How to Build a Marathon Culture in a Sprint Society: Lessons from Upside Foods
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As as society, we seem to be moving continuously towards immediate gratification.
Unfortunately, that isn’t going to be possible for some of our most pressing problems.
We face some massive, fundamental, and unprecedented challenges, challenges for which solutions will be hard and complex and will take a long time to bring to fruition. In order to solve these problems, we are going to need people equipped with different mindsets — people who are prepared for a very long haul. And we are going to have to build companies with very different cultures to empower and support these teams as they spend many, many years working to bring solutions to reality.
UPSIDE Foods is at the leading edge of such a challenge. UPSIDE is developing a way to produce cultivated meat — which is real meat that’s grown directly from animal cells without ever needing to grow the animals themselves. Changing the way meat comes to our plate is clearly a big, hairy, audacious goal. Yet, it’s a critical innovation that can help feed our growing planet and reduce humanity’s dependency on the current meat production system, which accounts for 15% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, consumes an abundant amount of our planet’s natural resources, and slaughters billions of animals each year.
Unfortunately, there is simply no “quick-fix” way of doing this.
In fact, Uma Valeti, the founder of UPSIDE Foods (which was known as Memphis Meats when he started it) has already been at this mission for over seven years. From the beginning, Uma knew that it would take many, many years before people would be ordering burgers made with UPSIDE’s products. Before that could happen, he knew he would need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, have scientific breakthroughs on numerous fronts, and obtain regulatory approval from the government.
Most important of all, he knew he would have to recruit a team — and not just any team, but an extremely diverse, talented, and driven group of people. It would not be possible for Uma to recruit existing experts — because there aren’t any. Rather, UPSIDE would need to grow them from the inside for this entirely new industry.
Given the timeline to production, Uma knew the team would need to be willing to work hard for many years without seeing many of the usual markers or perks of business success. It was going to take years for the company to have customers or revenues and all the rewards that come with that.
Uma and his team have made tremendous progress since that beginning, a sign of which is the $400 million Series C funding round UPSIDE just announced. While this gives UPSIDE the capital it needs to succeed on the next phase of its journey, it is important to remember that all of the capital in the world won’t create a solution — it’s the people of UPSIDE who make everything happen. And the company needs to support those people through a culture of intention and action for that very long haul ahead of them.
Because Threshold was an early investor in UPSIDE, I’ve had the benefit of working with Uma for five years now, and as such I’ve had a front row seat at the double-black-diamond management exercise of building that culture.
Here are seven lessons I’ve learned from him and his amazing team about how to build a marathon culture.
Lesson 1: Put the mission up front, even before day one: People are far more willing to endure ups and downs when they believe in the ultimate mission and purpose of what they are doing. Mission is not a slapped-on afterthought, but rather the raison d’etre for UPSIDE, and as such is introduced in the recruiting process, well before someone becomes a team member. While each person might be particularly drawn to one component of the mission, whether it’s for the animals, our planet, public health, or for the challenge of doing something that’s never been done before, understanding how all the parts work to create the whole helps to keep people aligned and motivated. This is repeatedly put front-and-center in both employee communications as well as external announcements. Further, Uma and his team work to ensure every employee understands how their role helps bring the mission to fruition so people can see a direct connection between the work they do and the future they want to see.
Lesson 2: Break down the huge vision into measurable steps (and assign resources and a timeline to them): As Laozi is purported to have said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The problem is, to reach your goal, you have to be pointed in the right direction and follow that step with another, and another, and another. Creating cultivated meat is a multivariate journey with a lot of challenges, some of which are interdependent. The only way to be successful at this is to map out precisely what steps need to be taken and when.
Let me give one example from UPSIDE’s journey. In order to grow meat directly, meat needs to be “fed” media — the raw materials not unlike what actual animals eat, like amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, and minerals. When UPSIDE was founded, the only media on the market was a very expensive medical-grade mixture containing Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) — which comes from exactly what it sounds like it comes from — a non-starter from the point of view of UPSIDE’s mission to eliminate animal slaughter in the process. To be successful in its larger mission, UPSIDE assembled an industry-leading team, which includes former leaders from the world’s largest biotech and pharma companies, to focus on removing FBS from its process, in addition to improving efficiency and yields.
Fast forward to today, and UPSIDE’s process no longer relies on FBS — and another step towards the mission is taken. This is just one (albeit very important) step among hundreds that have to happen, but it would not have happened had it not been identified, resourced, and tackled by a focused, expert set of people who understood not only this step but how it must mesh with the others.
Lesson 3: Setting appropriate expectations for how long things will take: In the tech industry, we are notorious for setting deadlines and not meeting them. Many technologies ultimately come to fruition, but often the pioneering companies who created the category in the first place die before it happens. There are many reasons for this, but from what I’ve seen, a biggie is simply being over-optimistic and planning for a short trip when you really needed to plan for a long one. When you don’t get there on your unrealistic schedule, you run out of resources and people run out of the energy to keep going.
Uma recognizes this and frequently makes it clear to the team that the path they are on is a long and winding road. UPSIDE has come an extremely long way since it was founded, but there’s still a long list of to-do’s in front of them. The next step on their journey will include building a scaled commercial facility, building out a robust supply chain for cell feed components, and educating consumers about their process and products. These steps will take a long time, but the team has been prepared (and resourced) to expect that.
Lesson 4: Celebrate success: UPSIDE knows there’s still a long road ahead, so it is important to mark and celebrate the individual contributions and milestones that move the company closer to its goals. And there have been many reasons for the team to celebrate. Towards the end of last year, the company opened its Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center, an exciting day that represented a new chapter for UPSIDE’s journey. Recognizing the accomplishment of each step reinforces not only the importance of that step, but also how it fits into the ultimate path. It is both rewarding and motivating to stop for a breath and celebrate each one.
Lesson 5: Invest significantly in employee professional development even while pre-revenue: UPSIDE knows that its team is its greatest asset and is committed to investing in its employees, even while pre-revenue. At UPSIDE, there are people who started as lab technicians who are now scientists, interns who are now directors, and everything in between. UPSIDE also empowers early career employees to make a great impact and gain industry experience. The company’s internship program gives student interns a chance to participate in actual scientific, technical, and commercial challenges the team is facing, and has resulted in multiple full-time employees. Every person should be able to know how their personal growth path will align with that of the company and management should seek opportunities to move individuals along those paths.
Lesson 6: Don’t get locked in the Ivory Tower: When you have a team of scientists working tirelessly on really hard problems, there is a tendency to insularity — IE , “just leave us in this room and let us work it out.” The problem with that is, sometimes the solution solves the shorter-term goal but will not lead to the success of the mission in the long run. UPSIDE counteracts this tendency by ensuring that it has the right outside people, investors, and partners inside the tent to ensure the bigger picture is also front and center. For instance, UPSIDE is working with three-Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn to better understand how its raw meat will be transformed into world-class gourmet dishes. It counts major food and ingredient companies Cargill, Givaudan, and Tyson Foods as both investors and collaborative partners. Through these efforts, the UPSIDE team is constantly reminded that the goal is not just to, for example, remove FBS from media, but to remove FBS from media while still creating great tasting, healthy meat. Further, these partners not only help UPSIDE stay on the path to great food, but they can also share in the success when that happens through additional collaborations and joint business developments.
Lesson 7: Long hauls are hard on people, so you need to build in rest stops and support: Remember in college when you pulled numerous all-nighters to pass your courses? I teach at Stanford and I’m reminded of this every quarter about two weeks before the term ends. The great thing is quarters are only 10 weeks long! The problem with missions such as the one UPSIDE is on is there is no quarter break — and having every week be finals week is simply unsustainable. UPSIDE has policies and practices in place to counteract this, including generous PTO, hybrid work from home policies, wellness programs, and social team events. They also encourage and empower employees to put together celebrations that honor observances within their culture and also provide an opportunity for education and participation within that tradition or celebration — bringing personal diversity to the workplace and reminding us all there is more to life than just our work.
It’s a delight to be on this marathon with UPSIDE Foods, and I’m beyond excited about what they will be accomplishing along every mile of their journey.