An interview with Adam Starrh on lessons learned building a distribution network to sell California almonds and pistachios in India.
Adam Starrh: have the courage to listen, cultivate mindfulness
Adam and his partner Dileep Chowdary met each other as volunteers in India and stayed in touch over Skype. Dileep suggested that Adam should reconsider his computer repair business and go into business buying California almonds and pistachios and processing them in southern India for local sale. Adam said, “If you can find the buyers, I can find the sellers,” and Starrh Almond King as born in 2010 in Kuchipdui Village, Tenali, Andhra Pradesh, South India.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background
Adam Starrh: I grew up in Central California in a farming family who started out in cotton and alfalfa, then transitioned to primarily almonds and pistachios as I grew up. In my early twenties, I met my business partner, and we founded Almond King, which processes and sells almonds in South India. In those initial years, I went out to Philadelphia to obtain an MBA in Economic Development through Eastern University, which at the time had a fantastic program that blended business management skills with progressive pro-poor development methodologies. This, in particular, has provided me with an invaluable understanding of the systems we are dealing with in an impoverished rural village in India.
If you can find buyers, I can find sellers
Q: How did you get started?
Adam Starrh: Dileep Chowdary and I met while I was traveling about his region. He and I were both volunteering for the same organization, and we hit it off as digital pen-pals, chatting on Skype frequently throughout the year. I had a business repairing computers at the time, and I would pass the hours chatting with him while running virus scans and such on people’s computers. On one of my return trips, he pitched the idea of an almond business in South India, which was wide open to new entrants. I told him I could find sellers if he could find buyers, and so off we went.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?
Adam Starrh: We were looking at a market that the California Almond Board had heavily invested in, but it was dominated by a few families who had been running the show for many decades. These families were concentrated in North India, and South Indians mostly hated dealing with them. Furthermore, they were known for adulterating their products with powders and chemicals to make bad product appear nicer. We felt like the South India almond industry was wide open to a strong leadership with fresh ideas. We are working to become that market leader.
Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?
Adam Starrh: We’ve expanded our offerings to include walnuts and cashews, as each market held additional opportunities for us. The almond market is volatile and isn’t suitable as a sole business activity. As of now, we seem to be in a post-COVID recovery period. Things have returned to normal in India, so we are looking to fill up each of our supply lines. So far, we’ve got our cashew facility running at full capacity, but that’s it. In truth, we’ve never had our entire factory running at 100%. Each of our products is fairly expensive, and we’ve never had the working capital to get there, so this is a long-term goal that predates the pandemic. If we get it there, it means 350 good-paying jobs in our village with plenty of room to grow, so we are hungry to accomplish this.
Solutions to difficult problems lie in the intersection of competing perspectives
Q: What key experiences and skills shape your perspective, influence your work, inform your practice?
Adam Starrh: I would say my education began at a young age. My grandfather is a role model for both Dileep and me. I watched him navigate his business through troubled waters. Stories of him fending off bankers in the early years are a part of our family lore. His strength and steadfastness enabled him to persevere, leading his business and his family to prosperity. I was fortunate that he was willing to have his young grandkids sit in on many lunchtime business meetings where we had the opportunity to observe him and learn how to deal with people. By the time I was making my own moves, I felt completely comfortable sitting down and hashing out a deal with pretty much anyone.
I combined those early experiences with a worldview that I picked up when I lived with my 90-year-old great-grandmother in my undergrad years. She had spent her entire childhood and adult life doing mission work in different parts of the world. As a result, she had a very different way of looking at various issues than I was used to. Over time, her influence refined my approach to complex issues by helping me examine them from different points of view. Usually, the best solutions to difficult problems lie in the intersections of competing perspectives.
Layered on top of all that was the study I engaged in through my Masters’ program that helped me beautifully tie together these significantly different worldviews. I would say that my perspective was pretty well established by the time we really got Almond King going. As challenging as this work has been, I have never felt unprepared for any of it.
Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?
Adam Starrh: Most of the almond industry is wary of India not just because of its troubled history with the people who run the show over there but because of the unpredictability of virtually every layer of the business environment, including banking and regulatory decision making. We found all of these concerns to be incredibly valid and have had to fight a variety of crippling battles year after year with no real examples to follow. Even the Wonderful Company, the largest player in the almond market valued at over $4 billion, was bucked off the bronco after a few short years of trying to establish its own market presence in India. There are plenty of times where I was pressured or tempted to back down or walk away. So I would say the fact that I am still here ten years later and am feeling more confident than ever about our chances is an accomplishment that brings me a lot of satisfaction.
The other big one is the transformation that we have seen in Dileep’s village over the past decade. To give you an idea of where we started, within a year of starting work for us, employees will often undergo much-needed surgeries that they have been putting off for years. We’ve put a number of young people through school, including a nurse who played an invaluable part in getting our employees inoculated early against COVID. We were fortunate that we didn’t lose any of our staff when the pandemic swept through the region last spring. Each time I visit, people are showing off new scooters or cell phones they’ve bought. Most of the people who started with us have purchased their own homes by now. One widow has been able to invest in her own farmland in the village. We’ve set up payment programs to help a number of women with alcoholic husbands protect their incomes and set aside savings for their needs and their children’s needs, including school fees. Just recently, I found out that our cook is openly gay. We’ve not only set up an anti-bullying policy in our own company, but we’ve been out working with his community to reduce the abuse he receives from his neighbors. It’s a very different place than it was when we started. Each year, there are so many success stories that I stay motivated to keep going. The pressure I am under is nothing compared to the pressure these folks would be under if we were to give up.
Two heads are better than one
Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?
Adam Starrh: When I started, I was pretty hands-off with the day-to-day operations in India. My attitude at the beginning was that I would handle things in the States and let Dileep take care of India. In hindsight, we might have avoided a lot of hassle if I had been more intentional about nosing my way into more of the nitty-gritty in India in the early years. As it turns out, there are a lot of questions that I can ask that can turn Dileep’s attention toward things that would otherwise seem insignificant to him. It has been a difficult habit to change, but we have gotten much better at examining issues and making key decisions together. We’ve both had to learn the hard way that two heads are indeed better than one.
Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?
Adam Starrh: Relatively few actors run the almond market both in the U.S. and in India. As a result, it is a very volatile and emotional market. One of our most significant setbacks was a huge price correction between when we signed a contract and the goods were delivered. We learned that booking a contract is akin to taking a highly speculative position when the guy who sold it to you is willing to turn around and sell the same product to everyone else at half the price by the time it reaches India.
Our biggest lesson from that incident was to diversify. That’s when we started looking at other products with more stable markets and started developing our own retail operation, which we will be investing heavily in this year. Furthermore, the losses from that episode took a huge bite out of our available working capital, and since then, we’ve been pursuing more creative ways of getting product through our doors, some of which have been more successful than others.
Get good at listening, find your courage, cultivate mindfulness
Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?
Adam Starrh: There lot of advice offered to entrepreneurs, some of which may apply to you and some of which may not. I think a key skill for a mature entrepreneur is to get good at listening, without necessarily going along with all the advice you are given, but instead finding ways to incorporate the most useful parts of it into what you are already trying to do.
It can take some courage, but it is especially important to listen to your critics and those saying things that you don’t want to hear. Every once in a while, one of them will say something useful, and then you get to have that for free. It’s also necessary to understand that, while it can sometimes be difficult to parse the two, absorbing someone’s critique doesn’t mean you have to follow their prescription for change. You know your business better than anyone and will likely have a better response to a problem than an outsider will. But their perspective can still unlock new ideas that take your efforts to new heights or at least make you even better at doing what you are already good at.
This is where routine mindfulness is essential. I take an hour walk every day around four or five o clock and ponder over any signals that seem like they might be important. While we all tend to have a bias for action, it’s also okay to slow down, sit on something, and carefully think things through or re-evaluate what you are doing. I believe that fortune favors the prepared mind as much as it does the bold.
While we normally profile technology entrepreneurs, I found Adam Starrh’s approach to building a company to be a compelling story. He came to a Bootstrapper Breakfast about six months ago and over the course of several visits I came to learn his story. Navigating the complexities of moving agricultural goods 12,000 miles, establishing a local factory to process them for Indian tastes, and the building a local distribution change is no small set of accomplishments. The other crucial aspect of his story for me was the amount of value unlocked when two people with shared values but very different backgrounds find a way to join forces.
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