Michael Pan -- entrepreneur, engineer, innovator and the guy who showed up on the Shark Tank wearing a black logo’d t-shirt bearing his company name. He's best known for making jerky from shiitake mushrooms. Michael brought a humble confidence, and vulnerability, to TV audiences by sharing what it’s really like to endure the ups and downs of being a solo entrepreneur.
Chatting via ZOOM in his Portland, Oregon home, we talked about the inspiration behind his red hot startup which counts Billionaire Mark Cuban as an investor. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Michael Pan on Shark Tank
HOW DID YOU BECOME THE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY?
I grew up in Mississippi and always felt disconnected from my family heritage. My mom is from Peru and my dad is from a small fishing village in Malaysia. My dad has been a big inspiration for me; he emigrated to the US aged 14, and eventually supported himself through college. Outside of work, I enjoy traveling, spending time with my family and learning new things.
Michael Pan with his cousin in Malaysia
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR FOCUS IN BUSINESS TODAY?
I have an Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Illinois. After school, I went to work for Motorola’s automotive division where I worked my way up into product development and engineering management roles. While I loved being around a ton of smart people, and working for a great company, I wasn’t fully satisfied with my engineering career. My first step into the startup world was in 2012, when I launched a tech startup with friends that eventually sold in 2016. While we didn’t achieve our goals with the business, I learned many lessons in my first round as an entrepreneur and applied those experiences to develop my food business, which had been a side project until I was able to focus all of my time on it.
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR A MUSHROOM JERKY?
On a family visit to Malaysia back in 2008, I tried a bowl of what I thought was pork. My mind was blown when I learned it was a mushroom. My cousin had been making a snack for himself, and his family, and selling it locally. As Buddhist vegetarians my family had trouble finding foods that not only tasted great, but also had great texture. My family opened my eyes to an amazing culture with innovative foods, recipes and techniques that mimic the taste of meat. This is when I knew our family had something special that had to be shared with the world.
WHAT ARE YOU FOCUSSED ON TODAY?
With our recent appearance on Shark Tank, we are focused on scaling manufacturing to meet demand. I wear many hats, and my day to day can vary a lot -- from expanding operations, to evaluating equipment and production space. We self-manufacture and fill our own orders, so that can be challenging. I have a great team who manage the operations, so I’m able to focus on building the business. You can find me doing anything and everything -- from forecasting, to hand packing our bags and warehousing.
KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHAT WISDOM DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUR “25 YEAR OLD SELF”?
The journey is not just the product idea and how to know how to start a company. Be prepared for the mental challenges. Your mindset is the x-factor that allows you to grind through all the ups and downs of startup life.
IN YOUR MIND’S EYE, WHAT DO YOU SEE NEXT FOR YOU?
Although we are focused on our current product line today, we’d love to expand into new flavors. Having Pan’s easily available and affordable for everyone and growing the brand beyond just our mushroom jerky products is also a goal. There are many ways that mushrooms can be used in our daily lives and we’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities with our brand.
Noah Koff's mission is to help Founders build 8-Figure Ecommerce businesses. He's founded and built multiple companies from the ground up, including Redwood, a successful consulting practice based in Portland, Oregon. His wisdom comes from decades working for hot start-ups and global brands from San Francisco to London.