Hosted by Danny Goldberg, the Bits of Gold Podcast often features stories of entrepreneurship, life lessons, and innovation. Recently, Goldberg welcomed a special guest, social entrepreneur Miki Agrawal, best known as the founder of TUSHY. In addition to founding and running several successful companies within traditionally taboo spaces, Miki Agrawal is a best-selling author, and has penned “Do Cool Sh*t” and “Disrupt-Her”.
Read on for excerpts from the podcast episode:
Host: What was the first business that you ended up pursuing?
Miki Agrawal’s First Business Ventures
Miki Agrawal: First was trying out for the New York Magic soccer team. I would sneak out of my investment banking job and put on my shin guards and my soccer tryout uniform. I would stretch in the back of the car, and I would go to the tryouts where there were 100 D1 athletes who were training all week, where I would just sneak out of my office twice a week to go to the tryouts for the New York Magic. And every single week the coach would cut people, and I kept making the list for two and a half months.
And then they cut everyone, and it was down to the last starting lineup, they were announcing the lineup, and there I was in the starting lineup. So, I was gonna quit my job, become a soccer star. I was like before I quit my job, let me play the first game of the season and see what happens. So, I played the first game, and I remember the referee blew his whistle, I got the ball handed over to me, I dribbled the ball, I passed two defenders, crossed the ball, and the striker put it in the back of the net within the first eight minutes, and I had the first assist of my professional career.
But as I crossed the ball, the defender came in and took out my leg, and I heard the tell-tale snap, and I tore my ACL in the first game of my season, after spending two and a half months sneaking out of my investment banking job trying out, convincing the driver from the bank to take me to the tryout, wait for me for three hours, take me back to the bank, I worked until midnight, finished my job. And I would do that twice a week for two and a half months, and then made the team. And then the first eight minutes, and I was done.
So basically I had to stay at the bank so I could get the best health insurance, have the best surgery, and the best physical therapy. And I spent the whole year at the bank. The following year I tried out again, and made the starting lineup again, and then tore my other ACL. So I was like, alright, universe, I’m listening. Thank you.
So, I hung up my cleats, and the next thing on my list was to make movies. I spent my summers in college working in LA and living at a frathouse at UCLA and working in the film industry, reading scripts for film studios and things like that. I really loves storytelling, so I wanted to go back into that. I got a job at this production company, and very quickly realized that I wanna go freelance. I couldn’t do the 9 to 5 thing anymore. So I went freelance and started picking up trash on the streets for sets, and then driving directors around, and just telling everyone that I should be producing. I went from being a PA to producing music videos within four months.
Host: And at that point you left investment banking?
On Leaving Investment Banking
Miki Agrawal: Yeah, it was done. I just couldn’t do it anymore. But my managing director treated me so well. He knew I wasn’t cut out for that, so he let me have 18 months of the best health insurance I can get. Because I had to get a second knee surgery. He helped me get the best health insurance to get through that.
I worked in the film industry for a while, and that’s when I had my first business idea. On sets of commercials and music videos, they had these craft services tables, these shitty tables where you would eat M&M’s and Smarties, and cheese pizza, and shit. Because I still had student loan debt, I was just eating that for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because it’s free. I love free.
Miki Agrawal’s Pizza Pains
Miki Agrawal: But I would go home every day with horrifying stomach aches, and I was like, what is happening in my stomach right now? And it turns out all that processed shit I was eating – this was still back in the early 2000s when organic, local, seasonal, farm-to-table wasn’t a conversation. I remember, everytime I ate pizza specifically, I would come home with a bloated belly, gassy, farty, just in pain.
I started researching the pizza industry and food, and I realized that the food industry is this massive, multi-billion dollar category, tons of processed shit. All the reasons why people have allergies and these issues is because it was made with processed, sugar-filled, antibiotic-filled, bleached, all the different preservatives and stuff for shelf life, and it was causing all these issues for people. So many people have GI issues from things like that now.
I started looking at the pizza industry, and it’s a $32B industry, and Americans eat 100 acres of pizza every single day. There’s this huge opportunity here to take this believed food and turn it on its head. So, I figured out how to raise money. The first book, Do Cool Shit, was about the whole experience of building my first business, which is my restaurant. And it’s still around 18 years later. This is my 18th year in business. My first business is still open with my partner Wally.
So, we figured out how to raise money, figured out how to get a New York City lease, how to flier 5000 apartments around my neighborhood, how to hire people, how to build a restaurant with the [inaudible] going to this roof, and having to go and get my health department license. There is so much to figure out to start a business in NYC, let alone a restaurant.
The Realities Of Restaurant Startups
Host: Did anyone try to deter you from starting a restaurant? It’s interesting, looking at your other businesses. Maybe someone can look at those and say, there’s a lot of scale here, this is an exciting opportunity. Did anyone try to deter you, like the food business is really hard?
Miki Agrawal: Well, unless you’re a McDonalds or a Burger King… That was my dream. I would start one pizza shop, no one’s making healthy, organic, gluten-free, farm-to-table pizza. I can take this beloved comfort food, turn it on its head, and use gluten-free flours, hormone-free cheese, local seasonal toppings, fresh organic ingredients, and no one was doing this back then.
So, it was revolutionary at the time, but little 24-year-old Miki Agrawal was clueless about running a business. So, I just made every mistake in the book in the restaurant business. The only reason why we’re still open today is because of my partner Wally. Bless his soul. I barely kept the thing afloat for the first several years, but it’s where I learned the chops of business.
My son is gonna work in a restaurant. My restaurant, or whatever, in the back of the kitchen, and he’s gonna learn every job in the restaurant. Like, front of the house, hangry customers – the customer is always right, even if they clearly gave you the wrong order, and they’re screaming at you because you put the order they ordered. But the customer is always right, I will get you what you need.
From the mafioso health department and fining you because you have a pizza sauce stain on your fucking apron. And you’re like, that’s what aprons are for, to catch a splash when you’re making sauce. I’m being fined $1000 for that? That is straight up mafioso shit. Same thing with – ‘you have a knife mark in your cutting board’. That’s what a cutting board is for. You want me to sand it down? $1000 fine.
Shit like that. You name it, I’ve experienced it in the restaurant industry. Getting stolen from by employees, getting bikes stolen, getting shut down by the health department for a cutting board not being sharp, to my pizza maker burning his eyebrows off because he turned… stuff like that. So, I really got the business 101 humble pie in the restaurant industry.
When I started Thinx so much of the foundation of learning what not to do, what I’m best at, what I suck at was then brought to the next- although I ran into some major challenges in the next business as well. But we keep learning and growing.
Host: Where would you say your mentality comes from, in terms of just going for it and just doing it? I feel a lot of people are sitting on an idea, a dream, but maybe they’re working, have a job similar to investment banking or something like that, where it’s steady pay, the benefits are good, and maybe they start to doubt themselves or doubt what’s possible.
I feel like you just go for it. So, where does that come from?
Just Go For It!
Miki Agrawal: I think a hell of a lot of naivete. How hard could that be? And then, I’m drowning. So, I think it’s maybe an unhealthy level of ‘how hard could that be’, and then diving into the deep end and saying, ‘I’m not leaving until I figure out how to swim’. I think it’s one thing to dive in, but it’s another thing to stay. I think a lot of people don’t stay anymore. They don’t wanna work through things, they don’t wanna do the hard work.
They’d rather just float around and just live on the surface, versus going through gut punches and experience life and all the textures, and every bit of life. To me that is way more exciting than just being like, ‘I guess I tried, it didn’t work out’. No, I’m gonna figure this out.
And there is a point to pull the plug, but I also think that if it’s an idea that’s meant to exist, and you figure out how to put the right people in place – which for me was operations, which I learned from the restaurant business, which then led me to doing the exact same things for things in [inaudible]. As soon as I got an ops person for my restaurant, our numbers doubled in a week and tripled in a month. After seven years of slaving away.
And so, cut to when I started Thinx, I hired operations first. And also learning how to shift culture. How do you get someone to shift their behavior from eating Joe’s pizza to eating a healthy, gluten-free farm-to-table pizza in NYC, where everyone is a snob about Joe’s pizza. And cut to Thinx, period underwear? Bleed in my underwear? That sounds like the most disgusting thing. Meanwhile, I’m bleeding in them right now, and it’s the best.
On Founding TUSHY
Miki Agrawal: And the third thing, Tushy, no one’s gonna wash their butts with water in America. Poopy water spraying everywhere? It’s disgusting. No, it’s not poopy water spraying everywhere, it’s the same water you brush your teeth with. It’s pulling from the wall, not from their tank or the bowl, and it’s precisely spraying not in your butt but on your butt. Like you’re showering, but on your butt, and it cleans it like you would when you shower. Would you even jump in your shower, not turn the water on and just use dry toilet paper, and be like, I’m clean? No.
So, it’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of education, and just a lot of – I need this product. I wanna eat pizza that doesn’t give me stomach aches. I wanna not have period accidents everywhere I go. I wanna take a shit and not feel disgusting after I get off the toilet with poop smeared around with toilet paper. It doesn’t make any sense, actually. And so, it’s solving my own problem first.
For more musings, check out the Miki Agrawal Medium page.