The Entrepreneur Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “What’s something you wish you knew before starting your business?” is written by Chris Boehner, founder and CEO of Western Natural Foods.
Follow your passion.
It sounds trite and seems obvious, but I started my first business on a whim at age 26.
At that point, I had lived in Beijing for five years and spoke decent Mandarin when my alma mater contacted me to help interview Chinese applicants. Many boarding schools and universities were having issues with falsified applications—Chinese students were arriving on campus unable to speak English.
Spotting an opportunity, I put together a founding team, took out a $25,000 loan, and started a company that verified Chinese applicants via face–to–face video interviews.
I went on a six-week U.S. roadshow and put 3,000 miles on a rented Toyota Prius, visiting every boarding school that let me through the gates. That was the beginning of what is now a thriving business, working with 100-plus institutions and interviewing thousands of Chinese applicants every year.
But something didn’t feel right.
“Is this my passion?” I asked myself late last year. “Is this what I was put on this earth to do?”
Sure, I was passionate about China and starting a business there. In fact, those were my goals when I first moved to China in 2006: learn Mandarin and start a business.
Try as I might, I couldn’t honestly say I was passionate about my work. Testing didn’t excite me, nor did evaluation or admissions. So what was I passionate about?
I thought back to conversations I’d had over the previous four years—conversations where my heart would race, my face would flush, and afterward felt like I downed several double espressos because of my excitement.
I realized I loved talking about nutrition, particularly conversations around cutting processed food and reducing sugar. Switching to a simple and unprocessed diet a few years ago had a strong impact on my health, and I loved explaining this to anyone who would listen.
This realization brought me to a series of difficult decisions I had to make: exiting the company I founded, moving back to the U.S., blindly following my passion for healthy food, and relying on the faith that I would soon figure out what to do.
I’m so glad I did.
When I came back to the U.S. with fresh eyes, I noticed a few things happening: Millennials love real food from authentic brands (I wasn’t alone here), which has been adding an extra $50 billion per year to the at-home food category. Socially, we are in the middle of a food revolution, distrust for large food industry players is at an all–time high, and technology is completely changing the ways consumers research and engage with brands.
After some preliminary research, I discovered the majority of healthy and authentic brands were being acquired by big food brands, which made it difficult for them to stay healthy or authentic for very long. Nothing rubs conscious consumers the wrong way like having their favorite brands acquired by the very companies they seek to avoid.
Fueled by my passion, I began to wonder why there couldn’t be a new kind of big food company—one that preserves and protects the integrity, authenticity, and transparency of its various brands and pursues profit in addition to social good.
That was the moment Western Natural Foods was conceived—a safe haven for real food brands with a mission extending beyond the dinner plate. Unlike existing industry players, WNF would be a benefit corporation, protecting our ability to pursue profit, but not at the expense of the integrity and authenticity of our brands.
Twelve-hour workdays feel like half days. Sunday is the same as Wednesday, and Saturday is the same as Tuesday. Passion is at the root of it all. Perhaps most encouraging of all, when others see you’re following your passion, they want to help you and, in some cases, join you.
A little over a year since deciding to follow my passion for nutrition, I’m leading a company that’s changing the way the world eats and is part of a movement changing the way the world does business. WNF’s first brands will be announced shortly, and I smile knowing this is only the beginning.
Life is too short to not do what you love. Before starting your business, make sure you are following your passion.
Chris Boehner is the founder and CEO of Western Natural Foods, a company redefining the food industry by building the first branded Benefit Corporation. He spent the previous nine years in Beijing, China where he founded his first company, toured across China with his bluegrass band and cycled across both Asia and Africa. Chris speaks Mandarin Chinese and lives in San Francisco, CA.
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