From Student to Entrepreneur

From Student to Entrepreneur

August 23, 2013: Zack Nathan, along with 3,282 other college freshmen, begins his first day of class at Cornell University. Immediately, he felt as if something was wrong. “I had to trust my gut instinct,” Nathan said. “I needed to get out of there. University wasn’t for me.”

Originally, at the beginning of his junior year at ASL, Nathan informed his parents that if he were to pursue higher education, he wanted to attend an arts school in London. However, Nathan’s parents felt that he should, rather than close himself off, study at a place that would allow him to study a variety of subjects. Nathan and his parents reached a compromise when he decided to apply to Cornell because of its dual arts degree, which would allow him to study the arts as well as another subject.

Nathan first mentioned to his parents that he wanted to leave university two weeks after he started classes at Cornell. He felt restricted by the art program and wanted to experience life outside of an institution. “My thoughts are if you’re in an institution, you’re intrinsically following a path,” Nathan said. “There’s a set sort of line that you’re meant to follow, and I’ve always hated that.”

At first, Nathan’s parents urged him to give the school more time, but when he spoke to them more seriously during a parents’ weekend in October, they started to realize the legitimacy of his request to leave. “We sat in the canteen for nearly five hours and talked it over,” Nathan said. “It was dire.”

The main concern that Nathan’s parents brought up was the timing of Nathan’s exit to start a business and if right now was the right time for Nathan to try and start up his own business. “I asked them if there was ever a right time to start a business,” he said. “Breaking the news to them was difficult, but they knew something like this was coming.”

Nathan believes that he is currently in the perfect place to take this risk. “I’m not knee-deep in a degree. I’m not working from 9 to 5,” he said. “People want to help me out because I’m young. I have energy and I’m passionate about what I’m doing.”

Four months later, Nathan has officially left Cornell and returned to London with the hopes of setting up his own food business. His parents are allowing him to live and eat at home but expect him to pay for the majority of his expenses. “They have given me an ultimatum,” Nathan wrote on his blog, www.zacknathan.com. “If I don’t have a substantial business with plethoric potential and real revenue by the end of the summer [2014], then I’ll have to tuck my tail between my legs and return to school to complete a degree.”

Nathan hopes to create a chip alternative that people eat as a replacement to chips, such as popcorn or nuts. He wants his product to be made without any processed or synthetic material. “My family and I try to avoid all processed food,” he said. “We are extremely health conscious. I want people to eat this way and to see all the health benefits involved from doing so.”

Nathan’s goal is to create a product that will one day be sold in supermarkets, movie theaters and pubs. Nathan decided to use London as a base to start his business because the market for healthy food alternatives in the U.S. is saturated with options. “We’re moving towards healthier eating in the U.K.,” he said. “If I establish something here, it’s much easier to bring it back to the States.”

Since returning to London, Nathan has focused on creating connections with people in the food industry. He plans on outsourcing everything and is working with people in all areas of expertise, such as design, sales and food science. “I have this product which I know how to create in my kitchen,” he said. “But there’s a huge difference producing something at home and in a factory.”

Nathan is starting off with a relatively small budget and plans on both working on the side as a babysitter and  as a tutor for the ASL community. He also plans on crowdfunding online later. “I think people will support my product because the market is moving in that direction. People are willing to pay slightly more for food that is better for them,” he said.

Recently, Nathan has been receiving expert advice from Birgit Erath, owner of The Spice Shop on Portobello Road and a spice trader who has been in the food business for more than 15 years. “She’s helping me with flavoring my product,” he said. “She told me that everything needs to be taken into consideration if you’re planning on creating a snack because it has to be 100 percent the same all the time.”

Besides consistency in taste, Nathan is also working on designing the packaging for his product. He is working with a husband-and-wife design team who have previously worked on redesigning and rebranding products that, similar to his, encourage healthy eating.

The designers are well known for working with a company called Inspiral that is best known for its kale chips. Inspiral started off as a small cafe in Camden, but after redesigning was able to raise £250,000 through crowdfunding and is now successful. “The [designers] are willing to work with me and my meager budget,” Nathan said. “They’ve worked with organic food before. They like my product and the fact that I’m trying to help people.”

Although Nathan has come a long way since he first decided to leave Cornell, he recognizes that he has a long way to go. Though success has not been reached yet, he does not regret his decision to pursue his business. “If I fail, I would not consider it a failure overall. I have learned so much more through this process than a degree could have ever taught me,” he said.

Nathan realizes that people doubt that he will make it all the way but is confident in his own abilities. “I’ve always done my own thing,” he said. “Rather than following a path, I’d rather create my own and just do it all myself. It may be a really convoluted, twisted path, but I know I’ll reach the end eventually.”

mina_omar@asl.org