About this episode

This week's episode my guest this week is Michael Sharon, Co-founder of Taika. Taika is a stealth health brand that is looking to take CPG products that are consumed by millions of people every day and redesign them to be delicious and truly healthy for you. The brand has tremendous opportunities within many product categories but they're starting with coffee. They take 5 adaptogenic herbs that they bring to you in the coffee and it helps deliver focus and energy to your daily life.

What stood out to me was their packaging, but Michael’s story is incredible!

His story unpacks how he moved from South African and made his way to New York only to discover just how far behind our mobile technology was in 2002 especially as compared to the rest of the world.

This prompted Michael to launch his first mobile start-up. Now you might be asking ‘how does a mobile technology expert get to a place with launching a coffee brand?’, and well that is a great question and one that finds its answers through the halls of Facebook's headquarters in Silicon Valley but much like every start-up Story we need to start at the very beginning and Michael’s beginning is not like any other story that we have ever unpacked before.

In this episode, you'll hear:

  • How Michael was born in Israel then moved to South Africa as a child to a cult
  • How by the age of 10, he opted out of the cult when he found his love for video games and computers. But kept the vegetarian lifestyle until he was 38.
  • Michael shared how growing up he didn’t have a clear idea what his future would be, but he knew it would be related to computers.
  • How Michael went to University in South Africa and originally studied Computer science, mathematics, English literature and Astronomy. But he lost interest in computer science as it wasn’t challenging enough and ultimately, switched his degree to a degree in psychology and law but kept English literature.
  • While at University he was in a Band and after he graduated he started a production studio to create jingles to fund the production of his album.
  • How he went to work at Trigger as a brand strategist, this is where he had his first opportunity to sit down with the CEO and tell them the potential of their company.
  • Michael shares how he was let go from Trigger and used the opportunity to begin a graduate program.
  • In April 2002 he received a scholarship to NYU, his friends tried to persuade him not to go but he saw an opportunity in New York and wanted to take it.
  • While at University he was writing about mobile technology.
  • Michael shares how South Africa was a lot further ahead with mobile and bank technology compared with America, this sparked his entrepreneurial flare.
  • In 2005 he founded a Startup called Socialight, a location-based mobile social network. Another reason why he co-founded the company was that no one would hire him as he wasn’t an American citizen, so he hired himself.
  • How Socialight was ahead of its time and didn’t accompany the mobile technology at the time.
  • Michael shares how he joined Facebook as the Mobile Product Manager in 2008. He could take all of the ideas he had for Socialite and develop them on Facebook.
  • After 8 years he took a step back and assessed what he wanted to do.
  • Michael shares how he found the problem to Taika when at Facebook. Due to the high levels of stress, he was dealing with 5 to 6 cups of coffee a day, which wasn’t agreeing with him. So he went searching to understand how to create coffee that has the correct adaptative in it.
  • How he launched Taika in 2019 and tested it by adding a phone number on the front of it and changing its packaging every two weeks.
  • Michael explains the importance of creating a community through their CPG company

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Episode transcript

Michael Sharon: Hi, this is Michael Sharon, cofounder of Taika, and this is MY startup story.

  • 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. *

[00:29]

James McKinney: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. We have an exciting episode for you today, but before we jump in I want to encourage you to visit our friends at Light Ray Solutions. They're coming along stage early startups to help them establish their online presence in a way that is relevant to the current day consumer. And if there's anything that 2020 has taught us, and that 2021 is reinforcing, is that now is the best time to take action. So if you are an early stage startup looking to start building and developing that idea that you've been sitting on for quite some time, now is the time to start. Make sure to reach out to our friends at Light Ray Solutions. In fact if you visit lightraysolutions.com/thestartupstory they have a free gift for you and they have special pricing on two great web packages just for you, The Startup Story listener. Again, just visit lightraysolutions.com/thestartupstory to learn more. And of course we're going to include a link in our show notes for easy access. But again it's Light Ray Solutions, just like the light, luminous, lightraysolutions.com/thestartupstory. Now let's jump in to this week's episode.

Our guest this week is Michael Sharon, cofounder of Taika. Taika is a stealth health brand that is looking to take CPG products that are consumed by millions of people every day and redesign them to be delicious and truly healthy for you. The brand has tremendous opportunities within many product categories but they're starting with coffee. Now, Taika coffee takes five adaptogenic herbs, then they bring that to you in the coffee and it helps deliver focus and energy to your daily life. And I've had the coffee, and it truly is very good. But what stood out to me was their packaging and Michael's story. And here's a little taste of what you can expect in this episode.

You're going to hear how this South African native made his way to New York, only to discover just how far behind our mobile technology was in 2002, especially as compared to the rest of the world. And that lag in our current state prompted Michael to launch his first mobile startup. That mobile startup truly was a precursor to Yelp, Google Maps, Foursquare, and so many other major mobile brands that we know today. Now, you might be asking how does a mobile technology expert get to a place where they're launching a coffee brand? And well, that is a great question, and one that finds its answers through the halls of Facebook's headquarters in Silicon Valley. But much like every startup story, we need to start at the very beginning, and Michael's beginning is not like any other story that we have ever unpacked before.

[03:11]

Michael Sharon: I think I had a mostly happy childhood. I mean, okay let me set the stage for you. So I was born in Israel, lived there until the age of one, and then my parents decided it was a fine time to travel the world with their friends, and took me and my older sister - their two kids - to South Africa. So then I grew up in South Africa. You know, I was really the weird kid because I had a strange name and I was from another country, from Israel. And then to add to that I was also like sort of born into a cult.

[3:54]

James McKinney: But I have to ask, like I love how you're just like, "I was kind of born into a cult." I mean I know my listeners are going to go, "What? Hold on James, you have to ask about this." So please, tell me about this cult and how you happened to be born into it.

[04:09]

Michael Sharon: Yeah, okay. So it was a good cult in that cults can be good. It was sort of this like way of searching for spiritual truth. The way I figured it out was my parents grew up in the 60s in Israel, which is sort of a tense time. They went to the army. They sort of needed to decompress and they sort of skipped out on drugs and went straight to a cult. The cult was called Radha Soami Satsang Beas. You can look it up, they have Wikipedia pages. But basically they believe that you should be vegetarian, so you should lead a vegetarian life, and you should meditate twice a day. And I think what they were trying to go for was ascend to a higher plane by listening to like this sound. So that was kind of the cult. That was kind of it, so a pretty good cult if you think about it.

[05:07]

James McKinney: Is this something that was part of your life all throughout high school, or maybe even beyond then? Or was this just kind of the early years and then when they got to South Africa they discovered something differently? Was this truly part of a thread in your life for many, many years?

[05:21]

Michael Sharon: Oh no, it was totally part of my life. They're all still on the cult. At about age 10 I decided that it was more important for me to stay home and play video games, and play PlayStation Final Fantasy rather than go to the church meetings or the cult meetings on a Sunday. So I made that decision for myself to opt out of that. But I actually stayed vegetarian and kept the vegetarian lifestyle until I was like 38. So I did not really consciously try to eat meat until very, very late in life.

[05:59]

James McKinney: Well I can tell you right now my audience in Texas is definitely going to be saying, "I've been saying my whole life vegetarian is a cult," so I know my Texas audience is going to be leaning in on that narrative right there.

[06:11]

Michael Sharon: I mean they're not wrong:

[06:13]

James McKinney: So during your early years, your childhood years, your parents had to provide an income. What was your idea of what your future looked like? Was it punching a 9 to 5 somewhere? What did you think you wanted to do let's say come the end of high school?

[06:33]

Michael Sharon: Yeah, so great question. I think that gets back to why I explicitly took myself out of the age of 10 to play video games. I think I didn't know what my life would look like, but I knew that it would be related to computers, and would be related in some way to this kind of new medium that I was getting very, very excited about. My dad was also kind of… he was an engineer and we were sort of like one of the first families on my block or in the area to get access to modems and bulletin boards, and then the internet. He would always bring home sort of a new computer for me to sit down and get stuck into, and play with. So I didn't have a clear idea of what the future was going to be like some people. I admire that. I admire them, people that are like I am going to be a doctor and then they go out and they kind of do all the work, and become doctors. And I think that's phenomenal if you can have that certainty in your life. For me I knew that I needed to explore a lot more. One of the ways of exploring was exploring computer games, was exploring the internet, was exploring kind of these like strange new worlds that were just becoming possible.

[07:51]

James McKinney: Let's put a year on this. When did you finish high school?

[07:54]

Michael Sharon: I finished high school in 1995.

[07:59]

James McKinney: Oh, so we are the exact same age then, excellent. So '95. You look much younger than I do, my friend. Just going to put that out there.

[08:07]

Michael Sharon: It's just way too much hair.

[08:08]

James McKinney: You mentioned the idea of exploring new worlds, and we had Richard Gariott, really the kind of… man, the grandfather of, the great grandfather, whatever stigma you want to put, Lord, oh my goodness what was his-

[08:25]

Michael Sharon: Lord British.

[08:26]

James McKinney: Lord British, thank you. Just hearing his story and how central video games and computers were to his life, and how he just kept pushing the envelope of what could be. I can see that running through his life but we're not in video games for you. We're not talking to you because you're a game publisher. My assumption is at the end of high school maybe you went to some type of college for computer science. Is that a correct assumption?

[8:54]

Michael Sharon: Just like everything about me, like yes and no. So I went to a university in South Africa, called the University of the Witwaterstrand, which is a bit of a mouthful, but it was a university in Johannesburg where I grew up. I decided that I was going to try to put together a curriculum for myself which is based around all of the things that I really wanted to do and cared about. So number one was computer science. And then computer science had this annoying requirement that you also take mathematics, so I took mathematics. Then I really liked English so I took English Literature. I also really liked staring at that stars so I picked up astronomy. Astronomy was absolutely the hardest class I've ever done. It was phenomenally interesting but our lecturer kept complaining that he was teaching us sort of like second and third year maths just so we could grasp some of the concepts that he was trying to tell us about in astronomy. I remember walking out of my exam in astronomy really, really early and my lecturer was like, "Well, I guess that wasn't a supernova mark," and I was like, "Yep, yep, that's me in astronomy. That's my astronomy career."

Then computer science and mathematics I was interested and excited about, but with computer science I kind of wasn't learning quickly enough. I didn't feel like I was progressing quickly enough. I felt like I had already learnt some of the internals and the programming, and some of the concepts that they weren't going to get to until the second or third year of computer science. So I sort of lost interest and I also had a band at that stage that I was really excited about. So I switched my degree from a bachelor of science in computer science and astronomy and everything else. I kept English which is the only one I kept, and then I ended off with a degree in psychology and law.

[10:49]

James McKinney: Wow.

[10:50]

Michael Sharon: Yep.

[10:51]

James McKinney: That is so very different than how that story began.

[10:55]

Michael Sharon: Yeah. Like I said, yes and now.

[10:57]

James McKinney: I know that there's all kinds of bends. I'm going to just stop trying to assume and think what I think the story is going to be. So you have this degree in law now. What do you do with it after the end of college?

[11:12]

Michael Sharon: Yeah, great question. So graduated in '99 and the way law works in South Africa is you can do like an undergraduate degree with humanities courses, and include law as one of your courses, and then you can do your post grad law degree which is the bachelor of law, the LLB. So I'd finished my sort of like undergrad law degree, and then I started working on my post grad law degree but part time. Right at the end of high school I like… one of my friends from the band we were in together decided that we should try to start a new band, and we should start a production studio. So we built a music studio at a friend's house and we started recording jingles for the ad industry with the idea that we'd record some jingles, make some music, and then use that to fund the production of our album.

After three months everything just went sideways. The friends that we were at their house decided that my partner, the singer in my band, had way too many tattoos and so he was a bad influence on their child. They basically kicked us out of the studio that we were in. my friend simultaneously, at the same time, realized that he could actually get a really good job working for the World Cup Bid Committee. So remember when South Africa hosted the World Cup in like I think it was 2010 or something?

[12:49]

James McKinney: Yeah.

[12:50]

Michael Sharon: Basically like 10 years before, like all of the work started to get that going, and that was incredible. You could travel around the world, do all sorts of interesting things. So anyway my partner got a job doing that. And then I ended up getting a job. I got a job at this company called Acuity. It was sort of like this ad agency type of thing, but this is South Africa in like 2000. 1999 or 2000, we were seeing the boom in the US. There were very, very few companies in South Africa that were part of Web 1.0 and the tech thing. But this ad agency had decided that they wanted to be kind of the next Razorfish. So they were like, they bought a whole bunch of different vaguely related companies, and kind of merged them into one. The company that I was in was doing internet research. It was a guy called Arthur Goldstock and I was helping him put together and write some code to write surveys, run surveys, and then actually write the research about the state of the internet in South Africa. It was pretty fun, but as a company the overall concept of the ad agency just it was completely flawed. It totally didn't work. I think their share price sort of started off going like hockey sticking but in the wrong direction.

After kind of a year of that, I ended up getting a job at this other company which was a super cool brand consultancy called Trigger. Now, in South Africa there's a large tech company called Dimension Data. I think Trigger was funded somehow by Dimension Data, and then would also do a lot of work for startups that Dimension Data would invest in. We ended up just doing kind of like a whole lot of varied consulting work in building brands, doing all these kinds of things for these various startups. It was super fun. It was like the first company where they gave me one of those Macs. Do you remember the colored portable Macbooks?

[15:11]

James McKinney: They were like egg shaped almost.

[15:13]

Michael Sharon: Totally and they had like every single one had this different, distinctive color. So I had a nice orange one. The company I think they sold like a brand strategy in a boss. That was like their schtick. They would have a boxed brand strategy. I wasn't the strategist, but the real goal of the company is to sell the branding design work. But it was just a fantastic opportunity to sort of get a front seat into seeing how some startups work, and how they are kind of like thinking through and developing their plans. It wasn't just startups. So we got to work with startups working on like cell phone network detection tools. We went to there was a startup that was just about to create an online casino. And then we also worked for the South African government which was trying to create what they called an innovation hub. So they were basically like hey everybody does this. I guarantee that almost every single government around the world-

[16:22]

James McKinney: Yes they do.

[16:23]

Michael Sharon: … is like hey, checkout Silicon Valley, it's really cool. It should be really easy to build. All we have to do is add A, B, C, and put it in a single place and bam, done.

[16:34]

James McKinney: Yeah, let's take this floor in this building and put a bunch of open decks, and all of the sudden we're the next Silicon Valley.

[16:41]

Michael Sharon: Right, right. And all we do is we have a little bit of funding and maybe one engineer. It'll be great. Yeah, so that was that but it was really a phenomenal opportunity just to learn a little bit more about the work. As a strategist for me, it was not… I wasn't just a brand strategist or at least I didn't think of myself as just a brand strategist, but I had the opportunity. This is I was like what a 21 year old kid, had the opportunity to sit down with CEOs and tell them what the industry could look like in three years. So that was super fun.

[17:18]

James McKinney: That is an interesting place to be. You're 20 or 21, talking to CEOs, forward thinking of what the internet could be because again you're just now seeing internet 1.0 in South Africa. A very eclectic educational background. You were just coming off of a band and having a production studio doing ad jingle work if you will. So there's a lot of things that you have done. Did you start seeing things fall into place for you in this strategy role? Because it does require someone… Get strategists it does require someone to think outside the normal realm in which we process information. You're seeing things differently than other people, and I can tell your entire life journey you're seeing things differently than other people already. So were you starting to see things come together for you in that role?

[18:15]

Michael Sharon: Yes and no.

[18:17]

James McKinney: I knew that was going to be followed up with a "yes or no".

[18:22]

Michael Sharon: So yeah. There was a year of me working in the strategy role and did a whole bunch of stuff. It was super fun, it was exciting. Towards the end of 2001 like the bottom was falling out of the internet and things were crashing. The brand consultancy that I was working with, they were really selling their design work and they were like, "You know, we don't really need a strategist." So they sort of fired me like two weeks before Christmas, which was a super exciting opportunity. But the really exciting part about that, and the reason why I was not even that bothered, was because I'd just applied to a grad program at NYU. So there's an amazing graduate program in New York at NYU called the Interactive Telecommunications Program, and they basically… It's a mixture of art and engineering, and technology.

I'd applied to this program. It's also in the Tisch School of the Arts so it's sort of like one of the famous art schools. I applied to this program right around the same time. Obviously, I applied to MIT as well but I didn't know what I was going to get into. This was the thing that sort of made me excited and kept me going.

So as soon as I was let go from this ad agency, I actually switched to writing. I was sort of a writer and photographer. I'd been doing it sort of for fun on the side, mostly because I was interested in technology and wanted more outlets. So I was writing for African Communications Magazine and things like that. Then I started working for a magazine called SL which stands for Student life magazine, which is sort of like a youth culture magazine. Honestly, I didn't know it or realize it at the time but I was getting paid so well as a writer that I was covering like four or five times my monthly expenses in South Africa, and was able to write two or three articles a month, maybe take an occasional picture or two, and it was phenomenal.

[20:45]

James McKinney: That's awesome. So wait, you were at NYU in South Africa? Was it a distance class?

[20:53]

Michael Sharon: No, no. So end of 2001 I get fired from the ad agency at Trigger. I switch over to writing fulltime, and occasionally they let me take photographs and publish my photographs. And then in April I found out about getting accepted to NYU.

[21:12]

James McKinney: Got it, okay.

[21:13]

Michael Sharon: So this was all through April 2002. So remember in 2001 everybody was just like oh my God, New York is terrifying, everything is terrible, it's crazy, why would you want to go there. I would say maybe one theme that has been repeated in my life is that I really enjoy or I feel like I see opportunities in a lot of cases where a lot of people don't see the opportunity. I feel like the most satisfying feeling in the world is to kind of like look at the same place where everybody is looking, and pick up something that everybody has ignored and polish it, like you picked up a diamond on the side of the road.

[21:59]

James McKinney: I love that.

[22:01]

Michael Sharon: Obviously I had never visited the US before, I'd never lived in America. And obviously in South Africa you have a very different view and a very kind of floored view of what it is like to be in America, so people are really concerned and why would you even go there, that's crazy. But I think it was to me the opportunity was so clear. I really felt like I needed to get there. So as soon as I got the kind of confirmation and got a scholarship to study there as well, I knew I just had to do it.

[22:42]

James McKinney: Let me re-ask a question that I asked earlier, but now in this current context where you're going to New York. And you were seeing things were in a way that a lot of people don't see things. You're right, your friends who are telling you you're crazy for going to New York coming off of 9/11, I can't blame them for how crazy it was. The cleanup process, everything that took place in New York was years. I was there a few months after the towers fell. I saw the madness. It was something I'll never forget. And so when you are coming to the US to attend NYU for this special program, what did you think your five year, 10 year window looked like? Maybe you didn't think that far ahead but what was your game plan because of this opportunity?

[23:37]

Michael Sharon: I didn't have a game plan. The opportunity I think, the game plan was go be open, stay open. And stay open to new experiences, stay open to new ideas, and stay open to learning. I think for the first time in my life when I got to NYU I was so excited about going to school, and going there every day. Part of it was I was also like funding with kind of all of my money.

So I think actually this is an interesting point, because if you think about the backdrop to this is that South Africa in 2001 had one of the world's most volatile currencies. The currency that we use in South Africa is called the Rand, and the Rand I think the value went from 6 Rand to $1, to like 13 Rand to $1 in like a period of a couple months. These days, with cryptocurrency, nobody would bat an eye at that, but 20 years ago in South Africa it was crazy. In December when I was kind of paying application fees in US dollars to study, suddenly my application fees had gone way, way more expensive. Then when I came over eventually, I think the price settled back down to like 10 Rand to $1. But when I came over to study I basically took like all of my savings, which was 30,000 Rand at that stage, and converted it to dollars, and showed up in the US with $3,000 in my pocket. The idea that I should just stay open, and stay open to possibilities, and start learning. I was very, very motivated to go to school, and very, very motivated to learn.

[25:34]

James McKinney: That's remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. So help us, because again your story is so eclectic and there's so many dots. It's almost like of all the interviews that I've had, there have been many that have traveled a journey I could have never scripted or never guessed. But there seems to be these large chunks of time that help define a period. Your experiences are very micro based. They're very within a this year, or a one or two year period. So how do we connect from NYU to 2008 at this Facebook opportunity that comes to be, where you're one of the early employees? How do you get from there to Silicon Valley?

[26:16]

Michael Sharon: That is an excellent career path. I would not have ever imagined that I would be there, but in 2001 and 2002 when I was writing, the majority of the writing that I was doing was about cell networks, cell technology. I was writing about WAP, I was writing about Bluetooth, I was writing about anything that was interesting in mobiles because I was obsessed with phones. South Africa was a little bit ahead I think.

Actually, South Africa was quite a bit ahead from the US when I arrived. 1996 is when cell phones arrived in South Africa. This actually there's a few different factors that led to this. So in 1996 we had the first kind of Nokia phones showing up in South Africa. Everybody started to get phones. People started to use SMS a lot. The cell networks in South Africa did something super smart. For the first six months that they turned on SMS it was 100% entirely free, so for six months of SMS for free, everybody starts texting everybody else. Six months later they're like, "Oh, guess what, 10-20 cents a message." So we were using SMS like nobody's business.

Then as soon as I got to the states I realized that the US is actually quite far behind in terms of mobile technology. The US was also quite far behind in terms of banking and some banking technology, because again sort of necessity is the mother of invention, in South Africa there was a ton of fraud and they outlawed paper checks. You could not use paper checks in South Africa so instead what the banks did is they had instant like financial transfers, EFT, electronic financial transactions, that you could send from your phone with an SMS, that you could send from pretty much anything. That person, no matter which bank they're at, would have that money in their account instant.

[28:16]

James McKinney: Wow. That's a decade before the US ever had something like that.

[28:21]

Michael Sharon: Oh yeah. We still sort of don't have something like that. That's sort of like wire transfers but not quite.

[28:29]

James McKinney: Yeah, I mean I guess you're right. I mean I'm thinking of things like Zelle and now across different banks, but you're right I guess it's not technically the exact same, but wow that's crazy, 20 years ago.

[28:38]

Michael Sharon: Right, well US has so much lazy infrastructure, so there's so many opportunities for different companies like Venmo, Zelle, any of these other companies to create kind of a layer on top of that, which mimics that kind of thing. But this was at the base level of the banking system in South Africa, like the banks were forced to interoperate with each other and make this easy because there was no such thing as a paper check, and somebody wants to know when they got paid immediately.

So yeah, all of that is sort of the backdrop to me getting to the states. I was still writing for African Communications and Brainstorm Magazine, like South African tech publications essentially. I was still writing. I was writing a little bit about my experience in the US and a little bit about mobile technology, but the theme and the thread of mobile technology is kind of what I kept coming back to. So during grad school I worked on a lot of different projects. I did a few music project and another project I worked on was a new kind of location based mobile network. So at that stage, this is what 2004, the only phones with GPS in them are in Japan. It was clear that GPS was coming to every single device, every single mobile phone. It was clear that they would be there.

We created this system called Socialight, like a light bulb, where you could basically see where your friends were on a map and wherever you would go you could leave a little note for your friend, and leave a review of the restaurant or like a picture, or something like that. That in 2005 we ended up turning that into my first startup. The way the company formed was kind of hilarious because part of the reason I started this company was I literally couldn't get a job. So I graduated in 2004 and was going for like there was Reuter's wanted to hire me to do digital strategy, like a super digital strategy position, this is great, this is going to be amazing. As soon as they're like, "So, are you a US citizen?" I'm like, "Nope," and basically nobody really wanted to sponsor my visa at that stage.

Starting a company was one of the ways where I was the CTO, my cofounder was the CEO, and one of the ways that I could actually legally stay in the US and work in the US was to start a company, and then hire myself to work at the company. So that's what we did. Then in January just as we started the company we got a massive, massive investment of like $50,000 from my cofounder's father in law. Just as we started the company we basically got a big consulting contract. That consulting contract was probably one of the most fun projects I've ever done in my life. It was to build the back end tech and run the games for these big large scale scavenger hunt games. There were scavenger hunt games, like real world scavenger hunt games, using QR codes.

[32:17]

James McKinney: Oh interesting.

[32:18]

Michael Sharon: Yeah, yeah. This is 2005.

[32:20]

James McKinney: And again from a mobile tech perspective, let's frame up what people were using to accomplish this scavenger hunt. What devices were people using to scan these QR codes?

[32:32]

Michael Sharon: Oh they were using the jankiest flip phones and really old like Nokia phones. This is when the phone had sort of just a few little inches of screen and the pictures were like 10 pixels by 10 pixels. They were just super pixilated. And the way we would do the scavenger hunts is basically when you would find one of the QR codes you'd take a picture of the QR code, you email it to our server, and then the phones are not powerful enough to do the QR code translation so the server then would kind of interpret the code and let you know if you scored this point or it belongs to somebody else.

[33:17]

James McKinney: Oh the feedback loop must have been incredibly fast.

[33:20]

Michael Sharon: It was pretty good, it was pretty good. So we did that for a couple of months and then ended up launching the location based mobile network, Socialight, in August of 2005.

[33:36]

James McKinney: Okay. So August 2005 how do we get to Facebook in 2008?

[33:40]

Michael Sharon: So August 2005 we launched Socialight. We are just… let's remember it is a location based mobile social network, running on one kind of Motorola phone. And we were like this is the vision, this is the future, every single phone is going to have GPS, we have to build this now because it's going to happen immediately. You know, the thing, timing is everything. We were just a little bit ahead of the curve when it came to the timing. We built the service. We ran it for a couple of years and then 2007 the iPhone came out. That was really the advice that we needed to build for. This is 2007, two years after we sell the company. The iPhone actually didn't have programmable, accessible GPS until 2008, until Apple launched the App Store and actually created APIs for the native code.

So just around the same time, my company is sort of like pivoted. We realized that we weren't going to make this giant, big consumer player. We had a few hundred thousand people using this service, which is kind of impressive for running on one type of phone. It was running on like Motorola Nextel phones if you remember those. At that stage we were like all right, well what could we do? We could help people bring these location based experiences to life. So the company pivoted and turned into this location based ad agency, and kind of not ad agency but location based technology media company. Our first job was kind of working with ad agencies and putting together these location based campaigns. As sort of like a consulting company or services company, the company started to do really, really well.

Around the same time I sort of started to lose interest in that side of things. I wasn't really interested in the mobile technology, I was really interested in the consumer player. I had a friend of mine who joined Facebook towards the end of 2007, and he kept messaging me on AIM, if you remember AIM.

[36:01]

James McKinney: Yes I do. The question is are you willing to share what your user name was?

[36:10]

Michael Sharon: Oh my handle? Oh yeah, 100%. My handle was "MikeLivesinTrees," because there's a lot of Mike's in the world and I felt like I was in Africa so I could differentiate like that, maybe trees, I don't know…

[36:23]

James McKinney: I love it. There's a Reddit thread out there that is all about embarrassing AIM handles. It's so funny what people used back in the day.

[36:33]

Michael Sharon: Yeah, AIM handles are the best. I don't know what is the modern equivalent. It's not even Twitter. It's probably Reddit handles. Reddit handles are like the one equivalent because some people make Reddit handles just to troll whichever conversation topic is happening, which I kind of respect.

[36:49]

James McKinney: Yeah, it's so funny. So your friend is hitting you up on AIM telling you about The Facebook that they're working at.

[36:59]

Michael Sharon: Yeah, so my friend Cameron Marlow who is awesome, yeah was sort of planting the seeds in my mind that I should come and speak to The Facebook people. For about six months I was like, "No, no, no, I'm in New York. I'm running my startup. Everything is amazing. It's cool, it's cool." And then as soon as I started looking a little bit further afield and becoming a little bit more disillusioned with the media player that we turned into, I went and spoke to some people at Facebook and was just blown away by everybody I met. Just kind of the level of intelligence and the level of thoughtfulness with how they approached problems was super inspiring.

The other thing about Facebook is, this is again sort of the perspective from where you are is really, really different when you actually go somewhere else. I was sitting in New York and this was Facebook of 2008, remember the launch platform in 2007. Again, I was talking to some of my friends and was like hey, talking to the guys in Facebook, maybe I'll go out there and talk to them some more. And everybody is just like, "Oh, Facebook? Oh my God, one hit wonder. Just a platform for throwing sheep at your friends. Who wants to work on that?" And the reality is it's actually absolutely not, but back then nobody could see that. As soon as I spoke to some of the people there I realized that this was far more thoughtful, far more intentional. Like even more than that it was not an accident.

I think the dominant narrative on the east coast in particular was that Mark got lucky, Facebook got lucky. I think that whole "got lucky" thing dismisses… you hear a lot of people say that, and I think that is said generally by a lot of people who don't understand how much work goes into launching and building major things. Not just launching and building but sustaining and continuing to build, and continuing to create. So I just instantly realized that as soon as I started chatting to them. There were two things I realized. Number one, this is not an accident. The work that the people are doing at Facebook was intentional and thoughtful, and precise. Well, somewhat precise. Then number two this was going to be the biggest mobile service in the world.

[39:35]

James McKinney: You k new that in '08?

[39:37]

Michael Sharon: I knew that in '08. I was like this is something I have to be a part of.

[39:42]

James McKinney: Interesting. Was it, again '08 obviously I don't know if there was a playbook that they allowed you to look into, which I suspect that probably wasn't the case, but was it the conversations with the people where you said this has potential far greater than anything we've seen this far? What was it that gave you that insight?

[40:04]

Michael Sharon: So yeah, absolutely no playbook. I think just like most early stage startups it's everything sort of held together with sticky tape and glue, and everybody is just trying to keep the lights on and make sure things don't just fly off. So no playbook. This was in conversations with some of the early engineers, with some of the designers, some of the product managers that I was speaking to. It wasn't about… it wasn't necessarily the things that they said but it was more about the product that they were building did not exist in the world at that time. I think people forget the roots of why Facebook succeeded. Facebook now is a very different beast and is so entrenched in our lives that people kind of originally forget where Facebook came from. Facebook succeeded after MySpace, and part of the reason Facebook succeeded was because it was clean and simple, and it had a purpose. And that purpose was to connect you to your friends. And to connect you to your family. It did that in a fairly straightforward and simple way. I was looking at this service. They'd built a Blackberry app, well Blackberry had built the app for them at that stage and they'd built a mobile website which was super clean and super simple. They had the first version of the iOS app that was out that Joe Hewitt built. I looked at this and was like this is what everybody would want to have on their phone. At that point I just knew that this was going to be…. I can't necessarily explain it and it wasn't a conversation that I had with anybody internally. Certainly nobody internally was like, "We're going to be the biggest mobile service in the world," because in 2008 I was just wanted to work on mobile, nobody really cared about mobile.

[42:13]

James McKinney: Really?

[42:14]

Michael Sharon: Mobile was sort of like this step kid that they were trying to ignore. No seriously, 100% seriously. We had, when I started talking to the team at Facebook I think they had like 5 million monthly actives on mobile, and by the time I started working there which was a month or two later, once all the visa stuff came through I think there were 10 million monthly actives. But remember, in August 2008 they'd just celebrated their 100 million user mark for Facebook overall, and that was a really, really big deal. Everybody was focused on the web, and everybody was like all the innovation is happening on the web. Whereas I was just sort of staring at my phone and going this is kind of the future because I can stick this in my pocket and carry it with me.

[43:05]

James McKinney: That's incredible. What employee number were you at Facebook?

[43:07]

Michael Sharon: I don't know, I think it was in the 400s, like 430. It was not super early.

[43:14]

James McKinney: Still very early. If you don't have a comma in your number that's still very, very early. Were you hoping, one what were you brought on for and were you hoping to help bring what you had done with Socialight into the Facebook platform? Or what were you thinking?

[43:30]

Michael Sharon: Yeah. So I was brought on, my title was Product Manger Mobile. I think I was probably the seventh product manager overall hired at Facebook. I made it very clear that I just wanted to work on mobile. I didn't care about the web. I didn't want to work on anything that was related to the desktop at that stage. So yeah I was brought in primarily to work on mobile. We had a few native apps, so there was the Blackberry app, there was the iOS app, there was the mobile website, there was SMS functionality. And then there were like integrations that we did with device manufacturers. I worked on all of that.

Obviously, in the back of my mind I was like you know what I can just take all the things that we worked on with Socialight and bring them in here, make it big. Yeah, maybe that wasn't in the back of my mind because I started sending Mark memos, started sending him sort of like emails pretty regularly about how we should add location and how Facebook is all about location because it's a location based network, because it started off at Harvard. I actually ended up working on the very first location product at Facebook. It was called Facebook Places.

Mark eventually got sick of me sending him messages about how we needed to add location, and he was like, "Fine, fine. Whatever. Go find a team." One of the engineering managers I worked with was this awesome old school guy called Yishan Wong. Yishan funny enough became the CEO of Reddit for a brief moment later on, but that's a total aside. But Yishan had been at Facebook for a while and was the director of engineering, and just knew how to get things started. He helped me put together a kind of amazing team. In like eight or nine months we built the very first version of what became Facebook. We built and launched the first version of what became Facebook Places. We had the apps, we had the web version, we had the API layer, and we also had partnerships with Foursquare, with Facebook, with Gowalla, and with there was one other company which was like a game company that I forgot the name of.

[45:48]

James McKinney: To hear you be in location based technology that early on is just fascinating to me because all the things that could have been. You talk about Socialight, I hear Yelp elements to that. I hear Facebook Places to that. I hear Google Maps to that. So many things you were doing in Socialight that I can see elements of what came to be later on in various efforts. So to move the story along, you're at Facebook for 12 years or so correct? You were there for quite some time.

[46:18]

Michael Sharon: Oh, eight. It was just shy of eight years. I was there from 2008 to 2016.

[46:24]

James McKinney: 2016 okay. So what are the various things you got to work on in your time with Facebook as we exit the Facebook chapter?

[46:29]

Michael Sharon: Yeah. So I spent the first five and a half years working on mobile and location, so pretty much anything related to the phone. iOS apps, Android apps, iPad apps, like all of that stuff I worked on. Was a phenomenal time. Then towards the end of my time working on mobile sort of like federated my team out. So instead of having one mobile team, we embedded kind of mobile people into everything team, and that's just because the way things moved forward. Everybody basically owned their entire stack, and everybody started building for mobile first.

Then in 2014 I went and started leading the Pages product group. So Pages at the time was part of the ads borg at Facebook, and a Page was sort of the fundamental building block of the ads world, because with Facebook native ads everything is an actor, everything has a voice, and that voice for everything that isn't a real human is a Page. Whether that's a celebrity or a business or a cute pup, anything like that. So that was my team. Worked on Pages for two and a half years. It was super, super fun. It was a tremendous ride. Again, with Pages I feel like it was one of those situations where the team had sort of hit rock bottom just before I arrived. They were like all the best people and engineers, designers, everybody that was like oh, these people are great, I'm going to join this team.

Within one week of me joining the team they all announced that they were leaving. I mean, they thought about leaving before but they announced that they were leaving. I joined a team that was sort of hemorrhaging a lot of people. There were still some great people on that team, but it was like around 60 people. Then it was truly kind of an opportunity to kind of pick like the diamond in the rough off the ground and shine it, and kind of like turn it into something that I think is just a phenomenal tool for many businesses and consumers today as well as just a great kind of like component of the Facebook ecosystem. With pages, we basically completely rebuilt the way that pages worked. So I made it very, very clear we just boiled it down to two things. Your page is kind of for presence and it's a way to communicate with your audience.

That sort of like almost stupid simplistic framing, I then had to sell to my VP which was Buzz and then Cheryl and then Mark. But then once that happened, it just became very clear and everybody jumped on board. Then we spent kind of another year and a half kind of architecting and executing a lot of that. Team went from 60 people to about 200 people. We went from a few hundred million revenue to multi-billion dollar revenue over night. And then 2016 there was a big re-organization. Everything was being shuffled around. Mike Phenel was leaving the organization to go work for Sequoia and I sat down and was like is this really what I want to be doing for the next number of years? So stepped back and sort of tried to reexamine what I was doing with my life, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up.

[49:58]

James McKinney: And so that leads us to our current chapter. You have this sabbatical if you will, this time to figure out life. What did you learn about yourself that leads us to where we are today?

[50:10]

Michael Sharon: Great question. So just about 10 years ago I started doing something that would have been unthinkable when I was growing up in South Africa. So in South Africa when you want to drink a hot beverage like a tea or a coffee, you have to put five spoons of sugar in it. Only then is it safe to drink.

[50:32]

James McKinney: When you say safe, you mean actually safe or palatable?

[50:37]

Michael Sharon: No, I mean palatable.

[50:39]

James McKinney: Okay. Well again, for those that aren't in South Africa, I don't want everyone to start adopting some South Africans because of the water or something.

[50:48]

Michael Sharon: No, I'm just being facetious. Not all water quality issue, there's great water in South Africa. I grew up drinking tap water. It was phenomenal. No, I mean most people and maybe this was my family, but we put a lot of sugar into the tea and coffee. But 10 years ago I decided just as an experiment to stop putting sugar into my tea and coffee, and it was like a light bulb moment. It was like something just switched on in my brain. I was instantly able to taste the difference between this terrible daily coffee that I was drinking and this incredibly good third way of craft coffee that I was also drinking. I instantly turned into the world's biggest coffee snob. Everybody has one in their group of friends. It's the guy that goes around and tells you how you're brewing things wrong and which kind of beans you should buy, all of that kind of thing. I was that for my group of friends and they loved me for it.

Then because I was really just loving coffee and really getting into it at that stage, I was drinking way too much of it. I would be working at Facebook, and it was an amazing time, great place to be, but definitely not a low stress job. Definitely a high stress job. I was drinking five or six cups of coffee a day. Not great. I also don't have the fast metabolizer gene so I can't just kind of drink a coffee and go to bed. So I was feeling all of the effects. Now any good nerd I would go onto the internet and see if there was any way to solve my problem, and I realized that there's a class of interesting substances out there, compounds like adaptogens, nootropics, functional mushrooms that each have the ability to mitigate different parts of your feeling, and particularly one of them which is L-theanine is an amino acid that works amazingly well with caffeine. It sort of regulates the caffeine and basically allows you to not get to the over caffeinated, over stimulated stage. If you don't know about L-theanine it's naturally found in tea leaves and so this is also why a lot of people love drinking matcha because matcha actually has some of the highest concentration of L-theanine along with the caffeine. But L-theanine is not present in coffee beans. So if you take an L-theanine supplement and drink your coffee, you feel phenomenal. You feel focused, you feel calm, and you feel stimulated because you get the stimulation from the caffeine.

This was sort of just another light bulb moment for me, and so I've been taking some combination of these different adaptogens over the last eight years. When I left Facebook I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I took some time off, I travelled, I started working up a whole lot of different ideas. I invested a tiny little bit of money in Bluebell coffee and invested in a few other CPG companies. I started getting really, really interested in an idea of changing people's lives by changing what they put into their mouths. Actually, this is sort of another interesting point. In 2016 as I left Facebook was also the time when I was starting to eat meat.

[54:10]

James McKinney: Creativity just begins to flourish when you start having that meat. That's all I'm saying.

[54:16]

Michael Sharon: You have a steak and suddenly ideas just come out of everywhere. No, so actually the way I started to eat meat, it was interesting because most of my friends were going the opposite direction. Most of my friends had been eating meat their entire lives and looking to just do meatless Mondays or be vegan or something. I was like no, no, I want steaks. I want to try these steaks. But I was also like everybody basically has bad information about nutrition, because everybody is different. What people would think or assume isn't necessarily what happens. So what people were saying is oh, you're a vegetarian, you're a vegetarian your whole life, you don't have the right enzymes to digest meat. Like oh, you should never try it, you'll be sick forever, it'll be terrible.

So bearing this in mind, I was like you know what maybe they're right, maybe I don't have the right enzymes. What I should do is I should microdose meat. I should have like little tiny bits of meat and try it out, and see what happens, and see how I feel. At the same time I went onto the internet and did some research, and realized that I'm an omnivore as all humans are, and we mostly all have the right enzymes to digest things. I also started microdosing meat. It was pretty great. I just generally didn't have the kinds of stomach issues that people thought that I might potentially have had. I think that kind of period of time sort of coincided with a lot of the travel and experimentation I was doing with a bunch of these different adaptogens. So maybe it was the meat and the creativity keeping me open to things.

But just over two years ago I met my cofounder, Kal. We met through mutual friends at a coffee shop. I'd been aware of Kal for a number of years because I was sort of really excited about his previous company. But we were introduced by a mutual friend and ended up kind of having like a half hour meeting that turned into like just like a four hour kind of riff on life, the universe, and everything, interspersed with lots and lots of different kinds of coffee.

[56:34]

James McKinney: That's awesome.

[56:35]

Michael Sharon: Yeah. If you know Kal actually he's super, super impressive. He's like grew up in Finland, won all of the Finnish barista championships, won the Scandinavian barista championships. Was placed like 9th overall in the world all before he was 22. He also was running his own coffee shop in Helsinki around 21 or 22. Just around that time he realized that if you want to scale coffee, if you want to really get people to drink a lot of great coffee, you're not going to do it by being a single barista. So he moved up to Silicon Valley and kicked off the high quality craft instant coffee movement with a company called Sun Coffee a couple years ago. I met him just after he left that company and was working on a new idea. Then his new idea was making coffee with variable amounts of caffeine, and it turns out that kind of doesn't work. Most people just want the same, all the caffeine. So yeah when we met we basically, didn't quite know what we wanted to work on together but we had the same sort of like outlook on maybe not exactly how to solve problems but which are the important problems to tackle.

[57:56]

James McKinney: So why don't you introduce your brand to my audience at this time. So tell us what it is you're working on now and what makes it so different than everything else out there.

[58:07]

Michael Sharon: Taika is a stealth health brand. So what we do is we take CPG products that people consume around the world, billions of tons a day, and we redesign it to be delicious and authentically healthy for you. We're starting with coffee because coffee is a phenomenal place to start. Most of the ready to drink coffees on the market are loaded up with sugar, loaded up with dairy, and really unhealthy for you. If you take a look at the Starbucks Frappuccino it has 33 grams of sugar. Our coffees have no added sugar. We use plant based milks and we have 5 adaptogenic herbs and functional mushrooms that people may have heard about, but find hard to incorporate into their daily life.

[58:52]

James McKinney: Interesting. So when you and Kal were sitting there riffing on ideas, and maybe Taika wasn't within that four hour meeting but at some point it came to be, what was the problem that you two stated and came across that had to be solved?

[59:10]

Michael Sharon: Great question. So the problem that we were thinking of solving, and it didn't come across in that meeting, but the problems that we wanted to solve were number one we wanted to make sure that our friends could drink amazing tasting coffee. It's kind of a hard thing to do because if you use just straight up beans then you have to trust the person to brew it in the right way and all these kinds of things. Number one, we control the taste of the coffee. We can put it in a can, we know it's going to be good. Number two, we want to make sure that people aren't adulterating the coffee with sugar. So not adding any sugar to the coffee was a really, really big deal for us. Kal is super into keto and he's also he studied some nutrition science as well. I am really not into putting sugar into my tea and coffee anymore. We really wanted to make something that was delicious but without any added sugar. And then number three was I wanted to make sure that people could get the right feeling form these adaptogens that we were putting in.

[60:21]

James McKinney: Now in, and correct me if I'm wrong because you said and I believe you that we all have an incorrect idea about nutrition. We have so many different inputs on what nutrition is and sometimes we don't know how to process what's truth and what's not. But I don't believe in the US, and I'll speak for the US only, that adaptogens are really commonly referred to in any type of nutritional diet whatsoever. And so when I'm thinking of the startup journey and the barriers, especially coming off of having Bill Glaser with Outstanding Foods come on and talk about inserting plant based into the snack aisle where it's not separated from plant based and meat products like it would be if you wanted to try and solve for bacon… By the way when you were talking about having meat for the first time I started thinking of all those videos online with a little kid who has been color blind his whole life and he sees glasses for the first time, and he gets to see colors for the first time. I would have loved to have been with you the first time you had bacon. That would have been amazing.

But nevertheless, I digress, so back to the idea of adaptogens. You're inserting a product into consumer behavior, which coffee not exactly a challenge. We love coffee. I think your packaging is really unique and really brilliant. I think it's something that would capture someone's attention on the shelf anyways. But adaptogens is where I get hung up because I don't think it's part of our vocabulary. So based on your world travel, one am I correct that it's not something part of the North American vocabulary when it comes to nutrition, and did you find that to be a challenge when you brought your product to market?

[62:10]

Michael Sharon: Great question. So yeah, adaptogens is not part of I would say any vocabulary right now. The term is starting to gain in currency, but it's one of these catch all terms that represents a range of different compounds. Generally it refers to plants that grow in harsh environments, and so have had to adapt to survive, and then when people take those plants and consume them the plants generally tend to help someone deal with stress. So they generally tend to like elevate or lower cortical levels. Adaptogens as I said also includes other things. So one of the things that includes is functional mushrooms. So these are things like Lion's Mane Mushrooms or cordyceps or Reishi. These are mushrooms that have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, but are only starting to find their way into sort of the western diet right now.

So as a term, we chose to use adaptogens because it wasn't very well known at the time when we started. But it was also a term that had fewer sort of negative connotations or like less baggage. Some of the other terms that people have thrown around when they're talking about compounds that affect people like nootropics, and nootropics is one of these terms that for us at least it had a lot of baggage. It had a lot of kind of weight from the bio- hacker crowd over the last couple of years. We knew that the brand that we wanted to build was more accessible. It has to be more accessible, it had to be more mainstream, it had to be more kind of demystifying to people that didn't necessarily know what these substances were. It had to be inviting to them.

[64:06]

James McKinney: Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. So one of the things I've heard in numerous points of your story is how consumer centric your thought process is. The simplicity of design has been a theme. The forward thinking, the mobile technology, SMS I find interesting to be so pivotal in your story, and again back to your product packaging for those that aren't aware on the can of coffee there is a cell phone number that you can text for information about the product. So I just find it interesting that all these things have come together within a can of coffee. Can you walk us through the thought process around the packaging, specifically as it relates to how you saw this product positioned wherever it is you saw it positioned? Maybe you were only going to be D to C, maybe you saw yourself on Amazon, maybe you saw yourself on the shelf or maybe you're forward thinking, thinking man all the influencers are going to be drinking our coffee and taking their coffee selfies, the phone number is going to be public. Walk me through all the layers that went through the thought of the design of your can.

[65:18]

Michael Sharon: That's for asking, that was a great question. Really to answer this question I think we have to go back to the beginning. The beginning of Taika in January 2019, Kal and I had just settled on this idea of taking some of this amazing coffee that he was working on and some of the adaptogens that I was really excited about, and putting them into a can. Once you put it into a can and you give it to somebody, it's a sealed product, it somehow just legitimizes it. It just makes it real and people just drink it, and they have very few questions.

What we did is we made black coffee, we combined it with some adaptogens. We put a phone number on the front. It was Kal's phone number - his personal phone number - on the front. Then we took it to these friends of ours that had a startup in San Francisco. Put it in their fridge. The whole point of the phone number at that stage was for people to text us feedback. Because we were doing something really new at this stage. We were taking this super high quality like craft coffee. And you remember the coffee purists, for craft coffee purists, it has to be pure. There's just coffee inside there. So we were taking this incredible coffee and we were adulterating it by blending it with these adaptogens. We knew that the feeling was incredible. We knew that the feeling was worth it and this is what we thought people wanted, but we didn't really know whether people wanted it. And so based on my background at Facebook where I worked on a lot of AB testing frameworks, we though let's just test it, let's just put it out there and see what happens.

We took the coffee, we put his phone number on the front, we stuck it into the startup fridges, and we waited and saw what happened. What happened was in a very short space of time the coffee disappeared. We also started getting text messages, and the text messages we thought were going to be mainly about reordering the coffee, and a few of them were about the reordering the coffee. But the vast majority of them were people just wanting to talk to us. It was people just wanting to have some conversation, just like crack some jokes and that kind of thing. So for us, we very, very quickly realized that the phone number is not about being transactional. The phone number is about communicating the brand. It's about giving people an experience of what this brand is like.

And the beta testing process actually continued for another year and a half. So we were kind of sold out of coffee almost every two weeks, and every two and a half weeks we would make a new batch of coffee. Not only would we make a new batch of coffee with a new formulation, we would also completely change the label. So we would change the design of the coffee. So initially the phone number on the front was Kal's personal phone number, and I got super jealous because you know when you get a text message, whenever you get a text message or an email it fires up some dopamine in your brain, get super excited. And so I was seeing Kal get text messages from our customers and he was just like texting back and forth, and I was like, "What, what, what? What are they saying? Who is doing what? Do they like the coffee? Do they like the oat milk that we put out?" And so the first thing that we did in like one of the iterations was we changed the phone number to what you see today, and that was a shared number so we could both kind of respond and see all of the messages.

Then we really started experimenting with a lot of the copy, and a lot of the design. The name is totally different. Actually, we just moved into this new office and I found one of the very first pre-can coffees that we made, and so this is it. You see it's completely different design, completely different name. But you see we had version numbers and we had code names on there. We committed the classic mistake of software engineering which is to add code names to version numbers and confuse the hell out of everybody. So based on this kind of like iterative process and based on the beta tests, we basically just like kept on iterating, kept on iterating. Throughout kind of the first year, throughout 2019 we realized that this phone number was actually creating this unique world, this unique brand world that we were communicating with people. It was a higher engagement channel that I'd seen on almost anything.

Towards the end of the year we started working with a new agency called Day Job. We were thinking about the can design, the package design, and at that stage our business… so remember, we were prelaunch all we were doing was selling to startups in San Francisco. We were sticking cans, cases of coffee, in my car and delivering them to various startup fridges. It was a phenomenal business. We were making a ton of money because every customer would order like, one customer would be like 10 or 20 cases. We were on track to make kind of a few hundred thousand dollars a year. The very first design, this design that we ended up with, was specifically designed and positioned for the tech worker, the knowledge work. For somebody sitting at their desk, they maybe got up a little bit earlier, they see one of these coffees in the fridge, they pull the coffee out, they start drinking it and they put it down and this phone number is sitting on the desk staring at them, like basically challenging them, asking them to text the number. So that was the design. That was the conception. The idea was you keep the can simple and so if you actually look at the can, the can is sort of an explanation of the platform that we're building.

So one of the things we realized with the phone number, as I said it was more about brand communication and brand extension. What Kal my cofounder likes to talk about is it's really scalable hospitality. So when you think about it, you go to a coffee shop, you chat to a barista and maybe it's the same coffee shop you go to every day, you've developed this rapport, you chat to them. It's this human kind of nature. So you get this level of hospitality from them. How do you do that with a CPG product? Most CPG companies, most companies that make these branded goods, they have a phone number on the can or they have a phone number on the package and it's what I call the phone number of last resort. It's a number that you call when the thing has like poisoned you or you've found a rat in your Coca Cola or something like that. So for us we knew we wanted to build a completely different company. We wanted to be accessible.

We also, one of our mottos was "for friends, by friends." And so we kept this kind of long code on the phone number so it feels more like a real human phone number, and we put it right on the front because this entices and encourages people to text us and to learn more. On the side panels we have kind of just a brief listing of the different adaptogens and kind of a little clue about what each of them does. Actually, if you just copy and paste that into Google each one of those will have kind of a ton of great information about that specific compound. Nutrition facts which is essential, and then we have sort of this like I would say intrigue panel which tells you it says, "Feel inspired, not wired," a little bit about Taika, QR code which takes you to a customized landing page for this particular flavor, and then a few different mockups to kind of communicate the brand and the brand intent. You know it was designed for office workers, it was designed for our very first customer, and it did really well in that use case.

[73:09]

James McKinney: That idea of having that number on there and having that direct communication with your consumer is appealing on all levels. I'm sure the massive brands would love that, but there does get to a point where scale becomes a challenge. Do you foresee leaving that number on there as you get across to 4,000 shelves nationwide?

[73:31]

Michael Sharon: We're definitely going to leave that number on that. Are we going to leave that number on the front and make it the primary way that people interact with the brand? Maybe, maybe not. I think part of what we're doing with scalable hospitality is building our own tools and our own systems to ensure that we have a mix of automation and humans responding to the messages. But it's also this can was designed for a very different environment. This can was designed when as a brand we were selling to let's say a captive audience. We were selling to the startups who would then just offer it as a perk to customers.

I think as we're going deeper into retail we're probably going to take another look at this. In retail, the can really needs to tell the story. The jobs to be done on the can are number one, attract somebody who is just walking past the shelf. Number two, make sure that it seems like it has enough value in it to pay the price. And then number three, connect with the brand, connect with the consumer at some stage. Right now, our can does the connect part really, really well because for the office environment we didn't really have to work on the first two. But for retail, we're starting to rethink, and starting to see what makes sense in that kind of environment.

[74:57]

James McKinney: I find it so interesting because when I think of the disruption of the consumer behavior and the pattern as they're in that beverage aisle, whether it be on the shelf or the cooler, wherever it may be, to see a phone number there you're right, it's almost challenging me to want to text that number. And if I'm in the store and I'm texting it through SMS you could identify my location potentially, know where I'm at maybe. Again, you would know better than I but know where I'm at to try and coax the conversation to almost sell the product right there in the store. I find it so fascinating when it talks… again, and I'm sure Costco has a number for this, but the brands that have the little old ladies selling their products like, "Taste this, taste this," they push a ton of product. It's almost like having that number on the front is enabling that. For those that are texting, you can sell it right there off the shelf to them. I'm so interested to see how this builds out as you continue to build out. So with that said, if we were to have a where are they now episode in let's say five years, where is the brand?

[76:14]

Michael Sharon: Great question. So Taika as a stealth health brand, we want to be in as many places as possible. As a beverage, beverages really succeed when they're available at mass scale at retail. So when you walk into any corner store and you can get the beverage that you want really easily and pick it up off the shelf, there are very, very few beverages that are succeeding purely with D2C, so we need to be omnichannel. We need to be omnichannel not just with the current product line, but with the future product lines we come up with. In five years I want to see beverages from Taika, which are definitely not just going to be coffee, available pretty much anywhere you would want to go shop. And I want to see other products from Taika available in lots of other places. As well as lots of exciting collaborations that are potentially only available through a membership club on our website.

[77:16]

James McKinney: Oh I love it. That is so great. As our time comes to an end I want to honor your time by adhering to our recording schedule, but I also want to honor our listener's time. There's three questions I ask at the end of every episode and I know they look forward to it because I get feedback from it all the time. The first one is just about the idea of entrepreneurship. You've had a very fascinating journey to get to where you are today. You've seen lots of different sides of entrepreneurship. You've been a part of arguably the most… how do I phrase, the most innovative brand out there with regards to mobile technology being Facebook especially. Do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur or is there a certain makeup for this?

[78:02]

Michael Sharon: I do think there's a certain makeup for it, but I also think you don't know until you try. You never know until you give it a go. I definitely didn't think I would start another company after going to Facebook. I definitely didn't… you hear a lot of people say that they start companies because they want to just start a company. I don't think the goal is to start a company. The goal should never be to start a company. The goal should be to do the best thing that you can do to have the maximum impact on the world.

So one of the most interesting things that I heard when I started talking to some people at Facebook was that they work on leverage problems. So what is a leverage problem? A leverage problem is a problem where you can work on something, where you can have the smallest amount of impact to have the smallest amount of effort, to make the largest amount of impact on the problem.

[79:06]

James McKinney: I love that. Oh my gosh that is so good. You know one of the things that I love about The Startup Story besides hearing the entire entrepreneurial journey is breaking some of the false narratives that are out there. One of those false narratives is that entrepreneurship is just made up and for those who are in their 20s. it's for those that are just going to couch surf and pound code on a laptop all day in isolation, and it's a lone soldier journey. That's one way of going about it. I don't find that to be the most successful route to go about it. So I love hearing from others about those who have contributed to their success. So when you look back across your journey, who are all the people that have helped to contribute to where you are today?

[79:49]

Michael Sharon: Oh, there's so many people that have helped to contribute to where I am today. I think it's just like different people help you see a different lens, like help you get a different lens on the world, and help you get a different perspective on your current situation and maybe the future. I think back, I think at every stage of my life, I like to think of stages of my life in terms of like one year chunks because I feel like there's kind of like big enough things that happen in that year, and there's always new, interesting people that you meet in that year that will have an impact on you, that will have kind of like change the way that you perceive the world, and then the way that you act. And the way that you act then changes the way that you perceive the world and come into contact with other people.

There's so many… too many people to mention. But I think in terms of my like when I got the US, in terms of my perspective at that stage it was really the students that I worked with at the grad school that I was at. It was my friends Mark Argo, Daniel Hirschman, like Red Burns who was running the grad school, like the visionary pioneer who in 1979 created a program to study art and technology. 1979, that's insane. Then when I went to Facebook it was a lot of the people that I was working with. It was one of the key engineers who hired me was Mark Slee and then obviously Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl were phenomenal. I think one of the more interesting things about that experience was when I started working at Facebook and really sort of learning from Mark and watching him, how he operated, people forget that he was sort of awkward at times. They forget that he actually had to work really, really hard on being able to speak publicly. He's a super smart guy. There were a few things that I sort of really were influenced by from Mark. I would say one of those is always just keep working at yourself, and keep working on what you need to be doing next. And then the second thing is something that he was really good at which is just delegate. I think before I started working at Facebook I'd seen a lot of CEOs not delegate and just try to answer questions, and had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. I got to Facebook and Mark was very happy to delegate lots and lots of questions to great people he'd hired. He's like, "Well, this person knows it exactly what this is, so they're going to answer this question." I think that was kind of, that was really, really impactful at that time.

And then obviously in the last couple of years in kind of the food world I think my cofounder Kal has had a huge impression on how I think and what I think about. Then a lot of the supporters and investors that we work with as well have been hugely influential in thinking about this new world that we're building.

[83:08]

James McKinney: Oh my goodness, I love that. That's one of my favorite questions because I think it just gives people a perspective that even the most successful founders out there have other people that have contributed to where they are. It is not this Lone Ranger narrative that has been put out there. But as our time comes to an end, I would love for my audience to have the opportunity to sit with you one on one and receive mentorship, but that's just not feasible at a listenership that we have right now. I like to afford this last minute to be that equivalent opportunity.

So if you were to sit down and have coffee with one of my listeners, whether it be the frustrated entrepreneur who has been at this for some period of time and not achieving any level of success, and they're comparing their race to others and trying to figure out why am I not winning. Or maybe it's the wantrepreneur who's got a 9 to 5, a book full of ideas, but afraid to move on it for some reason, whether it be because they're older and the narrative out there is you have to be young to be an entrepreneur, or whether it be just a level of fear. If you're sitting with anybody, whatever persona that resonates with you, what would you say to that person in your final moments on The Startup Story?

[84:14]

Michael Sharon: I would say two things. Number one, figure out why. Figure out why you want to do this thing. Figure out why it's important to do this thing. Figure out why it has to be you doing this thing. And number two I would say pick leverage problems to work on.

[84:39]

James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value that Michael Sharon brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And I also hope that you will visit Taika.co and give their coffee drinks a try. Again, it's Taika.co. In fact, Michael has extended a 15% discount to all The Startup Story listeners. Just visit Taika.co and add the code "startupstory", one word, all lowercase is fine. Make sure you add that code "startupstory" during the checkout process. And if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So let's show up for Michael in a huge way by visiting Taika.co, grabbing some of their delicious coffee. Use the code "startupstory" to get 15% off your order. And if that is too much to ask, then please tell someone you know about this opportunity. Every single startup founder knows how challenging it can be to gain awareness. So let's help Michael and Taika in this way. And now for my personal ask.

The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.

These simple actions can make a huge impact in getting these amazing founder stories out to the masses. And please make sure to tag or mention The Startup Story when you do share so that we can connect with you and say thank you directly. I'm so incredibly appreciative of the fact that you listen to the show each and every week, and I look forward to sharing these amazing stories with you every Tuesday with hopes of encouraging and inspiring you to start your story.

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April 20 2021
Michael Sharon, co-founder of Taika

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