IN 2009, COSTCO members Alejandro Vélez
and Nikhil Arora were two months from
graduating from UC Berkeley, and had lucrative employment contracts signed with top
financial firms, when they decided to toss
their plans aside for mushroom farming.
The two college seniors met at a lecture
after their business professor piqued their
interest with a slide about growing mushrooms from used coffee grounds. While the
professor couldn’t elaborate on the topic,
he encouraged the two to seek the answers
Arora and Veléz immediately hit it off.
They spent their weekends and time in
between classes growing mushrooms in
5-gallon buckets filled with donated coffee grounds in Veléz’s college fraternity
kitchen. After watching hours of You Tube
videos and combing research books, they
excitedly took their first successful bucket
to a Whole Foods and asked the employee
stocking produce if the store would buy
them. “He looked at us like, ‘What [in the
world] are you guys
doing?’” laughs Vélez.
They were eventually connected to the
store’s buyer, and that
was the end of their post-College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
Although Patrick was a nascent inventor
who had every intention of eventually marketing his own products, he and Jamie knew
they would have to start with someone else’s
invention. While on vacation in Florida, Jamie
discovered the Aqua Bike, a large three-wheeled contraption that could travel on land
or water, and called Patrick.
“By the time I got home he had rung up
quite a big phone bill calling around, trying to
find it,” she says, explaining that it was no easy
task in those pre-internet days. Patrick and
Jamie worked to convince the manufacturers
to let these two “kids” distribute their product.
They succeeded and were off and running.
Today, McNaughton Incorporated, which
has been in business since 1985, manufactures and markets 340 items for homes, gardens and autos under brand names such as
Buckle Guard, Soda Bottle Bird Feeders, Soapy
Back to the Roots
PROVIDED BY MCNAUGH TON INC.
graduation plans. “Forget investment banking, forget consulting. Mushroom farming it
is,” Vélez recalls to The Connection. And that’s
when Back to the Roots was officially born.
Vélez, whose family emigrated from
Colombia when he was 11, says turning his
back on a financially stable future was a
tough decision. While their families supported their plans, Vélez says explaining to
friends was tougher. His fraternity brothers
even tried to stage an intervention prior to
graduation. But ultimately Vélez’s and Arora’s
partnership, along with their shared drive to
make an impact in the world, won out.
As their business grew, they began selling rudimentary at-home mushroom growing kits, which were a hit with kids and
classrooms. They switched their focus to
selling sleek grow-at-home mushroom kits
(expanding later to herbs and tomatoes), an
aquaponics garden and limited-ingredient
cereals made from sustainable crops, available on Costco.com.
Vélez says his double major in business
and economics and Arora’s double major in
business and political science have helped
them run their business. Today, they’ve garnered investors, expanded their staff and set
their sights on continued growth by every
definition of the word.—Hana Medina
Soles, Sole Mates, Gadjits, Master
Mounts and Window Vases. Jamie
calls them “forehead slappers,” and
says, “I love it when I show them to people;
they many times slap their forehead and say,
‘Wow, I wish I had thought of that!’ ”
Although he started out studying architec-
ture, “as our business started to grow and
develop, I started taking more marketing
classes, more business classes, just seeing and
knowing that those were the skills that I needed
to learn [to run] the company,” Patrick says.
Patrick was living at home in those early
days and ran operations from there. Later,
Jamie remodeled her basement into an office,
complete with cubicles.
“The business from the very beginning
started to grow relatively fast. And being self-
employed can be quite demanding,” Patrick
explains. “I was running in and out. It’s difficult
when you’re in the middle of something and you
have to leave to take a class and leave a class to
go home to call customers, or work on a product,
and put the homework piece off until later.”
Jamie says it wasn’t unusual to see Patrick
sleeping on the floor, surrounded by books
Their advice to those contemplating
starting a business: “The hardest part for anybody, regardless of their age, is taking action.
Taking that first step. It’s a little
scary. It’s risky. But once you
take that first step and start
moving, everything else
starts to come into place and
feel better and easier.”
Nikhil Arora (left)
and Alejandro Vélez
JAMIE MCNAUGHTON & PATRICK MCNAUGHTON
McNaughton Incorporated • Plymouth, Minnesota •
TOP TIP: Be true to yourself and your ambitions; be sincere; be honest. Don’t try to hide your age or lack of
experience. Share your excitement and enthusiasm.
ALEJANDRO VÉLEZ & NIKHIL ARORA
Back to the Roots • Oakland, California •
TOP TIP: Make sure you wake up every morning
and can confidently look in the mirror and say you
are doing what you love, with people you love.