put down the ultimatum of if there are cows involved, I will not be involved. So...

I think that was how he landed on the corn and soybeans. But so for me, honestly, I didn't initially think about crickets as livestock. I very much do now, but their miniature and and they don't require quite as strict of a schedule as traditional livestock and cows that you need to milk and things like that. But the way that I got into it was actually a conversation that my my dad and I had post harvest when we received a gift basket from one of our landlords. It was full of Maple Syrup, which is like not something you see and Iowa very often, but it was. It came from a farm in Iowa. He looked at that and he said this is what you need to do something like this with higher margins, something that's totally niche, that people don't do commonly. You can blaze your own trail, basically make your own market. Like you need to figure something out like this. So that kind of planted the seed and then I listened to a lot of podcasts. I started listening to them probably in two thousand and fifteen and, believe it or not, eating bugs came up on like three different podcasts. So now, mark, I know you'll appreciate this being from Ireland, everybody is usually convinced that I ate my first cricket in Ireland and I'm like, Oh, no, no, what you need to understand about Ireland is food culture. Wise, the Irish are very similar to the Midwest in terms of food culture, extremely similar. Yes, so we are usually three to five years behind the trend, is the way that I would would call Ireland, and so not known for our progressive PALETTES. So let's just say that I did not eat my first bugs in Ireland. Surprise, surprise, I'm sure. And let me interject there show be it wouldn't have been a cricket, it would have been a grasshopper probably. So yeah, and so, yeah, so it came up on podcasts. Good. Did you, as you were planning this, this business, you were in the early stages. Was it your intention to combine your your physical activity, the gym part of it in with a high quality protein source. was that a goal or was that more by accident? In retrospect, I would love to say that it was a very clean cut goal that I did one hundred percent by a design, but I would probably be pulling your legs lightly there. It was a little bit of an accident and it just ultimately, as this has grown and morphed and evolved, what has remained true in the entire thing, the entire brand. I am sort of the constant and so whatever, which makes sense if you think about it. Anytime you build a brand like it needs to be authentically you so that it is consistent across everything. So I've made it abundantly clear that that is the waay it's going to be from the...

...beginning. So naturally, you know, I tend to do fairly extreme physical things on occasion, so tying that in just makes sense for me. It would never make sense for me to come out with the latest like junk food craze with the cricket twist, because that's just not something that I would incorporate into my life normally. So that just felt like a very natural natural marriage, if you will. Yeah, I think it's a perfect combination and it was really my initial interest in the product was from from the health aspects of it. So that that, I think, works very, very well. You've been sole proprietor the whole time. Talk about some of your struggles in starting a business like this. Yeah, well, so I have a few part time employees and then I have five contract growers, which I mean they're they're on contract. They don't get to ninety nine by me, but we I'm contracted to purchase their crickets and I taught them how to raise the crickets and everything. But starting out on my own, in many ways I look back and kind of wish that I had a cofounder. And then there's days where I have friends who have cofounders and absolutely tear their hair out. And so there's other days I am so glad I don't have a cofounder and basically anytime something goes wrong I get to blame it on my boss. So it's great. Some days she's having a good day, some days she's having a bad one. I mean, the biggest challenge for me, if I look back, is I had no idea what I was doing on either side of my business. From raising the crickets. I don't know mark of you ever tried your hand at raising some crickets? Absolutely not. No, see, but you could start a cricket business too, because that's exactly how I was almost four years ago. So it can be learned. It's not that complicated. But so I was learning how to grow this animal and then I was also learning the food business on the other side, right, two things that I had absolutely zero experience, zero knowledge, and if I look back four years now, I kind of go what be heck was I thinking? Like what I was just, you know, had just turned twenty seven years old. was full of just naive enthusiasm, I think, which you know that can carry a pretty far sometimes. So I think my whole business model was a challenge because it was so new, but I also think personality wise, like that's what it attracted me to it. I've never been one to do what everybody else does. It's just not not in my nature. I'm a little naturally rebellious, naturally countrarian. So I think it just that was the biggest challenge with everything at the beginning because it just forget the like actually running the business, planning things out, like financial forecast all of that stuff. That's super easy. That's a spreadsheet. It's making that spreadsheet come to life.

That was the hard part and continues to be the hard part. So sure. So you said the financial piece of it was easy. I suspect the bank experience helped with the projections and and some of the basic business planning, as well as your financial planning background. You do have employees. Now you have a few employees. What challenges have you experienced in terms of adding personnel? Adding personnel has been very interesting. So that's when like a last twelve months development for me that has has come out of necessity and probably needed to come six months earlier than it did. Part of it is always a question of what level of sales do I need to be able to sustain this and live to fight another day? What what tasks? How much time am I actually dedicating to tasks that I could easily delegate to someone to free me up for the more value added things? So there was a lot of I wouldn't call it soul searching, but just a general assessment, like general, honest, high level assessment of where was my time being devoted and were those actually moving the ball forward? And what would have moved the ball forward twelve months ago. needs to be reassessed to see if allocating my time to that is that we're really needs to be like, what are the high value things in my business that only I can do, because there are some things that are that way, and what are the other things that I can delegate away? I am not perfect at that. I am still working on it, but having to part time employees has helped massively. The other thing here in aims Iowa, we actually have the nation's lowest unemployment rate and have for like multiple years, even though we're in a college town. So getting consistent Labor is difficult for me. Often Times it is, you know, sixteen, Seventeen, eighteen year olds that want like an after school of job or something, which works great for my setup. But I am not looking forward to recruiting for some more like he employees, so things like, you know, ahead of sales or ahead of operations. That's like the really key employees that maybe salaried or something like that. That may end up being a harder fine for me. So that's something I'm not looking forward to. But you know, it's one of those things, I think with building a business you just have to be flexible and and roll with the punches as they come at you. Hmm, what's the one key takeaway that you'd like to share with the listeners in terms of how to approach decisionmaking? I would say that perfect is the enemy of done. I think if I waited until time, conditions, situation, market timing, all of those things, if I tried to, you know, nail that perfectly before I launched, it would have never happened.

Even things down to like packaging for my first product, flavors offered for my first product. Man, I look at that stuff in retrospect and I go it is a miracle anyone bought anything, but the fact is is people did, even though it was subpar packaging in my eyes, or, you know, the flavors weren't quite what they should have been. But that's how I learned. It was very iterative. Not Everything went well, but that's the reality of it. So perfect is the enemy of done. Don't wait until it's perfect, because it never will be. That's how I was going to sum up your your whole sentence there. My personal favorite is the banana bread. I think that's a great one. I've had them all, but that's probably my favorite. Finally, what was the last non financial related decision you had to make today? Just something as simple as, you know, coffee or tea or what was the last non financial decision? It was which tea did I want? Should I want one with caffeine in it or in did I want one without caffeine? So it depends on the kind of day that's ahead. Well, for what it's worth, I chose Caffeine. Good choice me too. I'm going to I'm going to ask one other question too before I wrap up here, because this is one which I think is particularly relevant to your stage in the life of Your Business. Showby are you able to separate your personal finances from Your Business Finances at this point? No, no, well, yes and no again. I so. I still live in my parents basement, so that helps on the whole, like expenses side, and then I have not cord everything that I had from my previous career into this one, so that helps. There is a separation, there slight delineation, but the rest of my life, I mean you know, you you own a business for freedom, right, but then the business owns you. But that being said, I I enjoy being owned by this business right now. So yes, there is a separation, sort of, but the lines are getting grayer by the day. Great thanks for sharing that. So thanks very much, jamark and shelby for letting US listening on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives and thank you for tuning in. We hope you'll join US next time on decision dialogs for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now. Thank you for listening to decision dialogs. We hope you found today's stories helpful for your own decisionmaking. If you like to listen to more episodes, you can subscribe on your preferred podcasting APP or visit our website, where you'll also find show notes and important disclosures. WWW DOT...

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