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#GirlsWithKnives Interview: Chirps Co-Founder On Raising Over 200K Without Investors

Rose and Laura set out to convince Americans to eat insects but first they had to raise most of their funding with sheer femme-power. Read about their impossible path from culinary visionaries to successful business owners.

Why did you decide to pursue the insect culinary path? And why you choose chips rather than, say, insect farming?

I was starting my last semester of college when my roommate and now co-founder, Laura, sent me an article about why we should all eat insects. Several years ago, she had been studying abroad in Tanzania when she saw a street vendor selling fried caterpillars. She was horrified but also intrigued. As a vegetarian, she didn’t know how to think about insects—are insects considered vegetarian or not? In the end, she decided to buy the fried caterpillar (when in Tanzania, right?) and before she could think about it, she put it in her mouth and bit down. Her first thought? This tastes like lobster! It actually makes sense because insects and shellfish crustacean are closely related.

When she got back to the US, she started researching—why are people eating insects in Tanzania and not in the US? She found out that insects are one of the most sustainable protein sources. For example, it takes 2000 gallons of water to make a pound of beef but only one gallon of water to make a pound of insects. On top of that, insects are even more sustainable than some plant proteins, like soy protein. In terms of health benefits, insects like crickets have more protein and 1/3 of the fat of beef, and they are a complete animal protein with all nine amino acids.

Laura was ecstatic! As a vegetarian, she had found the sustainable, complete protein source she had been looking for her entire life. So she sent me that article about why the world should be eating insects, because I guess that’s what you do when you have a crazy idea. It just so happened that I had just come back from Beijing, China, where my friends dared me to eat a fried scorpion. I had the same reaction Laura did—this tastes like shrimp! So when Laura sent me the article, all I could think at the end was—why aren’t we eating insects?! So we set out to figure out how to make bugs appealing to Americans.

Our first product is chips, or Chirps. Chirps are the first-ever cricket chip, made with a wholesome mix of stone-ground corn, beans, chia seeds, and of course cricket flour. Chirps are crunchy and delicious, and they have as much protein as an egg white per serving & 30% less fat than regular chips. They’re gluten-free, non-GMO, and all-natural.

Describe the challenges of funding your product as female entrepreneurs.

I remember the first time we ever pitched to an investor. It was at a conference, where we signed up for 15 minutes with a Harvard Business School alumni and prolific angel investor. We were nervous but so eager to tell him our groundbreaking idea. Laura and I sat in front of him and eagerly pitched him our idea to brings bug food to America. He paused for a few seconds with a blank face, and said, “I have been an investor for ten years, and this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” His answer stung and stayed with us, but we weren’t surprised. We are young, female, first-time entrepreneurs trying to feed Americans bugs.

The thing about discrimination is most of the time it’s not obvious, because most of the time, these biases exist in our subconscious and we’re not even aware of them. However, where that discrimination often falls is emotional, which makes it hard to track and pin down. As entrepreneurs, our biggest asset is getting other people to trust that WE are the individuals to make this almost impossible idea… possible. In the beginning, we had an incredibly difficult time gaining people’s trust. For example, my co-founder, Laura, went to a small business tradeshow with a guy friend with a completely different business. Every time she talked to someone about Chirps, they would respond by turning to look at her guy friend!

The crazy part of this is that our founding team – Laura, Meryl, and I – all went to college at Harvard, and our business was incubated in the Harvard Innovation Lab. We are overeducated with lots of privilege, but still, we experienced the negative effects of subconscious bias. I can’t imagine what other intersectional minority groups experience, let alone what they experience when starting a business.

Did you find yourself changing the way you present yourselves when pitching to established, male-centric institutions?

The way we started Chirps is fundamentally different from most businesses, because we just simply couldn’t get institutions on board (i.e., investors, manufacturers, etc.). I want to acknowledge that we had many things working against us:

1) We were trying to get Americans to eat bugs, which is a highly unproven idea
2) We were first-time founders
3) We are young (we were 22 and 23 when we started the business)
4) We had no subject-area expertise
5) We were an all-female founders team

It’s hard to tug apart the way these different factors interacted and to point to sexism as the sole perpetrator of the difficulties we faced. However, there are plenty of other startups where all factors held true, except that they had male founders, and they had to deal with less friction than we did from institutions.

That said, we started to get creative about how we pitched ourselves. Since no accredited investor wanted to invest in the beginning, we decided to take it to the people. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in May 2014 to see whether or not there is a market for cricket chips. In just 30 days, we raised $70K-plus with 1,300 backers around the world. We also got a ton of press and even landed on the front page of Yahoo! We realized then that it was consumers who were going to drive our business, not investors. Since then, Laura and I have pitched at many pitch competitions (often ones with an audience), and we have raised ~$200K from our winnings.

However, it wasn’t just investors who turned us down. We had to call over 400 chip manufacturers before one would work with us. No insurance company wanted to cover us. The state health department ignored our calls for nine months until they got tired of daily calls from us for nine months and finally decided to take us seriously. Also, to get them to take us more seriously, Laura had to consciously speak with a lower tone of voice.

Our secret weapon is our persistence. At Chirps, we don’t know the word “impossible.”

Tell us about the things you’ve learned in overcoming those challenges and tips you have for women who are trying to start a food business. 

What has enabled me and Laura to get through the obstacles of starting a food business are

1) A commitment to our mission to make the food system more sustainable
2) Each other

When we first started Chirps, everyone thought we were crazy. To be honest, we are a little crazy, and that’s what it takes to push through all the obstacles. Laura and I tend to balance each other out and play devil’s advocates for each other. When she’s feeling down, I suddenly feel more positive and I take on the role of getting her back on track. The same goes for when I feel down. The other big thing that has kept us going is that there was no one else who wanted to do this in the beginning. It’s not like there was a hundred insect companies, so if we had tapped out, then maybe the insect food space wouldn’t have grown to the size it has become. All of the first movers in a space are important; we also couldn’t have gotten to where we are without the other insect food companies.

Ultimately, it comes down to believing in yourself when no one else will. All women need to have the confidence to believe in themselves against all odds. If your confidence ever slips, then turn to another woman to bring you back up. If we can get people to eats bugs, then you can do whatever you put your mind to!

Any tips on how up-and-coming female entrepreneurs can get funded? Where are the alternatives to venture capital and what worked/didn’t work for you?

Luckily, the number of investments for entrepreneurs has increased significantly, and there are many female founders who are leading the charge! Annie Ryu, the founder of The Jackfruit Company, and Lisa, the founder of Kuli Kuli, are a few examples of awesome women who have gotten funding and are changing the food space.

I would say it’s still pretty difficult to get funding when you’re just starting up. A lot of men rely on their networks, from fraternities to other wealthy friends and families, and these networks are more likely to fund men. Crowdfunding through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Barnraiser is a great way to get around this. Another great way to access capital at an early stage is pitch competitions. There many local pitch competitions, and food is a great way to judges’ hearts. I’m still undecided about accelerators that take equity, because the value of accelerators is harder to measure. We never went down this path; we only took part of accelerators, like Mass Challenge and Plug and Play, where they don’t take equity.

One group we haven’t tapped into is women’s networks. There are many venture funds and angel groups led by women, and they are always looking to fund more companies started by women.

Tips on how you kept up the vigor when you didn’t get the funding you were seeking or coming up against obstacles? 

All of our Harvard classmates are getting paid six (or seven)-figure salaries in consulting, banking, etc., and Laura and I were living off of nothing and in a 70-person co-op. Even now, we live below the poverty line in San Francisco to make our dream come true. However, we are beyond fulfilled. Despite all of the obstacles we have faced, we’ve been able to find success in the last year. We were named Forbes 30 Under 30 for social entrepreneurship, ELLE Impact Award winners, became Echoing Green Climate fellows, got funded by Mark Cuban on Shark Tank, and got distribution in hundreds of stores (and growing). Plus, everyday, we get to change someone’s mind about eating insects, and that feeling is indescribable. However, in between those high points, there are many low points. My tips on keeping up the vigor include:

1) Celebrate the small wins. At first, the wins are small (like getting an email response). However, it’s important to acknowledge the good things, because it keeps you positive.
2) Do what works for you. Laura needs to exercise everyday or else she can’t focus. I need to watch Friends on Netflix to decompress.
3) Make progress. Even if everything is falling apart, if you move your business further, you’ll feel the fire to keep going.

Where can we buy/find your products?

If you prefer your food to come to your door, you can buy Chirps on our website or Amazon.

If you like the in-store experience, find Chirps at the store closest to you on our store locator. If we’re not in a store close to you, please ask for Chirps at your local store and they will start carrying Chirps 🙂

In person, you can dine with the Chirps team as they attempt to serve the world’s largest nachos at SF’s SOMA Street Food Park on Sat, April 22, 2017 from 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM PDT.

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