By Tina Irgang
Dana Ehrlich always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but spent his early career plugging away as an engineer and product manager at Intel. Then, while spending a semester abroad in Buenos Aires as part of a Dartmouth MBA program, he became obsessed with Argentine beef, and decided to combine his love of food and concern for environmental issues to become a grass-fed beef baron. Founded in 2005, his company, Verde Farms is growing fast and well on its way to fulfilling Ehrlich’s mission: to change the way Americans consume beef.
How did you develop a passion for grass-fed beef?
Ehrlich: In 2004, I spent a semester of business school in Buenos Aires. Argentina is one of the top per-capita consumers of beef — about double what it is in the U.S. I really just developed a strong enjoyment as a consumer, going out to eat and eating steak for lunch and dinner probably five days a week. But it was when I spent a weekend at an estancia, which is a working bed-and-breakfast cattle ranch just outside Buenos Aires in the pampas — the grasslands — that I really saw how the cattle were raised. That was what really gave me the inspiration for starting the company. Then, back in the U.S., I saw that things weren’t being done that way, so that gave me the inspiration to change the way Americans consume meat.
How did you find the space for Verde Farms?
Ehrlich: So we’re in an office location — we just recently moved to Woburn and were in Somerville. I’m originally from this area. My family is here, my parents and my sisters’ families. I was born and raised here, so it was quite natural to come back here. But the farms that we work with number in the hundreds at this point. They’re all global family farms, so we do a lot of product out of both Uruguay and Australia, as well as some production out of the U.S. as well.
You haven’t taken on any outside funding so far. Why did you make that decision?
Ehrlich: I’ve been able to bootstrap the company basically with about $100,000 of initial capital I got from stock options and some student loan debt in a prior life. I really wanted to be able to keep control of the company, both for business control reasons as well as potential financial upsides. For years and years, we’ve been very much cash-constrained in that we’ve grown so fast that all the profits have gone back into our working capital. But it’s enabled us to get to the point where we’re now a $50 million-plus company and we’re able to expand our staff.
When you first started out, how did you go about building a reputation for Verde Farms?
Ehrlich: It was very much just hands-on, so it was physically going out and meeting the people I needed to meet with, whether it was on the supply side … or even the customers. So it was a very small operation — myself and one of my business-school classmates who co-founded the company. He was in Uruguay and is still there. … Then I had a couple of part-time helpers here, but it was really me going out one by one and building the reputation one step at a time.
If you could talk to your 10-year-old self and tell him, “One day, you’ll be running a beef company,” what would that kid say?
Ehrlich: If you told me me 15 years ago or anywhere before that, I would say you’re out of your mind. I worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer and a product manager … so I couldn’t be further from the beef industry. But that being said, I think there were a couple of underlying traits that made this all come together. I‘ve always had a passion for food, so I’ve always loved to travel. I’ve been to about 40 countries now. If you ask me how my trip was, I usually start with how the food was. Second was my interest in environmental issues. In college, my thesis was on a for-profit business model to solve the issue of clean air, so I’ve always had that for-profit mindset to solve environmental issues. Lastly, I’ve always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. Prior to business school, I wanted to go in that direction, but I just didn’t know what it was.
In running Verde Farms, was there ever a moment when you thought, “Wow, I wish I’d stuck with Silicon Valley”?
Ehrlich: I would say there were times — not any time recently, but when I first started — where I didn’t know if we were going to make it, but there was never a [moment of], “I went in the wrong direction. I shouldn’t have done that.” People ask me what’s my Plan B, and I tell them I don’t think you can have a Plan B. If you take a step out, I think you have to have both feet out to be successful.
What are your plans for the future of Verde Farms?
Ehrlich: We have very aggressive growth plans, so we’re adding a lot of staff at the moment. Literally, we had two new employees start this week and we have two more the week after, so it’s a very aggressive hiring phase. We’re putting in the foundation on which to have very substantial growth, double and triple the size of the operation we have today. … We want our brand to be synonymous with the grass-fed category.
About Human Element:
Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.