Being a "Perpetual Student": A Chat with Phil Wong of Misfit Juicery
By Mariam Matin
Phil is a co-founder and co-CEO of Misfit Juicery, a D.C.-based juice press company that is tackling the 20 billion pounds of fruits and veggies that go unharvested or unsold every year in the United States. Through partnerships with farmers, distributors, and fresh-cut producers, Misfit has quickly made their name known between D.C. and NYC. They will be expanding the delicious and delightful products they offer moving forward. Their passion for keeping it fresh and true is reflected in their team, company culture, and approach to professional development.
MM: Thank you for talking to Second Day! We know you’re a busy guy; what is your role and responsibilities at Misfit?
PW: No problem! I’m the co-founder and co-CEO of Misfit, along with my partner Ann Yang. I’m responsible for operations, finance, accounting, sales, and fundraising along with Ann.
MM: Food waste is a major problem in this country. Your website cites 20 billion pounds of fruits and veggies go unharvested and unsold every year. How did this issue become your passion?
PW: Ann and I learned about and cared about the food system and food issues in college. Food is so central to everything, socially, environmentally, culturally. Think about the level of resources that goes towards food. Food waste and its scale was offensive to us, and seemed like such a dumb problem.
MM: You and Ann started Misfit together while still studying at Georgetown University. What made you guys decide to partner up?
PW: On a personal level, my friendship with Ann showed me that we had professional chemistry, and skills that complemented each other’s well. That, and our shared passion, made us take the leap. We were fortunate enough to pitch in a few competitions at Georgetown and get some initial funding. Georgetown gets a lot of credit there. We realized that we talked about it, now let’s do it. You just have to take the first step and not overthink it.
MM: For a little added context, and for the college kids in the room, what did you guys study?
PW: We both studied in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. I was a Science, Technology, and International Affairs Major. Ann was a Culture and Politics Major.
MM: Ok, so now you have a partner, a problem, and a passion. How did you pick your first product, namely, cold press juice?
PW: There were a lot of things that made cold press juice a good first product. Visually, you don’t know what the fruits and veggies look like. That makes it a great medium to subvert the aesthetic value. But on a more basic level we know we could make something super tasty. That’s what matters most. If you aren’t delighting consumer with your product, the rest doesn’t really matter. That was our biggest reason.
MM: There are obviously lots of juice companies out there. What was your strategy to stand out in market?
PW: If you’re going to succeed in any competitive industry, you need multiple points of differentiation. Taste, definitely. Also, social mission and branding. Those are our three tenants. Some people confuse social mission and branding, but our core ethos comes down to being a misfit.
Also, a lot of juices position themselves as cleanses, and that is something that we are definitively against. We want people to drink real juice and eat real food. We want to promote body positivity.
MM: You guys have accomplished a lot in just a few years. Tell us a bit more about your team.
PW: Well, the unsexy and untold story is that of our Misfit community. We’ve had so much help from friends and family. Whether it was friends in college staying up late to help us with late night juices or people just letting us crash during work trips, we couldn’t have done it without them.
In terms of our full-time hires, we started hiring for our operations team first. Ann and I don’t have a background in processing and operations, so filling out that talent was key. Then we expanded to sales. Right now, we are at 8 people full time. They’re split fifty-fifty between operations and sales and marketing.
MM: What qualities or experience are you looking for when you make these hires?
PW: While experience is important, curiosity, mission alignment, entrepreneurialism, and strong communication are above all else. Things can get stressful and things will change quickly, so you have to be adaptable and you need to build a team of people who can anchor you through those times.
MM: You and Ann are obviously young co-founders. How has that impacted the way you view professional development and growth?
PW: We had really privileged access to a network of awesome mentors. People cared about our mission and about us and really took us under their wings. People have viewed us as perpetual students, and that infused our culture.
We know we’re young and can’t teach our team everything they need. So we take advantage of that network and outsource a lot of those trainings. Recently, Ann put together a training from a VP of sales from another startup for example, which was really helpful.
MM: What do you most enjoy about the Misfit environment?
PW: The day-to-day of working in a mission driven company isn’t fundamentally different from any other food startup. But we get to talk to people in this space that inspire us and celebrate wins as a team. Being in a team environment and working towards a collective goal is so fulfilling, it really comes down to the people.
MM: What’s the expectation on time commitment?
PW: For the first few years, it was always on, all the time. That’s really tough to sustain and doesn’t allow you to do your best work. But when you’re early on, that’s hard to avoid. Now we try and be flexible, because we acknowledge not everyone does their best with a 9-5. That’s why we prioritize communication. But the 9-5 thing itself is totally a construct.
MM: Let’s zoom out. What qualities do you think that people who work for a startup like yours gain that make them valuable if and when they move on?
PW: The ability to learn quickly and thrive in a fast-paced and unstructured environment makes you extremely valuable. Being able to cope with the learning curve and filling in gaps as they arise. That’s any employer’s ultimate dream.
I would say that applies to our freelancers, and not just our full-time team. There are a lot of people who want to take their skills outside of the corporate world, which suits startups well. They’re always looking for more support, but may not have the resources to take on someone full time. But to contract skilled people on a project to project basis works well for everyone.
MM: Expand on the freelancer point. Do you find this to be a common way for people to break into social impact?
PW: Freelancers are incredibly common. Like I said, early stage impact companies are typically low on people resources, so working on a project basis can help someone hone their skills and learn the space well. It also allows you to taste what you like and what you don’t.
MM: What other advice would you have for people who want to learn more about the social impact space or find their best fit?
PW: People tend to gravitate towards founders and executives, but I think the best approach is to talk to regular employees. They can give you the straight talk on the company’s vision and the day-to-day of what the work looks like. You’ll get a better sense of what it will take to work in that industry.
More tactically, incubators are a good place to find startups, funders of startups, et cetera. Foundations or VCs will also have lists of high caliber organizations. You can also always use the company email algorithms or LinkedIn to reach out to people directly. If they’ve had a positive experience, they’ll be eager to talk. I think people are afraid of being creepy, but I can’t emphasize how impactful it can be to reach out.
MM: Phil, thanks for your insight into Misfit and your advice on navigating the world of social impact startups!
PW: Any time!