What makes a goal compelling? What do we gain from comparing ourselves to others? In this conversation with entrepreneur Cameron Tolbert, Founder of Native Ingredients, we dissect topics around honing a strong entrepreneurial mindset. We explore how circumstances and beliefs push people down the path of entrepreneurship, the dangers of comparing oneself to others, and human’s innate tendency toward self-actualization. Cameron also opens up about the lessons he learned in his own career journey. From seeing how an internship shaped his mindset to learning from his failures, this is an episode you will not want to miss.
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The Pathway To Success As A Serial Entrepreneur With Cameron Tolbert
In this episode, I’m speaking with Cameron Tolbert, who’s the Founder of Native Ingredients, a Cleveland-based startup that provides unique plant-based alternatives to brand-name snacks. I’ve got to say this was a fun interview and as you will see, Cameron is a thoughtful young man who is well on his way to becoming a successful serial entrepreneur.
In this interview, we hit the ground running. Before I had the chance to press record, Cameron started by interviewing me. As a result, this episode begins in the midst of a conversation about the ways in which our circumstances and beliefs, rather than our personality traits, can push us down an entrepreneurial path.
From there, we covered a wide range of topics, including the dangers of comparing ourselves to others, why trees need the wind, and the power of a compelling goal. We talked about how a college internship helped shape his mindset as an aspiring entrepreneur. We also discussed the importance of failure as the pathway to success as a serial entrepreneur. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Cameron Tolbert.
What I learned, Cameron is that it’s situational. The circumstances and your beliefs cause you to behave this way. Beliefs of which you are not aware. Let me try to make my point simply. A lot of people don’t realize that, but they arrive by the age of 35 or so in a job with a mortgage. The way our mindset works is that we acquire this deeply held assumption that the world is the way it is, I am who I am, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
We’re not aware of that belief, but I’ll tell you how it manifests in our lives. We stop learning and seeking knowledge, but it’s situational. It has nothing to do with your IQ or any of that. It has to do with your underlying beliefs and assumptions of which you are not aware. What happens? You go to your job, do your best to do your job, come home, and focus all of your discretionary time on recreation and leisure to alleviate the spiritual distress of nonmeaningful work, let’s say.
I agree with you 100%. Would the idea be to find the most meaningful work? Every entrepreneur I know says I do it because it’s meaningful. I stay up 100 hours a week. I make up hours to stay up. Is that the escape that is the hope circuit that entrepreneurs use because we enjoy our work? It doesn’t tax us like that, so we can go do other things.
Work fulfills and energizes you. It doesn’t sap you the way coerced work or extrinsically motivated work. That’s what we’re talking about, Cameron. We’re talking about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I’m going to take a wild stab here and say that if you won the lottery and you put $10 million in the bank, my guess is you might take a month off and go crazy a little bit but very quickly thereafter, you’re going to get right back in the saddle and get working on your startup regardless.
If you take a Cameron equivalent who’s working at X corp and you give them $10 million, they’re done. The way psychologists measure motivation is that they put you in a room and reward you for doing something extrinsically with a monetary reward. They withdraw the award and see how long you continue with the task.
That’s an experiment.
It’s a psychology experiment. It’s how you measure intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. One of the secrets of entrepreneurs is that they’re intrinsically motivated. There’s a purpose-driven component to work, but entrepreneurs are not aware of it, so they can’t explain that to somebody. That perpetuates the myth of the entrepreneur as a trait-based phenomenon. We explain Cameron by his traits. Instead of going, “Look at the goal that Cameron is pursuing and his relationship to that goal.”
What does that show up in my life? What would people be saying to me that would look like they’re valuing a trait-based as opposed to trying to understand my whole goal?
People will look at you. Let’s call that your socioeconomic equivalent who’s not an entrepreneur but otherwise has a similar background, intellect, education, and so on and so forth. Someone who’s going to their job every day looks at Cameron and goes, “That guy is passionate and driven.” They’ll tend to describe you in terms of traits. People get these words all mixed up, traits and characteristics. Trait implies dispositional personality. It’s like on a hard drive.
You can’t get rid of these traits, but you might change a characteristic.
In psychology, we call this the fundamental attribution error. It’s the tendency to over-emphasize the importance of traits when explaining a person’s behavior and ignore all the cognitive, motivational, and situational influences that are exerting enormous influence on your behavior but are not obvious. They’re counterintuitive. Part of what I’m saying is that the goal is acting upon you in ways of which you yourself are not aware.
It’s Newtonian. In medieval physics, we thought, “I’m going to take a ball and throw the ball. I’m instilling energy in the ball, and the energy is going to dissipate, and the ball’s going to fall to earth.” It’s utterly intuitive but false. Newton comes along and goes, “Hang on here. That’s not quite right. That ball would stay in motion forever, except for the fact that it’s being acted upon by an invisible force.”
Like air pressure or something?
Gravity. In that same way, the goal is acting upon you. There’s a whole literature on this, Cameron. When you’re pursuing a compelling goal, your brain neurologically is able to access problem-solving abilities that are not otherwise available to you. You’re tapping into something that you don’t have access to when you’re going to your job every day.The entrepreneurial mindset is the effect of pursuing a meaningful goal. Click To Tweet
How the goal acts on you is through saving us mental exhaustion and not so much worry.
There’s also the hope circuit, like the optimism that comes from pursuing. Think about this for a second. Let’s call it the Cameron clone. What are you striving to achieve if you’re living for weekends and holidays? I like this quote from Gary Vaynerchuk. He said, “If you’re living for weekends and holidays, your thing is broken.” That’s something you have no control over. That’s waiting it out. In nature, you need the struggle and strive towards something meaningful and something that benefits humanity. It’s got to be something that doesn’t just benefit you because it won’t be that compelling if it’s just making you rich but not serving people.
I want to question that with an example from my life, so it’s biased. My example is not for everybody. I want to question the idea that it’s a good idea to be an entrepreneur in the first place. My friend goes to his job he doesn’t particularly enjoy all that much, but he spent five years plus there. He’s gotten good at it one way or another. They reward him well for it. He and his fiancée got together. They got a house. They have a cat and a dog. Also, a big backyard with a couple of cars. They’re doing well.
This guy admittedly lives for the weekends. He lives for those days off away from work, not counting. His fiancée also lives for the weekends. I ask them, “Why don’t you ever think about entrepreneurship, get together, and turn your small little side hustles into bigger businesses?” They’ll fix up old cars and sell them off. Buy up old cars, pick them up, and sell them off.
They’re particularly about Ford Ranger and some flatbed Ford trucks, but I don’t know trucks all that much. They buy these cars and flip them. I say, “Why don’t you think about making this into a bigger business? You could do this maybe on off-work hours or something, just more frequently.” They said, “We are not looking to be entrepreneurs. We’re looking to get wealthy, buy different homes, buy up property, and do entrepreneurship that way. Be property owners.”
I said, “I get that,” but they’re not working every day towards what they want as an entrepreneur would. They’re choosing to take a job, earn money, and eventually work towards it. Is there a difference between my friend and me? He’s going to be an entrepreneur, too, but I don’t feel like he has that hope circuit flipped.
First of all, they’re emulating pretty much what I’m advocating, which is don’t quit your day job. Some of us are going to do that. Some of us are going all in. Fair enough. I’m not advocating that everyone start a business per se. What I am advocating is that we all use some modicum of our discretionary time, thought, effort, and resources to explore new ways to make ourselves more useful to more humans.
Flipping cars, are they trying to do something that serves the greater good or do something that entertains themself? I’m not trying to be the moral police here. I’m saying it’s not going to be as motivating. To make a few extra bucks on the side, it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that. I can imagine from the perspective of a fledgling entrepreneur who’s struggling.
You’re looking at that lifestyle at some point, going, “Am I doing the right thing over here?” There’s no better way to get ourselves wrapped around the axle than to compare ourselves to others. Relative deprivation theory is the technical term for that. You’re happy as can be until you see somebody that’s got something more than you, and then you’re miserable. That’s how it works.
I knew comparison as a thief of joy.
There’s a TED Talk from Frans de Waal, a primatologist, where he shows these two monkeys in cages right next to each other. The monkey is expected to give the researcher a rock from the bottom of the cage, and in return, the researcher gives the first monkey a little plastic cup. Medication wouldn’t be in it but a little piece of cucumber. The monkey gives the researcher a rock. The researcher gives the monkey a cucumber. The monkey very happily eats the cucumber. The researcher goes to the monkey in the next cage. The monkey gives her the rock. The researcher gives the second monkey a grape.
Let’s go back to the first monkey. The monkey gives the rock. The researcher gives the monkey a cucumber. The monkey pulls it out of his mouth and throws it right back at the researcher, “What is this?” She goes back to the second monkey and gives him a grape. She goes back to the first monkey. The monkey picks the rock up and bangs the rock on the cage like there’s something wrong with the rock.
What’s interesting is that the second monkey will eventually refuse the grape until the researcher gives the grape to the first monkey. Reciprocity and fairness are also part of what he was trying to say. Part of his point is that morality is not extrinsically imposed by religion. Reciprocity, cooperation, and those things are intrinsic.
What was interesting for me was how angry the monkey got.
The monkey with the cucumber saw the monkey next door who got a grape. He’s like, “We’re on.” Cameron, I’m going to flip the script on you and ask you about your journey as an entrepreneur. I knew this was going to be a great conversation. You’re a super thoughtful guy. That’s what struck me when I met you at the conference. Tell me a little bit about your background, Cameron. How did you get on the entrepreneurial path? That’s a question I like to start these interviews with. What puts you on this path?
I’m going to go back a little bit. I’m starting college, and it’s 2015. My mom is a Physicist for NASA. I thought, “I don’t know what I want to do coming into college. Let me choose the hardest thing possible. If I can do that, then I can do anything else.” I chose Physics. It wasn’t a great idea, but it was an idea. It didn’t go very well the first two years.
I was walking through the hall with one of the kids I got out of class with and I’m complaining about this. He’s like, “Maybe you should consider Supply Chain Management.” I had no idea what it was. I ended up going over to Supply Chain Management. That’s in the College of Business. One of the first things that you encounter when you go to the College of Business at Cleveland State is the Entrepreneurship Center.
Physics and Supply Chain Management seem random. Did he see something in you like, “That guy is a supply chain management?”
He had a friend because apparently, a lot of people who become engineers and are over in science, if they feel like, “This isn’t for me. I’d rather go somewhere else,” a lot of them end up in the College of Business. A lot of them who were engineers ended up as supply chain managers. That’s why it was like, “It might be easier over there.” No hate. I knew that I wasn’t trying as hard as I could in Physics because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do every day. It didn’t excite me. I feel like that was the first clue that you should do what excites you or brings you interest and joy. You shouldn’t do something because it’s challenging but because it can bring you money.You shouldn't just do something because it is challenging or brings you money. Click To Tweet
I ended up in supply chain management and met the Entrepreneurship Center at Cleveland State. They gave me several opportunities to go over the summer and do these long 12-day courses or 2-week courses. I do these. One of the teachers taps me on the shoulder and says, “I see you’re thinking about this. What about thinking about it this way? What if you made these assumptions?” He began asking me these questions. It was an introduction to asking questions like that Socratic way of thought. It pulled the thought out of me and I began doing more entrepreneurship stuff. I’d go to entrepreneurship competitions.
What if every kid had someone that intervened in their lives and started asking questions like that?
It would be incredible. It starts with teachers who trigger that thought. Prior to that, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t think I could be the best at anything. I thought I was going to find a nice job like everyone else, work for twenty years, go home, and that was it. My parents did that. They worked for the military, NASA, or in the college where my dad was a professor at the University of Phoenix, and then he lost his job.
Not to get into too much of a backstory, but I figured that’s what you do. That’s the only option you have. When entrepreneurship began to become a thing, I began to see entrepreneurs, think in that way, ask questions like that and see the entrepreneurs who were coming out of Cleveland State. They weren’t failures. They were successful. I began to look around at all the other people and realized that all these businesses start with an entrepreneur or a group of entrepreneurs.
Is it fair to say that you saw the sausage get made and realized, “These guys put their pants on like I do every day. I could do this?”
That’s exactly what it was. I didn’t realize entrepreneurship was even possible because you think business is so difficult, like, “I’ll never be able to learn all of it.” People fail all the time and lose everything they have doing this. They do. I’m not going to lie. It is dangerous. You are dealing with very real risks and a lot of real money. Once I saw that you could do it, it was successful. Once I began thinking in that type of way and realized that a lot of what business is, is relationships, and a lot of having the best relationship starts with looking inside yourself, like self-awareness. People talk a lot about that. It is where it starts, even more than empathy would be being self-aware. Entrepreneurs tend to be that.A lot of business work simply has the best relationships, and it starts with looking within yourself. Click To Tweet
In psychology, they call that metacognition, thinking about your own thinking. I noticed that with a lot about entrepreneurs. I’ve interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs. That’s one thing that struck me about you right away. You’re thoughtful.
I found this great quote from Warren Buffett where he said, “You got a guy over here with a 400 horsepower engine but he only knows how to get 100 horsepower out of the other engine. You got a guy over here with a 200 horsepower engine, but he knows how to get all 200 horsepower out of it. He’s better off than the guy with the 400-horsepower engine.”
That’s what I see with entrepreneurs. They’re guys with 200-horsepower engines but they’re thoughtful in a way. I’m fond of saying that a mindset regulates the output we get from whatever inherent capabilities we have. I see people with 200-horsepower engines outperforming people with 400-horsepower engines all the time. It’s because they’re mindful. They’re not blindly doing what everybody else is doing. They’re stopping and thinking about it.
Your journey is triggering people to think in that other way.
Cultural anthropologists would say it like this. “You can’t understand somebody else’s mindset until you can understand your own.” Part of what I’m trying to do is get people to stop and realize that you’re looking at the world through a lens. That lens is having a profound impact on your choices, the goals you set for yourself, the people you surround yourself with, and the extent to which you persist in the face of difficulties. It’s influencing you in all these ways. Let’s pause for a minute. Recognize that we’re looking at the world’s lens. Stop and look at the lens. It’s so empowering. That’s the entrepreneurial mindset right there, Cameron.
I know this was an interview about me.
We’re going back and forth. You already reset that, Cameron, which I would expect nothing less of you. Rock and roll. Let’s go. What do you get?
Have you heard of Nicholas Taleb?
I read Black Swan and Antifragile. I listened to them as audiobooks. He’s five out. I wanted to give a shout-out to the Nassim Taleb books. He is very biased in what he writes, but as far as thinkers go, he’s one of the greats to publish. Every generation and period has its greats. His collection are worthwhile books to read.
I’m a guy with a 200-horsepower engine. I can only comprehend 20% of what he’s saying. The vast majority is going way over my head. I don’t give a crap. I’m still learning stuff. I’m listening to them because I’m an audiobook guy like you. That allows me to double-task. I’m listening to an audiobook when I’m on a treadmill in a gym in the morning, I got an hour of learning right there. Most of what Taleb is saying is going over my head but every once in a while, I can grasp one of those nuggets and do it.
Those are long books. Trust me. I’ve tried to listen to them several times to pick out the things that I’m missing. You can pick out stuff every single time you listen to them.
One of the things I remember from Taleb is that in Antifragile, mechanical systems break down and stress. Organic systems benefit from them. Part of my entrepreneurial mindset theory that you’re supporting here is that you need the challenge to grow and fully self-actualize.
I heard this on YouTube. There was an experiment where somewhere on earth, they made this dome where they tried to replicate Mars. It was run by NASA. They put these trees in there and tried to grow trees, plants, and everything. What happened is that the trees would get to a certain height and then fall over. What they realized 40 years later is that trees need wind to push against them to make them strong. Otherwise, they can’t bear the height.
That’s so interesting. It bolsters the idea. There’s another germane term. Let me toss this in here. It’s called desirable difficulties. It’s one thing like psychologically when you’re facing challenges that life throws at you. You’re facing challenges that your boss imposes on you or some malevolent challenges that people are imposing upon you. That’s one thing. The desirable difficulty is a term that struck me.
That’s what entrepreneurs are doing. They’re challenging themselves. There’s this sweet spot of engagement. When the challenge is too great, you’ll crumble. It will cripple you. The anxiety will prevent you. If a guy walks into the building you’re in and starts shooting, you’re not going to know what to do. You’re going to crawl under the table because you’re not trained. The challenge way exceeds your capacity unless you’re a Special Forces dude or something.
Do you know how to take down a gun without a gun?
The other side of it is that when your skill exceeds the challenge, you become bored and disengaged. As entrepreneurs, we are in this sweet spot of what we call optimal engagement. You’re challenged every day. Every day is like you’re figuring out something new. You’re not showing up at your desk with your manager telling you, “Here’s what I need you to do, Cameron. Here’s how to do it, where to do it, when to do it and why to do it.” It’s on you. Over time, your brain and deeply held on conscious beliefs evolve differently as a result. My point here is this. The entrepreneurial mindset is an effect, not the cause.
The effect of what?
The pursuit of a compelling goal. That’s the fundamental attribution era thinking it’s the cause. “Cameron has an entrepreneurial mindset.” It’s social psychology. The cause of the behavior, to my understanding, is the innate human tendency towards self-actualization. It’s in every living thing. Every organism has within it the capacity and desire to become all that it can become. Acorn has within it both the capacity and desire to become a mighty oak, but it needs nutrients to do that.
Human beings need psychological nutrients. It’s called autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If those three nutrients aren’t attainable, we won’t self-actualize. The technical terms would be autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Meaning, you are integrated into a community and a valued part of a community. You’re contributing and acknowledging your contribution. That’s one way of describing it. It’s very unlikely that working conditions will provide those nutrients in a traditional managerial paradigm.
Is that why people get mentors, which is a big thing?
Yes. That certainly helps but what we know from motivation research is that if any one of those three nutrients is not attainable, suboptimal outcomes will occur. You won’t be able to self-actualize. What happens to the entrepreneurs is that they blindly and unwillingly stumble into that trifecta. Therefore, they become optimally engaged. You don’t know that. You think, “I’m special.” I’m not saying you, Cameron.
Here’s what happened. Cameron starts his business, steps out, and becomes an entrepreneur. I would guess that it’s harder to relate to your friends who are non-entrepreneurs. There’s a cultural chasm that widens. You go to a social event and you’re having a harder time talking about news, weather, and sports. Your friends don’t want to talk about work.
They don’t but I love that.
Here’s the thing, Cameron. What happens to a human being when learning and work become a source of joy, meaning, and purpose? What happens to a guy with a 200-horsepower engine who stumbles into this trifecta where all of a sudden work is a source of joy, interest, and engagement? What happens to that guy with a 200-horsepower engine in over 20 years?
Either they burn out, blow up, or something.
That’s where that mindfulness piece comes back into it. When things aren’t working, you’re less likely to blame, look within and say, “What am I doing? How do I need to change that?” That’s where the metacognition piece is so important. The essence of an entrepreneurial mindset is an internal locus of control.
As an entrepreneur, how do I encourage other people to have that switch or change and fall into this realization that they too can be entrepreneurs that can take these risks and be successful?
I would set the conversation up like this. Entrepreneurship is nothing more than the self-directed pursuit of an opportunity to create value for others. By creating value for others, you empower yourself. That’s the basic premise of entrepreneurship. We all live by exchanging useful things with each other. We’re no longer agrarian and subsistence farmers who eat what we kill. We’re all merchants.
I like to ask people, “What is the useful thing that you exchange? With whom are you exchanging it? What’s preventing you from making yourself more useful to more humans?” I also encourage everybody to have a side hustle and an experience where you have a sharp stick and some baling wire and you go off in the jungle and figure out how to create something useful for other humans without the guidance of a professional teacher or a predetermined curriculum with a predictable path and outcome.
Cameron, what’s interesting is that I train teachers in a lot of what I do. I’ve trained thousands of educators around the world on how to teach entrepreneurship. Often, people come to my lectures with their arms folded. They have this casual contempt for entrepreneurship. They think entrepreneurs are greedy and exploitative people who will exploit others for their gain. There are good reasons for that perspective. I understand that.
What I also have seen is those same people who come to the conversation agnostic, if not hostile. The minute you figure out something useful to other humans, your next impulse is to want to figure out how to find more humans that might value your solution. Cameron, you’re halfway through your time at Cleveland State. Your friend tells you, “Why don’t you go try Supply Chain Management?” You find yourself in a business school and get exposed to entrepreneurs. You got a professor that’s asking you some provocative questions getting you to think a little bit differently about how you’re going to contribute.
It wasn’t so much how to contribute. It’s this way that people can contribute to the world. I didn’t start necessarily having a way that I could contribute. What I thought to do, which I wouldn’t advise but is working for me, is that I went out and started making little projects. I started making side hustle after side hustle while I was still going to school and working.
Did you notice a change in your energy?
At this time, I went through one of the hardest points in my life. There was so much stress and there was so much going on. I was closing in on my last year of school. I’m working on entrepreneurship. It was a lot at once. I burnt out and it felt like I was at my lowest point. I got there and sat there. It was like, “You can’t go any farther because you’re not going to die. If you’re not going to die, this is about as bad as it gets.”
I continue to work and it started getting better from there. That’s where I was emotionally but physically, I was making these small projects with friends. My friends hated it because I’d pop up with this brilliant idea. We’d go after it. We’d get 3 to 6 months in and then we’d admit that it’s not working. We’d close up shop. They were like, “I can’t do this forever. I have to go get a job.” I’m like, “I understand that.”
Going through these entrepreneurship competitions, doing these small side hustles, failing over and over again, each time I’d get farther. As I got farther, I learned, “It’s not like you get farther by saying, ‘I didn’t fall into this pothole.’ Next time you fall into the next pothole.” Just as you were saying when we were talking about antifragility. When you fail at a company, you get at least two times smarter the next time you go at it. You get twice as far the next time you do it. You’re stronger. You know more people. You have a better network. You understand the finance.When you fail at a company, you get at least two times smarter the next time you go at it. Click To Tweet
You’re also failing on a small scale. It’s not epic where you’re losing your house and all this shame around it in epic failure. People need to understand that. The word failure is a big word. When people hear it, they freak out. Let me back up for one second, Cameron. I don’t know if this is a factor or not but your mom is a physicist and you picked Physics. It sounds like you weren’t loving it the way you described it. I’m not putting words in your mouth but you were languishing there. Not thriving. I know what that’s like to be in your twenties. Other people seem to know what they’re doing and you’re lost. That’s the worst feeling in the world. That can be part of the motivating factor also.
It feels like whatever you do, you’re not going to enjoy it.
It’s a bunch more of blind alleys like, “I’m going to switch majors from Physics to something else but it’s going to be more or less the same.” It’s a different color but the same thing.
That might be the start of where we begin to notice. We begin to look inwardly and say, “I need to find something that isn’t this 9:00 to 5:00 or this type of life. I need to imagine what my life should be.”
There’s another interesting thing here in your story that I want to point out. When you got exposed to entrepreneurship, you became energized. You don’t have much control over that. That happened to you there. The goal is acting on you. Let me go back to my analogy. If you turn around, a guy is standing behind you with a gun. You’re going to have a physiological response to that threat. Your heart is going to start pounding. Your blood is going to your extremity so you can fight or fly. People don’t realize that the same thing happens to you when you’re confronted with an opportunity that resonates with you. It has a similar physiological response. It energizes you in ways that you don’t have control over. That didn’t happen cognitively or at least consciously.
That’s where you’re saying the goal is acting on me.
Here’s what I’m saying, Cameron. I’m going to drop something on you and see what you think about this. I’m not a religious guy in any shape of the term. It seems to me, after interviewing all these entrepreneurs all over the planet, that there’s this biomimicry thing going on. It seems like when a person is encouraged to pursue their interest, the things that are uniquely interesting to them, and develop their abilities in ways that contribute to the greater good, they tend to flourish.
The research supports this. This isn’t just my fantastical thinking. We’re supposed to do this and figure out, “What are your virtues, Cameron? How can you contribute to humanity with your virtues?” No one ever tells us that. No one ever says, “Cameron, what are you interested in? How can you serve humanity with your interests?” When you do that, you will self-actualize. Isn’t that interesting? You will become optimally engaged and tap into the most potent form of human motivation.
You have to be almost selfish enough to do it.
Selfishness is not quite the right word. I think of it as an altruistic paradox. You get what you want by helping other people get what they want. We’re here to serve. If I were a religious man, I would put it like this. Somebody instilled in you interests and abilities that are unique to Cameron. They jam those things in there and go, “Here comes Cameron flying down the shoot.” Cameron has got to figure out how to leverage those interests and abilities in a way that serves humanity. The conversation around entrepreneurship is a conversation about human flourishing. That’s how I think about it.
How do we get these situations where entrepreneurs have flourished? I won’t bring up any sensationalized cases so let me take some examples from the past. Someone like Rockefeller. He was a great entrepreneur. He must have flourished. He ended up at this point where he’s still doing some nefarious things. Did the flourishing go wrong? Is it nighttime and you flourished but it’s the wrong period and you’re forced to do different things? What’s going on? Why do we end up?
I’m not sure I know the answer to it but I will say this. When we have access to significantly more resources than others, we start to think we’re better than others. This is pretty well-established in the literature. Let’s go back to our conversation about reciprocity. I killed a buffalo. I don’t have a refrigerator because I’m a hunter-gatherer. I’m talking about a word 10,000 or 20,000 years ago. I’m going to give one of the legs of this buffalo to my friend Cameron and his family because I can’t eat it and I might need his help next week. Reciprocity is evolutionary but if I got all the buffalo I’m ever going to need, I don’t need you.
I read one study where psychologists put cameras at traffic lights. They would let people walk across the street at a red light and see if people will stop for the person in the crosswalk. They quickly observed that the more expensive your car was, the less likely you are to obey the traffic signals. You raise an interesting point. People who have an insanely successful need to guard against these things.
It’s almost a little bit like a Lose/Lose game. Suppose you win by falling into this goal of achieving more for people. If you’re successful at achieving more for people, you end up becoming almost a victim of your success.If you're successful at achieving more for people, you also become a victim of your success. Click To Tweet
There’s a concept called transformation theory. Nothing fails like success. The values and assumptions that were essential for you to succeed will become the source of your demise. That’s a phenomenon in nature in times of change. For every Rockefeller, there’s a Buffett that’s insanely successful but still relatively humble and not doing a lot of harm in the world and so forth. Let me get back to your journey, Cameron. I love the fact that this is fairly new to you. I’m trying to get a timeline going here. In 2015, you went to college and finished in 2019.
I finished college in 2021.
You’re newly graduated from college. You’ve got the entrepreneur bug. You’re doing all these little startups as side hustles in the latter half of your college experience. Most of your friends are like, “This is fun, Cameron,” but when it peters out, they’re like, “Peace out. I’m going to go get a real job.” You’re like, “I’m going to keep going.”
It sounds crazy for me to say that but ironically, it’s a successful tactic. I say that because my idea was to fail as many times as I could and learn as much as I could. When I get it right, I’m going to be able to get it right repeatedly and show other people how to get it right. Although I’m not an expert on it and I don’t have a Master’s in this, I’m figuring it out. This time, I’ve gone a lot further than last time and the time before.
On this journey of being an entrepreneur, one of the things that I want to do professionally is show that being a serial entrepreneur can be a professional role that is attainable. It’s not some idea that’s it’s reserved for all the people who already have millions stashed away. I want to prove like, “No. We can do this anywhere and in any industry. We can make businesses and support what is an ecosystem more than a race.”
How are you supporting yourself during all this, Cameron? You’re still a young guy. I’m assuming you’re not burdened with huge mortgages and all that but how are you living?
I’ve cut as many expenses as I could. Luckily, the government has put a pause on those student loans but they’re coming in August 2022. I’ve been living at home. I haven’t been driving a whole lot because I need exercise. I was working a nice job. They were paying me well. I found that pursuing entrepreneurship and going down this learning path was something I would rather have than a nice car, saving up for a house or a lot of those things that my peers have. It’s feeling like I’m on a different path.
How are mom and dad responding to this? Are they freaking out like, “My kid needs to get a real job?”
My mom would like to see me get a nice 9:00 to 5:00. My dad understands.
I have a friend that sold his business for $200 million. He told me that his company was at $50 million in revenue before his dad quit, asking him when he was going to get a real job. One of the ideas to draw from that comment is that the pressure to not be entrepreneurial is not only externally imposed but internally imposed. You’re looking at your friends who have day jobs. They’ve got a house, car, dog, and cat. There’s a lot of social pressure. Your mom and dad are looking at you. You’re feeling like, “I’m a loser. I’m at home living in my parents’ basement trying to figure this thing out.”
I remember when I launched ELI, Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. It was 2007 when the housing market crashed and the building business went away. I remember feeling like Tony Soprano walking out to my mailbox in my bathrobe and slippers at 10:00 or whatever time in the morning. My neighbors had all gone off to work. That feeling was like, “I didn’t have anywhere to go. I’m at home figuring stuff out.”
I also love what you’re talking about trying to fail and learn. I want educators to understand the power of what I would call error-based learning. That’s what you’re engaged in. That’s how organisms orient themselves in unfamiliar terrain by trying lots of little things and learning from the results. That’s organic learning.
You find yourself stranded in the jungles of South America and you’re starving. You don’t know where you are. You’re not familiar with the train at all. You see a bush covered with these big red berries. You don’t go start gorging yourself on these berries. You take one and rub it on your tongue and see if you start puking, your face swells up or something.
I would not survive in that jungle. I would’ve run to the bush but I get the idea.
What’s the idea you’re working on? Where are you in your entrepreneurial journey?
I got to the idea I’m working on because I was sitting around one day and said, “There’s no horchata around so let me make some horchata because I want some horchata.”
I don’t know what that is.
Horchata is sweetened rice milk from Spanish and Mexican culture. I make it and use rice milk but it was traditionally made with tiger nuts. Horchata is a soft drink made with milk. That makes it interesting because it has to be refrigerated but it’s a soft drink. It’s non-carbonated and has low alcohol. There are all these different special things about it. For instance, I make it nut-free. I got to this idea of making it because I can’t find this in stores. I said, “Let’s go ahead, make this product, and see if people like it.” I made samples. People enjoyed it. They said, “This is fantastic. You should make more of this.” Quickly, demand was higher than my ability to produce.
You were selling it?
How were you selling it? What’s your minimally viable product?
My minimum viable product was a recipe that I came up with after about two months of working on it. It was a mix of rice milk, agave, vanilla, and some calcium. We fortified it. There are different things to add to the flavor. It was generally some pretty organic vitamins or ingredients.
How did you start selling it? Did you set up a booth somewhere at a market? Where’s the demand coming from?
I got demand from people walking around. I’ve sold about 2 to 3 bottles. Not a whole lot but I’ll have friends come up to me and they’ll say, “I tried it. Give me a bottle. I’ll pay you $2.50, $3, or $3.50 for it.” I sold bottles like that. These bottles are difficult to make. It takes about 2 hours plus about $1,000 worth of ingredients to make 24 bottles or however many bottles I want with the ingredients. I need a co-packer. That’s what I’ve learned right off the bat.
You don’t have the facilities is what you’re saying. You need a co-packer or someone who will white-label produce it for you, a commercial kitchen.
I got into my last semester of college and started an internship at a place called GE Lighting on Noble Road, East Cleveland. It’s the world’s first industrial park. It’s interesting. Edison used to work there. They sold GE Lighting off to another brand. This company was doing smart homes. I wanted to ask you about smart homes since you were doing construction. They wanted to release a new line nationally of smart home products. I was there for the first six months. They were ramping up the program, trying to turn out these different products. It was based on this product strategy. While I’m there, I’m sitting around doing intern stuff work but I’m soaking up information. It’s strange because you don’t necessarily need to read a book to soak up information.
Why were you soaking up information? Were you consciously thinking, “I’m going to do my own startup?” Were you just interested in this particular area? Where did that desire come from?
I had a fascination with entrepreneurship ahead of time. I was unconsciously learning the mindset but I was consciously learning the skillsets. Commercialization was interesting to me. Product strategies were fascinating. Also, product management. As I’m in this environment where professionals are doing this, I’m learning as they’re doing this. I’m soaking up this information a little unconsciously. I finish the internship and decide that I’m going to head off on my own and start this next company, which was Native Ingredients. I say, “I know that what I was doing in my small projects is essentially the same thing they were doing in their national rollout.”
You got to see how a big corporation was rolling out a product, put that together from your entrepreneurial experience, and went bingo?
This is the difference between where I was and where the professionals were. We weren’t that far apart. They have more tools and software. It’s expensive software. They’ll have more money, software, and people that can do the shipping so more bodies. However, we’re doing about the same work. We’re in the same market and we can compete. Working from home, I can build a team to compete nationally if that’s what I wanted to do or locally. That’s how we started locally.
I love the fact that here you are as a kid. You’re like, “I do an internship at GE.” You look around and go, “I can compete with you guys.” That is so cool. George Bernard Shaw had this great quote and he said something to the effect of, “A reasonable man conforms himself to the world. The unreasonable man expects the world to conform to him and therefore, all progress relies on unreasonable men.” It’s true. You got to be a little bit unreasonable. If you’re rational, you’re going to go get a day job and that’s going to be that. No progress is going to happen.
That’s a bad thing but I’ve been told I’m very unreasonable before. It’s a common thing.
That could work for you or against you but we’ll talk about that on another day. It was your internship at GE where you put the peanut butter and the jelly together and say, “I’m going to go do my thing.”
My friends are building wealth and trying to become entrepreneurs through housing and property real estate. If I spend my 40 hours a week on a business that is also mine, we will eventually have roughly the same amount in terms of what we’re doing, how much we have, when, and where in life.
It’s a marathon. It ain’t a sprint.
We can both build these engines of wealth for ourselves but my engine of wealth built for myself is focused on consumers and I’m doing it 24/7 or 40 hours a week.
You made this decision you’re going to start your company. Is this company built around this rice milk?
Being an entrepreneur is tricky. It’s like taking a boat out onto open waters and you don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s not a company about this rice milk but because this is the first and only product that I have to sell, that’s how I’m going to get the company started.Being an entrepreneur is tricky. It's like taking a boat out onto open water and you do not know what you'll get. Click To Tweet
Is it your first product?
It’s my first product, Flagship.
You’re in good company. Samsung’s first product was groceries. There was a grocery store. They started selling insurance and then they ultimately pivoted to electronics. Hewlett-Packard’s first product was a bowling machine apparatus of some kind. Your story is very common.
I remember Toyota’s was a textile.
The Marriott Hotel chain started with the Marriott brothers who had a root beer stand or something.
I could be a space station company or something. I don’t know.
You got all the hallmarks going here, Cameron. It’s interesting. I almost wish I could talk to your mom and assure her that the kid is going to be okay. “Don’t worry about it.”
She’d ask for money. She’ll say, “How much are you going to pay him?”
Where are you on the journey? You decide you’re going to start this company. What do you do next?
You don’t have anybody to tell you what to do next. You have to figure out, “What is it that I have to do next if I want to be successful at doing this?” Mentors are huge in the working world in Corporate America. They’re beyond vital here. I went down to score, asked SBDC, used all of the free resources that were available, and clawed my way to existence. I’m still going to these same score advisors asking, “I have this and this. What do I need next? How do I show proof?” At the end of the day, it’s still on me. I can have 100 mentors but I want to go sell all these containers. I want to start a new product. It’s self-directed but you have a lot of help.
In the beginning, the most important thing that entrepreneurs do is that we’re searching for evidence of usefulness. We’re engaged in this process and the evidence is essentially currency. When people are paying you for something, they’re essentially validating the idea. They’re saying, “This is useful to me.” If I could call upon the sensibilities of a physicist, what you’re doing is following the scientific method. You have a hypothesis but you’re acknowledging that it’s a hypothesis. “This is my beef with business plans.” Business plans spell it out like, “This is what’s going to happen.” I would nudge people back towards these are all guesses. I need to go out in the world and find evidence that this thing is useful to other humans.
I walk into a lot of conversations. For the most part, I’m pre-revenue. I haven’t sold 24 bottles in total. I can tell that people will enjoy this trick but I can’t say how many people will enjoy this trick. I can say, “I know this drink solves this and this function in society,” but I can’t tell how many bars and restaurants might ask for it. I’m making assumptions in my business plan that I know right off the bat are wrong, will be wrong, and don’t reflect the truth.
That comes back to my point. My countervailing argument for the business plan is micro experimentation. Business planning works when there’s data. That’s what large companies do. There’s no data for what you’re doing. The data don’t exist. What I’ve seen in successful entrepreneurs is they’re micro-experimenting and searching for evidence of usefulness. It’s the scientific method. That’s the most important.
It’s this client-funded development. In your case, you may need to raise money but a lot of entrepreneurs are like, “I started selling my product at a farmer’s market on Sunday afternoons. I put up a website and see people are reordering this stuff.” You go to an investor and said, “I’ve generated $5,000 or $10,000 in revenue in this period by selling this product.” You have evidence of usefulness. It’s not just speculative.
I’ve been tossing that question around for a couple of days in the fact that is it push or is it pull? Am I sitting here trying to give people this drink or are they asking for it? The issue with figuring that out is that it has to be a quick process for you to make the beverage. Either way, if it takes you too long and too much money to make 24 and then see if people buy 24, then you might say, “I have to make 48.” Maybe the cost per bottle will be less. If I know it’s going to take quite a bit to make a bottle, then I’m at the point where I say, “If I make maybe 120 bottles, then finally it will be cheap enough for me to go around and see if people enjoy this.”
I’ve read a lot about this. You can even sell it at a loss in the beginning. That’s not the point. The profitability isn’t necessarily the point. You have to see some path to profitability but in the beginning, it’s more about, “Will people pay for this?” if it costs you $5 a bottle and you’re selling it for $3.50, as long as you know you can wind up building it for $1 at some point. Approve the concept. That’s one way of thinking about it.
Efficiency comes later once you approve the concept. You’re in this discovery phase still. You’re still trying to find evidence of usefulness. Once you’ve done that, then you have to switch and become a manager, start to figure out how to replicate it, produce it, and distribute it efficiently and effectively. Now, you’re still messy.
It is a bit messy. I was making them in Cleveland Central Kitchen. I was making about 24 bottles and it was costing somewhere around $5 or $7 in that range, depending on how much stuff costs to make each bottle. I was getting them out, doing testing, and talking to different investors. It was going well. I’m at this point where if I up the scale of how many I make and lower per price bottle, I’m going to end up going to a co-packer who makes 100 of them. With 100, I can go to markets, go to any place, start selling them, and say, “Do you like this?” I’ll be trying to get a volume that way. It’s still at that point where it’s that commercialization process. “Do people want this?” I’m pretty confident. I just need the money to get to that test market round.
I interviewed a lady named Lydia Dawson. She took a $400 expensive blender like a Vitamix. She started making vegan cheesecakes and a Vitamix in her friend’s sandwich shop in the back room. Now, she’s in Heinz stores all over Ohio and Whole Foods. I’d be able to connect you with her. She’s super shy and down to earth. I’d be happy to make that connection.
Cameron, I want to be respectful of your time. To set the stage here, you’re early in this journey. You’re just figuring it out. You had a good-paying corporate job. You decided that that’s not for you. You’re going to stick with this. I love this story, Cameron. Winding down here, what have you learned about yourself through this journey so far that you might want to share with others?
I learned a lot about myself. It may be right for you. It may not be right for you. The thing about advice is that it’s different per person. I learned that I see myself through other people all the time. It’s like a reflection. Being able to notice when you’re doing that and be compassionate towards yourself and other people will make you more compassionate towards other people. It’s a roundabout way of saying, “Self-love will make you more gracious to those around you.”
The most important thing I learned about myself is that I will see myself reflected in others. Choosing to respond with kindness to that reflection of myself will make me better to be around and more interesting. It’ll help me know myself better and make me more compassionate and gracious towards others. That’s important in business because regardless of what you think you’re doing, you are having relationships. At the end of most relationships, maybe money is transacted, or maybe it’s not but the fact that you sat there and had the conversation is the business. We’re all playing a very long game. That’s the inside-outside.
That’s a mic drop, Cameron. How did you come to that realization?
Through trial and error. In this rough period in my life where there was a whole bunch of stress and I was burnt out, I realized that I would be lashing out at people but it was a reflection of myself. There’s one time I was yelling at somebody for things that I was like, “You should have remembered to do that sooner.” I caught myself and said, “Why did I accuse them of something I did?” I began to think about it more and more. I then came to the realization, “It’s me seeing myself reflected in others.” Even though they have their own entire lives, one of the filters that we have through our lens is that no matter how real other people’s lives are, we don’t see them. We only see ourselves because we only know ourselves. I’m going to skip through it but that’s essentially it. It’s one of the lenses.
Cameron, what you’re speaking about is the importance of a mindset. Think about our thinking and realize that the outcomes in our lives are the result of our deeply held beliefs and assumptions. There’s a great quote from Carl Jung who said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Cameron, I want to leave it there. Tell me where people can connect with you.
Let me start with my website. www.NativeIngredients.net. There’s a Contact Us through there. You can reach me through the company email, which is Native.Ingredients@gmail.com. You can reach me on LinkedIn social media @CameronTolbert.
Cameron, I’m so grateful for your time and to hear about your journey. I feel like I could talk to you for a long time. Maybe we’ll have to do a second follow-up interview in a few months, check in with you, and see how you’re doing.
I would love to. Call sometime. Thank you.
Thanks, Cameron. See you.
- Native Ingredients
- Frans de Waal – TED Talk – Moral Behavior in Animals
- Black Swan
- Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative
- Cleveland Central Kitchen
- Contact Us
- @CameronTolbert – LinkedIn
About Cameron Tolbert
Cameron is a Cleveland Native! Who loves supply chains, product management, and operations research. With a degree from Cleveland State University and Ignatian spirit, he is creating high quality products, for others.