As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Troy Swope.
Footprint Co-founder and CEO Troy Swope leads world-class engineers, scientists, environmentalists, and designers on a mission to create a healthier planet, with step one to provide sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I’ll start with choosing an investment partner. My first lesson is don’t take any money, take the right money. Choose the right partner, someone who has a shared vision with you. When we first left Intel, we had a partner who didn’t share our vision, and it slowed us down. In the early days we found Kevin Easler, who has been just a great partner, who shared our vision for the transformation of the supermarket and who has been with us all along the way — with time, with great insights and support. I can’t say enough about the importance of finding a first investor who ideally can go the distance with you, helps you grow personally and as a company, is open to your ideas as a founding leader, and goes from cheerleader to voice of reason to partner at any given time.
My second aha is that I had no idea I’d be putting payroll on my credit card! I had four kids at home, and I remember sitting in our building on Christmas Eve waiting for a check to clear so we could pay bills. We never missed a payroll but there was a lot of stress. I guess I knew those days might be possible but then I was living them.
My third insight is how important it is to maintain your health. I’m an athlete and being in physical shape had always been a given for me. After founding Footprint, I didn’t have a health crisis per se, but was so focused on the business in the early days that at times I had to stop and remind myself to exercise, and watch what I eat and drink. Today I work out regularly over lunchtime with my co-founder and long-time friend Yoke Chung, and I meditate daily, and I just feel better. And I think more clearly when I’m balancing work with things that make me feel stronger. I wish someone had told me how hard it would be to defend that time, or how important it actually is to do it and not feel guilty. I’m a fan of mental and physical health prioritization and am glad to see it more prominent in the business narrative these days.
Fourth, of course no one told me what it would be like to run a company during a pandemic — to try and raise money and struggle with all of the Covid-19-related decisions. As a data-driven person, there have definitely been some things that have been hard to make decisions about as a CEO, from supply-chain to stay-at-home and mask policies, to how to deal with the acceleration of demand caused in our business when there was such a vast swing in consumer habits all at once, around the world.
Last, your life partner has got to be bought in to the travel, the super late nights, the constant money raising from the selling-the-company phase. In the beginning days, there’s no company to sell, you’re just selling yourself and your business partner and what you can accomplish. In the beginning stages, it was tough. You meet a lot of people who have a lot of money and as our now longtime board member Kevin Easler says, you have to kiss a lot of frogs. Not because they’re not smart, but they just don’t always get it. You also meet fantastic people. But all of that takes time, and often time away from home, physically and mentally. I learned a lot about the toll that can take on your personal life. So, if you’re going to start a company, and you have a person in your life, or if you’re going to pick one, make sure you’re both eyes wide open about what could be ahead.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Back to the credit card, at one point I think I had over $100k a month on my credit card in company expenses — everything was on my credit card. We were all putting travel, everything on my card, and we were constantly trying to figure out who was charging what — who rented a car there? Questions like that. I’d also have to say the stress of Covid-19 more recently, when we were fundraising and the whole world shut down right after our roadshow. That was a hard time for a lot of reasons.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I believed the world needed what we were doing — I knew it was going to be hard, but I also knew we would do it. I’m an athlete, and I’m super competitive. For my family, my kids — it was never an option to fail. I think of Footprint like a river vs. a train. A train is on the track — and you need someone to dig a hole through a mountain for it to keep going. A river finds its way around obstacles and keeps going. Yoke, my co-founder, and I are a river, we’ll always find a way.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
It took us four years to develop the first Conagra bowl — developing, testing, iterating — we had to overcome countless failures, and we knew how to learn from failure. We had a great customer-partner and we did a great job of choosing the right partner. It helped us not quit because they were not quitting. Every time we failed; we were learning. We knew we could get there, but what was unknown was how long it was going to take. We didn’t want to just meet the performance of plastic, we wanted to exceed it — with an overall better cost structure. And we were striving for something that was going to be long term, drastically better for the planet — in terms of the environmental cost to produce, the materials, and end of life. So today we’re really happy that demand actually exceeds supply — we’re accelerating our production capacity because our customers are being propelled by their customers who want sustainable solutions, regulations are aggressively starting to ban many single-use plastics, and companies themselves are setting climate change and waste-related targets and need solutions to attain them. Those tailwinds combined with our investment in materials science, process technology and manufacturing capability, many of which are patented, give us a strong competitive position.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One funny story: At one point, we decided to make 3D glasses for 3D movies, made out of coconut oil and husks. 3D glasses seemed to be becoming popular, and we thought they were a single-use plastic worth replacing, and we decided to take it on. Then, the world stopped wearing them for movies and there was no interest, the volume decreased, and it didn’t make sense for us to support them. The lesson is, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Was it better for the planet? Sure, but we didn’t stop and think, how many people are going to 3D movies? I myself didn’t even like wearing those glasses or going to 3D movies. So you need to stop and think, trust your gut, and, of course, do some research. I have coffee every day, potentially with a rolled paper cup that has a plastic liner, along with millions of other people. That has to be addressed. I buy frozen meals at the grocery store and see a sea of plastic touching food. It makes more sense to focus on those things.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We knew we were on to something early on. We had a unique team and skillset because of our backgrounds in the semiconductor space. We knew we were going to solve this problem. We had a meeting with Conagra, in Chicago, the first time we met their CEO — Sean Connolly — who I think is one of the best CEOs in America. He gave us his vision and told us how excited they were about the technology. We took a very consultative approach to this first major customer. I remember we walked out that day and felt absolutely great. When Conagra’s Power Bowl launched, in our plant-based fiber bowl, we really felt it was something special. It was a big win. We’ve taken that customer-centric, consultative approach ever since on the big, disruptive solutions where we’re trying to solve a specific, first-time challenge.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You have to have something that takes your mind off of work — situations where you’re not talking about the business. Mine is exercise and my kids — I coach football and when I’m doing that there’s nothing else that I can think about. Learning also makes me happy — I read a lot, anything that can keep me from constantly thinking about work, take my mind elsewhere, take my brain elsewhere. This will also, by the way, help you have a completely different view. Traveling, getting out of the office, to see customers/suppliers and getting a new perspective helps you address things without staring at them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My co-founder and best friend Yoke — he’s an unbelievable partner — he will work 100 hours, climb a wall, solve a problem, build a factory, it doesn’t matter. He’s always there, putting in the work, problem solving, and we’re often laughing, too. Also, Kevin Easler — our original investor — had a shared vision and put a tremendous amount of his own money into Footprint and took a tremendous amount of risk. Yoke and I had an unbelievable sense of “we cannot let Kevin down” that drove us, and the overwhelming stress of that for a very long time. Kevin is also a very likeable person.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The product itself is good for the planet and we’re proud of that. I’m happy when people are proud to work at Footprint, when they bring their families here or to Phoenix Suns games at Footprint Center, and of giving people a place where they can build a career that is also financially rewarding and helps make a difference in their own lives. Outside of that, I have a real concern about children going to school without food — which ties in with our customers — and it’s something I’ll continue to drive for impact around.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
There are unbelievable highs and lows every day — you’ll get “this customer is committed” and the next day you’ll have technology issues, or a bad batch of materials; there are moments of exceptional highs and lows. What I’ve tried is not to get really high, and I don’t get really low. News is news — and you plan accordingly. In some ways maybe I have become numb to the swings — there is no good news or bad news. That said, you need to celebrate the wins with the team. I also do tons of meditation. I took a class at Intel in Malaysia on mindfulness, and I love transcendental meditation. I do it every day. Sometimes at work I will actually wheel my chair into a little bathroom by my office and meditate. We used to have a meditation room, but we were growing fast so we had to give it up and use it for offices.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
What we’re doing is a movement, and in my opinion, it wouldn’t make sense to get off track. Aside from that, I’m obsessed with making sure kids have food. I can’t imagine what it’s like to try to study and be hungry, or to be a teacher of hungry kids. If I had a rambunctious class I’d probably start with, are you hungry? A movement would be to take a percentage of proceeds from companies and set it aside and give it to the community around us to fund something simple, like Gogurts — kids love them and it gives them decent nutrition. If you had an abundance in schools — you could make sure they’re eating, and learning.
How can our readers further follow your work online?