Katerina Axelsson paid her way through college by working as a wine chemist, where she noticed idiosyncrasies with how wine was made and marketed. The same product could be bottled under two different brands, yet receive drastically different industry scores from the same critics. Katerina saw an opportunity to provide more transparency to consumers, and objective data-driven insight for manufacturers. Katerina ran experiments at her lab, and analyzed thousands of wine samples using a unique analytical chemistry methodology she invented, in which the chemical compounds were associated with consumer perception and preference. She then took her research to the head of the Data Science Masters program at Cal Poly. Following that meeting, they partnered and filed for a patent for tracking and predicting consumer preferences for sensory-based products in the U.S. and 54 countries. Today, Katerina leads Tastry- a vertically integrated software company that has “taught a computer how to taste.”
Prior to Tastry, Katerina worked on various chemistry innovation projects, and her first successful invention was creating a way to use 35% less sulfur in wine.
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Table of Contents
Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Katerina Axelsson: Sure! I paid my way through college by working as a quality control chemist in the wine industry, and I would stay after work hours to run my own science experiments at the lab. I have always been a curious and inventive person and, after being given free reign to act like a ‘mad scientist,’ I created several innovations early on. For example, I invented a method/contraption that made a higher quality wine while using 35% less sulfur.
Tastry was born out of my realization of a painful reality: that neither the manufacturers, wholesalers, or retailers have any objective way to measure and evaluate the taste, aroma, or texture of wine—or how it will be perceived by consumers. The wine industry operates in a fog of intuition and lacks viable data to make critical business decisions. This often results in a multi-million dollar guessing game, and the lack of objectivity would regularly become visible.
My “aha moment” came one day when I was reading wine reviews from a professional wine critic. The critic reviewed two of our wines, described them very differently, and gave one an 87pt. rating and the other a 91pt. rating. Here’s the interesting thing: they were both the same wine. I worked at a custom crush facility, where it is very common to make 100,000 gallons of wine, and then bottle half under one label, and half under another label. That’s what had happened in this case.
Upon reading the reviews, it occurred to me that this lack of reliable accuracy is the single biggest liability to the winery, the wholesaler, the retailer, and—most importantly—to the consumer. Later I realized that this problem is pervasive well beyond the wine industry. The data on sensory-based products like fragrance, coffee, alcoholic beverages, and other CPGs, is fragmented, incomplete, siloed…and inaccurate.
I had a hypothesis that you could objectify sensory characteristics by creating a new flavor and analytical chemistry methodology that would measure products the same way a human palate does, and that this objective data could provide predictive visibility throughout the supply chain.
Over the years I developed a method to “decode the flavor matrix” of wine, and it quickly became clear that I would need expertise; that I did not have to process and understand the huge amounts of data I was creating.
Just looking for direction, I set up a meeting with the head of the Data Science and Mathematics Master’s program at Cal Poly University, who agreed to give me a half-hour. After looking at my data, my half-hour meeting with Professor Dekhtyar turned into an all-day meeting with multiple PhDs. Long story short, we joined forces, and Professor Dekhtyar invented unique machine learning algorithms to process data and decode the flavor matrix of products, the palate matrix of consumers, and associate the two to provide relevant actionable predictions.
We’ve been awarded a patent for tracking and predicting consumer preferences, which is why we say we “taught a computer how to taste.”
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Katerina Axelsson: When Tastry was founded, I was just an aspiring scientist who came upon an exciting discovery. It took time to figure out how to take the invention and technology and build a successful company. This came with growing pains and learning curves. In the early days, I didn’t know what Tastry was going to be, or what I was doing. The hardest part was realizing that the people who were involved early on were not growing or adapting fast enough. It’s difficult when you realize that for your company to grow, to be successful, you need to let go of friends who can no longer keep up or are unwilling to commit to the long and arduous road that is a startup. It’s a lot harder than it looks!
No inexperienced entrepreneur, particularly any college student, is qualified to run a company. That’s the truth, and that’s okay, and no investor expects otherwise. Embrace that reality and know that you will be expected to do a lot of self-education and learn quickly.
I learned that the odds that all of the early team members stick around are very low. Having a startup takes an inordinate amount of commitment and opportunity cost. Maybe, in the first year out of college, most people can handle it. But getting a startup to a scale and grow takes much longer than that. Are your founders committed to weathering that out, foregoing a market rate salary, and working 14 hour days with no weekends? Are they going to be patient? Are they discouraged by setbacks? When you have disagreements, how do they handle it? I keep all these things in mind when building a team.
What are the most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs make and what would you suggest they do?
Katerina Axelsson: I have seen so many entrepreneurs raise capital without considering the long-term ramifications. Choose your investors carefully and be transparent with your investors. Don’t just take money from anyone. You have to know who you’re dealing with and that you’re in alignment. Once someone invests in you, you’re tied to that person for a very long time. You have to consider whether this is someone you want to be around for the long term. I’ve turned down more capital than I’ve accepted, but the investors I have are there to support us all the way.
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
Katerina Axelsson: Ben Horowitz wrote about the relationship between resilience and success in his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” He said (I’m paraphrasing here) that he’s known many amazing and mediocre entrepreneurs throughout his life. When he asks entrepreneurs about their reason for success, the mediocre entrepreneurs often have a different reason (i.e. their amazing strategy, timing, etc.), but the amazing entrepreneurs provide the same answer, which is “I didn’t give up.”
As an entrepreneur, your resilience will be tested repeatedly. Resilience is having the ability to endure difficulties, and remembering that enduring and overcoming difficulties and challenges is part of the process.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?
Katerina Axelsson: My answer would be:
- Flexibility/Ability to iterate: I think a lot of young entrepreneurs misinterpret what it means to “fail fast.” I have seen too many amazing startups fail just because people have very high expectations too early, and when they fall short, they just give up. Startups are like the Navy Seals: you fail by quitting. If a current strategy is not working, then it is important to iterate quickly, until you find a strategy that does work.
- Originality: At the start of my business journey, I was inspired by Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One.” Thiel talks about how there is no formula to create the next Facebook, etc., and that the single most powerful pattern he has noticed is that successful companies find original solutions in unexpected markets.
- Humility: I’m very careful not to drink my own “Kool Aid”, and I hire people who have skills that I don’t. My main job is to get all the brilliant minds in the room to collaborate effectively on the company vision.
What is most important to your organization—mission, vision, or values?
Katerina Axelsson: At Tastry we place a lot of importance on the mission, which we found is critical for healthy company culture—you can’t attract the most brilliant minds with free food, and cool gadgets in the office. You can’t bribe a genius that way. People have to stand behind what you’re doing and feel like they’re making a difference. Brilliant people are motivated by the ability to make an impact on a mission they believe in. Company culture is all about how cohesive and in alignment your team is, how you communicate, and how you handle failure and success. We had a data science intern that worked for us for a year, and when he graduated, he was getting ridiculous offers from all the top tech companies. He approached us and asked us for a job offer, and showed us his current offers. We knew that there was no way we could match his current offers. We offered him a starting salary that was less than half of his lowest offer. He came back, accepted our offer, and then asked how much of his salary he could trade in for additional equity. When you find someone like that, you know they believe in your mission and will stick around for the long haul.
How important do you think it is for a leader to be mindful of his own brand?
Katerina Axelsson: Very important. I think personal branding is a requirement for strong leadership. Your personal brand should represent your company values.
What’s your favorite leadership style and why?
Katerina Axelsson: My favorite leadership style is “Visionary.”
The “Visionary” leadership style works best if you already have an exceptional team. The team is already self-motivated and highly competent, so your job as a leader is to ensure that everyone is in alignment with the company vision and that everyone knows how their role has a direct impact on our success. I particularly enjoy this leadership style because it works when you trust your team. You don’t have to micromanage or lay out every step, task, or process-you communicate the priorities, and you trust that the team will execute effectively.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
Katerina Axelsson: One of the most difficult things an entrepreneur will face is determining who to take advice from. I take all business advice with a grain of salt. Every business is different. My best advisor, who has started 11 businesses in his life, says that even though 10 of the businesses were all in the security industry, every business required novel tactics and strategies which were not transferable to the next. He always says, experience can sometimes teach you what you shouldn’t do, but that does not necessarily provide guidance on what you should do. What has worked best for my business may not work for yours, and everyone’s experience with success is specific to them.
Be especially wary of people who have spent 20 minutes learning about your business, and suddenly are telling you what you should be doing.
Also, be very careful about giving away advisor equity—on rare occasions the right advisor can be a dramatic benefit to your company due to specific expertise or relationships, but it is rare.
Definitely avoid paying people for advice. If you have to pay someone for advice on how to run a startup, they usually don’t have the experience to get you where you want to go.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Katerina Axelsson for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Katerina Axelsson or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
Disclaimer: The ValiantCEO Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.