When Adam Bowen and James Monsees, founders of successful e-cigarette company JUUL Labs, first introduced their take on a less harmful alternative to smoking in 2015, they knew they had the opportunity to make something truly significant.
In Stanford University where they met, Bowen and Monsees were heavy smokers. They felt conflicted about their habit, more so for Monsees whose grandfather passed from a smoking-related disease. Despite the variety of nicotine replacement therapies in the market, both felt that that there was no true and viable alternative to cigarette smoking. Their solution? Make one.
BusinessWorld’s SparkUp spoke to Bowen in an exclusive interview at the launch of The New Billionaire’s Club, a program seeking to develop innovative and technology-driven enterprises. Bowen was invited to speak to further inspire the fledging local startup community. Below are four of the biggest lessons he has learned developing the now-billion dollar company.
1. Find a problem that you are passionate to solve
Bowen admitted that growing JUUL from a startup was not easy, especially with a controversial product such as theirs. However, Bowen and Monsees knew how crucial it was to develop an effective solution for smokers around the globe.
“There are close to a billion smokers worldwide. Currently, about 34 million in the U.S. Here in the Philippines, there are 16 million smokers who are stuck in the same predicament that James and I were all those years ago. We knew we had to keep on pushing to realize our mission of improving the lives of all these smokers,” he said.
Bowen thus encouraged entrepreneurs to find something they are passionate to address to help keep the fire burning, and encourage them to make a significant impact. He said that it was their clear understanding of how JUUL could potentially help improve the lives of millions of people that fueled their determination to succeed.
With JUUL’s devices and pods, critical public health issues like the local tobacco epidemic could be addressed, and help provide much-needed funding for the country’s Universal Healthcare Act, which seeks to give all Filipinos access to the full continuum of health services that they need, sans the financial burdens that go along with these.
“This is one of the most rewarding parts of what we do – seeing how we can effect positive change in the lives of smokers. It’s kind of seeing that light at the end of the tunnel,” Bowen shared.
The JUUL system, through heavy investment into research and development, was developed to be a better, smokeless nicotine device. Instead of burning tobacco, which activates and releases harmful chemicals such as arsenic, formaldehyde, and lead, the JUUL employs a temperature-controlled vaporization of its proprietary e-liquid nicotine formulation that mimics the experience of traditional cigarette smoking.
Bowen further shares that the product is consistently being improved with technological innovations like Bluetooth technology to monitor and manage nicotine intake while continuing to provide a safe and pleasurable smoking experience.
In the Philippines, JUULpods come in four flavors, in 3% and 5% nicotine strengths: Virginia Tobacco, Mint, Mango, and Creme. The purpose of these flavors and strengths is facilitate the easier switching from combustible cigarettes.
2. Be flexible with how you manage your business.
One benefit of getting things wrong early on is that you become aware of how imperfect your initial solutions may be. Bowen warned startups against the dangers of believing too much in your idea, making unfounded assumptions, or falling in love with a product or prototype you’ve created.
The development process, Bowen said, is “learning to become flexible in your thinking, and in keeping your eyes wide open.” It helps to have a partner or a team of consultants to refer to when brainstorming.
3. Mind your resources
A common pitfall that startups have trouble with, Bowen said, is overspending. If you’re not careful, it could end your business before it even gets off the ground.
“It’s common for companies to get funding, and then to start spending too quickly, including paying yourself too much,” Bowen said.
To prevent this, Bowen advised startups to always be mindful of the important, non-negotiable business milestones, such as proper timing of product introduction and rollout, and when to expect profit generation. Securing funding is just one part of the operation — arguably the easiest part, due to the prevalence of crowdfunding websites.
4. Be open to failure and learn accordingly.
While a startup is in the development stages, it pays to fail as often as possible. “When you’re in a prototyping phase and you make a mistake or something doesn’t work, it costs maybe $10, $100 or whatever. When you start manufacturing, you’re talking about orders of magnitude in additional costs. Oh, you made a mistake in the design. Now you need to change all these production lines. Now you’re talking thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Bowen said that startups should embrace failure while mistakes are still cheap to make, and adjust their products to address them. “There will be failures. There will be things that you may get wrong. The earlier you can test your assumptions, fail, and learn from those failures, the better.”
The New Billionaire’s Club is an initiative by the startup incubator STARTUP Village aiming to highlight socially-driven enterprises that impact the lives of a significant number of Filipinos. The series, entitled “Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?”, will be conducted on a quarterly basis at various STARTUP Village locations and will feature people and companies that are improving the lives of billions of people.