Inside the Artist’s Studio with Alejandro Velez & Nikhil Arora
We call ourselves “uncommon” and pride ourselves on the uniqueness of our products, artists, and customers, and this month I wanted to feature a studio tour that was uncommon compared to its peers. Nikhil and Alejandro are two entrepreneurs who discovered while studying together at UC Berkeley that delicious oyster mushrooms are easily grown from discarded coffee grounds. Deciding not to keep that secret for too long, they created their first design to bring their brand of recycling to homes, offices, and classrooms across the country. When they launched their second product a couple months ago, a symbiotic ecosystem housed in a fish tank, it became clear that they sat at the intersection where science meets creative design.
Knowing that Alejandro and Nikhil were not the typical UncommonGoods designers, I wanted to take a closer look at their team dynamic and work space to see how they work. And although their products are not our typical handmade wares, I find them to be a strong representation of the hard work and creativity that these two friends share. Meet Alejandro and Nikhil, truly uncommon designers.
What are your most essential tools?
First and foremost, our two products – the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm! We’ve put a lot of sweat into building and developing them and they are the two tools that best represent what we believe in, what we work so hard to get out in the community, our vision and mission. We are inseparable from our MacBook Airs and iPhones, we get most of our work done on our laptops and could easily serve as a promotional ad for Google entire suite of products.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
We find a lot of inspiration in music and at Back to the Roots you will always find an eclectic soundtrack streaming throughout our space. We even have a favorite compilation for crunch times.
Our office was actually used as an art gallery before we moved in and the space itself exudes a sense of creativity – the incredible light to the exposed brick and living trees inside the atrium really create an open atmosphere. We spend a lot of time brainstorming on the couch or in the AquaLab surrounded by dozens of Betta fish watching us.
Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
The days are pretty hectic but we love to celebrate – Friday happy hours and impromptu rooftop celebrations are pretty common.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Neither of us had a design background so when we first started we tried to fit everything we could into our first mushroom kit design. We always joke around that our first “our story” section was like a horrible college admissions essay – the ones that get thrown out from just looking at it. We thought that the more we put on there the better… boy were we wrong!! Our current story is no longer than 4 sentences – and we’re constantly focusing on “how can we simplify” instead of “what is it missing”… — we think Sir Jony Ive’s definition of simplicity is spot on:
“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.”
We’ve also learned that finding the right partners is key. We’ve found partners that live & breathe design – in our case, the incredible team at Daylight Design – Brett Newman, Nick Sharpe, Chris Loew & Sven Newman have been instrumental to making design a pillar for our products. We’ve also been lucky to recruit a director of business development, Christopher Robb and a VP of Marketing, Siddharth Sanghvi, that place a huge emphasis on creativity and design for the Back to the Roots brand.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Focus – pick one thing and do it better than anyone else. Real focus is being able to say no to the things that you really want to do.
How do you set goals for yourself?
We have long-term and short terms goals. The two of us have 2 hour brainstorm sessions 3 times a week where we set up the short term objectives to hit our long term goals! Once these are set focus is really important for us and we hold each other and our teams accountable for the goals we set together.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Take a moment to grab the team together, take a moment to pause, reflect, be grateful – and maybe pop open a beer or two!
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.” – Will Smith.
We love this quote as it underscores the ethic of hard work and focus. From that first tiny bucket of oyster mushrooms we grew in Alex’s fraternity kitchen we knew we wanted to build Back to the Roots into something large and meaningful. Our wall is not anywhere built yet but it’s come a long way from that first brick we laid down.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
We work with Daylight Design for our product design and development and every time we have a design brainstorming session with that team we are blown away by how much we learn from them. They are true design visionaries and we are so lucky to have found them. We are always interested in learning about how product materials, technologies, design developments that can take our products to the next level. We could go on for hours about the nitrogen cycle, conditions necessary for mycelial growth or other stimulating cocktail conversation.
How do you recharge your creativity?
Long runs, working out, mentor other young entrepreneurs and being mentored.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
If you want to go really fast, go at it alone; but if you want to go really really far, go together. Our entire team always focuses on good ideas and building on them, we don’t play “devil’s advocates”- why come from a place of fear or failure? Instead, we build on them to eventually turn an okay idea into a great one. This takes time, lots of listening, and keeping that ego in your pocket because if a creative brainstorm process is done right, you end up leaving the meeting not knowing (or caring!) who’s ideas made it to the top because everybody molded it together. We also believe in collaboration outside our immediate team and have built up an incredible team of advisers that we are always connecting with.
For a little more behind the scenes on a day-to-day at our design studio, checkout this docu-series that just went live on Inc.com called “TrepLife”!