Hiroki Koga // Ep 85 // Building the World’s Largest Indoor Vertical Strawberry Farm

Welcome to Episode 85 of the Asian Hustle Network Podcast! We are very excited to have Hiroki Koga on this week's episode.

We interview Asian entrepreneurs around the world to amplify their voices and empower Asians to pursue their dreams and goals. We believe that each person has a message and a unique story from their entrepreneurial journey that they can share with all of us.

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The U.S. agriculture industry is constantly evolving as technological innovations continue to change the way we cultivate food, and shift consumers’ attitudes on the importance of eating fresh and organic produce. Recently, indoor vertical farming has further proven its potential to support communities with hyper-locally grown produce while being rich in nutrients and taste.

The first thing Hiroki Koga instantly noticed when he moved to the United States from Japan – where fruit such as strawberries are a delicacy – is that produce in the U.S. is less flavorful than what he was accustomed to growing up in Japan since the U.S. agriculture industry prioritizes yield and shelf life over taste and nutrition.

Since then, Hiroki has made it his mission to bring the finest Japanese strawberries to the U.S. consumer market and founded Oishii – the company behind the world’s largest indoor vertical strawberry farm and the Omakase Berry – in 2016 while he was pursuing his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley.

With Hiroki’s leadership and knowledge of ancient Japanese farming techniques, Oishii is the only player in the industry to produce pollinated fruit using AI and machine learning technologies at a commercial scale – considered the most sophisticated crops to grow indoors because of long cultivation cycles – while using zero pesticides to produce perfectly ripe, delicious strawberries year-round for consumers.

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Transcript

Intro: (00:00:00)Hey guys, welcome to Asian Hustle Network Podcast, My name is Bryan. 

And my name is Maggie 

And we interview Asian entrepreneurs around the world to amplify their voices and empower Asians to pursue their dreams and goals.

We believe that each person has a message and a unique story from their entrepreneurial journey that they can share with all of us.

Maggie: (00:00:23) Hi everyone. Welcome to the Asian hustle. Podcast today. We have a very special guest with us. His name is Hiroki Koga is the co-founder and CEO. He has made it his mission to bring the finest job, new strawberries to the U S consumer market and founded  the company behind the world’s largest indoor vertical strawberry farm and the omakaze Berry. In 2016 while he was pursuing his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley with his rookies leadership and knowledge of ancient Japanese farming techniques, or is she. Is the only player in the industry to produce pollinated fruit using AI and machine learning technologies at a commercial scale. Consider the most sophisticated crops to grow indoors because of long cultivation cycles, while use things, zero pesticides to produce perfectly ripe, delicious strawberries year round for consumers, Hiroki. Welcome to the show.

 

Hiroki: (00:01:17) Thank you. Thank you for having me today. I’m really excited.

 

Bryan: (00:01:20)  Yeah. We’re super excited to have you on, let me read so many articles about you. Congratulations to be featured in Forbes.

 

Hiroki: (00:01:26) Thank you.

 

Bryan: (00:01:28)   Amazing accomplishment and graduations and your series a, you know, 50 million. It’s a lot for series a. So congratulations by my,

 

Hiroki: (00:01:34) yes, it is a relatively large round, but I know considering our business, um, which requires a lot of investment in capital because we need to build factories. So, um, yeah, pretty big around.

 

Bryan: (00:01:50)   It’s it’s kinda hop right into. I hear more about your story. Like where did you grow up? What was your upbringing like? Was your fascination with strawberries?

 

Hiroki: (00:01:57)   Sure, sure. I’m not sure where you want me to start, but, um, So I’m originally from Japan. Um, not like I think most of the people who are featured on this podcast, um, I’m actually very new to this country. So I came here about five, six years ago. And prior to that, I pretty much spent all my life in Japan. So, um, I was born in Tokyo, um, and raised as the only child, um, in my family. And so my father was a public servant and my mom was a housewife. So. You know, we were a very typical middle-class family in Tokyo. And unlike, I think a lot of the other typical Asian parents, my parents were really chill. And so they, you know, never really forced me to. Um, no study or it never forced me to go to a certain university or try to influence me to become a doctor or liar. So, you know, I grew up very freely and, um, no, they, they always told me that I was the captain of my life and that, you know, I could do whatever I wanted to do with my. Life. So, um, you know, it really gave me the freedom to think of different options and, you know, back then, I didn’t really know what that meant, but, you know, in retrospect, you know, especially now that I’m 30, he started before. Um, I think especially after I graduated college, this value really helped me make important decisions, um, later in my life. Okay. And, um, you know, I, it really helped me to kind of start this company as well.

 

Maggie: (00:03:36)  Wow. That’s amazing. Um, I love that your parents had told you that you’re the captain of your life. It’s, it’s definitely a different perspective, uh, compared to a lot of other Asian parents where they, you know, forced them to become lawyers or doctors. So I love that they would kind of give you, giving you the freedom to, you know, use your imagination and build whatever you wanted.

 

Hiroki: (00:03:54)  Yeah. I think, you know, the other thing they, they really emphasized, um, was that um, there are, there’s always. Things that is more important than money. So they really emphasize that, you know, I should try to find something that is really true to my passion. And, you know, as long as I have a happy job and I have, you know, a happy family life, you know, that’s, that’s, that’s really good enough. And, and so, um, You know, that, that kind of freed me from all of the monetary, the con, you know, when people say risks, you know, it’s always tied to money. Right? So when I started this company, a lot of my friends were saying, well, that’s really risky, but you know, when you think about what risk really is, they’re always tied to money and people are implying about the money that’s attached to it. But, you know, because of, you know, how, how it was raised, it, it really kind of let me think. Without, uh, being worried about that. And that really helped me pursue my, my, my business here in New York as well.  

 

Bryan: (00:04:59)     Uh, I really liked that perspective a lot, and that’s really a common theme that we have among other entrepreneurs on this podcast. Is that a lot of people in the business, not really thinking about the money, you think there’d be more of their legacy, their impact, and how they Bosley affect the world. Then you have that stick. As everyone else in the podcast, too, we really liked that. You know, and it’s about making a difference by taking that risk and knowing that you have really nothing to leave, because once you went a Constable of money, that money can always be made back, you know, but you can’t have that time back to do that part again.

 

Hiroki: (00:05:31)   Exactly. And I think it was, it didn’t really resonate to me as a kid because we weren’t particularly rich. And, you know, I was only allowed to buy one Nintendo, 60 casts it’s every year I was like, why can’t I buy more? Right. But, um, you know, I think I also learned it, um, kind of through my own experience, being a consultant. So that was my first job right after college. And, you know, I, I did make not crazy amount of money, but enough money to buy whatever. I wanted, but you know, after doing that for a few years, I quickly came to realize that, you know, even though my salary was going up every year, the amount of money I was spending was really not changing. And so I have to kind of like when I first realized that, you know, maybe I should really start looking into what my passion is and really spent the rest of my life building something that I really like.

 

Bryan: (00:06:21)   I love that. And let’s quickly talk about your passion. You know, let’s talk about how you got into strawberries.

 

Hiroki: (00:06:25)   Sure sure.

 

Maggie: (00:06:28)   The importance of library while you were growing up too, because I’ve had strawberries in Japan and they are absolutely delicious and something you can rarely find in the United States. And I know that, you know, it means a lot to you when you eat a strawberry on a special days. So talk a little bit about that as well.

 

Hiroki: (00:06:44)   Sure. So, uh, you know, before I talk a little bit about strawberries, I want to talk a little bit about why I ended up in the U S in the first place. And, um, So even though I spend most of my time, um, in Japan during my childhood, uh, there were three years, um, during elementary school, when I had a chance to live in France for, for about three years. And, uh, my parents bought me an American school. Um, I didn’t speak a word of English then, you know, at that point. But, um, now during that three years, I learned how to speak English, but that was the first time I got exposed to, um, culture and people outside of Japan. And two things happen then. Well, one, I had the opportunity to learn English, so that allowed me to open up so much opportunity to found the road. Um, but I think the second point, which had a huge impact on why I started this company is I started realizing. My or started thinking about my identity and my roots as a Japanese living in France. And I would have never done that if I stayed in Japan with everyone else, it’s the same as, as me. Um, and so it really started making me think where Japan stands and, and the, and the national community. And, you know, even as a kid, people knew about Toyota, you know, Sony and back there, and, you know, animals like dragon ball park in mine. So even as a young kid, I kind of knew intuitively that Japan had a very unique position and a very strong brand and presence globally. So, um, you know, even after I came back to Japan, um, from France, there was always this idea of lingering in the back of my head that, um, as a Japanese, I wanted to bring the best of what Japan has and share it with the, with the rest of the world, because there are so many things. Um, that’s very interesting. Right. And I didn’t know what it was going to be. And certainly, I didn’t think it was going to be strawberries or appropriate back then, but that was always kind of, you know, in the back of my head as, um, as I grew up in pan. And so I went to Wheeler middle school, high school, and then college in Japan. I did consulting for about five, six years, but then I finally had the opportunity to come to the us in 2015 to do my MBA. And, um, I think a few things happened. Then one. Um, so this might sound funny, but, um, so I arrived at California and California is known to have the best, the highest quality produce in the U S right. But obviously I came from Japan, so I didn’t know anything about that. And I went to a local Safeway. I remember my source, grocery shopping, and they do ask, I was really excited and they go down the produce aisle. Everything is really shiny. Everything is big and everything is pretty. You’re reasonable. Right. So I was really excited. I went back home. I started cooking and I, you know, some of the stuff I ate without cooking and they were raw just to see how it tastes like. And I was just really shocked by the difference in the quality of what I was used to eating in Japan. And why don’t you then? Um, and so I thought maybe, you know, I went to the wrong supermarket. I didn’t even know the Safeway was a big chain, right? So I went to another supermarket, everything looked pretty similar and the quality was the exact same. And in particular I was really disappointed with fruits are, um, previous lectures. Tomatoes or strawberries because they tasted so much more watery and they didn’t have as much flavor as I had expected. So, you know, I quickly came to realize that something is very different and the American agriculture, and I learned that it’s because us really optimizes for quantity and for long distance transportation, which means that, um, you know, they don’t, they they’d have to sacrifice quality. Right. So that was one of the first, um, things that I experienced in the first week since I arrived. And, um, the other thing was that. Not sure if you were in California in 2015, but, um, there was a huge drought that year and like Japan has never experienced drought. And so I was shocked when, you know, people are saying that I, I wasn’t allowed to wash my car because there’s not enough water. Right. So even though like global warming and, you know, natural disasters though, like I’ve read those and newspapers, I’ve never experienced it firsthand, but now I’m in the us, uh, first country and you know, people are saying that I can’t use water. And so I was feeling this urgent need for, um, For, from novel ways to change how people make food because agriculture consumes 60% of the water. Um, on this planet. And, um, so there is a increasing demand for new technologies in agriculture. And I used to be a consultant in Japan who was professionalized in, um, vertical farming consulting. And, and even though it didn’t really the industry didn’t take off big in Japan, it was taking off in other parts of the world, like the U S in 2015, because of all of these sustainable sustainability issues. So, um, you know, those two things combined together, you know, th th th the difference in the quality of produce, and then also a need for a new way to, um, produce crops. Um, which happened to be my passion as well. Um, I thought maybe there is a unique opportunity for me, uh, someone who comes from a country that developed the core of this technology before anywhere else in the world to deploy that here. And, um, also at the same time, be able to share amazing Japanese quality produce to the rest of the world.

 

Bryan: (00:12:43)   Yeah. I mean, I love that a lot, you know, and I, I could tell them people to like, Whatever experience that you have when your previous jobs, and it always comes full circle. And as you come an entrepreneur, you draw an audience experience. Even like the most, my new experience of dealing with peopledealing with bosses experiences, you didn’t like now you incorporate these ideas express into your own company. It’s crazy how like close circles sometimes, you know,

 

 

Hiroki: (00:13:10)    Exactly. Yeah. I didn’t know that I was going to start this company when I first came to the class.

 

Bryan: (00:13:15)   I’m really glad you did too, because like the way that you do, you know, your, your vertical farming, it’s like basically the Holy grail of. Of of the industry right now, and using significantly less water and less land than traditional strawberry farms too, to plan your strawberries. So, you know, hats off to you and, you know, I do want to talk a little bit more about the, the omakaze berries, you know, like tell us what that is and, and why is it so prized in New York?  

 

Hiroki: (00:13:40)    Sure. Sure. So I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the word on MECASA before, but it’s, it’s another Japanese word obviously. And it means it’s used in restaurants and, um, usually it means, um, I leave it to the chef. So, if you go to a fancy Mr. And restaurant, they would have an OMA Gaza menu, which means that you don’t have any freedom to choose what you’re going to get served. So you have to leave everything to the chef and the chef will always choose what he or she thinks is in the best condition that day. And then prepare the full course. And the reason we called our berries on MECASA is, um, a few different reasons. But I think the biggest reason is because our strawberries are always in season and we can guarantee that the quality is always the best. And the reason why we can do this is because we grow our strawberries in a completely closed environment. That where we don’t get impacted by the outdoor weather. So the beauty of it is that you can grow these strawberries anywhere around the world, regardless of the sea, the outside seasonality. And, you know, the, this, uh, specific varieties that we’re growing are special Japanese strawberries that are known for its exceptional aroma and sweetness. And this is something that, um, this is a variety of that did not have been grown here in the U S due to all of the weather, you know, differences than the environmental differences. But because of this technology, we’re able to recreate the perfect, um, Japanese Alps. Um, climate. So, you know, even though these strawberries are sitting inside a warehouse in New Jersey, um, you know, they, they think that they’re, they’re still in Japan.

 

Bryan: (00:15:23)   Yeah. So I do have a question. I’m sorry, Maggie. So do you have a question? Um, can you kinda clarify, like I know there’s, some of our listeners don’t understand like the culture in Japan regarding like planting fruit and planting quality of fruit. You know, uh, I did spend a good amount of time by watching YouTube videos. So like farmers having competitions in Japan and beginning of the year where they want the best fruits and some of these prices on the fruits go like tremendously high, you know, can you quickly touch them on the culture, Japan routing fruits. So our listeners kind of understand where a company is coming from.

 

Hiroki: (00:15:58)   Of course, of course. So, yeah, this is not just specifically to fruits and previous, but I think in general, over the past a hundred years, Japanese people have proven to the world that we are really good at perfecting certain things. When we make cars, our cars know, at least. Yeah, they, they tended to last longer, right. Or if we make it like electronics, they, they worked and they don’t break down. And so I think, um, Japanese people have this tendency to try to perfect everything to the detail, as opposed to try and do something really efficiently or try to do something at a mass scale. And I think the exact same thing happened in agriculture. So farmers. In Japan, their interest is not to produce a lot to make money, but they want to produce something that the customers say is the best in class. And they really pride themselves in doing it. So, you know, uh, you know, the, the negative side of it is that in our efficiency is not as high as the U S but in terms of quality, I think, um, what’s produced in Japan is really unbeatable and also the consumers who consume these products also have the appreciation. To these, you know, quality and attention to detail. And because the consumers understand that, um, there is a market for fruits where, you know, people spend. You know, like $50, a hundred dollars for a melon or $50 for it for strawberries. And people will use that for gifting. It’s really part of this gifting and celebration culture. So, you know, strawberries are said to be the King of fruits in Japan. It’s everyone’s favorite number one, fruit and as a kid, You know, when it, because it’s a special crop, um, you know, we, we don’t get to eat it every day. And so when I go home and I see basically a bowl of strawberries and the table, it, you know, I knew that maybe there was something special or, you know, maybe we’re trying to celebrate something. Or maybe my mom figured out that, you know, I had a pretty good grade or something like that. All right. Um, so that’s so, so I think fruit is really in the center of, uh, people’s culture. It’s not just something to consume, but it’s something to experience to like share that moment with, with your friends and families.

 

Maggie: (00:18:28)    That’s amazing. Yeah. Personally, my favorite fruit is the strawberry as well. And I’m speaking on behalf of shrubbery. So you find in the U S so just imagine the taste of the Sharpies that you find in Japan is a different story. Um, so I would love to know the process of building something like an indoor, vertical farm and replicating the natural growing conditions that you would need it to be similar to Japan. I’ve read it in a couple of articles that you and your co-founder. Yeah, slept on the floor of the farms for a long time, trying to get the taste of the strawberries to your liking. Um, talk about the process of building a farm like that.

 

Hiroki: (00:19:08)   Sure. So, um, when we first started this company, it was really just myself, my co-founder Brendan and another intern from on Singapore who was, uh, Uh, on a government program for a year. So we only had three people. We didn’t have a lot of money. We had a small seed funding, but that was not enough to hire a bunch of construction people to build a farm. So what happened was Brandon myself and our intern Z. The three of us basically had to build everything from scratch. So the first thing we did was we bought a ship. I used shipping container, but we couldn’t buy a new one. And because it was all dirty, not like we spent multiple days, just scrubbing things up in the surface, making sure everything was clean. But then, you know, we had to buy led lights. We had to buy HVACs like special types of HVACs HVACs, because you’re going to put a lot of led lights and it’s going to get really hot inside. So we have to buy industrial ones. Um, none of us were engineers, so we had to YouTube, a lot of things. We had to go ask experts. And obviously for certain electrical things, you know, we have to hire electricians and whatnot. But, um, I would say 99% of our first farms were built. By the three of us. And because we didn’t have lots of runway, we had to build everything so quickly. And then once we built the farm. You know, we, we brought in, uh, seedlings through USDA from Japan, but once the seedlings arrive, right, you need to take care of them. Like you can’t just tell them to wait and, you know, wait until everything else is ready. So even though a lot of things were kind of still up in the air, we have to make sure that the plants are taken care of. So some of the automation. Systems of, you know uh, automatically controlling the, the city, the air conditioning or the lighting spectrums. Those were not in place yet, but we had to start growing. So what happened was basically Brendan. We had to manually like turn things on, not very. You know, a few hours and we had to, you know, water the plans and, you know, sometimes the pump might get broken because we just bought something off the shelf from home Depot and they get stuck, you know, every, every few hours and in, and these things happened in the middle of the night, too. So every day at like 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM are our alarm system on the phone will start. You know, a ring gang and then, you know, something’s wrong in the farm. So, you know, we’ll go back in and then we’ll fix whatever that’s that’s wrong. So, you know, that was our first, you know, six to 12 months.

 

Bryan: (00:21:47)   This is in New Jersey?

 

Hiroki: (00:21:49)    This was in a warehouse Jersey.

 

Bryan: (00:21:52)   Well, that’s awesome to hear.

 

Maggie: (00:21:56)     Yeah, that’s amazing. It’s um, you know, for, for myself and Brian, you know, the, the process of just building something like an indoor vertical farm, it just seems so daunting, you know, and, and for you to admit that, you know, you’re not engineers, you know, your, you and your co-founder didn’t really know anything about building a farm like that and learning everything from scratch just goes to show, you know, the perseverance and the grit that you both have.

 

Bryan: (00:22:20)    That the three of you have actually also feel like that’s like the beauty of entrepreneurship as like we get into things you don’t know the logistics of art and our heart. It really is. And it was just solid, not oblivious to it that we actually do it. You know, that’s why I love entrepreneurship.

 

Hiroki: (00:22:35)   Yeah. But I think in retrospect it really helped us. As founders to understand the fundamentals of the functionality of all of these different components. So as we’re building our larger farms, um, we don’t. And especially because these are farms that no one has built in the past, right? So you can’t just go to a construction company and say, please build a strawberry vertical farm because they don’t know what to build. So it really helped us kind of, you know, think through how can we bring down the cost? How can we make things more efficiently? Um, and then really work together with these construction companies, um, as we’re building larger scale facilities. And if it, if we hadn’t built it ourselves, we would probably have spent so much more time than money on these commercial scale facilities. Um, so I think that was a really good, um, lesson for us.   

 

Bryan: (00:23:26)    That’s awesome to hear. And let’s kind of talk a bit about your first win, you know, when did you realize that this could be a viable business plan and that you guys can take it further, further? Because everyone has their first sales entrepreneur that you’re like, Whoa, I can actually do this. What was your first moment? Like?

 

 

Hiroki: (00:23:43)   Yeah. So actually had two moments that were really important or turning the two turning points. The first one was, um, so before we even started building, as far as we needed to make sure that there is demand for these types of strawberries in the U S. Right, because I thought our strawberries were really good, but if American people didn’t care about it, there’s no business. So what we did was Brennan, we went to Japan, we filled our suitcases with, with Japanese strawberries, strawberries. That’s very similar to what we were planning to grow. And we flew to New York. We found a hotel that had the largest fridge and New York, and basically filled the fridge with our strawberries and then use those strawberries to go from. And we started from downtown. We walked all the way up to basically a central park every day for basically a week, just knocking down doors of restaurant, Michelin star restaurants and, um, and hotels and other produce, um, companies. And so we, and, um, I think the biggest, um, moment was when, um, we got into one of the Michelin restaurants, um, and the chef was, he was just like blown away by the quality. And he said, this is the best strawberry I’ve ever had. Can you bring it from tomorrow? Right. And that was really the moment when we’re like, okay, there definitely is a very strong demand. And he was like, I don’t care about the price. I’ll pay, whatever you ask. So that, I think that was, you know, one of the first moments, um, it was actually pretty hard to even get there because, um, most Michelin chefs wouldn’t meet a random stranger, right? So every time we knocked on doors, people at the reception will kindly tell us to basically go away. Um, and so we, we had to lie that we had appointments with chefs to get into the kitchen. And so, you know, it was, it took us a few days to fix you’re out of how to do it. Um, but after that, we kind of learned, yeah, the secret sauce to getting into the kitchen. And once we get into the kitchen, we can just present our berries around front of the chefs and they’re all, you know, craftsman’s and, and, you know, professional, so they wouldn’t refuse to eat it. And once they pieced it, you know, I would say nine out of 10 chefs. Sure. Like, you know, bring it from tomorrow.

 

Maggie: (00:26:10)   Wow. That is amazing. Now we know the secret sauce is to lie, but you have an appointment. You can go into their kitchen.

 

Hiroki: (00:26:17)    You want to, if you want to meet a Michelin star restaurants, a chef, you just have to.  

  

 

Maggie: (00:26:24)   That’s amazing. So it seems like, you know, these chefs at high end. John started getting interested in your strawberries, how quickly did actually gain attention from all of the foodies in, in Manhattan?

 

Hiroki: (00:26:36)   Sure. So, um, we strategically started with, um, a restaurant called chef’s table at Brooklyn. When fair, which is one of the five Michelin three star restaurants in Manhattan. And, um, the head chef says are, the new rest is known to have the most strict and strict eye for the quality of his produce. So, um, you know, we thought that if. We could serve our berries there. The word would spread very quickly and actually did. Right. So, um, once we started serving our berries there, we only had enough to serve at his restaurant. So we weren’t selling anything to the public yet at that point. But I would say probably after a few weeks, or maybe even a couple of weeks, people started reaching out to us through our, you know, inquiry, um, link. And a lot of people are, you know, a lot of people who died at these restaurants, there are millionaires if not billing. So there were like, you know, I’m willing to pay whatever you ask me. I just want this at, you know, my next birthday or a gift for my wife. How can I get my hands on these strawberries? So we just didn’t have enough supply. So we had to basically turn it, turn all of that down, but, um, that really gave us more confidence and we just have to keep on ramping up the production amount.  

 

Bryan: (00:28:00)     That’s awesome problems to have, by the way,

 

Hiroki: (00:28:05)   it takes a while to grow strawberries. And so it was really, um, How to say, like, we, we knew there was demand, but we knew that we couldn’t provide the supply for the next, you know, eight to 10 months.

 

Bryan: (00:28:23)    So yeah. More about the business side of things too, because running a company is not easy and raising the amount of money that you did is not easy. It’s scaling a team is never easy. So on top of like making sure that you’re hustling, putting the strawberries out there, how are you still managing your team is growing that team structure and maintain their culture.

 

 

Hiroki: (00:28:41)    Yeah, that’s a, that’s a very good question. Um, honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if I’m doing it well. Um, this is my first company, so every day, um, so at this point, we’re okay. We’re hiring almost one new person every week. So, um, basically I’m running an organization that I’ve never run before every, you know, every week it’s it’s bear and bear. Right. Um, I think up until a certain point, like when you were, let’s say 10, 20 people, it was still manageable in terms of, you know, I knowing every single person’s background where their parents are, where they’re from, what their personal interests are. So it was more like, um, you know, like, Like a club activity. Right. So, and everyone knew me. Everyone knew why I was working on this. So it was very easy to, um, educate that the, the culture as well. But, um, you know, as we passed, let’s say 50 people or so, you know, there’ll be a lot, much less time. And especially because we grew, um, our company three X during COVID. Um, and there were much less human interaction. It was, um, it made it very hard to, um, to build that culture. Right. Um, and also because I’m not an expert in every single function that we have at wishy, um, what, the way we dealt with it was, um, so I hired a lot of, uh, People who have way more experience than myself. So basically all of the heads of our departments are people who are much more talented than myself. And my job is really to, um, talk about the vision and convince people that we can do things that other people think is impossible. Right. Really?

 

Bryan: (00:30:37)    Don’t be sorry about that. I really like humble mindset a lot.  

 

Hiroki: (00:30:41)    Yeah. I mean, because I, I need to admit that I, I’m probably not the best finance person or the best salesperson, but, and I’ve been in industry for a long time, probably one of the longest person in this country, um, to be in this industry. So, um, I’m, I’m very confident about my strategy and my vision and what we can do versus what we can not do. But, uh, for the other stuff, I really delegate a lot to, um, my, my, my teammates. And, um, I think one of the biggest hires that we had recently was, um, actually a year ago was, um, so we hired the head of a strategy and finance, um, John Reed, he used to be my boss and my consulting company. Right. So he wasn’t, he was, he was the, well, I wouldn’t say necessarily a boss. I didn’t report to him, but he was as a, a senior. Um, and in my first consulting company, And, um, you know, after 50 years I convinced him that this was going to be a more exciting job then, you know, his COO. So he was a COO at McKinsey, Japan. Well, you know, being able to bring someone like that, it really helped me, um, uh, ease the burden on, on, on the organization, uh, management side of things.  

 

Bryan: (00:31:53)   I love that a lot too.   

 

Maggie: (00:31:57)    Yeah. I mean, I just kind of wanted to go off what Brian said, loved that mindset because you know, you growing this company from the ground up, you know, you knowing, you know, every part of the company, every area you’re you’re well, you know, you have a well expertise in it. It’s really hard to give that up. You know, um, it’s really hard to give up control, but you know, willing to take on people who are smarter than you in different areas is, is a very humbling experience. And, um, just goes to show, you know, how much you care about the company and about the growth of the company. Um, yeah.

 

 

Hiroki: (00:32:31)    Yeah. If this company doesn’t succeed, then there’s no point in doing this. So I just need to bring in whoever that’s most suitable, if someone is better than me and. Coming up with a vision, then maybe it’s better for that person to take over my position. But you know, at this point, you know, and on, on the vision side of things, I think I, I can still lead the company to, uh, to a pretty, pretty good place.

 

Bryan: (00:32:56)   So let’s not, let’s of talk about the vision that you have for your company or quick. Do you envision the strawberries being available to everyone in the United States at a lower price now that you’re able to scale, how are you envision the supply and demand?  

 

Hiroki: (00:33:10)   Yeah, so the whole reason I started this company was not necessarily to bring Japanese strawberry to the U S but um, really bring a paradigm shift. To this whole agriculture industry using vertical farming technology. So if you think of how, you know, Tesla change the automotive industry, by saying, you know, running on gasoline is not cool anymore, it’s not sustainable. Let’s, let’s use electricity instead. And the exact same thing is happening to agriculture because of, you know, the lack of water or land. And then especially in this country, a lot of illegal immigrants were supporting them. The labor side of things, but you know, those people are unfortunately, you know, driven away, um, by the, by Trump basically. And so, um, the costs for that that’s going into traditional agriculture is skyrocketing. And so there has to be a new way to cope with the situation and vertical farming is the solution. And, and that’s why we’re seeing a lot of startups here. But, you know, as an expert in this industry, what I realized was that all of these startups can only grow leafy greens. Um, and because of that, The profitability is not very high. And as a consultant, I saw so many companies go under because of that. And I thought that in order to succeed in this industry, we need to, we need to have a product that can generate strong revenue. And something that can be branded. And so our goal is to really become the world’s largest food producer. And we started with strawberries because we thought it’s, it is the right strategic decision, um, from the cashflow perspective, but also from building a strong brand, because it’s really hard to build a brand around leafy greens.

 

Maggie: (00:35:03)    That’s really interesting. And speaking of branding, you know, I, I think that this is just something that I’m personally curious about. We, we know that way she sells in supermarkets as well. Um, but how did you decide, you know, which supermarkets were right to sell them at and how do you make sure that they stand out from the other store bought strawberries besides the price? You know, the price is obviously different, but you know, for someone who is, who doesn’t know anything about Japanese, Is right. How do you make sure, you know, the brand stands out and that they understand the quality of the strawberry, even before they even get to try it, you know?

 

Hiroki: (00:35:37)  Yes. So, um, going back to the prior question as well, but our goal is to, you know, have a strong reason every supermarket, not only in the U S but around the world. Right. And, um, to your question, we surrender now, we’re selling at a supermarket called Eli Zabar’s, um, on the upper East side. Um, the reason why we decided to go with Eli’s is because. Um, we’re working directly with the son of the founder. Who really cares about the quality of the produce that’s that they’re selling. And, you know, if we surely went with, who’s gonna be the highest price tag for our product, it may not have been Eli’s. There are, you know, other people who are also interested in product, but we just wanted to make sure that whoever that’s selling our berries really understand the value of our berries and that they’re really personally buttoned because otherwise, if they’re not. Um, like that the people who’s going to handle our strawberries me might just like handle it, just like any other strawberries or they might not do proper marketing or branding that we would want to see. So, um, we always prioritize people who really love our product, who can also stand behind our brand, um, quality to make sure that the customer’s experience is always, um, consistent.

 

Maggie: (00:37:03)  You think that’s really interesting. How have you grown over the past years? You know, this, this company has, you know, been so successful and you know, you’re a series a, of $50 million, um, which has completed. I I’d love to know like how you grown personally over the past years that you’ve grown at wasting.

 

Hiroki: (00:37:24)   Um, okay. That’s a very difficult question. Would you be able to elaborate a little more on, you know, from what kind of aspect you’re. You want me to?

   

 

Maggie: (00:37:39)   Yeah. I mean, from like a, like a mindset, um, side, you know, how I’m sure it was, it was, um, it was difficult, you know, growing this company with your first time being a first time founder, um, and growing to your company, scaling to, you know, so many employees, um, how have you seen yourself just grow personally?

 

Hiroki: (00:38:01)   Yeah. So, um, I would say we first started this company. It was really just a few, few dudes who, who had passion and vertical farming and were just grinding every day and everyone was into this a hundred percent. And so we didn’t really think about, um, you know, How that the impact to our employees. It was everyone wasn’t really in it. But now, you know, as we pass the size of, let’s say 50 people, there are so many different types of people who is working at our company. And I. When we first started, it was just a bunch of, you know, 20 year olds, all single, no one had families. We had, we didn’t have a lot of responsibility. Like we didn’t have to be very responsible, even if it failed. But now we have so many people who have families, you know, people with lots of experience and, you know, people who are trying to make a career out of, you know, what they do. At OCI. So as the company grew, um, there, you know, I, I started to feel more responsible that this is actually becoming real it’s, it’s becoming a real company. And so it’s, it’s a little bit of a pressure, but at the same time, um, I really think about, um, the work environment, how people. Are, um, you know, spending their time sheet, um, as, as, as their job. And so it’s become how to say, I think more about the employees these days. Whereas, you know, the first two years it was really about just, you know, hitting milestones, hitting milestones, hitting milestones. But now a lot of my time has shifted to people management and making sure that everyone is happy. Um, especially now that, you know, I’m not as close to everyone as I used to be. Um, so I think that’s the biggest change.

 

Maggie: (00:39:59)  Yeah, that’s amazing. I it’s, I feel like it’s very similar to myself and Brian just growing Asian hustle network when it was just the two of us. And we were pretty unresponsible. Now that we’re scaling, we have to become more responsible because we have team members to take care of. Um,  

 

Hiroki: (00:40:16)    uh, it’s amazing though, right? It, you know, you’re, you’re paying the salary for people and, you know, people are enjoying working. And, you know, at the place that you’ve built. So that’s actually really rewarding to me,

 

Maggie: (00:40:30)  right. Absolutely blank,  

 

Bryan: (00:40:33)   very at the same time, you know, because like you mentioned earlier, people’s livelihoods are now in your hands and you always take that into consideration that as you’re making business decisions, but is this going to benefit? The company is going to continue growing. And you, you try not to think about the negative impact of their decisions. Sometimes you’re like, Oh no, I can make my decisions. Yeah. Shout out to you, man. It’s not an easy task. So keep going.  

 

Maggie: (00:41:00)  So here, we’re lucky we have one last question for you, and that is if you could give an advice to an aspiring entrepreneur, what would that advice be?

 

Hiroki: (00:41:10)    Ah, that’s a very difficult question, but a good question. Um, So I think one thing I struggled a lot as an entrepreneur, um, especially, you know, coming from Japan was that a lot of people, especially my MBA, um, uh, try to provide opinions. To me as I was starting my company. And I’m sure anyone who wants to start a business would talk about their business idea to their friends or do their professors or their families. And I almost guarantee that 99% of the time people are going to tell you that there’s a flaw in your business model or your idea. And I guess the biggest advice, like if I could give myself back five years ago would be listen to people, but don’t be overly influenced by what they say, especially if they’re not from the field that you know, you’re going to start your business then, or especially if they haven’t founded. Accompany themselves, because it’s so easy to point out flaws in business, as opposed to guarantee that you’re going to succeed. Right. So, and everyone, when they’re asked, they feel like they have to provide feedback, but it’s entrepreneurship is really not about ideas. It’s about like being in the right place at the right time, but also being the last person to give up. Right. Like in, in the 21st century, no one really makes a unicorn because you came up with an idea that no one else has thought of before. It’s all about how passionate and how much more passionate you have then, you know, your competitors and executed well, but that part. Does not get involved in your conversation with your friends or with their parents, and they only look at your business idea. So, um, you know, if you’re really passionate about something, um, you know, you should probably listen to people’s advices, but, um, I would say don’t be overly influenced by the negative, uh, comments.

 

Maggie: (00:43:08)   That’s really good advice. Yeah. I mean, I think any other founder would definitely agree that, you know, it’s very easy to get pulled in hundreds of different directions from advisors and friends and family. Um, but as long as you are passionate and because you’re the person who’s in that business yourself, so, you know, you know, the full scope of what is happening. So, thank you so much for that advice.

 

 

Hiroki: (00:43:32)   One of my professors at Berkeley, a very well-known professor in the field of entrepreneurship told, you know, straight up to my face, you’re not going to raise money because this is a CapEx intensive business. And no one’s interested in agriculture. You should, you should reconsider this. Oh, well, you’re, you’re going to waste your visa. Right. And as, as a first-time entrepreneur, I’d be really scared to hear something like that. Right. Coming from someone with authority. So.  

 

 

Bryan: (00:43:58)   Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t listen to him. It’s the same thing with us too. There are people were just like, you’re raising money for a Facebook group. I want to turn this Facebook group into a company. Yeah.

 

Maggie: (00:44:12)   So how can our listeners find out more about you and OCI or where can they find it?

 

Hiroki: (00:44:21)   Oh, there the product. Yes. Um, yeah, so right now we are only selling in the Manhattan and Brooklyn and, uh, parts of Jersey city. Um, but if, if you live in those areas, you can visit our website. Um, our production is ramping up. So I think in the next couple months you will see much more availability. So you can order online and it’ll get delivered to your home. Um, there are also other few partnership locations, um, throughout Manhattan where you can reserve our berries and then go pick it up yourself. And then finally you can go, um, visit, uh, Eli’s. Zabar’s um, supermarket and, um, hopefully if you go early enough, um, during the day you’ll, you’ll find, um, our bears there, if it’s not sold out 

 

Maggie: (00:45:08)   amazing, well, I will be waiting until the website is not sold out as well, because I tried ordering online and there weren’t any available, but I will keep my eyes peeled for that. Thank you so much for rookie. It was amazing hearing your story today. We appreciate you for sharing with us.

   

 

Hiroki: (00:45:25)    Thank you so much.

 

Bryan: (00:45:26)    Yeah, thanks for reading the podcast. They appreciate you and granulation the all your successes.

 

Hiroki: (00:45:30)   Thank you, Brian.  

 

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