About this episode

This week’s featured founder is Emma Rose Cohen, CEO and co-founder of FinalStraw. FinalStraw is a collapsible and reusable straw for a sucking alternative that will help reduce plastic waste across the globe. The inspirational and educational side of her story includes a Kickstarter experience that many hope for when they launch their Kickstarter campaign. In fact, FinalStraw raised $1.89 million during their campaign.

Today you will hear about Emma’s very high-level pre-launch strategy that helped FinalStraw to raise so much money during their campaign. We also discussed how she spent significant time researching the writers and influencers in the straw movement. In fact, prior to launching her campaign, she had hundreds of authors at-the-ready to help promote the campaign. She knew what thought streams to insert her product into to get people talking about it. You will learn how Emma kept her focus amidst all the noise and the negativity. Finally, we talked about how challenging growth can be for a startup after having such a successful Kickstarter campaign. But, we’ll start at the beginning of Emma’s story. This is Emma Rose’s startup story.

In this episode, you will hear

  • When Emma started thinking about how privileged she was in the world that she realized she had to figure out what her contribution to the world would be
  • About her visit to Thailand and how it changed her life as she picked up abandoned straws on the beach
  • How to maintain your perspective and passion as you begin to work on a new idea
  • That timing is everything - you can have an idea that you think will change the world, but the timing is so important because the world has to be ready for it
  • The importance of a pre-launch strategy
  • How important the valleys are in the process and the need to keep things together with a support network
  • Good entrepreneurs realize that failures are valuable
  • That every habit is like a muscle, and with fear of failure it is important to learn to let go of those boundaries and channel your inner self to overcome fear
  • The importance of having a goal and a symbol for it so that you know when you have succeeded in your mission and don’t accidentally pass it up
  • Celebrating wins along the way is critical to keeping everything exciting on the journey

“I would walk along a remote beach in Thailand every morning and pick up abandoned straws. Each morning I would collect two handfuls. I had to be part of the change” - Emma Rose Cohen, FinalStraw

“I pivot in my approach quite a bit, but I am ALWAYS moving forward.” - Emma Rose Cohen, FinalStraw

## Resources from this episode
Connect with Emma on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emmarosecohen
Follow Emma on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/emmasirena/?hl=en
FinalStraw on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_finalstraw_/?hl=en
FinalStraw: https://finalstraw.com/
Tim Ferris 4-Hour Work Week: https://amzn.to/2GlPa2o
Tim Ferris Kickstarter Plan: https://tim.blog/2012/12/18/hacking-kickstarter-how-to-raise-100000-in-10-days-includes-successful-templates-e-mails-etc/
Principles: LIfe and Work by Ray Dalio: https://amzn.to/2Pptt5Q

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Full Episode Transcript

Special Guest: Emma Rose Cohen.

Sponsored By:

Episode transcript

The Startup Story - Emma Rose Cohen

Emma Rose Cohen: Hey there. My name's Emma Rose Cohen, and I am CEO and Co Founder of FinalStraw , and this is MY startup story.

James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.

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James McKinney: Before we jump into our episode this week, I want to share a review that was posted on iTunes by a past guest, Ilana Zivkovich, who gave The Startup Story a five star rating and wrote, "James is a truly masterful interviewer, with a compelling vision of inspiring and supporting entrepreneurs out there at all stages of the journey through his attentive work with existing founders. As a result, The Startup Story fills a valuable space in the podcast realm of the personal side of entrepreneurship. As a featured entrepreneur, I cannot speak highly enough about my experience working with James. This podcast is a must listen for anyone contemplating building something from scratch, as well as those farther in the journey seeking their next source of inspiration." Thank you so much, Ilana, for an incredible review. For those listening, Ilana shared her story just a few weeks ago as she was talking about her startup WERQ. In fact, in that episode, she offered 20% off all services if you mentioned The Startup Story when you speak to them, so make sure you check that episode out with Ilana, and check out her startup at WERQpeople.com.

Just a reminder. If you found any value in any of The Startup Story episodes, please leave a review and plug your brand in it. I will continue reading a review every week and giving your brand or startup a plug is the least I can do for taking the time out of your day to write a review, so please do so.

Now, let's jump into this week's episode. Our guest today is Emma Rose Cohen, CEO and Co Founder of FinalStraw. FinalStraw is a collapsible and reusable straw for a sucking alternative that will help reduce plastic waste across the globe. I'm going to be honest, I don't know too many startups that I get to introduce as a sucking alternative, but that is a part of the entertaining side of Emma's startup story. The inspirational and educational side of her story includes a Kickstarter experience that many hope for when they launch their Kickstarter campaign. In fact, FinalStraw raised $1.89 million during their campaign.

Emma Rose Cohen: We could not be the more quintessential Kickstarter story. It's like two kids with an idea and some spray paint that like are able to just blow an idea up, and then from there it's like, "Oh shit, we have to make 200,000 straws." Without any idea how to do it. I mean, this is just the most classic story, and it's also just the proof that literally anyone can do it because if you just have that unfailing determination, but also listening to social perceptions and cues, that will guide you as long as you can just keep getting back up.

James McKinney: In this episode, you will hear a very high level prelaunch strategy that helped FinalStraw to raise so much money during their campaign. You will learn how Emma keeps her focus amidst all the noise and the naysayers, and you will discover just how challenging growth can be for a startup after having such a successful Kickstarter campaign. Looking back on Emma's childhood, it's easy to see how environmental initiatives were going to be a very common thread throughout her life. You can also see how creativity plays a role in everything she does. Yet her story truly did not merge the two until her later years when she found herself on a remote beach in Thailand where she would spend the quiet morning hours, walking the beach, picking up discarded straws. But let's not jump ahead. Like all great stories, we need to start at the beginning, and Emma's early days were incredibly lively.

Emma Rose Cohen: My first job was I would go around and collect all the fallen fruit off my neighbor's trees and then go sell it at farmers market, so looking back I'm like, "Oh wow, I guess waste minimization was always part of the ultimate plan." But back then, I was just looking to make a quick dime. I would hire my friends and my sister. We'd go to the market and sell this kind of bruised fruit, but people just thought we were cute so they'd buy from us.

James McKinney: That's awesome. How old were you at that time?

Emma Rose Cohen: I was seven when that business started. Additionally, I had another business where we would dress up and perform at garage sales. So you wouldn't have to hire us or anything, but we'd go and then we'd do the little hat with the tips. Yeah, it's so funny to look back on that now and just be like, "Okay, it all makes a little bit of sense."

James McKinney: Now, where do you think you got that from? Were you parents, what were their jobs?

Emma Rose Cohen: I think that as the older child, you have this fierce sense of independence. Growing up, I was so into my independence and being self sufficient, and being able to take care of myself. Isn't everything from our parents and childhood?

James McKinney: It all plays in, right? We try to reject it for some period of time.

Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah, we're just tiny little robots that get programmed by our environment when we're little. So everything really can go back to that.

James McKinney: So here you are hustling fruit, your live performances at all local garage sales. So let's jump to your high school years. What did you think your future held, and what was your junior, senior year? There's career days, there's all these things. People are talking about taking the test and getting to college. What was in your mind at that point in time?

Emma Rose Cohen: Oh man. I'll be super honest. Not a lot. I found weed at a young age and I was really into it growing up. Luckily, I was able to balance school with that and still get really good grades, but I didn't really… I don't know. I was your classic teenage dirt bag really. Just going to school and thank God for my dad's genetics that I got. I'm pretty good at school, but I was just partying and smoking. Knew I wanted to go to college only because I wanted to get out of the house, but not really because I had a certain career in mind. It's a product of who you hang out with in high school, and I think growing up I usually, I hung out with really great people. When I went to high school, I started hanging out with people that didn't really think about their futures. So I kind of stopped for those years.

James McKinney: I agree, definitely the circle that you run with has an influence on you. Especially now in your adult entrepreneur days, I'm sure you can see that as well, your immediate five, yeah.

Emma Rose Cohen: The second I started hanging out with someone that is feeling my same frequency, it's like our ideas just explode and we're like, we're up til 4 a.m. talking and then we look at our phone, like, "Oh my gosh, I have an 8 a.m. meeting. What are we doing?" And we can't stop. I think that is definitely one of the most important things when you feel stuck in some way. It might not be you. There's a great quote, pardon my French on this one but I have to put it directly. "Before you diagnose yourself with depression, make sure you're not surrounded by assholes."

James McKinney: That is so good. That is a great quote. That's definitely going to be one of our Instagram images for your episode. So when did you start making that shift in your college journey? When did you start making that shift to understanding what it is you wanted to do long term, what your purpose was? When did that start coming into focus?

Emma Rose Cohen: There was kind of two pretty formative events I would say. First was that some girlfriends and I were helping out with a single use plastic bag ban in Santa Barbara. We just like wanted to do it on our own terms. We happened to have a bunch of mermaid outfits laying around, so we dressed up like mermaids and we go to City Council meetings and we do beach cleanups, and this turned into an afterschool program and we called ourselves "Save the Mermaids." Eventually turned it into a 501(c)3 nonprofit. That's really when I found that my passion is in sustainability and in raising awareness around waste management. Up until that, I studied neuroscience in my undergrad at University of Santa Barbara. I loved it and I thought it was so fascinating, but after spending a semester working and doing my EMT, I realized that I hate hospitals and that it would be the opposite of really what I want my work environment to be. I took a quick pivot on that one.

It all really came together on a trip that I went on in southeast Asia. I was in Cambodia and it's still so ravaged by the Khmer Rouge and that time. It was very intense for me. I read this quote by Noam Chomsky and it said some of the most powerful words I've ever heard, and it was, "With increased privilege comes increased responsibility." Those words just hit me so hard, feeling so privileged to grow up in a family where my parents are together and they love me, and they're supportive. And I got to go to college. All of these incredible things and I was just looking at what is my impact been on the world so far. What if I died today? What would people say about me? It was somewhat depressing because I didn't like what my legacy would be at that point. So I kind of just was like quarter life crisis, I have to move home. I have to break up with my boyfriend. I have to leave everything I know. I've got to apply to grad school and get a job in this field. It was just like boom, I've got to make these changes in order to really find my path and figure out what my contribution is for the world.

James McKinney: That's incredible and I thank you for sharing that. What did you see of your legacy at that moment in time that was so significant that you knew you had to 180? What was it that you were seeing in yourself?

Emma Rose Cohen: It was just so mediocre. I was making jewelry. That was my big gig. I had started a company doing hair feathers for celebrities. Really random shit that was like… it wasn't really contributing to the greater good. I think by reading that Noam Chomsky quote I realized that it is my duty, because of what I was born into, to make the world better for others who aren't as fortunate. That really was what made everything change and has really put me down that is path. Talk about 180's. I was just your classic pot smoking kid, putting in hair feathers and making enough money to get by. Then it was something about this trip just really switched the way I thought about the world, about my daily activities, about how I spend my time, and about the impact that I want to leave.

James McKinney: That is awesome. How long ago was that trip?

Emma Rose Cohen: So that was in 2013. Also on that trip was really when my obsession with straws started. I was on a remote beach in Thailand. I was on Ton Sai which at the time was a lot smaller than it is now, but this tiny little village where everyone there was a dirt bag climber, just hanging out. I would walk along the beach every morning and collect straws. There was just like two fistfuls every morning. I've got this photo of me in Thailand, holding them over my face, and it was just like that was the moment where I was like, "What are we doing? Straws are so stupid and for the majority of people, completely unnecessary." Yet they leave this lasting impact on the earth. That was where that obsession started.

James McKinney: So 2013 was a big year. You had that realization and your obsession with straws started happening. So you come home. What were those next steps for you? Also too, what were your next steps for you and then how do you maintain that perspective and that passion six years after the fact? It's easy for us to kind of get that, again I'm not diminishing the experience but that camp high and come back and be fine or be back to our norm 60 days later.

Emma Rose Cohen: I go through the highs and lows every day. If you're close to me, you know you're getting a 1 a.m. text with some crazy idea I have, and then the next morning I look back and I'm like, "What was that?" So I came back. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time and just basically left everything. I moved home, broke up with the person I was dating at the time, and left all of my very close friends to move back in with my parents at 29 years of age, which was not a proud moment. Just work and save money and really dive into whatever it was that was the passion. Because I pivoted so many times, and at that moment I thought it was environmental law. I thought I needed to write laws to change policy.

What I realized through kind of going into that and doing one semester with the JDMBA was that you don't need to fight the laws, you can work from the inside. So that is how I ended up applying for a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in their waste minimization department, and then also applying to do a master's at Harvard in environmental management and sustainability. But I would say the way I kind of go about my thoughts and my passions is a little bit like pinball. I kind of just keep bouncing back and forth, but it gets narrower. There is kind of one trajectory, and the big one is fix plastic pollution in the planet. That is my big thing. So what can I start doing on these smaller things that then are growing and expanding into that larger goal?

James McKinney: So knowing that you have that focus of eliminating or reducing plastics in the ocean, FinalStraw is I assume step one in that mission. So you have your stints in law school, knowing that's not necessary to change the world that you want to change. You have this internship at Los Alamos. How do you get to the idea of FinalStraw? What is that journey to the idea of FinalStraw?

Emma Rose Cohen: In my final year in my master's program, we had to do a thesis. Everyone was kind of coming up with these random things. I started thinking about what is one thing that just really annoys me on a daily basis? The thing I thought of is every time I go out to eat, I can't eat a bunch at once so I always have to take something to go. I hate the to-go containers because you never know what you're going to get. You're going to get Styrofoam, you're going to get plastic, you're going to get aluminum, all of these different things. Then I go home, and then I put it on a plate and I eat it, and then I throw that thing away. So my idea was to first of all, look at a life cycle assessment of a reasonable container. So how many times does this reasonable container need to be reused in order to hit the breakeven point with a single use container? Secondly, could I design something that would be convenient to carry, easy to use, and simple to clean? So I designed this collapsible to-go container, and that was what my thesis project was on.

So I wrap that up and a couple months later, I'm pretty miserable at Los Alamos. I'm just… I'm not a federal worker. That's just not me. I'm way too weird and I want to be able to use my creative expression in whatever I do. So I'm there, I'm miserable, I'm ready to quit and just go be a ski bum or something. I didn't really know what I was doing. I get a call from my co founder and he was like, "Hey, I've got this concept for a reusable straw that fits in a case." I was like, "Huh, this is interesting. I was just working on this collapsible idea. Straws are about to get banned in Seattle. What cool timing." But you know, do people really use straws? Is that a big thing? And because I quit using straws like five years ago.

So we were like well, probably, I think some people out there use straws. It seems like they're common. So we just kind of started going down the path and working on the product, and creating a prototype. Then I was working on all of the marketing and creating a social media presence. It was really so fun. If you look back on the old FinalStraw Instagram, all those memes, that was me. On a Saturday night, just like giggling incessantly to myself while making really silly content. That's where I find my passion is delivering messages in a way where people are open to hearing it. Because when you have a smile on your face and you're laughing, when there's something creative and interesting, you're so much more open to other ideas.

So October 2017 was the first conversation around this straw concept, which went through many different naming iterations. At one point we thought it would be a good idea to call it Suck It, which is a terrible idea. The big problem is that I have a sense of a humor like a 14 year old boy. So luckily, I test most of the things I do and I will go around and ask people, "Is this a good idea?" and all my girlfriends were like, "Have you heard of Me Too?" I was like, "Oh yeah, right. Okay. That's a terrible name for a company you have to put your mouth on an object. Okay. Strike that, never mind." So we ended up busting our butts and working really hard and studying all of the popular Kickstarters. Mirroring what we loved and rejecting what we didn't, and launched in April of 2018 to a world that loved talking about straws. You can read as many business books as you want out there, but ultimately what will determine the success or failure of your company is timing. It's that simple, and that's the hardest things I that we might have had these great ideas and changed the world, but if people aren't ready, then it's nothing.

James McKinney: Yeah. I want to talk about timing because based on that 2018 date, there were a lot of things happening in the world around straws. But before we get there, in that time span you took us through from your thesis to your prototype of your collapsible to-go container, you inserted your co founder into that story. How did he come into play? How did you guys meet? Was he part of your MBA program? How did you guys connect prior to FinalStraw?

Emma Rose Cohen: My co founder, Miles, was dating a girlfriend of mine, one of my best friends. She's 28, he's 23, and when she first started telling me… or I think he was 21 at the time or when they first started. She was telling me about him, I'm like, "You're dating a what? Okay, cool I guess." Anyways, I met him at Burning Man. For about an hour we hung out, and he seemed like a really great guy, and he had a really nice energy. I was intrigued to talk to him. So that is how we met. I was dressed up in a nun outfit and that will always be his first impression of me. He initially just called me up to chat. I don't think he really had an agenda, and I never had an agenda. I thought it was a cool idea. I thought it was fun. Mind you, I was really bored at my job so I was kind of like, "I'll help out with anything." So it really started off as me just kind of doing like some consulting stuff and throwing around ideas. But with my obsessive personality, that doesn't last very long. So all the sudden, it's me working nonstop, quitting my job, and really creating a brand and a voice through this company.

James McKinney: Awesome. So now that brings us to your Kickstarter campaign. FinalStraw. You didn't go with Suck It, totally understand that. So April of 2018 is your Kickstarter and statistically, there's lots of ways to game a Kickstarter, but statistically most Kickstarters don't succeed. What was your Kickstarter experience and what did you do before the launch, and then how did the launch that Kickstarter campaign go?

Emma Rose Cohen: Sure. So the key to a successful Kickstarter is prelaunch strategy. If you're not launching to an audience that is excited about your idea, hungry to find out more, and has a level of trust that you're going to deliver a product, then there is no point in launching. I actually have a canned response Kickstarter advice reply, because I get emails all the time, "Hey, I'm throwing this Kickstarter. What advice do you have?" So I always send them these two articles by Tim Ferris, or someone actually wrote on his blog. One of them is how to collect 100,000 emails, and the other one is how to raise $100,000. Two very, very detailed descriptions of pre campaign strategies.

I could explain them now, but I would just going up and looking at these articles, and doing exactly what they said because that is what we did. You need an audience to launch to. If you launch on Kickstarter and think that the organic traffic on their platform is enough, you're very wrong. Maybe you're going to get lucky, but I think the pre campaign strategy mixed with the social following that I had created through just making silly memes and doing the social hustle. I was able to get us a following of about 10,000 people before we launched. Then, additionally, I was following every single news story around plastic straws. So I knew every single reporter that had written an article about plastic straws, which was a lot.

James McKinney: Yeah. It was huge then.

Emma Rose Cohen: 700 articles up until when we launched about plastic straws, and now there's thousands and thousands. So I was constantly trying to basically spamming all those reporters with what we were doing. So it was kind of that mix and trying to be creative, and being scrappy, and finding anyone that would talk to me or listen to me, and hear about what we were working on and send them a prototype and just hope that they'll tell their friends.

James McKinney: How long did your campaign run for?

Emma Rose Cohen: 30 days.

James McKinney: How much did you raise?

Emma Rose Cohen: $1.89 million.

James McKinney: That is rad.

Emma Rose Cohen: It's nuts. It's unbelievable. The day before launch, I'm just praying that we're going to sell enough straws that I won't have to make them myself in the garage.

James McKinney: That is amazing. So we're talking, well actually by the time your episode airs, it'll be a year from when your Kickstarter launched, be it'll be launching in April. What an amazing story of that Kickstarter success. But let's talk about the after side of Kickstarter. Now you have to go into manufacturing and fulfillment, and you can hear there are so many stories of where companies just fall apart because they either underestimated the manufacturing cost or the volume of success was going to come from Kickstarter. What was your post Kickstarter plan? So really what was the last year like for you?

Emma Rose Cohen: We could not be the more quintessential Kickstarter story. It's like two kids with an idea and some spray paint that like are able to just blow an idea up, and then from there it's like, "Oh shit, we have to make 200,000 straws." Without any idea how to do it. I mean, this is just the most classic story, and it's also just the proof that literally anyone can do it because if you just have that unfailing determination, but also listening to social perceptions and cues, that will guide you as long as you can just keep getting back up.

James McKinney: I don't want to roll over that real quick. You said, "keep getting back up." Is the implication that some things are going to suck and you're going to keep getting knocked down? Let's talk about those.

Emma Rose Cohen: I don't even know how many times I've broken down in tears. I've felt so alone that I don't have anyone to go to, that no one understands what I'm working on, that it's all for nothing, this is worthless, and removing straws from the waste stream isn't going to change anything. I can get down on myself in a million different ways, whether it's social, personal, environmental. I think the self talk is really where you start to go down and that's where I really had to just do a ton of work on self-care and ensuring that I'm getting adequate exercise, adequate nutrition, and definitely not adequate sleep but I at least will try sometimes.

James McKinney: How significant is your… because I want to stay on this section for just a moment because I think it's so critical. I think it's a part of entrepreneurship that does not get talked about enough, and that is those valleys. We talk about the peaks and you see those fake Instagram, "Oh, I'm an entrepreneur. Shopify made $400,000 first 30 days and I'm working valet, but I'm sitting in this Lambo right now for the photo." But I want to talk about the real side of it, and that is in those values. How critical has your community or network been, or other entrepreneurs been to your sanity in this journey?

Emma Rose Cohen: It's everything. It's the only thing holding me together. They are like the glue and I'm all the pieces that are not quite put together. Having the support network, having an incredibly strong partner is so important. And not necessarily business partner. I'm talking just any sort of partner in your life. It could be a best friend. It could be a romantic partner or it could involve business, but it's what I can go back to. It's my safety and with a brand new company that's not even a year old, there's so many unknowns.

It feels like if you've ever been camping, I did this survival thing and I learned how to make a bow drill fire. It's like it's so hard, and you've worked up this whole sweat, and you're just like… you're exhausted physically and then you get this tiny little spark. Then from there, you have to like bundle it in this little thing of fibers to make a tiny little flame, and then you've just worked your ass off for this tiny, tiny, tiny little flame that you hold in your hand. Then you have to go put that into the fire and hope that you can spark something bigger. But then there's wind, and there's rain, and there's all these natural elements that are trying to blow your fire out. That's just how it feels right now. I've just got this little flame. All I can do is just hurl my body over it to try and save it, and that's the closest way I can describe it.

James McKinney: That is a spectacularly accurate description of what this is like. Man, that was incredibly visual. That was so authentic. In this year, you come off of a massive high of $1.89 Kickstarter, just hugely successful in the realm of Kickstarters. One would think, maybe our listeners are thinking, "My gosh, if I had a Kickstarter that was successful at $1.89, my startup, it would be a lot easier to execute and I wouldn't be nearly discouraged." Let's give some real truth to that narrative. Because a lot of people think money just answers it when it comes to executing, and that's just not the truth. So what was your experience like as soon as it ended and the high was over. What was real life like?

Emma Rose Cohen: Mo money, mo problems.

James McKinney: Absolutely. But in your space?

Emma Rose Cohen: That is really… sums it up. When you have an expectation or actually a hope and a prayer and a dream of selling like 70,000 I couldn't even think bigger than that. I recently learned to set my goals much higher than I necessarily think are accomplishable, because I tend to hold myself back with I want to accomplish my goals and so I set them lower in order to know that I can hit them. So the Kickstarter closes and it's like we didn't even celebrate. There was nothing. It was work for 16 to 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. It still is. It's nonstop.

I'm in Telluride right now at a venture accelerator and it's we're working on content all day. I think the guys working in the bar underneath the workspace think I just moved in, like I just live there. But it's so much more complicated trying to deliver product to 100,000 people. The logistics alone is so complex. When you have zero infrastructure set up. We launched this Kickstarter, we didn't have a manufacturer, we didn't have a 3PO. We didn't have any sort of financial experience.

So to divert a little bit, like two weeks into doing the Kickstarter, we get an interesting call from a very famous TV show where you go and pitch your ideas. Well, you can't say no to that. So two weeks after the Kickstarter closed, we go on Shark Tank and present our prototype. But two weeks into the Kickstarter when they first called us, they were like, "Okay, send us your balance sheets, your P&L's, blah, blah, blah." Were' like Googling in the background what's a balance sheet. You know? I mean it's like it's that bad. Honestly, I've been telling this story publicly because I think that people can get discouraged by what it looks like you have to come up against, and I think the biggest thing in business is you learn on the fly. You're going to make so many mistakes.

Geez Louise. It's just never ending, the amount of mess-ups I make in a day, but if you're a good entrepreneur, you're going to learn from those and you're going to hold those failures and those lessons very near and dear to your heart, and you're going to take those and you're going to create successes out of those. You're also going to create more failures, but it's that trajectory. It's continuing to ping pong back and forth along this line where you know this greater goal. You don't know how you're going to get there, you don't know who's going to go with you, but you know you're going and nothing is going to stop you.

James McKinney: Oh man, that was so incredibly powerful. I could not agree more with the value of failure. But my curiosity wants to ask, when you look at your journey, what do you see as the most valuable failure you've gone through, because it's contributed to so much more in your life?

Emma Rose Cohen: Oh, I mean 100% trusting my guts. I've found that my intuition is so powerful and when I can tap in and really listen to what I know the certain truths around the company, around the business, that I really am able to push things so rapidly when I can just channel that energy without obstacles. To give this a concrete example, I had my first operations person who was working for me, I knew it wasn't right, but I wasn't really in charge of operations. Miles was watching that, and she was working more directly with him. But every time I would interact with her, it left me with a lot of questions and concerns, and lack of communication to the point where we had to have a talk about that. I said, "Hey, I'm not trying to micromanage. I just need to know what's going on." Ultimately, I didn't listen to my gut and I was just like I'll let Miles deal with that.

Well, what that led to was that 10,000 packages did not get delivered before Christmas when we promised they were going to. We essentially ruined 10,000 people's Christmases and you can imagine what that customer service email looks like. So I spent my holidays, this last year, praying for mercy amongst these furious Kickstarter backers who, first of all, it's a Kickstarter so we're really sorry we didn't deliver when we said we were going to but also, it's a Kickstarter. But then trying to remain empathetic to their concerns because ultimately I made a promise that I didn't keep. But then on my end, I'm like, "I'm working so hard, I have not even taken a nap. I don't even know which way is up and down and why are you yelling at me? What is going on?" That's when I also learned to not get… I'm so emotionally tied to the product that if someone makes any kind of complaint, I want to like fight them. So that's when I was like okay, I cannot answer customer service emails any longer. That is someone else's job and I take it way too personally. I feel like it's someone telling me that I am a bad person, when really they're just upset the product didn't arrive when they said it was going to.

James McKinney: Yeah. Oh man, that is awesome. The value in failure is so powerful and a lot of times, that fear of failure will cause us to miss out on some incredible opportunities for growth. I love that you embrace it.

Emma Rose Cohen: And I think a really good way to practice that on a daily basis, because I do. Everyone's like, "You're so extrovert, you're so good at talking to people." I'm like, "That is a skill that I taught myself to have." So I'll go out and I'll just kind of have this idea to say something to a stranger, but then you like talk yourself out of it, and you're like, "No, I don't want to bother them or anything." As I continue to push myself past that voice that says "keep it in," I let myself out and then I end up making these incredible connections, and meeting wonderful people, and having conversations that are riveting, and all of these things. So I think every habit we have is a muscle and you can train that muscle to be as strong as you want.

Obviously, a healthy amount of fear is what keeps humans alive and there is the fight or flight response for a reason, but that being said, learning when to try and let go of those boundaries, of those ties that we put on ourselves and just channel your inner self.

James McKinney: Yeah, yeah. Oh, that is awesome. Let me ask a question that I ask a lot of, because I have a feeling that you kind of live in this space. But one of the questions I ask every single founder on The Startup Story, it's about gratitude because we can't do this alone. We will drive ourselves insane. We'll reach a breaking point faster than is necessary. I also think too that when we lose sight of those people that have contributed to our life and to our careers and to our startups, when we lose sight of that we're inevitably going to end up at a point of failure because we're going to think we did this on our own. We think that we stood tall on our own. So when you look back at your life and your entrepreneurial journey, who do you look back to with just immense gratitude for their contribution to where you are today, where FinalStraw is? Who are all those people that you look to with an immense amount of gratitude?

Emma Rose Cohen: I mean, geez, there's so many. I can look back to like my second grade teacher who said to my mom, she had a really thick Texas accent, she said, "Emma and I are trying to figure out who's boss, and I'm going to win." I definitely, first and foremost, would have to say my parents. My dad is an entrepreneur and he's an architect, and he has his own company and is such a hard worker. I would always see him work so hard and I would never understand why. Why would you want to work that hard with your life? It doesn't seem very fun. Now, he can barely get me on the phone. He's like, "Can we talk? You're always working," and I'm just like oh my goodness. I get it now. I get what that's like, when you just want to be doing your thing and ensuring that every energy that you're putting forward is to advancing that.

And then to your point around gratitude on the team and not doing this alone, my function at FinalStraw has changed so much. When it started off, it felt like I was doing everything, and now I've really stepped back and I let my team do what they're best at. It really does feel like the conductor where you are kind of watching a symphony, and you're like, "What is he really doing?" He's just kind of waving a stick, but everyone is working together in this beautiful harmony, so you're like okay, he's probably just doing magic, but it's working." Everyone is blossoming in their own roles, and that is really I think a lot about what my role is transforming into is to inspiring those around me to be creative, feel autonomous, and do the best work that they can do to further this company and greater mission.

James McKinney: What do you think of that greater mission to eliminate, reduce plastics in the oceans? What is that next step for you? Because FinalStraw really is a chip in that large book that you have. What is that next step to accomplish that goal for you?

Emma Rose Cohen: So yeah. I mean I've definitely got the three, five, 10, and 20 year goals, but I would say keeping it in the three year goal. So FinalStraw is the first product of Final. We are working on all kinds of different Final products or "foreverables" that will replace single use plastics. We're currently prototyping a fork which I'm so excited about, because as I said, I'm not a straw user. I'm not my customer. But I am a fork user, and I bet you are too.

James McKinney: I am.

Emma Rose Cohen: So I'm really thrilled to keep in touch with my creative side, keep working on the brand voice. I love writing the scripts and doing the commercials, and doing all of that creative silly stuff. That's really what lights me up. Answering the emails is the shitty part about it, but we just have to do it. Together, that makes for the peaks and the valleys, and the whole experience.

James McKinney: What is that metric internally where you will know okay, I have accomplished that mission that I wanted to?

Emma Rose Cohen: This is building on that bigger mission, and I think that bigger mission yes, is reducing single use plastic, but it's also about increasing awareness around waste. I don't like to just focus on plastic because in a lot of instances, paper is just as bad. Plastic has the impact is really in the end of life, in that it doesn't go away. Well paper on the other hand requires a ton of energy, a ton of water, a ton of fuel for transport, and that is forgotten when we just look at paper straw versus plastic and say, "Oh, which is better?" My mission is really around awareness and education as well. But ultimately, it's about fixing the problem at the source, which is that we use things at an alarming rate for two seconds that are meant to last forever. Plastic isn't the problem, it's the way we use it. So changing those systems in addition to creating waste management facilities in countries that don't have it. I guess you can say when I build my first waste minimization plant in India, I will have felt like I made it.


James McKinney: That's awesome. The reason I ask that question, because it's one of those things that we can have a goal, but if we don't have a symbol of what that goal is, we don't know exactly what that metric or that target is, we may have passed it at some point and on the other side of that is just frustration. It's just I never accomplished it. Well, actually you did, you just never put a name to it. I knew you were so driven that there had to have been something.

Emma Rose Cohen: yeah. I mean it really is about solving problems for me. I do try and have smaller, littler wins in the way. I think one thing I've also really learned on this journey is how important it is to take a minute to celebrate the wins. When we closed our Kickstarter, there was no champagne. There was nothing. It was literally like cool, close, sweet, working until 3 a.m., next day boom. It never stopped. So I actually created a wins channel on Slack so we all do shout outs, and odd little wins. The tiny little things that keep me going on the day to day as I'm on this path to trying to put in this massive waste management facility in India really helps keep it fresh, keep it exciting, and keep the juju flowing.

James McKinney: You've mentioned a few things that lead me to believe that there is a mentor in your life. There's a lot of things that you've spoken to that have just been incredibly powerful. Celebrate the wins and the self narrative, and self care. What other entrepreneur, I'm assuming they're an entrepreneur but what mentor has really poured into you to help shape a lot of the way you approach your business?

Emma Rose Cohen: There's so many, and it's a lot of books, and it's a lot of reading. I'm lucky enough now to be in this network where I'm meeting more entrepreneurs because before Final, I could probably tell you two or three friends that I had that had started their businesses, and now it's like my eyes have been opened to this network of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to change it, and want to do it on their terms. I have to attribute Tim Ferris to a lot of my success. The Four Hour Work Week and just thinking differently about success. Then also thinking about hacking productivity and these tools that people use that are tried and true to make your days flow, to increase mental activity, to slow down mental activity. All of these different things that for these people that are performing at such a high level, whether it is business or athlete or any of these things. All of which that I really admire. I'm constantly trying to take those lessons and apply them to myself.

I'm reading Principles by Ray Dalio right now. It's great. I read the Boron Letters before that, that was great. There's so many resources out there and I think if you go with a 4.5 star Amazon review, you're pretty good. You're going to learn something. Maybe it's too long and maybe a lot of it's a waste of time, but I always find in these books something that does resonate with me on a very deep level, and then once I hit that frequency, it really starts to expand and grow, and change the way I'm thinking about business, because I am so new to it. This is my first real company. WTF? Overnight I went from like never running a company to having a multi-million dollar company. That's insane! The level of chance for failure was incredibly high. So I knew that, and I knew that I needed to dive in so I bought Accounting for Dummies. I go on YouTube. I have my PhD from University of YouTube. That is just where I've learned so much.

It's hard to speak to one. Obviously, I said my dad who's the smartest person I know. In his words, he has already forgotten more than I'll ever know. That's his favorite quote he likes to tell me, but it's true.

James McKinney: That's awesome.

Emma Rose Cohen: Yeah. The man is incredibly genius, but yeah he got mentors along the way and you never know. Geez, talking to some random person at a bar, you'll pick something up. I think that going into conversation with the curiosity that the person you're talking to is an expert in something that you're not an expert in. it really changes the type of questions you ask and the information that you'll get out of what could be a trivial or surface conversation.

James McKinney: That's awesome. So I'm going to ask you for a moment to be a mentor to our listeners. Our listeners are entrepreneurs at various stages. Maybe they're aspiring to be, maybe they're a frustrated entrepreneur. Maybe they're a defeated entrepreneur. But you're having coffee, not using a straw obviously, and you just want to pour something into them in that moment. What encouragement do you have for the entrepreneur listener right now?

Emma Rose Cohen: Well I guess the first thing I would ask them is what's your idea, and if it was shit I'd tell them to abandon it because it's horrible. I guess my advice would be to try and step back from the idea. You might be too close to it to see whether it has value or merit, and how much value it does have because if you had asked me a year ago if we were going to sell $70,000 worth of straws, I would have said, "I don't know. Maybe, I hope so." It's not that I knew that this was going to be an incredible success, but I also tested it in a very low stakes manner.

So it wasn't do or die for me. It wasn't get a second mortgage on the house. We put the idea out there in a controlled way and tested it. We also tested it with people who weren't our friends, because your friends are going to give you the worst advice, and they're going to say, "That's a great idea! Vitamin water for dogs, people are going to lose their minds!" and it's like no, that's a terrible idea. So I think it is about getting objective advice and testing. Everyone was like, "You guys need to go do market tests and look at your customer." It's like no, we just need to offer this to the public and see what happens. I think there are ways to test things without necessarily diving in.

Now, that being said, you also need to figure out when to go all in. I know that is a very difficult topic for a lot of people who can't necessarily afford to move forward without making sacrifices. So I wanted to quit my job. I'd saved up some money so it wasn't that hard. Ultimately, if you are lucky enough to be someone that feels like you have this higher purpose in something, that your life is dedicated to and then you just kind of have to believe in that and let that guide you. But also listen as things are happening for if you need to pivot or change, or slightly alter things.

I'm at this venture accelerator right now and there's this woman who's got this very cool material, and she's making a product out of it that has such a low population of people that are going to be interested in that product, and it's like, "Girl, you've got to pivot. I know you're so married to this idea because you put so much time and effort and energy into it. You're way too close to it, you've got to pull yourself out. You've got to look at what you're doing and the fact that there is no money for a reason, because this is a product that's not a viable business." Those are hard things to do, but that's also why I don't answer customer service emails anymore, because I'm too emotionally tied to those aspects of my business.

James McKinney: So how many of you now are contemplating moving forward on a Kickstarter to bring your startup to life? I hope Emma's story and Kickstarter success inspires many, but let's not overlook one key takeaway in her story, and that was preparation. She spent significant time researching the writers and influencers in the straw movement. In fact, prior to launching her campaign, she had hundreds of authors at the ready to help promote the campaign. She knew what thought streams to insert her product into to get people talking about it. She truly knew what strategies sucked and didn't suck. Yes, that pun was in fact very intentional. She also prepared by sitting with mentors and learning from those who have accomplished more than her, and were farther down the road than her.

Yet, her mentors, while they were real people, were mentors that she never met. She spoke about the books that she learned from, the thought leaders she'd listened to, and she even spoke about the influence that Tim Ferris has had in her life through all of his content. All of that input and influence she absorbed from such incredibly brilliant minds has contributed to her success. We will include the various books and resources that she spoke about in our show notes, so make sure you check that out.

In fact, I hope you view The Startup Story as your mentor. Sitting with Emma for this episode has inspired me greatly, and I'm incredibly grateful for Emma's willingness to share her startup story with all of us. I hope you will support Emma as she builds FinalStraw and extends her product offering. Please visit finalstraw.com and pick up a few FinalStraws for you, your employees, or even your friends and family. To use her words, "it's a great non waste solution that delivers an ergonomically sucking experience." I love Emma's sense of humor. Another way to support Emma is to follow FinalStraw on Instagram, @FinalStraw. I say it every episode because I mean it. Entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs, so let's support Emma and Final Straw.

And now, for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible with sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We are a startup and the most powerful way you can support The Startup Story podcast is to leave a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Share The Startup Story on your social media, either with a link or a screenshot. Make sure you tag or mention us @TheStartupStory.co so we can see your help and say thank you for it.

Lastly, share the podcast on your LinkedIn profile. The Startup Story is for entrepreneurs, so please do not underestimate the power of sharing The Startup Story on your LinkedIn profile so other entrepreneurs can discover us. In fact, most people struggle to share good content on LinkedIn anyways, so if you want to support The Startup Story then search for The Startup Story company page, follow us, and share our posts to help encourage other founders and spread the word about the podcast. Every single founder has a story, and the startup stories we bring you every week can encourage and inspire another founder. It might just be what they needed to hear to keep moving forward on their dreams. I look forward to sharing these stories every Tuesday with hopes to inspire you to start YOUR story.

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April 23 2019
Emma Rose Cohen, co-founder of FinalStraw

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