From Neuroscience Student to Founder on Shark Tank: A Q&A with Akshita Iyer
Akshita Iyer is not who you’d expect to be the founder of hardware startup Ome, focused on bringing safety and efficiency to the kitchen using smart technology. In fact, as a founder, she’s comparable to the dish Shakshuka, a combination of widely different ingredients that have no business working together as well as they do. But we’ll expand on that later.
First, we sat down with Akshita to talk about all things Ome, raising capital during a pandemic, what it’s like to start a company with your husband, mental health for founders, and so much more. Read on.
How were you introduced to Zane & Shila?
Zane and Shila hold a very special place to me because as a founder you oftentimes don’t get to really know your investors over time before you decide to bring them on. It usually feels like you’re asking an investor whether they are interested versus saying, “Hey, is this person right for me? Or is this fund right for me?” That wasn’t the case with Zane.
I first met Shila when she was a mentor at the Atlanta Startup Battle, back in the fall of 2019. We were selected as part of the final round of startups and had a great initial mentor discussion with her. She had said, even in that meeting, “Hey, you know, let’s definitely keep in touch.” She had mentioned that she was about to raise a fund. We were both raising at the same time and went through a lot of those struggles together on opposite sides of the table.
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After we won Atlanta Startup Battle, Shila was super helpful trying to connect me with people in Atlanta; I really didn’t have any network there. She was also building her network, so as she was meeting people, she was introducing me to them too.
Because of this, we raised our first round of funding in the fall of 2020. Shila said, “We’d love to participate, but [Ome] needed a lead.” So she introduced us to Outlander Labs and we got our term sheet from them. Shila and I talked like dozens of times in that year, which allowed her (and Sig) to get to know me as a person and as a founder, and what my vision for Ome ultimately was.
We do have a hardware component, and for a lot of investors, that scares people. But I think because Shila and I had an opportunity to talk at length, Zane really started to understand that we’re trying to build beyond the hardware, and that the hardware is really a means to an end. The hardware is important for what we’re doing, it’s important for our business, and gives us an anchor point — but we’re building so much beyond this that uses hardware as a vehicle to deliver incredible software and digital experiences. You don’t get an opportunity, especially in a half an hour pitch, to get people to understand where you’re going, because there’s so much that you want to share. It was really, really helpful to have that time to get to know each other and make sure we were aligned on the vision for Ome. Shila has continued to be an asset, even as we raise funding now. She’s continuing to make introductions, helping to find talent, connecting us with advisors — we’re really lucky to have Zane on board.
Speaking of investors, what do you value in an investor/fund?
Diversity — I look for diverse partnerships, which also often manifests in how partners talk to you. There are definitely investors that are just not the right fit, because they’re not looking at investments in a diverse way, which is usually quite apparent in an initial conversation. What comes with diverse teams are the diverse perspectives and experiences that allow you to succeed, and I think that’s why diverse teams far outperform those that aren’t.
On top of diversity, I also look for investors that will challenge me, play devil’s advocate, and get me thinking in a way that I haven’t thought about already. As an entrepreneur, you don’t know everything. And you shouldn’t (know everything). Founders drive the vision, mission and direction of a company, and we hire people smarter than us to help execute. I also just look for good people. People who are willing to go the extra mile, who aren’t afraid of rolling up their sleeves, and who arethere for you when you need them. It’s not just about returning the investment tenfold. It’s about building relationships, because if it’s not this company, maybe it’s the next one.
You don’t have a technical background and yet you’ve managed to build a thriving hardware startup. Tell me about your journey from neuroscience student to startup founder.
It was definitely a pivot from where I was going. I went to Duke, my background is in neuroscience, and I had always wanted to go to medical school. I was planning on doing that and decided to just take a gap year to get some work experience, and worked at Duke hospital.
In that year, I had a personal experience at home where my mom left the stove on and started a kitchen fire. For us as a family, the kitchen has always been the center of the home, as it is for many families. That experience led me to realize just how outdated the kitchen is. I looked for solutions, but just didn’t find any company that was innovating well enough. I didn’t want to buy any of the solutions that were out there. So I kept thinking, “Well, you know, appliances last for decades. Companies like Nest and Ring have proven the value of building retrofit, intuitive, affordable devices that are easy to install and easy to engage with.” Nobody’s doing that in the kitchen. The only thing that exists are expensive $4,000 appliances that nobody can afford. Why can’t we change that??
I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was so much more excited and passionate about doing this and really trying to build something than I ever was about going into medicine. I took that as a sign that maybe I should be doing something else. So I did and honestly haven’t looked back. It’s been very difficult, very challenging, but also super rewarding, and I’ve grown so much more in the last few years than I think I would have otherwise.
Note: Akshita’s mom has not started a kitchen fire since she started using Ome!
You founded Ome with your husband! What were the positives and negatives of that experience?
I honestly can’t imagine starting a company with anybody else. It can go both ways. There are some husband and wife couples where it just doesn’t work. But my husband and I had worked together at Duke before, so we knew early on that we had very complimentary skills. I love talking to people, building relationships, pitching, and he’s more of an introvert who loves the hands-on work of innovation. He loves thinking through technical problems, whereas that’s not my strong suite. I like big vision thinking and strategizing.
All of this made working together a lot easier — I wholeheartedly trusted him to do the technical work, and he trusted me to do all the fundraising, branding, marketing, etc. We never really stepped on each other’s toes. If there was a technical decision that had to be made, we would talk about it and we might disagree, but at the end of the day he would make that decision. I think in that way, it’s worked out really well.
Having a spouse and partner in business that understands what you’re going through every day — you have to work 16+ hour days sometimes and your mood fluctuates every minute — just having that support system, someone who understands why I’m doing what I’m doing and what we’re going through together, has made all the difference. I don’t think I or Ome would have survived to see another day on such little resources if I didn’t have the support of him or my family.
He does have another full-time job as a physician — so he’s an advisor now. Initially, though, we were doing everything together. But I think what was really important, in the last year and a half, was for me to take the reins and build the confidence as a non-technical female founder to lead a technical team. For a long time I experienced a bit of insecurity and apprehension when I went into investor and technical team meetings, especially because most of the other companies in our space have been led by men with traditional engineering backgrounds. Insecurities like, “Do I have the right background? Do people see that I can really do this?” And I think I used my husband as a crutch saying, “Oh, well, I have this guy here and he can answer the technical questions if needed.” I started to take meetings myself, because I really had to figure out a way to communicate and articulate what it is that we’re trying to do on my own — and that someone like me can do it. I don’t need an engineering degree to lead a company — I need the right people. I need to be able to convince the right people to take this journey with me.
The pandemic has increased awareness of the mental-health burden founders face. How do you care for your mental health?
Honestly — again — other founders. I have a group of 6 female founders who I regularly bounce ideas and frustrations off of, some also building hardware too. As female founders, we often have to prove 10 times as much as our counterparts. Having a community that gets this, can talk about it, vent about it, and share ways to navigate it has made all the difference. Fellow founders have been a lifeline. They’re who I turn to in moments where I’m thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know if I can do this another day.”
What’s been your most memorable experience since founding Ome?
We were on Shark Tank so that definitely stands out. Especially because we built the courage to start in the first place because we were watching the show so much. We got on the show when we had built our first prototype. Literally everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. One of our devices fell off the mounting surface and shattered during our pre-pitch and a battery (one of just 2 we had) started smoking the night before when we charged it. By some miracle, when we were in the Tank and needed our Smart Knob to work, it did! That one time. Even with all the mishaps, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that really brought us full circle.
As an entrepreneur, you’re always thinking about what could have gone better, what more you need to do, the next thing. But it’s also very important to think about how far you’ve come. It’s so easy to discount that, especially when so many people tell you you’re too early, don’t have enough sales, haven’t found product-market fit, etc, etc., But that’s not always the case. It’s really important to stop and reflect. Companies would have died by this point, or founders would have given up, but you’re still going. You have created something that just a short time ago didn’t exist. That’s so powerful.
Favorite piece of customer feedback?
We had one customer a few months ago whose stove, at the time, was not compatible with our device. They told me, “I need this device. I love to cook and always get distracted. Can you tell me what stove brands your device is compatible with? I’m going to buy it today.” That day, this guy actually went out and bought a new stove. I was floored! This said a lot — we’ve built something valuable enough for a consumer to go above and beyond to make sure they could use our product, but also that there really aren’t any other solutions. Since then, we’ve had at least a dozen other customers buy new ranges based on our compatibility guidelines. This was so unexpected but has also made a very powerful statement. Ome is redefining the kitchen in a way no other company or product has before.
Happiest moments at Ome?
Seeing our product work for the first time. Hearing from customers saying that Ome has made their life easier every day The happiest moments are when I see the fruits of our labor. Even more, when I see the level of dedication from our team. We’re a lean team still, so everyone takes customer service calls. I’ve received countless emails from our users praising the amazing service they received from one of our customer success engineers. This makes me so proud, especially knowing that I’m not alone, that my team is invested in this with me, and that our customers are noticing how committed we are to making their Ome experience better every day.
What advice would you give to someone founding a company today?
Surround yourself with the right people early. Find people smarter than you who can help you reach your next milestone. You should never be the smartest person in the room. Also know that there is never a right time to be a founder, so just start. Don’t be afraid of failing because you will get back up. Taking that initial plunge can be tough, especially if you don’t have a traditional entrepreneurial background, but it’s not impossible. If you’re willing to learn and adapt and actively foster that mindset every day, there’s nothing you can’t handle.
Favorite dish to cook?
My favorite dish is Shakshuka. It’s typically a brunch dish, and it’s basically an amalgamation ofsautéed vegetables and sauce with a few eggs cooked in the middle. The reason I like it so much is that you can make use of pretty much all the vegetables/ingredients you have sitting in your fridge that would otherwise be thrown out. I also make it in a pretty big skillet especially when I’m with my family. Food has always brought us together.
Below is Akshita’s go-to Shakshuka recipe.
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When you think about it, Shakshuka really represents Akshita as a person. A combination of ingredients you’re not sure will work together, but they do and it’s amazing. We at Zane are so glad to be on this journey with Akshita and can’t wait for what’s to come.
Cook smarter and live better today — learn more about Ome here:
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