Ben Larson: Unconventional Path to Becoming a Successful Founder

Ben Larson is the Founder and CEO of Vertosa, a company based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in the extraction and infusion of cannabis oil into beverages. Ben has been an entrepreneur for almost ten years, during six of which he has led Vertosa. In this interview for Follow the Founder, Ben tells us about his journey to entrepreneurship and shares the biggest benefits and hurdles he has experienced along the way. 

Founder Story

Coming from a background in science, Ben never planned to be an entrepreneur. Following his curiosity and intuition about what works for him, however, led him on this path. 

“I started my professional career as a civil engineer. I found that I was just far too creative and/or distracted to stick with that much longer than six years. 

“I lived in San Francisco. Being there immersed me in the world of tech entrepreneurs. I got to see people doing amazing, inspiring things, and I was audacious enough to think, ‘Hey, I could do that too’. So I did. I quit civil engineering. I cashed out my 401k and decided to start a tech startup. This failed miserably after a couple of years though.”

Many of us get discouraged if we fail at something. The truth is though, we all fail at certain times in our lives. Having the resilience and self-awareness to learn from the experience, to recognize what worked, where we went wrong, and what we did well is how we grow, how we emerge stronger on the other side. The key is to fail fast and adjust. This is how we find our path to success. It is not a straight line. Much like climbing a mountain, it is a pathway filled with switchbacks, marked by a series of failures and adaptations.

“Entrepreneurship was not something I had ever thought of as a potential career path. But once I discovered how it unpacks your whole brain and leverages everything from your innate skill sets, to what you’ve studied, to just grit and hustle, I fell in love with it. 

“Also, I loved the creation phase. That took me into the venture capital world working with startups, building networks, and helping people break down barriers. So I did that for a little while.”

Riding the wave of opportunity can take us to unexpected places. Having the courage to follow that path, even if it is something we wouldn’t have planned or chosen from the start, more often than not, has huge benefits. This is what happened to Ben too.

“That eventually took me into the cannabis industry, which I never expected to be in. I could probably count on my hands how many times I had consumed cannabis. But that’s where I ended up because that was where the passion was. And that was where people needed help with creating an entrepreneurial community. It was a rising tide that was starting to raise capital and all that kind of stuff. Through pure happenstance, cannabis had become my specialty, and so, that was what I did.”

One of the key pieces of advice Ben gives aspiring Founders is to set boundaries and processes from the beginning. Setting the tone of your company from day one can avoid many unpleasant or awkward situations in the future. It is also integral to building a strong and long-lasting team.

“We’ve done a lot from the beginning that might feel like big company things. For example, we started doing employee reviews when we were just five people. We ask questions such as, ‘What are you trying to achieve on your trajectory? What are we trying to achieve as a company as long as we’re together? We should try to maximize the benefit for the two of us.’ And if the time comes when that’s not happening or that symbiotic relationship doesn’t exist, then we need to part ways. It’s what is best for the two of us. And if we have this conversation every three months, then we’ll never get out of alignment. Or if we do, we’re going to know it’s coming, and there aren’t going to be hurt feelings when it happens.”

It is easy for Founders to fall into the trap of wanting to create a family or a group of friends that are working together. But without boundaries, this can quickly snowball out of control. Even if it feels overwhelming to come up with these big company ideas and procedures at the beginning, it pays off because you spend less time reiterating and more time concentrating on the pathways to success.

We next ask Ben what his advice is for someone who is just starting their venture to lay those successful foundations, and how to overcome the inevitable overwhelm and anxiety that paralyzes so many new Founders. 

“This is where my engineering brain kicks in. You have to have that vision of where you want to go. But obviously, you have to keep your feet on the ground and to the next few steps. So the question is, how do I reverse engineer that and how do I do it at scale? You can go from 30,000 feet down to 10,000 feet in a single step, but you don’t want to go from 10,000 feet to the here and now in another single step. You have to break it down the closer you get.

“We had a big, hairy, audacious goal to start with, and we knew what the industry needed most. 

“Yes, we create nano emulsions. But what we build every day is trust in the supply chain of the cannabis industry. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen in this industry. There are also a lot of rules that people want to frame around cannabis. We knew we had to become the most trustworthy company in the space. We earned people’s trust through how we show up for them, the ingredients we created, and the products that went into that. We’d be creating value. Every morning we ask, ‘How do we build more trust around what we’re doing? What can we do to help people believe that this industry deserves to be in the quote-unquote mainstream?’” 

So how do we build this big dream, this big vision? It is all about self-belief, having confidence in our cause, in our goals. As a Founder, it is integral to know your why, to trust it, and to always be guided by it.

“It’s belief. It’s believing that you can do something and put it into creation. Every business is different. We started this company believing that cannabis beverages were going to be the future when there was no evidence that was going to happen. 

“The beverage industry was interested, but it was sub-one per cent of the market. So it wasn’t like there was this existing opportunity. We literally had to create the opportunity.” 

Sometimes when we have the belief in our vision and our product, even if the market is small, it would be easier to push through that and persevere. The opportunity for rapid sales, growth, and success is not always there from the start. 

“In some ways, there were definitely times when I felt we were convincing people that this was going to be huge. Maybe I still believe that some days, but that is what it is to be a Founder. You have this absurd notion that you see a future that other people don’t, and you’re part of creating it. You’re so convincing that that is what the future is that you get them to believe it.”

Benefits & hurdles

To finish, we ask Ben about the biggest benefits and hurdles for him of being a Founder.

“The biggest hurdle is that you are living a completely different journey than so many people around you. You cannot relate to even your own significant others and family. But part of your brain says, ‘I have to do this. I have to be on my own. I have to create it. I’m not a good employee.’”

The foundership journey requires a lot of motivation, a lot of resilience, and as we mentioned before, a strong belief in yourself and your product. To be successful, this has to permeate every part of your life, not only professional but also personal.

“One part of coming to terms with that is that you have to be confident. You have to be so overly confident about it that you have to shed everything considered normal. Because you’re not normal, and you’re going to have to do whatever it takes to breathe life into this thing.”

So how do we achieve all that? How do we keep ourselves motivated, passionate, and resilient? Ben shares the key to his success: clear focus. 

“A part of that is focus. This has been very hard for me. But there is so much to do, especially when you’re just getting started. The book “Essentialism” by George McCown changed my life. It advises you to literally identify what is essential and be unabashedly focused on executing that while saying ‘No’ to everything else. You have to implement that throughout your entire life: conferences, lunches, emails, notifications on your phone. So your response has to be either a ‘Hell, yes’ or a ‘Hell, no’.”

On the flip side, the benefits are immense. Keeping those in mind is a motivation and constant pillar of support throughout the journey, a guiding light that you’re on the right path. 

“The biggest benefit is that you’re creating something, you’re bringing something to the world. Every interaction is an opportunity to change someone’s life. This creates such an immense amount of gratitude for me. I have a vision of the future that I want to be a part of creating. Especially with what I do, trying to legalize cannabis while building a company within it. Letting my kids know that I’m willing to risk even in times of it being illegal so I can make things happen, help build a better world for them.

“So yeah, I couldn’t imagine a better gift than that. I could go broke doing it, and I will still feel validated in my efforts.”

For more inspiring stories, join our welcoming and supportive community of aspiring and established founders at Follow the Founder. You can also find us on Instagram or LinkedIn.

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