Tayyaba Ali, CEO and co-founder of Tikal Filters, is a serial entrepreneur with a technical background in hardware development. Her academic background is in biophysics and computer science but she has self-taught herself many engineering skillsets.
Over the last six years, she’s developed an applicable and diverse background within the startup industry, serving as a founder, consultant, technical lead/engineer, and VC analyst for a variety of sectors. She furthered her exposure to younger pre-seed startups by serving as a venture consultant for the Zero to One program and startup coach at Future Founders.
As a technology fanatic who loves building out moonshot ideas, she has won countless hackathons, business competitions, pitch competitions, and national innovation challenges, even having the opportunity to present at MIT for sustainability biohacking research.
She has also previously participated in two accelerators, iVentures and MassChallenge. Most recently, she was given the opportunity to be on the other side of the coin and represent Southwire as a corporate venture capital analyst, with a focus on digital power investments.
How do you start with a revolutionary technological product, no educational credentials, and $600 in your pocket and sign up a huge name in your market?
How do you stretch your time and money so far that one small order from one surprise customer opens up an entire market for you?
How do you get over self-doubt, blatant reverse ageism and sexism to create a product that literally saves lives for less than the cost of filling gas in your car?
In this episode, entrepreneur and vc analyst Tayyaba Ali talks about how she strategically used pitch competitions to win a neat pot of startup cash, how she reverse-engineered exiting products to build a completely innovative new product on a shoestring budget, how she learned to overcome thinking small, doubting herself and negotiation pitfalls to bootstrap an industry-changing social impact venture, and much more.
- How to find inspiration for innovation from your lived experience
- How to supercharge impact via product design innovation
- The hidden pitfall social ventures and nonprofits succumb to, and how to avoid it
- How to right-size your product scope
- Shortcuts to bringing product to market without breaking the bank
- How to raise funding without diluting your stake and wasting your time
- How to find high-impact customers without risking your brand
- How to create a perfect-fit advisory board when you have no money and no network
- How not to sabotage your startup with bad pricing decisions, especially if you’re a woman
- How to get over crippling diffidence as a woman founder and maximize confidence
- Secret funding sources nobody knows about, and how to pick the right ones for your business
- The risks of fundraising as a woman, and how to stay the course
- The high cost of social impact entrepreneurship, and the massive rewards that make the struggle worthwhile
Links and Resources
Tikal Filters : The company Tayyaba cofounded
SBIR : Small Business Innovation Research, the government agency providing funding for scientific and industrial innovation to small businesses
AFWERX : The innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force and powered by the Air Force Research Laboratory that provides funding for qualifying innovations
DOD : The United States Department of Defense that provides opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs in areas aligned with its defense mission
Challenge.gov: The official hub for challenges and prize competitions across the U.S. federal government!
Tayyaba Ali: Yes. Shubha
Tayyaba Ali: No, the pleasure is mine. Thank you for having me.
Tayyaba Ali: I guess my intent from the start was actually to be an innovator.
So for me, my goal is to innovate and to make the world better. I am very much impact driven and I’ve been impact-driven for as long as I can remember. So for me it was, what’s the maximum impact I can make in the shortest amount of time?
That led me down the route of entrepreneurship over more traditional corporate or even academia. Just because academia’s great on paper. You can make a lot of discoveries, but it takes so long to get into application and to actually be in the hands of the people that need it the most.
While in startup or lean startup culture, especially when you ideate and you go to manufacturing, you’re in the hands of people under a year, under two years, which kind of has been my path.
The first time I was like, “Yeah, I should totally start a business” was probably my freshman year of high school. That was almost 10 years ago. I literally took that class because I had to – it was a requirement at my school. I hated business prior to that.
I took that class, became obsessed, became completely hooked on the idea of running a business and starting a business. I was like “Yeah, this makes sense. Math, finance, I can totally do this”. So that was the initial bug that bit me.
Then in college, I became a college dropout briefly to run one of my med tech companies, we raised a very big round for our seed round, and decided that, okay, no one’s really going to take a college dropout very seriously in the med tech field.
So I was like, “Okay, time to go back to school, maybe get a PhD”. I went back to school. That’s when I got into biophysics and Comp Sci, and here we are now with my third board startup.
So it’s been a long journey.
Tayyaba Ali: Yeah. Tikal was actually named after the Mayans. The Gu in Guatemala, there’s a city named Tikal, and they were the first people to create an integrated water filtration system. So we took inspiration from them and we wanted to keep those natural roots and give credit where credit was due.
Tayyaba Ali: So the goal behind Tikal was basically to create sustainable water filters. So we basically create a manufacturing process for sustainable water filters to combat America’s unregulated and contaminated drinking water epidemic.
And we do this by turning agricultural waste into usable water filters. And then we were like, “Cool. We’re the first in the industry to do this. We’re the only ones having that exchange. But what if we could take it a step further right now?”
So yes, now you have this water bottle filter, but that filter – most people would just dispose of it. So if you look at Brita, some of them do have recycling programs, but most of them are thrown away.
So what if we took that filter and turned it into a secondary byproduct and made it completely full circle? So we are the first product in market that. We take waste and turn it into something useful, and the waste that we produce, we turn that into green construction material.
So our plaster material that you can put in houses is the first one to be a carbon sink. So as long as that material’s on your walls or on your buildings, it will be a carbon sink and continue to capture carbon as well as keep you safe from microorganisms like mold or electro-smog. So I am targeting water and air for our next market.
Tayyaba Ali: I had never really thought about water. Water is a big issue. Water, shelter, clean food, that those are big issues, but they seem so big that I was never like, “Yeah, let me just target one of the biggest issues that every country’s been thinking to solve.”
We actually started out of an innovation competition at Loyola University. For my co-founder, back in our hometown in Hawaii, there was an oil spill caused by the US Navy. Red Hill is the exact location of the oil spill that happened, and it happened right when we had started the competition.
So we had originally thought about doing a few different ideas and we were just like, “Water’s an issue”. This is affecting families immediately. People that she knew, including her grandpa and I, were originally born in Pakistan, where, especially in my province of Sind, it is a massive problem. We have one of the worst water situations in the entire world.
So this is clearly a big connector for both of us. Why not try to target it? We pivoted, we’ve done everything. Our initial idea, if I remember correctly, was a renewable energy source that targeted solar, wind, and thermal energy. It collected all three and turned them into clean water from the air, which is great.
We could have found so many patents, but in application it would’ve been like what every other NGO is trying to do. You give poor people or people in need a very expensive technology that will need repairs and they don’t know how to repair it. And we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to provide the technology that people could use.
And it was so simple that it was intuitive. I don’t need to have a mechanic come in and try to fix this. I can do this at home, which is why we scale down.
Also, let’s talk about the money. Building that out would’ve been very expensive. So we were like, “Let’s scale down, let’s go to bottles”. We got our inspiration from Life Straw, but Life Straw is very basic and it only takes on micro organisms.
So let’s make a better Life Straw and make it less. I have some issues with Life Straw and how they originally marketed it. It was very much like, “Oh, we’re helping the poor and we have this very cheap basic product”. Cool. But just because you’re poor and disenfranchised doesn’t mean you should get a shittier quality product.
So we wanted to give everyone the same amount of respect. And so we created a more luxury version at the same competitive prices of Life Straw where we take out a lot more contaminants.
Tayyaba Ali: When we first started, we were like, “All right, let’s do a disaster-resilient product”. So we can do natural disasters and we can do man-made disasters like infrastructure failure. So, like the lead pipe issue that’s very common in Illinois. And we’re going to do all disasters very quickly with research.
Every disaster means different types of contaminants, so if I’m in Ohio and I have a natural disaster there, most likely it’s going to be agricultural contaminants. Run off from farms, versus if I have a disaster, let’s say in St. Louis, then you have a lot more disasters from the ocean. A lot of that is coming over, staying in Florida.
So we could now create one product that took out everything unless we made that product very expensive. So we were like, “Let’s start from the bare minimum. What is a disaster that’s being faced across the United States?”
And we found out that it was an infrastructure failure specifically.
So you’ve got lead pipes, you have point contamination, et cetera. So we were like, “Let’s try to get that first, establish ourselves, get in with these big first responders”.
So right now we have to partnership a two-time partnership with Habitat Humanity. We’re targeting both Rockford, Illinois, as well as Flint, Michigan.
Both of those are in the news a lot, and we wanted to be the ones that were able to solve that problem, or at least make a dent in it. We condensed our problem. We focused on building the product. It’s, ooh, the amount of going back and forth with manufacturers that took so long. That is a process I do not want to repeat.
Supply chain concerns are very real in China right now, and that’s a whole different problem than with everything that’s going on with their electricity going out, heat waves, et cetera.
That made it a very horrendous process, especially in the summer months. So doing all of that, it’s been a year since we officially started working on this, and we have our launch in December. Our first pilot will be at the end of November, and that’ll be in Flint, Michigan.
And for the Rockford pilot, it is in February. And the D2C launch is going to be December 1st. So we’re there. We have just finished manufacturing. We have the last component to manufacture, and then we’re ready to. Send your products out. So that’s super exciting.
Tayyaba Ali: Thank you.
Tayyaba Ali: One of the perks of being someone who’s not a first-time founder in hardware is that I knew all the ups and downs because my background was as a med tech.
So, biotech and consumer products are a little different. You don’t really have to raise money before you create a product. While that’s required in med tech, you can’t make a $1 million device without a million dollars.
So it was nice that we expected this process to be easier. There were a lot more hurdles than I originally expected because there was a chemistry aspect to it.
So gaining access to a lab, making sure we could use those machines, learning how to use those machines, finding people who can help us with that. So that took a lot longer than I expected it to.
But the actual manufacturing wasn’t the most difficult process. The perks of consumer products is that there are a lot of manufacturers out there, and if you want to serve the bare minimum and you don’t want to create your own specific molds and your own castings and stuff, you can outsource, which is very nice.
For any founder who wants to create a baseline product, start with a product that already exists. Go to Alibaba or some other international manufacturer, search for the products you want, find something that’s similar and start that or base and do iterations on top of it. That’s something we did.
We found a product that was semi-similar to what we wanted. And then we built on top of it. So then we went to mHub, which is like a manufacturing space here in Chicago. We basically created our secondary components, which is the casing of the filters and the interior.
All of that was created in-house. But if we hadn’t gotten that initial product to just reverse engineer or figure out exactly what components we wanted, it would’ve cost us at least $10,000 for just a mold.
And we were able to get that whole experimental phase done in under $3,000. And that included messing up, getting those parts, getting the machinery that we needed.
So it saved us a lot of money. Did it take us a month or two longer than if we had just outsourced? Yes, but looking through an investor lens, I would rather have an early start to spend those extra two months creating in-house so they know how to do it and then they can scale as needed rather than go straight to an in, go straight and spend.
Because we had $20,000, we weren’t working with a lot of money. So if we had spent half our money already, we wouldn’t have gotten the two contracts because we couldn’t create a product. So was it the most time-efficient decision? Probably not. But was it the best that we could have done in the moment? Yeah!
Tayyaba Ali: Yeah, so initially me and my co-founder were doing this out of pocket. We were both lucky enough to have jobs at the time while we were in school, so we were self-funding this project.
I think we ended up putting in roughly the same amount of time from ideation to creating a proof of concept. We only spent $600. So we were lean, like lean manufacturing, bootstrapping this as much as possible. Then we were fortunate enough to win a pitch competition, a business pitch competition at Loyola. It was the Abram Sustainability grant.
We won. Awesome. Now we have $20,000 in our pocket. We got our first contract right after that with Habitat for Humanity, Genesee County, Michigan.
And then we spent basically the entire summer spending that money . We got the manufacturing, got lab space at 1871 and mHub, and we grew our team. We went from a team of two people to a team of five.
So we gave up some equity there and then we got our second contract as of two weeks ago. So we were super excited about that too.
To any new founders, I recommend use your resources. There are so many pitch competitions and innovation competitions, especially if you are of college age. People want to give money, and there is money out there.
It’s just to make sure that your idea is vetted out first. So we had to apply to other competitions and we lost, like it was so bad just because if you have an LOI in your pocket, you are 10 times more likely to win something. Then you just have an idea. And when we got our first contract with Flint, we didn’t have a product.
We pitched them a vision. It was a very bad drawing and a vision. I was in his office being like, “Hey, we don’t have anything. Our product has not been tested. It doesn’t even exist, but I can assure you it will do what it needs to do and I need you to believe in me”. You are selling yourself at that point.
I was 100% selling our vision, our team, and some of our background for him to get. He signed it. It was only $731, but it was a contract with Habitat For Humanity, which is one of the biggest nonprofit organizations in America. So how did we get that? A lot of luck and some good faith, but once you get that first contract, getting the second or third one isn’t as difficult.
And then it’s just proving out your business model.
Tayyaba Ali: So we would’ve tried Red Cross or Team Rubicon.
Those are really big names too in our department too. We are more scared to do that because it’s like you get one shot with someone like Red Cross, and if you screw that up, even if you come years later, they’ll have that in their head. To be completely honest, that’s a great question to ask.
My co-founder, she was one day, just like, “We should do Habitat for Humanity and we should reach out to Flint. And I was just like, “You sure you want to reach out to one of the biggest water companies in the United States and you want to pitch them a product that does not exist? That seems like such a smart idea”.
Yeah, she was like, “Let’s do it”. I was like, “Cool, I’ll jump on the call. I don’t see this going anywhere”.
So our intent going in was like, “We don’t expect to get this contract. We would love you to be an advisor. And we wanted to really build out a strong advisory board”. We wanted to bring them on board because they knew a lot about what a disaster looked like, and they knew the companies that were being supported, they knew the contractors, they knew the processes.
So having someone like that on our team would’ve been super helpful. Turns out they liked us. They liked us enough to give us a contract. So that was pure good luck. There is nothing that I can say here and tell you that this is exactly what we did.
And it was because of Flint that we got our secondary contract. So to any new founders, I’d say, build your advisory board. They matter so much more than you think. And oftentimes, they are the ones that might be your first contract, like opening doors for you or even finding you your first investor.
There were like, whatever you lack in, your team should have. So, as a founder, yes, I have technical skills. I don’t know anything about water. I’ve never dabbled in water. I don’t have a PhD in water. I don’t know what water contaminants are besides like the initial ones, especially when I was starting.
So I was like, I need someone who is an expert in water. They must have a PhD. They have worked in the water industry. So we found someone like that, and we were lucky enough to get a strategic partnership with their company, which then became one of our manufacturers for our filter media.
We have one of their board members as our advisory board. After that, I was like, “We would like someone who has a lot of connections within Chicago, especially in the investment field or opportunities that we can speak about”. That’s how we got another one of our advisors.
So we made a list top to bottom – everything that we sucked at, we wanted to find someone who was better at. That’s somewhere where you really have to put your ego aside and literally find your biggest flaws, what your weakest points are, and find someone who is 10 times better than you. And I believe that even on a team level, I hired my team members because they are better than me.
My lead engineer is 10 times better at engineering than I ever will be. And that’s why I hired him.
My co-founder, she is so much more organized than I am, and she’s really good at the nitty-gritty stuff. That is why she is my co-founder.
I feel like founders always think they have to be the best on their team, and there’s this ego attached to, “Oh, I’m better than this. The team exists because of me”.
No, if any of my team members left, that would be my entire company leaving. This team does not exist without my co-founder.
It does not exist without my engineers and my sustainability operators, et cetera. In a startup, team is everything, especially your advisory board.
Tayyaba Ali: My experiences have probably not been like others’. I have done a lot of cold pitching . I’m just like, “What’s the worst? I can say no, right? It’s like they say “no, we move on.”
LinkedIn has banned me multiple times for the number of times I’ve reached out to people. I’m not afraid. I will reach out to you. Be like, “Hey, you are an expert in your field. I have heard a lot about you. You don’t know me. You don’t know I exist, but I know everything about you. I know your background.
I know where you live. Do you know where you worked? I know you’re a hobbyist, so let me give you a proposal. You work for me. I give you this much equity. If you don’t like it, cool. If you love it, it will increase you and give you a position of power later. It’s working great. We have been able to find a lot of people who are super passionate, but it has also led us to almost getting sued.
So it’s a give or take, finding people who understand what startups mean. “Startup” means you don’t get money,
So it does have to be very much about how they’re passionate about seeing a change. I’m in a social venture, so it’s even more weird because it’s Hey, do you not care about people? Do you not care about water?
So then you could really build up that guilt tripping, I would say user assets, right? That’s how we brought in a lot of advisors. It has been like, “Hey, we’re a social venture. You should really help us. We’re poor and we’re trying to help the world be a better place. Do you want that on your moral conscience that you were so mean that you wouldn’t help someone who wanted to help people?
Yeah, that’s basically it.
Tayyaba Ali: I’ve realized that the older you get, the more fear sets in.
I wish you didn’t like 19-year-old me. She dropped out of college for this. She was so dead set on being an entrepreneur. The older I’m getting, I’m like, okay, I’m gonna be the breadwinner for my family, right? I need to bring in money soon, like my mom relies on me. So is that fear that kicks in?
I’m South Asian, right? I have a very traditional home, not the most stable home. So my mom does depend on me financially. My brother might be depending on me financially. So it is very important that I am able to bring in money. So I do want founders to know that you don’t have to quit your day job. I go to school full time.
I also work 30 hours in corporate America and I run startups. So it’s like you can do it all. You may not have a social life, but it is possible. And don’t give up on that. To call specifically was very different. It is the first social venture I’ve done. While I wanted to help and save the world, I never thought I would be doing a social venture specifically.
When you hear of a social venture, you’ll think of Toms, like the shoes. That’s what it was called. Yeah, It’s to give one, give one model. Or it’s like everyone thinks NGOs. If I wanted to run an NGO, I would go and run an NGO like I’m here. Yes, because I want to make money. But I do think that there’s an interesting dichotomy between things like entrepreneurship and the failing economic democracy that we’re seeing in America.
Not to get too theoretical, but in order to have a sustainable dynamic and like an interconnect. Democratic society I do think social entrepreneurship is very important. Because it picks up all the shortcomings of the government. No matter how much we invest in making a perfect government, it will never be perfect.
It will never meet everyone’s needs. And that is where entrepreneurs can step up.
And yes, I am very involved, governmentally and like politically, but there’s also a point where it’s like, what can we as the people do, and it’s time to step up because these are our problems and only our communities can solve them.
When we got in, trust me, I have no interest in sitting in the lab all day or busting my ass after classes and after work and being like, “Yeah, I’m gonna solve one of the biggest problems in America.”
This was not some Miss America. We can change the world complex that I had a world complex. It was because, like no one was, no one else was stepping up to the plate. This wasn’t a choice that me or Megan had. This was a necessity for our communities. This was going to affect my family if I didn’t step up and solve the problem.
And I think a lot of entrepreneurs, when they’re working day in and day out, forget that. They forget their vision and their mission. And I just, dude, there’s been so many times I’ve wanted to quit. It’s so easy to want to quit when the funding’s not coming in. When your product’s failing, when you know your launch is going bad, or your pilot is going bad,
It is so easy, especially in hardware, especially if you’re like a disenfranchised entrepreneur, whether you’re a woman, a person of color, etc. It’s so easy to just be like, “All the cards are stacked against me. I would be, it would be so much easier just to go to corporate, work for 20 years and they’re retire, right?
have a nice paying job, like my resume’s built for that. I can easily do that. It’s just that little voice inside of me that keeps going. It’s not over. It’s not over until you absolutely lose. Do not quit on a bad day. That is my biggest mantra. There’s one thing that I can have something like written down and stand on every wall.
You do not quit on your bad days. Wait until the next good day. If you still hate it, then you have the right to quit. But you owe it to yourself to at least continue until the next good day.
Tayyaba Ali: Yeah, so the business model is difficult. Because we had gone back and forth do we want to be a direct to consumer product ? We try to go down the direct to consumer route, right? Which is, “Hey, let’s be a brittle household name.”
You can compete against everyone, right? But that market, especially in my opinion, the direct-to-consumer market, is very oversaturated right now. Everyone has a direct-to-consumer product, especially during COVID. Everyone wanted to start their own business. And yes, the water filtration market isn’t that bad, but you are competing against giants.
These people have more money than you can ever dream of. And for a new startup, that’s not smart. So we were like, “What are other markets we can go down? If we were so determined to help, like in the post-disaster situation, then why not go towards first responders? That is what we were like, governments, that’s a thing.
So are nonprofits. And we really leaned into that whole government aspect. There are so many public health issues, like different government departments are for public health or disasters. The issue with that is that becoming a government contractor is a very long and tedious process. That won’t be instant.
It’s something you can work towards, but that will take you years to get there, especially when you’re starting from scratch. So we knew that. Yes. What we can aim towards becoming is that product that the Red Cross uses, becoming the product that FEMA uses when there’s a disaster. It is just not realistic right now.
That is when we decided, okay, we want to do government and we can’t get there, and we could do direct to consumer, but it’s over saturated and we’re competing against big names like Pure and Brita, and they’re great products for what they do, but they aren’t addressing the big concern, which is infrastructure failure.
So we were like, “Let’s find the middle ground. That was NGOs for us. NGOs are often the first people on site, and they are the ones that kind of carry communities to safety. So if you look at Hap Habitat Humanity, when the Flint crisis happened, they were one of the nonprofits that were actually giving out filters.
Most other churches and things were giving out bottles, but they weren’t giving out filters. So NGOs will try to give you more sustainable options. There are things like Team Rubicon, which are first like disaster responders, so having filters embedded into their solution in the future would be awesome.
As with the Red Cross, they are also trying to become less. Red Cross specifically has a new theme of becoming more disaster preventative rather than just responsive. And that’s something we want to push on people to stop reacting to a disaster. Just be prepared if a disaster happens, so you don’t have to completely switch.
So that’s where it took place. There were times when me and my co-founder were yelling at the top of our lungs, going back and forth. Deciding a business model was not because then you have to choose, like how much of your ethics are you willing to give up to make money? Because if you don’t make money, your business is in trouble.
We did have to make money, but it’s also like, how much morality are we willing to smudge so we can make the money so we can become a better product? It’s like that titer cat going back and forth. So at the end, we were like, “Cool, let’s do NGOs. Those are our big contracts. Those are our thousand dollar contracts that are written down.
It is also natural publicity. That was so we did not want to spend any money on marketing, first of all, because we didn’t have the money to market. But secondly, do I want to be a fad? Something that comes in and then goes away? Or do I want to be something that’s trusted by the government? If I wanted to be trusted by the government, the easiest way was to get through nonprofits.
Because these nonprofits are being funded by the government. So if I’m already a contractor with them, wouldn’t that just make it an easier route? so you got natural marketing, you have a easy route to the end goal. You have a non-saturated market because most of the competitors we’re competing against are like Nestle.
Nestle is great, but Nestle isn’t a filter maker. They are a bottle manufacturer, like water bottles. You’re competing against P & G, which makes those like chlorine tablets. Again, they don’t make filters. 3M and a few other competitors do exist, but most of them are big structures, not contained in bottles.
When the Mississippi crisis happened, they were looking for smaller structures that they could use to enforce their two competitors in the market, right? So we would’ve been a stronger competitor that doesn’t just take out the bacteria, of which E. coli was one of the contaminants, but also takes out all the other contaminants that the people were suffering from.
So it was just the easiest route with the most long-term benefits for us.
Tayyaba Ali: Yeah, so pricing is an interesting concept. At least for me as a female founder, I was like, “Oh, are we charging too much? I feel bad”.
It’s a mentality of taking up less space, right? “Oh, would anyone want to buy us? Yeah, we’re better, we’re more eco-friendly, but is it better that we charge this much?”.
Everyone we would talk to would be like, “Why are you only charging like $15 for a product you could easily charge $40 for? So we were like, “Oh, you’re right. Maybe we should stop undermining our products”.
So pricing is divided into two different categories. We have our NGO and governmental pricing, and then, on the other hand, we have our direct-to-consumer pricing.
Since we are doing both markets with less of an emphasis on direct to consumer, our prices are tremendously higher. If I remember correctly, the retail price for our direct-to-consumer bottle is about $40 or $45. And then, on the other hand, for an NGO it is merely $20. And the reason for this was primarily to ensure that people who need the product can afford it, and then people who are getting it more for luxury purposes can make a little more profit margin on that.
And hey, if you can convince your local nonprofit to get you the cheaper model, even better. It’s not for us to necessarily stop you from getting the cheaper price. It is more to ensure that people who are either prepping for a disaster or are suffering through one right now have first priority on those products as well as at a price range that they can afford.
So we do make profit margins on both of them, and both of them are around 40 percent, which is not bad for a hardware device. But yeah, pricing was something we had gone back and forth on plenty of times with a lot of advisors and we really did appreciate the input as well as some of the accelerator programs that we talked to or applied to.
A lot of them did give feedback to us about the pricing for hardware and to support and supplement it. We started offering other things. So for pilots, we offered a lot of consulting services, for lack of a better word. And this includes: Do you want to get the water tested? Do you want us to create a case study?
We’re doing this anyway for you. It might as well start charging you for it so it can add more supplemental services for you. So yeah, our most recent pilot, we got them to pay for a case study. We got them to pay for actual testing of the water, so you can see those changes because it does benefit them.
The more data that they have and the more they see the efficiency of this pilot, the more funding they can get from the government or from other sources:
“Hey, we ran this pilot for our community members and look, now they have clean water. This is how much contamination we were able to remove”.
So the more data we can give them, the better. So why not make that a service? And that’s something I recommend to all founders. There are so many other ways to make money for your business that may not be your main goal. We’re coming out with an app soon. I am not a software person, and my company is making an app and we’re charging $2.99 for that app.
Just be open to it. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one product or one service.
Tayyaba Ali: That’s a very good question. I’ll be completely honest. I don’t think it was one moment or one event that occurred that magically flipped the switch for me.
I’ve been trying to be more assertive. I feel like women have this bad connotation – “Oh, if you’re assertive or you demand too much from a client, then you’re going to come off as bossy or bitchy”.
And I’ve heard all the words, right? If a man says, that he knows what it’s worth, right? If a woman says that, then all of a sudden she’s expecting too much.
And that shows, especially with investments, like when we first started raising our round. We were like, who would just raise $50,000? That seems like enough.
We’re a hardware company. We are a hardware company raising our pre-seed rounds. When I told a fellow founder this and his ideas were like in the same space, right? He does air stuff, we do water stuff. But he was like, “Oh, only $50K? As an example, I raised $500,000. And I was just like, “You did what!!!!!” Now this person’s idea is great, but it’s like it’s all outsourced, right?
So it’s not anything that he’s building himself. And I was just like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Shit. Maybe I should raise my prices too”. So it was like that conversation I’m hearing – Oh God, if I could tell you all the stories of incompetent founders that have raised money or got people to pay them thousands of dollars for literally a copy and paste program!
They created a software, which was like 10 other software that I’ve seen. Nothing really different besides the name. And they got clients to pay for it at twice the normal rate. And I was just like, “Wow. It really is a confidence game. If you smile and you put on a face, you can, oh gosh, you can sell people almost anything”.
So it just became, I can stay here and I can continue to undermine myself and have a lack of confidence, or I can go out there and if not for myself, for the people that I’m serving. It is – if you had this kind of fear of not being able to stand up for yourself, would you stand up for your friend? If your mom or your sister or your brother or someone else you loved was in that position and they were undermining you, would you stand up for them?
You probably would. Hence, do it for yourself as if it were for someone else. For me, it is the communities that I’m serving. If I don’t get the money I need, if I don’t sell these products, then they will continue to suffer. So now it’s like this moral conscience.
Am I going to be a shitty person to like thousands of millions of people just because I don’t have the guts to just stand up and ask for the money I need. Or am I going to step up to the plate and ask for what I’m worth I’ve pulled through with $20,000 we’ve started this company with, right? And it’s a hardware-based company. We’ve managed to make these partnerships. We’ve got these contracts, we’ve got LOI’s before even having a product.
If you don’t find that impressive, then I probably don’t want to work with you.
Tayyaba Ali: So, just to give some context to the listeners, I work as a corporate venture capital analyst.
So I’m in the VC world, so not only do I serve as a founder, but I’m also a VC for hardware technology basically. And I can guarantee you do not go to a corporate VC unless your product is way further along. Because we’ve had some, we’ve been approached by products that are pre-seed or seed round. It’s not worth it.
Also, depending on the VC, especially depending on the corporation, they may try to steal your idea and I’m sure that your patent does not stand against some of these strong lawyers that these corporate corporations have. So now my company is great. We’re very moral. We’re awesome. It’s a small knit community, so it’s awesome.
But I do know a lot, especially in biotech and med-tech. There are some big names that I’ve seen steal ideas and won’t sign NDAs. And as a founder, you’re like, “Oh, how do I get a corporation sign an NDA.” No, your NDA is worth nothing. Be very careful about who you tell your idea to. To other founders, it doesn’t really matter.
So if you’re pitching your idea to a corporation or a big VC, most of them will not sign an NDA. So know exactly what you’re walking into and make sure your ideas are patented. That’s the number one thing that I just wanted to get out of the way.
But besides that, you would be surprised at how many people don’t apply to US government challenges.
So the US government has a bunch of challenges that they just post and a lot of people do not apply to them. I applied. You spend 30 minutes on the application and win:
Challenge.gov. has tons of challenges. Totally worth it. Then after that, you have your SBIR grants. So, most people are familiar with SBIR and STTR. They’re small business grants from the government. I would totally recommend applying if you want something that’s on the lower side in terms of intensity.
DOD grants are usually shorter. EPA grants are about 25 pages. Find a department that works for you and your product. The perks, if you don’t know, are that AFWERX is an Air Force grant and is just about dual-use technology.
Can your technology be used in the real world as well as in the air? So if you have any technology that has that application, whether it’s wearables or something in energy or even like a consumer product that would have a use for Air Force One, I recommend applying. It’s three pages. That’s it. And a 20-page deck, which most people already have, is totally worth applying.
And it’s $50,000. That is one of the fastest SBIR grants there are. On the other hand, you have STTR grants. You have a higher chance of winning those, but you do need a university partnership. So if you are a student or a masters student, go to a professor and find out whether their research or their willingness to take on new research is funded.
That is the best way to do it. I’d even say if you are an alumni of a university, you can apply to those now, SBIRs and STTRs. can have some regulations on who can apply. Some do require you to be a US citizen or a green card holder. That is mainly for the DOD, for the Department of Defense. Most other departments don’t care as long as you are a resident or legally allowed to be here, and your visa holds, you’re fine.
That is where having other people on your team can really help. And let’s say you’re a solo founder. I have been there and done that. It is okay, get contractors. The grants themselves do not care. They don’t know who is on your team versus who is a contractor.
So you go up to a contractor and be like, “Hey, if I get this contract, I will pay you hourly”, which is what you have to do anyway. So why does it matter? Go find the best contractor. You can put them on your team and apply for the grant. No one’s going to know the difference. Besides that, at more of a college and even high school level now, there are a lot of pitch competitions.
There are hackathons. That is how I started with my first competition. We won a few different hackathons, but we applied to hackathons. Do one part of your idea at a different hackathon every time. You can win hundreds and thousands of dollars or free stuff or memberships and stuff and it gets your name out there, right?
Because we won a JP Morgan challenge as well, I talked to the JP Morgan people and started that network. So I totally recommend hackathons and any pitch competitions that your school has. MIT has one for anyone who’s 24 years old and under. I think Stanford has another one. They are everywhere.
And some of them don’t require you to be a student. So apply to them as an adult. challenge.gov, STIR, and probably hackathons are probably ones I’d recommend.
Tayyaba Ali: I don’t think there is, but now you’ve got me motivated to make one on my LinkedIn, so I might start compiling it.
Tayyaba Ali: Yeah, so funding is interesting, right? There are so many ways to do it, and anyone who tells you there is a right way to raise funds is bullshitting. There is no right way to fundraise. As someone who’s served as an analyst, I’ve seen companies that have done all their fundraising through grants.
And we funded them. On the other hand, there are companies that have just done rounds or found like a daddy investor, whereas this one rich person that they have been milking away, right? So there’s no right or wrong way to invest and it very much depends on your business model as well as your needs.
I can talk from personal experience on the call. We started off, we were like, we want to raise a VC round. We started off with $50,000 and went up to $500,000. We brought it down to 250 K. So there are different rounds. Really quickly, you got your pre-seed, seed, series A, B, C, and it keeps on going but usually ends with Series C. Very few companies are usually at that point, whether you’re going public or you have enough money to sustain yourself.
So there you can do loans, you can do grant funding, which is very popular. Grant funding can include private grants such as the Abrahams grant that we won. It can include government grants, such as challenge.gov or SDIRs, STTRs.
Then you have your friends and family. That is a big round for a lot of people. Now, if you are broke like me, everyone around me is poor too. I didn’t exactly grow up very privileged. So I couldn’t exactly go to my mom, who’s a housewife, and be like, “Hey, you wanna give me like $50,000?”
Or like Trump said, “a small loan of a million dollars”. I can’t exactly do that. My mom would slap me on the face and then tell me to go get a job, which she has done in the past. So I could not raise a friends and family route – that wasn’t very sustainable. So we kind of had to step that one up. Then there is like going to see an angel. This is very important.
I think people overlook angels. They go to VC firms and they forget that angels exist. Angels can be like, “Hey, I know this person who has a rich dad who’s in this like semi-close field to us. Or it can be like an actual angel fund. Hyde Park Angels is very popular in Chicago. There’s someone that we’re also looking into, but there can also be like individual angels.
So a big mistake that people make is that they try to find an angel in their field. So if I am in water, I will try to find an angel in water, but that doesn’t really happen. Now you can broaden up and be like, “Hey, I’m a social venture. I’m going to try to find a social venture angel”, which is a good place to start.
You will probably find a lot of crossover. I would tell founders to go even a step further and be like, “I am an angel,” or “I’m a founder that’s in water and social ventures. Now technically, I’m also a consumer product. Technically, I’m also in public health and technically I’m also a minority. So let’s find an angel that has any crossover”.
Because they may not be a direct product, but I am related enough that you can maybe help me improve my business model or you can connect me to someone who has an application. There’s also the whole courting of angels process, which is something I can get into some other time. But it’s basically thinking of finding an angel like dating.
If I just come up to you and I’m like, “Hey, you want to go on a date with me? Do you want to get married”? You’d be freaked out, right? So do not go up to an angel and be like, “Hey, you want to give me $500,000?” – It’s not going to work. You have to treat it like dating. It’s a slow relationship. If it’s too cold to reach out, do not ask for money; ask for advice.
You ask for advice, you get money. And if it’s a warm intro, which is the best kind of intro you can get, you can be like, “Hey, we are thinking about raising money in the near future. We would love any feedback”. Go through their portfolio, figure out what’s big. Research will pay off so hard.
Research their portfolio, stock them, figure out what their interests are: “Hey, I know you recently posted on LinkedIn about your interest in the Mississippi water crisis. Fun fact: I run a water company. And we’re trying to address the crisis like Mississippi. So we would love feedback from someone as prestigious as you”.
Your compliments go such a long way. I need you to kiss my ass every single second and be someone who compliments, especially if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
Don’t make it awkward. Don’t be like, “Oh you’re amazing and I love what you do and blah, blah, blah”. No, just make it natural :
“Hey, I saw this. You’re interested in XYZ. I think that’s great. There should be more angels are in this field because it is a growing field. I love that you want to pave the way for a lot of other individuals within your sector. If you have time, I would love to take you off for coffee and discuss what you think is the future of this field”.
Try to understand where they sit in your market and industry, and then figure out if they can get any help. And that’s how you try to get into funding. And then you have your traditional venture capital, which everyone talks about.
And then you have your corporate VCs. Corporates get talked about less. If you want to do a buyout or a walkout with corporate, great. They will most likely buy out a significant portion of your company, or they will just buy the entire company. So that’s great.
If you’re in later stages, anything under Series A, I don’t even recommend going to them. Because most of them will not take you seriously unless if you want multiple grants from the US government, in which case then it’s a little different and you have more basis to stand on.
Tayyaba Ali: I started pretty young. The first time I started a company, which blew up and failed, was at the age of 16. At the age of 19, I started my first med-tech company, which raised over $1.5 million. I don’t know if every founder gets groped after a pitch, but I got groped after a pitch.
And that seems to be not like common thing that happens amongst a lot of the men founders I talked to. So yeah, like there’s been, I can sit down and tell you all of the stories of people not taking me seriously. I’ll email them, I’ll talk to them digitally, and they will think I’m the best thing since sliced bread.
And the second they found out my age, I was 19. I did not have a PhD. But I can talk as if I’ve had it. In my sectors I know what I’m talking about or I would not be a CEO. So I can talk to you as if I know my field and I know everything that goes into it. And I’ve done the research, obviously, like any founder should.
But then ageism would be a role that would play. It would be, “Oh, you’re too young. Have you considered going back to school or going into corporate for a few years before you come back?”.
I was like, “So you think I’m smart? Do you like my ideas? You think I’m capable, but the problem is my age? If anything, I should be an asset because, you know, I can work harder and I can work longer hours. I don’t have the liability of kids or family or anything like that”.
Then there is the whole, if you’re feminine presenting in the VC world, that will be held against you, or it was at least when I was younger. I have been groped. I have been told, “Oh, let the real innovator talk.” I was referring to my co-founder at the time, who did not work on this idea. He was only doing software, and I had built out the entire hardware component, but I was not allowed to speak in my own meeting.
So that was very fun. I have been asked out on dates after meetings. I have been forced to go on dates to lock in deals, which I ended up not doing. So it’s been like your whole sexuality and gender are being held against you. And then the same VCs are like, “Oh, we want to see women succeed. We want to invest in more women”.
Founders are the ones that will hold you down for being a woman. Even recently, I had an investor who held the fact that we were younger, that we were in school against us, or that my socioeconomic background is not like a lot of founders, right? I didn’t grow up with a little silver spoon.
I did not grow up with daddy’s money. In fact, Daddy didn’t have any money. He was bankrupt constantly. And I’m an immigrant woman who, you can bring in everything into this, like my gender, my sexuality, my this, my that. I just did not fit into any mold.
And then you have these people that are like, “Oh yeah, but you’re different investors like different, look at all these different investors who are interested in investing in different founders and unique founders”.
I’m like, “No, that’s bullshit. Because at the end of the day, investors care about one thing, and that’s making the most profit. And is someone who is so different going to make them more profit on paper?
Sure, I may be more connected to the community. I may know more than my peers. I may be more advanced in this. No one sits here and asks you all these questions. They’re looking when you analyze someone, and I’ve been on the other end. When you analyze someone, it’s so quick, right? You look at four different categories as this person educated, how does this person present?
And it’s so subconscious and it’s so quick that even I have to call people out on it. And when we hire, I am “calling myself out on it” because it’s so easy to do.
Because you have this mold. What is the perfect employee? What is a perfect founder? What is the perfect investor? It is so easy. Just try to shove people into those molds.
And the second they don’t fit, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t like ’em”.
“Because I don’t, they’re not good. Something about them.”
And then you start thinking of those reasons, oh, the fact that she has a family or she’s a little young or she’s still in college, and you start coming up with like useless excuses that you would not hold against someone who maybe had a different socioeconomic background or different demographic.
I know a founder who got a lot of money recently over the last year, and he was still in college when he was running this company. No, nothing was held against him. The fact that he was still in college—that’s a big deal that a lot of founders will tell you.
A lot of investors will tell you we want you to drop out of college. That’s great if you don’t need college as a backup. And for me, I was paying out of pocket, so I can’t exactly leave $60,000 of debt and not complete graduation, right? So he got funded. Our backgrounds were the same, we had the same experience, yet he got funded for a similar idea.
So it’s very interesting to see that perspective change. And there are so many studies that prove, like, I can sit here and be like, “Oh, it’s all in my head. It doesn’t exist”
And I hate pulling that card and I’m the last one who’s gonna be like, “Oh yeah, they didn’t take me because I’m brown.” I hate it. I hate making excuses because I’m very much like: work hard, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, et cetera.
But the studies don’t lie. They’ve done double-blind studies where it’s like you’re given the same resume. Change the name once for a woman, once for a man. You will choose the man. So it’s like at what point is it all in your head and you are playing the minority card versus things are actually happening?
And then there are investment firms that are more minority-based that are run by people who are minorities. Honestly, I think they hold minorities to a higher standard than they hold white people.
You will hold your own kind to such a higher standard than you will hold someone who doesn’t look like you, because you want them to be better and you don’t want them to let you down or lower the standard of what a Black founder or a Brown founder will look like.
So it’s are you really helping the community that you say to be, or just holding them to an unrealistic standard. But they probably didn’t start off the same way that your fellow White man started off. Most likely he had someone who was in business or he got help or support from his family.
I can’t raise a friends and family round. I can’t do that. I can’t quit working. I had a person who told me to raise a family round. I can’t do that. I can’t quit working.
I had a person who told me, “Oh, just quit everything and just get paid from your startup”.
And I’m like, “Think about the words that you’re saying. You want me to quit my job? You want me to quit school and have my startup pay me while I’m trying to raise my round?”
And you’re an investor. Like you just don’t understand math. Where’s this large amount of money coming in that you want me to pay myself from my own startup and pay everyone else at my startup with a startup that just started. What part of the startup do you not understand? Is English the problem, or is math the problem?
So yeah, I’ve had some very interesting conversations with investors. It’s been a doozy. Do not recommend it, okay?
Real talk – if I could quit, I would. I have been so close to wanting to quit this startup so many times, and every single time I just get stuck back in. At this point, it’s this kind of toxic obsession that I have. And if I could quit, I would. I genuinely don’t want anyone to be so obsessed with startups and like making a change as much as I am.
It’s very unhealthy. I’ve sabotaged relationships. Making a change and doing good in the world is so overwhelming. And if I could genuinely rip it out of my body, I would, because I’d be so much richer. I would be living a stress-free life in corporate.
It’s like a necessity. It’s like it pulls you towards it and it’s not healthy. And I know it’s not healthy. Oh, burnout is like my middle name at this point. I’m living in a constant state of burnout, but there’s no other choice for me. It’s like breathing.
I have to do it.
Tayyaba Ali: That and the faith that there is going to be something better somehow, some way, things are going to work out. I have a saying that the world runs on good people and the hope of a better tomorrow. And I’m not allowed to quit on my bad days.
I’m not allowed to quit when things are hard and my back’s against the wall, because, you know, desperate situations lead to desperate actions. And if I act out of a state of desperation rather than a state of abundance, I’m going to make the worst decision. Because then your survival instincts are kicking in.
And when you’re in flight or fight response, you are acting out of an instinct, which can be based on paranoia, it can be based on anxiety, it can be based on trauma. And it’s not based on your logical mentality.
So no, if I even if today I lost everything right and we were forced to run a call from the ground up again, I would be forced to continue and not cause I want to redo all of this or find a new product or any of it. It’s just because you don’t quit when it’s hard; it will get better.
And oftentimes, I see founders quit that are right there. They’re on the cusp of making it, and they quit just too early. Like most founders, they don’t fail because they run out of money. They failed because they quit too early. And I don’t want to be one of those founders.
Tayyaba Ali: Fingers crossed I could use all the good prayers you have.
Tayyaba Ali: If you ask my therapist, she would say that I don’t celebrate the good moments enough. But probably the last time where I was like, “Yeah, this is worth it”, it was for a Flint pilot. Especially since it was our first time, we wanted to go all out and do everything that was flying, like going down to Flint.
We drove. I didn’t bring a car and I didn’t carry any cash on me. So it was a very interesting trip.
Once I got there, I was sleep deprived. I was running on two hours of sleep. We had our first interview with an actual person that we would be piloting with and doing. It just broke my heart just hearing how much it’s been for years. The Flint crisis started in 2014 and it’s still not really over.
And not everyone’s been addressed. Just hearing all the suffering in their voice. One of the participants’ son died as a result of the Flint water crisis. And he developed this horrendous, life-threatening skin condition.
And that could have been prevented if the government hadn’t lied and hid that information. If people had stepped up when they needed to, we could have had someone who didn’t have to pass away.
There are kids with permanent neurological damage, like all of this could happen. They had to make a centre for the number of children that suffered neurological damage. Because of the water crisis, the amount of lead was so high. There is permanent damage to these children now. There were people that we talked to that were disabled because of the water crisis.
Water is a necessity and we made it this commodity that’s “Oh, if you’re rich enough, you get it, and if you’re poor, we’ll suck it up”. And this is seen in every state, over and over again.
This is a preventable issue. We chase, like when it comes to politics, we chase all the flashy things, right?
But like infrastructure, it’s what keeps our country running. And we don’t want to invest in infrastructure when it comes to people. I had someone tell me something like, “Oh, why don’t you release a product that hasn’t been tested?”
And I’m like, “Because that means that you’re risking people’s lives”.
And then their response was, “What are they going to do, sue you? They’re too poor.”
And to actually talk to those people, and the people we talked to, they were mixed, right? There were White people, Black people, and Hispanic people, and it seemed like a mixed group. But all of them face the same discrepancies because of their socioeconomic background.
And that’s a sad reality, but money speaks.
I was just talking to someone who had family members pass away because that just wakes something up inside of me, and I was so exhausted at that time.
We were facing all the supply chain concerns. Because our product got delayed, we had to make changes. We had a team member leave. She hated working. And that happened and was just like, all right, I don’t have an excuse because if I don’t fix this, if I don’t do something now and at least put an option out there in the market for someone to help their families and this will happen again.
And it did. One month ago, the Mississippi crisis happened, and it’s gonna happen again. Flint wasn’t the first thing to happen, and it won’t be the last.
And it’s going to keep on repeating itself because history repeats itself unless you do something to change it. And that’s where I was like, all our team has to do something to change it.
We may not be able to solve the problem, but we will certainly give it our all.
Tayyaba Ali: For me, entrepreneurship is more than just making money, right?
There are entrepreneurs who are in it to make money, and more power to you. I can’t speak on their behalf, right?
I can speak to you on impact. And for me, even when I was in med tech, it was so I could help people like my mom and her osteoporosis. That’s why med tech and now with water, it’s so I can help these communities.
Impact has always been the driver, and as someone who is an impact-driven person, it’s not easy. Because the entrepreneurial world isn’t made for impact. If you look at very successful companies, they have made incremental changes and have never been the first company in the market. They have been a company that just did it a little better at the right time.
And that’s what makes most successful companies, right? And those are the companies that investors go back to. So if you aren’t an impact-driven person, you have all the odds against you. And if you’re a hardware person, you have all the odds against you. And there’s a reason that 95%, 90%, whatever the statistic is, of people fail when they start a business.
A very depressing stat is that less than 1% of all the VC money that is given out is given to women. That is even lower if you’re a woman of color. So it’s not going to be easy. And if you’re in the hardware space, it’s going to be even harder. But you have to have something that wakes you up in the morning and makes you want to try every single day.
And I always find it funny when you go like, “Oh, you should start your own business. Do what you love”.
I don’t love this. Bro, I can tell you when I’m spending six hours in the lab a day after working a full shift, I do not love being there. I’m 23 years old. I have to be going out like partying, enjoying my best life, doing like stupid stuff.
And here I am trying to build something from the ground up. And it’s not easy, and please don’t go in with this expectation that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be hard. If it’s not hard, I’d be concerned. If you aren’t suffering just a little bit, I’d genuinely be very concerned about you.
You cannot be mentally sane and work this many hours. I work a hundred, 120-hour work weeks, 120 hours of constant effort.
And I’m not saying it’s healthy; it’s not, but you’re doing it for a bigger cause than yourself. And sure, you may be sabotaging your sleep, and yes, it’s going to screw up my REM cycle and I’ll probably die 30 years earlier. But think about the long-term impact. Like, me doing this and suffering for just a few years could maybe save a kid.
It could make sure that a family never has to say goodbye to a family member early. It could mean that maybe I’m going to help a mom who then one day births a child that saves the world.
Who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, the good karma’s gonna come back. So do it for that. Do it for the team, right?
Do it for the change you can make. Just keep going. It’s so hard. I know it is. Trust me, I’m right there with you. I want to give up every other day, but just keep going because it does get easier. I lied. It doesn’t get easier, but it makes it worth it. Somewhere down the line, you’ll look back and the dots will connect, and it’ll be 100% worth it.
Just don’t let other people’s voices get into your head. Because they will.
And they are gonna be loud and there are gonna be moments where you’re gonna have to put your earbuds in, put your head down, put your hood up and just say why you started this in the first place. And that will keep you going.
Tayyaba Ali: Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Tayyaba Ali: Yes. And if any of them want to connect with me, they can reach out on LinkedIn and I’m more than happy to sit down over coffee or over a Zoom call and help out anyone.
Fantastic. That’s how I started. Good Karma. Pass it along,