Michael Pan fell in love with mushroom jerky during a visit to family in Malaysia. He knew right away that he needed to share the snack with the rest of the world. Michael launched Pan’s Mushroom Jerky and brought this family recipe to the market. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Michael shares how he ran the business as a decade-long side hustle, and how his Shark Tank pitch generated millions in sales in a matter of days.
- Store: Pan's Mushroom Jerky
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: ShipStation, GemPages, Klaviyo, Printful, Stamped.io
From local street vendor to national ecommerce success
Felix: The inspiration for this business came from a trip to Malaysia. Tell us more about that.
Michael: My mom is from Peru, and my dad was born and raised in a small fishing village in Malaysia. When he was 14, my dad moved to the US by himself. He didn't know any English, and eventually supported himself through college. I grew up in Mississippi, even though I may not sound like it. Growing up there, I always felt disconnected from my family heritage. I loved living there, but I always felt disconnected. I loved visiting my extended family overseas, and would go visit and try to learn as much as I could. During one of these visits to Malaysia, there was a bowl of food on the table. I had no idea what it was and I decided to try it. Initially I thought it was a pork snack, but I was super confused because my family who fed it to me were vegetarian.
That's when I learned that it was a mushroom that I was eating. I found out that my cousin had been making this snack for himself, for his family, and selling it locally. As vegetarians, they had a hard time finding foods that not only tasted great, but also had a satisfying texture. They found that mushrooms not only came with a lot of health benefits, but they were very satisfying in terms of texture, too. What this trip did was it opened eyes to an amazing culture with innovative foods that have been mimicking the taste and texture of meat for a long, long time. After I heard the story and I fell in love with the product, its history, that's when I knew our family had a snack that needed to be shared with the rest of the world. That's when I decided to launch Pan's Mushroom Jerky part-time.
Felix: Your family was already selling this overseas. What made you decide to take it back home and try to turn a business into it?
Michael: That's a good question. We have a couple birth dates. 2018 is when we officially launched as a concept, but this actually launched conceptually, back in 2008. At the time plant based wasn't a thing. It was vegan, very niche based, and anything that wasn't a meat jerky was considered weird at that point. I was working at a corporate job, and actually knew nothing about the food business at all, but I felt like this was a great product. I loved the product and I felt it could reach a mass audience. Did I know that today we'd be where we're at? No, but I loved the product so much.
I believed that this was something that was not only good for vegetarians and vegans at the time, but I felt it would be accepted as a really good snack that was also healthy. While I loved working at this corporate job, I felt like I had this itch where I needed something more satisfying. That's when I decided to take that leap into this business. What really helped me actually take the leap was that I did this as a side hustle for a number of years, as a concept. I would work full-time and then research what it was like to actually launch a food business on the side.
While it took more time and effort, it allowed me to self-fund and to figure out how to get off the ground at such an early stage. Using the income I was getting from this full-time job, I was really able to fund those initial stages, which tend to take a long time and also are very expensive. That combination helped me ease my way into launching the business we have today.
10 years a side-hustle: maintaining motivation and drive
Felix: You did basically 10 years of working full time with this as a side hustle. A lot of entrepreneurs take this path. What was your day to day like?
Michael: It's not easy. The pros are obviously that, like a lot of startups, I wasn't out fundraising necessarily, and I had a little bit of a safety net. And like I said–I don't want to understate this–I had not been in the food business. I knew nothing about it. My background was actually in engineering. I went to school at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign for an electrical engineering degree. This position of having this steady job funded a lot of those growth and learning pains that I needed to go through to not only just become an entrepreneur and start that journey, but also the specifics of what I need to run a food business.
Very challenging because ultimately you're working a full-time job, and a lot of times those jobs end up encompassing more hours than 9:00 to 5:00. This initial stage that I was in, you have this drive and desire to figure it out. Any extra time that I had was focused on how to get this product launched and into consumers' hands. There are sacrifices that had to be made, especially in terms of free time and so on, but the trade off is that I was able to fund it with my own dollars from the beginning.
Felix: While you were investing heavily into this business, your colleagues and neighbors were saving for homes, retirement, etc. Did you ever have any doubts about the path you were on?
Michael: Sometimes I still have that today. We're still very much on this journey today. Initially when I started this, I was prepared for a lot of the logistics–just challenges financially that you go into the business. The things that I didn't realize that I needed to be ready for were just the emotional and psychological side. It's seeing other people being able to go take trips, it's being able to see other people focused on other things while you're worried about a farmer's market that you have to go to to sell product, or questions like: What's my marketing message that I want to convey our products with?
You end up seeing a lot of that and you have to have a lot of discipline to stay focused and prioritize. A lot of people say when you find something you love so much, and you want to see it succeed–ultimately that has to really provide that core desire to focus on growing your business. Luckily I found that with this product that I wanted to bring to market. Not only that, but I also think about being ready as a person and where I was in my life. I had worked at this engineering job for 10 years, and I learned a lot from a lot of really great and smart people. I was just at the right place where I was just itching for something that I was truly passionate about. That really gets you through those early stages. It’s how I was able to dedicate more time to this side hustle.
Felix: A decade is quite a long time to be doing both a full-time and a side hustle. How did you maintain that motivation to stay the course?
Michael: It's probably very personal to each person. I don't know how to say this in the right words, but you just know. People say a lot of times when you live and breathe your business, when they start something off, you do end up truly living and breathing your business. For me, that was when I knew. Not only did I feel it was always on my mind at the time, I felt like it was just something that I had this itch and this thing in my head that this was an amazing opportunity. It was an amazing product that needed to get into more hands. It would help people who were looking for products like this.
I felt like we had a solution that would help people reduce their meat consumption, whether it's environmental or whether it's to eat healthier and so on. I felt it. I felt that all the time, and that's how I knew. I don't know if that's what everyone else goes through, but that's ultimately what I got. It’s what I would get up for every day and stay up late to work on.
Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint
Felix: Was it pretty balanced, juggling your full-time pursuit and your side business, or was it sprints of focusing on one and then the other?
Michael: It was a balance. I took my job seriously, of course. I felt responsible for delivering what I needed to in my full time job. It was definitely a balance. I was able to squeeze enough hours out, and ultimately what gets sacrificed is time. I don't have a story where I started this one night and then four months later, or a year later, I'm off and running. My story's a decade old, or longer. I chose to find that balance that I could deliver on what I was supposed to be doing at my full-time job, and whatever other time I could squeeze out that's what I would do to work on the side business. That equated to roughly six to 10 years of work on the side that added up to today.
Felix: Since you were also tied up with your full time job, where did you find it was most effective to focus your efforts when it came to your side hustle, to achieve the best efficiency?
Michael: That's a good question. Even today as a startup, you are resource constrained. You’re constrained by time and money. Right? For the money side, it was solved by having the side business. I was able to funnel some money into the work that's needed to launch. For time, this still applies today, but you have to be very ruthless in terms of what you prioritize. Entrepreneurs tend to be pretty scatterbrained, and I have to constantly remind myself even today that I have to stay focused on what's needed while keeping the big picture in mind. Ruthlessly prioritizing what you need, because your time is always going to be limited, even side hustle or non side hustle. I wish I would've realized that a little bit more and made sure that I did focus on the things that were important. Early on, it was: What's the product I need? What is the brand?
I would tend to get scatterbrained a little bit and start then looking too far in advance. Who would I want to sell to down the road? When I didn't even really have a product and a viable way to produce and get the product out to the market. That's the danger that, in hindsight, I wish I would've seen a little more and been able to save more of my time. Ultimately that's what added up to 10 years of experience to learn.
Felix: Did you do anything in particular to be able to focus on that next step, as opposed to going 10 steps ahead?
Michael: I still do this today, one really important thing that people should consider is it's not only just setting goals of what you want. That gets communicated to people quite a bit, or is taught. Obviously what's your goal? What's your goal for the next month? Three months? Five months? Year? Where do you want to see this end up going at some point? Keeping in mind, what is your mission? What are you really in this for? That helps strip down a lot of the things that may not be important right now. Establishing that mission as early as possible, along with figuring that out and then determining, "Well, how do I get there as quick as possible?"
It starts with that mission. Then you're able to dissect, "All right, well, this is important. This is important to get there. Actually, this is really important. Great, I'll focus on that." That, in my opinion, is quite helpful. Honestly, we still do that today.
The art of ruthless prioritization
Felix: Using your current mission as an example, can you give an idea of what the day to day would look like for breaking down those steps?
Michael: Our mission is to reduce meat consumption by offering satisfying, nutritious, delicious foods made from mushrooms. A trap that people get into is, well as entrepreneurs, we want to create so many things, right? So many different types of things. We get asked all the time, "Are you going to make a jerky out of X? Are you going to make a jerky out of a tomato or something?" We could have easily started playing around with products like that, and different types of products that we were interested in or because we were curious, but when you hone in on that, it stripped all that down.
We want to use mushrooms to help reduce meat consumption. We didn't go and create some other type of jerky out of another fruit or vegetable. It allowed us to focus specifically on mushrooms. What kind of products meet that criteria of being very satisfying? They have to be nutritious. We want them to be delicious. That helps narrow down even the ingredients that you choose. We make very conscious decisions into what goes in our product. We want it to be nutritious and we strive for very simple ingredients and ingredients that you can pronounce. We aren't out there to try to do weird flavors. We want to have really good, delicious flavors that people will find delicious. Those are examples that keep us on track.
Felix: When we think about goals, we tend to say: How can I do as many things as possible to get me closer to that goal? But you’re almost suggesting treating the goal as a filter through which you’re evaluating all these pursuits. Tell us about how you strategically prioritize.
Michael: I want to preface by saying I don't have it all figured out. Everyone has a different routine based on their structure, their team, their funding, and how far along they are. The reality is that as a startup, you have to wear so many hats. It's very difficult, and it's impossible to stay one hundred percent focused. The nature of the beast is that there's so many things you have to worry about that it's really hard to get this prioritization done. What I've recently started doing, that's helped me personally, is keeping all the goals and the mission in mind. I try to start off with three things that I want to get accomplished.
I try to strip it all down and here are three things that I end the day with, that I want to try to accomplish tomorrow. I go to bed with that in mind, and then wake up prepared to try to take on three accomplishable things. Does that always happen? Admittedly not. But it helps you focus day to day on what's really important. Like I said, no matter what, you're always going to be faced with all these other things you have to do, and they're going to creep in on you every day. You'll have to work on those things. But I go in knowing what three things I really want to try to make sure get done.
Felix: Were there any specific points in your journey where you made significant progress with your business?
Michael: This is also the rest of our origin story and why we have two birthdays. Like I said, I worked full-time through a number of different product development and engineering management roles. I learned a lot, but wasn't fully satisfied with the career. I knew that I wanted to get into entrepreneurship and into a startup. I'd been doing this Pan's Mushroom Jerky on the side for a number of years, and luckily I was able to jump full time into another startup that was a tech startup that I worked on with friends. With Pan's I continued to operate on the side business, but at the time with this other venture, we had raised some money. We were able to get an actual salary from it.
We were also going through our first experiences in terms of starting a business with a team. In hindsight, we actually did not get as big as we wanted to, but we did end up selling that business, which was great. The downside was that I continued to work on Pan's on the side, and it made our real launch longer. It took another three to four years as a side hustle. In hindsight, I'm really glad I did it because I didn't realize what I didn't know until I actually started working in a startup. I was able to cut my teeth a bit on what it's like to start from the ground up on a new business.
I hate to call it a distraction, but this new full-time job that continued to push my food business on the back burner was actually ultimately beneficial, because I was able to learn what it took to get a business off the ground. And yeah, I'm really thankful for that despite having to delay Pan's even longer. That was one tipping point. Once that business wrapped up, I was really prepared to jump all in. It wasn't such a leap anymore. I was like, "All right, I'm used to working in a startup world, and I can jump full-time to this." That was one inflection point.
The second was market timing. Again, do I wish my story was like a year old and we made so many sales right when we launched? Yes. But I don't have that story. In hindsight, even though I started this in 2008, I don't know that the market was actually ready at that time for a product like ours. Vegan was very, very niche and natural was growing in general. It was pretty early now that I look back. Funny enough, when I started launching this full time in 2018, the market actually changed so much since 2008, it was ready. Veganism was now turning into plant-based popularity, and there were other food companies that were creating this plant-based world–it was becoming more mainstream. In addition to that, mushrooms were starting to become more popular. In the past it's always been about mushrooms in the produce aisle. What kind of mushrooms can I put in my salad? And so on.
At that time, mushrooms were starting to be recognized as a superfood and getting recognition. Questions like, "How do I get more mushrooms in my diet?" Whether that's through a drink or through a snack. People were starting to turn around an idea that "I need to get more mushrooms in my diet. How do I do that with something that's not just on top of my salad?" And lastly, even jerky and snacking in general continues to be more popular because people are on the go more and more. People are always looking for convenient on-the-go snacks. There's just more awareness in general about trying to get healthy options for that. Luckily those three large trends all collided when I was fully ready to work on Pan's full time. Those are two pretty key inflection points for us.
Felix: Other than these market forces, did you intentionally do something differently that you can attribute the success to?
Michael: Definitely learning what it was like when you don't have focus and a mission that's clear for us. That was one. It goes back to the prioritization of what you're trying to do. If everyone's not on the same page with limited resources, it becomes challenging very quickly. You're scattered and you don't have the resources to do everything. That was something that I learned quite a bit when I did that first startup. Again I don't want to understate the psychological and emotional side too, what it's like to really push forward through adversity and challenges. There's no question you will have challenge after challenge after challenge that you'll have to figure out.
Luckily I was getting used to that mindset. Having that mindset going into working on Pan's full time helped us, and still helps me today. Lastly, is that–I joke about this, but I threw an engineering degree away to work in a not very easily scalable business, but I'm really proud and happy that I did get an engineering background, and my education that I was lucky to have at University of Illinois. You're always having to solve problems through this journey, and that mindset, that experience, helped me figure out all the challenges that I went through and are still going through today.
The Shark Tank experience–managing mass scale in a short period of time
Felix: Tell us about any growing pains that the business faced as you scaled.
Michael: That has been a challenge since we started. It's really difficult to get that right balance of how much you need to make and what the market is ultimately asking for and buying. I will say that from our recent experiences, we were very lucky enough to be on Shark Tank in 2020. It was a big taste of that, where we were quickly overwhelmed with the response that we got from our episode on Shark Tank. We had to figure out fairly quickly: How do we meet the demand that ebbs and flows naturally with such a fast changing environment? We're honestly still learning that today. I'll just say that I don't think there's a silver bullet and this is where it goes back to prioritizing and really problem solving how to do that.
That happens almost every moment of the day. What can we do with the resources we have to meet the demand? That could be anywhere from hiring the right people. It starts with people first, what team you have to help accomplish that. Then obviously there are more specifics that we have been working on, which are how do we change our operations? How do we change the way we make this to be more scalable going forward? Those are all things that we had to go through, and we still are going through–especially after Shark Tank.
Felix: The Shark Tank experience. Tell us more about how you were able to get on the show.
Michael: We were very fortunate that we had the opportunity–and this was as the pandemic was starting as well. We were approached by their team because they had seen our products at a Whole Foods in LA. That started off the conversation, which we were very lucky to have. We went through the process of getting on the show, and we ended up getting through all the stages to the point where we were able to present. On November 20th, 2020, we were able to air on Shark Tank, but it wasn't easy. As you're managing a business, you're having the weight of going through that process, along with managing your business. But we were lucky to go through it.
Felix: How did the release of the show affect your business?
Michael: It's a blur. I hope to one day be able to enjoy it and look back on it, and look at some of the footage. We aired on November 20th, 2020, and like a lot of people, I'm a fan. I watch from my couch. I critique myself from deals and watch all these great entrepreneurs get on the carpet. But I didn't know what to expect. I knew that we would get visibility. I knew that people would order after they saw us, but I had no idea what to expect in terms of orders and how much we'd get from the show. We ended up getting about a million dollars worth of orders in four days.
I quickly learned that that was a lot. That was quite a bit. We were very fortunate. It speaks to the market that people are very open and looking for products that reduce their meat consumption. We also happened to have a very positive episode in general, the sharks loved it. We had a bit of drama too. If you watch the episode, I was put on the infamous clock, which added to it as well. We were very fortunate that we got the response that we had from the audience and also from the sharks as well, and landed a great partner in Mark Cuban as well. That night was a bit surreal. I don't know if I can ever replicate that.
It was incredible to get roughly 35,000 orders, equated to about a million in sales. Our team got together that night and watched the episode and kind of watched it unfold as it was going. I had no idea what to expect. I remember the experience of pitching, but seeing it edited and on TV was very surreal–more dramatic. It was dramatic in person, but it was very dramatic just watching it as well.
Felix: It's an hour squeezed down to five minutes. Right? Is that about what your experience was?
Michael: I don't even know how long the pitch was. It was somewhere around that and stripped down to about 15 minutes of the show. I was very fortunate watching it with my team. We all loved it. Then we enjoyed the night of seeing these orders come through, and we took about a day to enjoy it and recover and then we were back to work. Now we have to actually fill these orders. That was the challenge in front of us. How do we scale our business? How do we scale our operations? Who do we need to hire to get these orders up?
Felix: When you hit that $1 million threshold, did that just become the baseline?
Michael: That was definitely a spike for us. There's a normal number that we do have now that wasn't that. That being said, we obviously gained a large amount of customers and new people searching for our product. A lot of them are still customers today. That's what the show does. It's hard to find another opportunity that markets to so many people so quickly. I wish I could say we maintained that, but no, that was definitely a spike. Side note, we weren't sure what platform to use and what would actually handle the traffic from the show. We were very fortunate that the site stayed up. We continued to get orders and we were lucky that we were on the Shopify platform at the time, so it went pretty smoothly.
Felix: Beyond production, what are some areas that you needed to consider when scaling up as the business grew?
Michael: A big one was customer service. A lot of people starting off tend to personally manage their inbox. Most founders are on email, messages through the website. Ours is a bit extreme, in terms of how much volume we got in so little time, but we quickly found out we had to manage customers, right? We know that that's important to us. We want to make sure every customer's taken care of. There are little things that we didn't expect that we would have to quickly figure out. Anything from "My shipping address is wrong." "Hey, our order is wrong. We'd love to get this flavor instead." "Oh, can I get this as a present?" "How long is shipping?"
We also happened to air right before Christmas and Thanksgiving. We had a lot of people who would come through who wanted to buy presents for other people. Managing those questions is something we had underestimated and we realized pretty quickly that we needed some help. We're lucky to still have them today, but we immediately hired some customer service people to help manage the inbound questions that we had.
How learning to say no enabled scaling success
Felix: What were some of the changes you had to make to support the larger scale of customers?
Michael: It became apparent that there were opportunities to save time, and also to have the same message. We took some time to figure out, "Okay. Hey, here are the common questions that we get. I think there's one answer that we have. We don't have to replicate the same answer every time." We found the right messaging that was common amongst us so we could communicate clearly to our customers. We were able to do that a bit faster versus someone literally typing a message every time. I would say the other thing is, quickly addressing it by updating our FAQ site. There are common questions that we didn't think about beforehand. Luckily we were able to quickly go on our webpage and create a FAQ form that answered common questions and created ways to communicate to customers. "Hey, if you have these questions, here's a link to our FAQ page. You can learn about how to solve this problem," and so on.
Those are things that we were able to do pretty quickly to decrease the workload. I would say some other things also were just that these are all customers that you're going to get, new customers most likely. Doing things like making sure we provide the opportunity for them to leave their emails in case we needed to communicate with them, whether it's new deals, new offers, new discounts all the way to just “I want to keep up with the news.” We were very focused on making sure that we could capture their information, if they wanted to, so that we could communicate with them going forward after the show.
Felix: You mentioned that as you scaled you had to learn how to say no. What were you having to say no to?
Michael: I won't get into full details on that, but there are just opportunities out there that, depending on where you are, and a lot of it has to do with financials, it has to do with what you're able to produce. You have to prioritize who gets what. If we're only able to create a thousand units of something and you have a demand for, let's say, 5,000. We had to make decisions on who gets prioritized first. One thing we tried to do was focus on people who ordered from Shark Tank. That was a big one for us to make sure we provided them with the right product, and the right communication in terms of when products would arrive, but also our existing customers that we have had long relationships with that helped get our business where it is today. We wanted to make sure that they were prioritized as high as possible so that they would receive the product as well.
It comes down to communication with each group you prioritize. If we couldn't take the business yet making sure that it's clear that we are interested in working with them, but we just may have to wait until we can increase our capacity, or figure out what we need to scale up. A lot of times, no one wants to say no to business, but in hindsight it actually turned out well that they trusted us. They understood why we were going through challenges and they appreciated us communicating to them why we needed to wait.
There's also other things to consider in terms of margin. Some opportunities may make more sense for your business to focus on in terms of what margin you get. For us, cash flow is very, very important. It's how we run our business. There may be opportunities out there that may make sense from a marketing perspective, but if you're cashflow hungry–which most people are–you may want to focus on less marketing opportunities and more opportunities to provide cash that you need to run the business. Those are all examples of different things we had to weigh against each other to figure out who gets what.
Felix: A lot of entrepreneurs want to say yes to every opportunity that comes their way. You mentioned that there are consequences to overcommitting. Can you discuss that a little bit more?
Michael: I'd say we still have to manage that today. It’s a delicate balance of wanting to continue growing and seizing opportunities. We want to work with new partners that we think would be a great fit. Ultimately the reason we can reach more customers and people is that we think we can provide such a great product. That's always what we want. But on the flip side–and we've learned this through experience–it's a delicate balance, right? You want to reach those markets, but you're not doing anyone a favor if you don't deliver. We always have to tread lightly, carefully. We want to be aggressive, but we can't be too aggressive where we we miss a launch or we're missing deadlines that a customer may need our product by and we're not able to hit it, and then no one's left happy and you have a damaged relationship with someone that you have to work really hard or you may never get back.
That relationship is very important, and you want to build that relationship so that they trust you to ultimately fill their needs, right? They need to get a product to someone else by a certain amount of time. If you don't help them do that, then neither of you are successful. It is challenging, especially early on, to time all that right. It’s treading a balance of being aggressive, having a goal and a target to hit, while not overcommitting. It’s a balance that we faced early on and we still face today.
The tech stack to support successful scaling
Felix: You mentioned a lot of traffic to the website after Shark Tank aired. Did you have to make any specific changes to accomodate?
Michael: Luckily we had Mark's team help us navigate what it was like to launch. Talking to other entrepreneurs and startups that have gone through that experience. One thing was to make sure you're able to communicate with customers that come to your website, if they want to. Something a lot of people do is they put up a pop up or display that welcomes new people. In our case, Shark Tank we knew would happen and we knew a lot of people would be driven to the site from that. We put up a very personalized message that thanked people for visiting from the show, as well as offering "Hey, thanks for visiting us. We'd love for you to try this now that you've seen this on the show."
Figuring out our discounts and incentives we want to offer for people to try was a big thing that we've worked through. I mentioned this before, but: If you want to continue following our brand, whether it's from purchase or whether it's just general news, making sure it's easy for them to leave their information to get that info to be able to communicate with them. Providing this landing page and a popup welcoming them, a place to leave their email, was something that we tried to make sure we did early on.
Felix: Any apps that you recommend to do that? Or any other apps that you use on the website?
Michael: I don't remember what we used for our popups, but there are a number of apps out there that allow you to easily create popups and landing pages.
The other apps that helped us a lot were keeping reviews and displaying reviews. We used Stamped.io to display our reviews and allow people to leave reviews as well. That's a big one. Another one that we tried to use as well was reorder points. People want to have a subscription and reorder over and over again. We use an app called Bold to capture if they are a customer, they're allowed to reorder every month or every two months or whatever they want. They're able to set them on our site very easily to make sure they consistently get reorders without having to go to the site every time they want an order.
Other apps that I recommend as well, were some back in stock apps. For instance, we went out of stock after four days, but we continued to get traffic and people who wanted the product. We set up some apps to capture their email in case the customer wanted to know when we're back in stock. We were able to quickly do that and capture emails, and then once we were able to catch up with production, we emailed them to notify them when we're back in stock. Those were a handful of apps that we were able to utilize, and still utilize today.
Felix: What do you think is the most important thing for you to focus on to take the business to the next level over the next year?
Michael: One of the biggest things today that I'm focused on to get to the next level is getting the right people around me, specifically a team. I started off as a solo entrepreneur doing this as a side hustle. Now I'm learning what it's like to actually build my team up at a different scale and different size. I'm very proud of how we got here today and the people who have helped build us up to this point. But now we know that we need help and we need a good team to take us to that next level. That's what I'm very excited about. So far we've hired some really great people this year that are helping us get to the next level, and that work will continue going forward.