Steve O’Dell: “The Biggest Challenge For Tenzo Was Getting High Quality Information”

Steve O’Dell is Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Tenzo Tea, a matcha green tea company based in Los Angeles. Steve attended UCLA before leaving to explore. He loves reading, writing, walking, and learning, and is also an avid writer in the entrepreneurship space.


Q: What are some challenges you faced when developing your venture?

The biggest challenge for Tenzo was getting high quality information. Here’s why. All else equal, speed wins. Running a startup requires decisions to be made quickly, sometimes without all the necessary information. Most entrepreneurs fancy themselves smarter than your average pencil pusher, but eventually, everyone stumbles when the facts aren’t on the table.

I’ve made this mistake before and it hurts. Depending on the gravity of the situation, the poor decision can have a myriad of adverse effects. For starters, wasted time, effort and money. Not to mention you’re working backwards to fix the first problem. The solution is to simple: get more information.

Q: Was there any point when you thought it was over? That you were going to fail?

“The cowards never started and the weak died along the way” — Phil Knight, Founder and Chairman — NIKE

No. Tenzo’s failure was and still is not an option. Quitting is the only true form of failure in a startup. You can go bankrupt, get sued, etc, but that’s not failure, you just made a mistake (or a few). When you shut the doors for good, close shop, QUIT, that’s when you fail and that will never happen to Tenzo Tea. Why? Because our team will not let it happen.

There’s an essential caveat in this thought. Amidst this gung ho optimism is a healthy paranoia. They go hand in hand, and rightly so. This is war, the enemy is all around, and we need to be protected.


Q: As an entrepreneur how important has flexibility been in developing your venture?

Very important, especially in the early stages. I have a mental model for the importance of flexibility. It’s a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the seedling of your idea. The first spark. As the sole owner, it’s up to you to decide what happens. You need to be resourceful and work within your means, but you also need to have a vision and a rudimentary plan for growth. It’s not easy. This is when your flexible thinking skills are at an all time high.

As your company grows in size, your role within the company narrows. Instead of strategizing, manufacturing, coding, branding, selling and fulfillment (not to mention legal, pr, hr, and more), you only need to strategize. Continuous scaling further refines everyone’s roles and thus, flexibility in a large organization becomes less important because everyone’s jobs are very specific.


Q: What was was your spark, where did it come from?

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. — Steve Jobs

Andrew Wiggin, Hyrum Graff, and Orson Scott Card first captured my imagination when Ender saved Earth from the buggers. They planted the seed of changing the world. A few years later when I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs the idea of changing the world became real. Embarrassingly, I went through a period of: me — “I want to change the world”, them — “How?”, me — “Uhhh”. I had no clue what to do!

During the summer of 2014 I took an entrepreneurship class with Steven Peterson, PhD at UCLA.

He gave the word “entrepreneurship” meaning. Instead a farfetched ideal, it became a tool. I just needed to learn how to wield it. There was no looking back.

4. What are your non-work habits that help you with your work-life balance?

Work-life balance is important and different for everyone. Right now, I’m on the side of the fence that says, “You’re young and have a lot of work to do. Keep your head down and get to it.” All work and no play isn’t good either but I’m at the point in my life where a little imbalance isn’t hurting.

5. What is your best tip for entrepreneurs?

Investors use the expression “Go find a problem in your community and fix it”. What they really mean is: play the hand you’re dealt.

This means two things. First, take advantage of your present resources. Investors mention “in your community” because most startups don’t have resources for nation-wide distribution. Secondly, recognize the resources you don’t have and get them. For me, the second step was more important. For example, I’m an awful artist, therefore, I needed a partner that was a skilled designer. If you want to be successful, don’t try to play someone else’s cards. Evaluate your resources and work from there.

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