Interview with Aaron Thomas

Apr 16, 2021 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Interviewer blurb

I still remember when I logged into my Linkedin a few weeks ago to find a message from Aaron, the co-founder of BUG, a start-up developing and supplying insect-recipe kits. As an undergrad student getting through her final year whilst doing ‘online-learning’, this was probably the most exciting thing that happened in a while.

After checking out BUG’s website, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement bubbling up inside me – I was desperate to know more about the people working behind this start-up. It wasn’t just because I was personally curious about eating insects, nor even because I’d written a dissertation about entomophagy two years ago. Instead, it was for the simple fact that their website was probably one of the most attractive websites I’d ever seen – the delicious-looking food photography, interactive infographics and videos, and most importantly, their humorous, witty and inviting tone really gave their brand a unique personality that I drew me in like a moth to a flame.

Needless to say, Aaron was just as friendly as I’d imagined, and the interview went beyond my expectations. For over an hour, we chatted about everything from his background, the days working from his co-founder (Leo)’s garage, obstacles and lessons learned, tips for aspiring entrepreneurs, and the future of BUG. Be sure to check out the interview transcript (or at the very least, their IG and website)!

Background on Aaron and the story of BUG

What was your childhood like?

When I was growing up, my dad worked for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and has was involved in conservation charities his whole life. So, I was influenced by him to think about conservation a lot – in fact, I got to meet David Attenborough when I was five since he was doing a talk about stag beetles! I also spent most of my childhood outside looking at random things in the garden, most of which were insects. I was fascinated by them because they’re alien-like in many ways. For example, they have very odd life cycles and carry out some pretty obscure behaviours. A few years later, I studied biology and Environmental Sciences at college, then decided that insects were my thing. From that point on, I chose as many projects as I could to study them.

It was around then that I first learnt more about entomophagy (eating insects). I’d heard about the concept before but wasn’t aware of the environmental health benefits, all of which came as a big surprise for me. It was this feeling of wonder that ultimately propelled me to think that there’s probably plenty of other people who also don’t know about entomophagy, and I wanted to share my amazement. The first step involved ordering insects in myself. I went online and ordered dried insects from reptile houses. I had live locusts and crickets in my home and was freezing, cleaning and cooking them into all sorts of things. My initial ideas were to turn the insects into something that could easily be recognised. This included typical meat alternative such as burgers and sausages that other people wouldn’t be offended or put off by the product they’re eating.

How did you meet your co-founder?

At one point, I went to an art Science Festival where I was sharing my work and posting them on my Instagram. Through that, my now co-founder (Leo) found me. Since he’d already been experimenting with entomophagy at home, he reached out to me. We went for pho in Cambridge, where Leo’s parents live. We realised that we shared similar views on issues with the current insect product market: most of the products were just snacks, which couldn’t be integrated into regular everyday meals. From there, we started playing around with recipe videos in his parent’s garage and shared them online.

This initial phase in the garage was all new and exciting – we were taping lights, fixing the ceiling, and doing all sorts of crazy stuff – the classic start-up story. Already at that point, people were messaging us, asking where they can get insects and how they can cook them. That was what inspired us to create recipe kits. The thinking was that just providing insects alone isn’t enough to give people the confidence they need to cook insects. You need to provide them with slightly more so that they feel comfortable, and it’s like, ‘If I do it, I’m not going to mess this up, and I’m not going to poison myself.’

Can you tell us about the product development of The BUG recipe kits?

We developed the first kits (The Bug Box) and released them during the first Covid lockdown. It was an interesting time to launch a business, but we treated it as our beta testing. We were packaging them from our kitchens and bedrooms; it’s not like we could churn out loads of these kits. There was also no money to channel into marketing. So, we ended up just sending out free kits to influencers to get a bit of initial traction. Then we started collecting data on what our initial customers liked and tested out a few different concepts, recipes, and pricing models – making minor tweaks to figure out how we could make insects a regular part of people’s diets.

After testing, we started changing the kits to fit what we’ve learned: this is happening now through our recipe kit 2. It’s different from the original bug box in terms of styling and the type of recipes that we’re providing. One of the major things we found out is that unless we give every ingredient for a recipe, like Gousto or HelloFresh, people need flexibility. So, we decided to provide select key ingredients for a recipe, but people could adapt them – they could use whatever type of pasta or veg they already had in their fridge. So, that was around the end of 2020. Then we decided that since we’ve had some traction and understand our audience better, we can transition to getting funding for marketing, outsourcing the supply chain, and enabling me to work full-time.

What is the current state of BUG?

Right now, we have 35k signed ASAs (pre-funding Advanced Subscription Agreements) already paid, and we’re also talking with a few different funds/angels with soft commitments of at least 250 to 350k. But our overall goal is to raise around 250 to 300k in private equity with a final ceiling of 350 or 400k, depending on how much we raise privately. We’re going to raise the rest through Crowdcube, a public equity-based platform, where people can pay a minimum of 10 pounds to own shares in our company. This helps financially and is effective marketing since we’re getting our name out there, showing our contents, and gaining momentum as a brand. It will be an exciting time to showcase our work since we’ve been hiding in our garages and bedrooms for a while now!

Career

Do you find that having a science-based background through entomology helps with your business?

I would say running a business is indirectly science-based. If, for instance, we were to acquire a farm or rear the insects ourselves, more science would come into play. But as it stands currently, the only thing that an academic background has helped me with is data analysis, handling numbers, working out finances, and aspects of report/protocol writing, because with product manufacturing, there’s a lot of work that goes into describing specifications – which translates quite well from the work that I’ve done previously.

But on a larger scale, I would say that you are a scientist in a weird sense when doing any business. You’re ultimately going out and testing a hypothesis – which most people would describe as your minimum viable product – that you can get onto the market and test with users to understand their responses and figure out how to optimise the product to satisfy the needs or solve the problems of customers. The best way of doing that is through a scientific method where you are creating experiments and collecting data on its outcome. So, in that respect, scientific thinking does help in business. Still, I would say most other specific knowledge (for example, on insects) hasn’t exactly been applicable.

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“You are a scientist…when doing any business.”
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What were the most significant personal challenges throughout growing BUG?

I think part of the challenge in building a business is believing that I can do it. In general, I’m very much a do-er, someone that will go out and take action. But I think that many founders deal with imposter syndrome – half the time, you just don’t believe that you are suited and equipped to complete whatever the task. That’s probably something that I’ve struggled with a bit, and I’m sure my co-founder has as well. Every time we speak to someone semi-famous or someone offers us money, I just think I can’t believe this! Although I do feel more equipped now than before, it’s still a very surreal experience.

What were the most significant business challenges throughout growing BUG?

Business-wise, we’ve done pretty well, especially for fundraising, which is often a struggle for many startups. But I suppose the overarching challenge that Leo and I often talk about is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Since both of us don’t have a tremendous amount of experience in business before BUG, at the start, we didn’t know what we needed to learn until we came across the situation that required us to have that knowledge. On many occasions, that is the way that people learn stuff in business. We also spent a lot of time reading books to learn about entrepreneurship, but it would still have been nice to have some background knowledge of the things to consider before making big decisions.

What is the key to persevering despite the challenges?

At the end of the day, we don’t have anything to lose because we’re starting at a very low point – it’s not massive labour, we don’t necessarily have huge salary jobs, or are risking much. We’re kind of starting at zero. So, everything that happens is almost positive, in many senses, and I think that’s what’s kept us going. Also, Leo and I are both fairly motivated people – we’re not pent up on doing things wrong or concerned about failing. Although it might sound cliché when people say failure is just an opportunity to learn something, we take that mentality towards what we’re doing.

How have you managed to run a start-up on the side of your full-time job?

I had a nine-to-five day job, and whatever time I had outside of that, I would commit to BUG. I didn’t have very much free time, but for as long as I can remember now, I’ve worked pretty long hours anyways. Even during my master’s dissertation, I’d be in labs from 9-5, and after that, I’d work a job for at least three hours. It’s almost a routine now for Leo and me to be working a lot – right now, on top of weekdays, we have a BUG Sunday to collaborate together, and we usually take Saturday’s off.

All this is to say that although it can be busy, I don’t feel like I need much more free time since I’m so passionate about what we’re doing. It doesn’t take that much effort to do, and we’re driven to put in the work over long hours because this is something we genuinely love doing. Every time we speak to new people or learn and succeed at things, we can relish that this is all our doing – everything that we’re contributing through our hard work is paying off.

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“Three things: finding a problem, just getting started, and talking to people are essential.”

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Do you have any advice for aspiring students who want to work in the field of social impact or entrepreneurship?

I would say three things. The first one is that the best way to start a business, to create something that actually adds value to society, is to identify a problem that you think is important, which is currently not being solved in a good way, that you think could be solved much better. You might already have some experience in whatever that field is, or maybe you have knowledge about the technologies that could fulfil that solution.

The second point would be to just start doing stuff. There is never a good time to start working on a business, in the same way people say there’s never a good time to have a baby. Maybe there are better times, but ultimately, you’ll always manage to find a reason to put it off. So, without actually getting out there and taking action, it’s never going to happen.

The third one is probably, speak to people about what you want to do. For us, a key learning has been that we’ve spent too much time in our bedrooms and garage not speaking to people about what we’re doing. Now we know that seeking help from people who know how to start businesses is extremely useful in getting advisors, understanding how to raise capital to grow a functioning business, and learning how company structures work. Basically, there’s so much information out there that you can get just from speaking to people. 

The BUG Business

What was an unexpected finding or learning from the process of growing your business?

Interestingly enough, Leo and I recently learned that the people interested in eating insects regularly aren’t squeamish handling whole insects or seeing them in food. In fact, people who like insects want to see their food, and they want to taste and experience the insects as they are. That was a fascinating bit of learning because it differentiates us from everyone else in the market: most companies, apart from maybe Eat Grub, only sell snack products. In snacks, the insects are hidden as a powder in an energy bar or a cracker. But this doesn’t necessarily serve the market of people that would enjoy seeing and eating insects.

So, is your target audience are people who already want to eat insects?

Yes. We feel that most of the existing insect-food brands have tried to go mainstream too early. They’ve been attempting to create products that appeal to the mass market without securing a baseline loyal customer base with the people that are already interested and fanatical about eating insects. Our tactic is to create products that directly satisfy the desires of the people that are really passionate about eating insects, who want to see any insects in their food. Once we’ve created that loyal community, if we were to move into a supermarket, then that’s when we’ll think about making things that might hide insects so that it suits a mass-market option. But at the moment, we’re focused on going direct to the consumer because it allows us to have direct communication with our audience, which then allows us to help educate and connect with consumers.

How big is the market for the people who are already interested in eating insects?

From the people we’ve spoken to, this market’s size seems significant enough for us to run a successful business and begin growing. As long as we can find that loyal initial customer base, I have faith that the market will grow pretty quickly. All it takes is for those initial groups of people to be empowered and start talking about eating insects with other people. We feel there’s a huge, viral, social element to trying something completely new and polarising for most people. A lot of people aren’t open to the idea of eating insects or are absolutely horrified. My co-founder’s Mum, for example, is just not interested in insects at all. But then there’s a select group of people who understand the benefits and are really into it. We think that this polarisation can help promote your product through word of mouth and social interaction.

What’s your plan for the upcoming months?

Based on the recent funding round, we’re planning on setting up a couple of offices – with one of them converted into a studio, including a kitchen space. This will allow us to film recipe videos whenever we want. Our plan is to get influencers, customers, anyone really to cook insects with us because we feel that the humour element of seeing other people’s reactions to eating insects has viral potential. Also, no company at the moment is creating a sense of community for this movement – Everyone’s very much in their own lanes, with adolescent companies posting about insect food every now and then, but they tend to be sales-oriented. So, we also want to add value by becoming the go-to platform for edible insects. Eventually, we’d be able to keep people interacting and engaged by also running public events.

What is the rationale behind the humorous, light-hearted branding?

When I first met Leo, he’d already made a tongue-in-cheek video based on an old Apple or Google advert, playing into this famous Kickstarter video from the Dollar Shave Club – it was dry humour but pretty funny. We decided then that we want to give our brand a similar fun tone because insects, for many people, seem disgusting or offensive, so we tried to lighten the mood – by making our branding bright, colourful and fun. So that’s the tone of voice that we established early on, and whilst our style has developed over time, that main thread retained.

What is a core value that you hold in your business?

I would say truth and objectivity are two fundamental core values that both Leo and I hold. We want to make decisions based on the best data that we have without any ego getting in the way. When it comes to hard times or difficult discussions, we’re conscious that we need to lay out the facts and try to understand the best move forwards for the business, not necessarily for one of us or for some other reason. This value was actually inspired by the book called Principles by Ray Dalio – one of his principles is extreme transparency. We’re trying to follow that model in terms of being very open and honest about what is going on, both personally and in the business, so that we could make the best decisions.

You can find out more about BUG on their website, or get in touch via [email protected]