“No college class will teach you everything you come up against when you’re running a business,” says Kavi Turnbull (MBA & WAVE ’09). “You need to learn how to problem solve,” Kavi continues; “when you are an entrepreneur, you are pioneering new stuff every day and you need to be creative.”
Kavi shared this advice just after telling a story about a unique problem he ran into when he owned Golden Acres Pet Food, a raw pet food business in the Twin Cities. He was making a routine delivery to a regular customer that owned a farm outside of town, after putting the food in the barn freezer, he returned to his delivery truck to find a goat on the roof. Growing up in Minneapolis, Kavi had little experience with goats and nothing in business school prepared him for this type of challenge. So, Kavi grabbed some oats from the barn to entice the goat to come down. The goat quickly jumped down and Kavi was off to his next delivery.
Kavi says that he has a one-track mind when it comes to entrepreneurship, focusing his studies for undergraduate and masters on the subject. In college at the University of Minnesota, Kavi and his friends saw an opportunity to start a business when they found dozens of different flyers on their beds while moving into the dorms. The team created a magazine to help students find their way around campus and sold advertising to businesses that previously printed their own flyers. Each fall semester the magazine was found on top of 10,000 dorm room beds when students moved on campus. While Kavi decided to move on, his business partners eventually sold the business. Kavi began working on political campaigns after graduating. The hard work and energy required cumulating in a ‘win’ or ‘loss’ was similar to starting a business and good practice in selling an idea.
When his former business partners sold the magazine venture, Kavi was inspired to return to business by pursuing his MBA at UW-Madison in entrepreneurship. During his time on campus, Kavi attended every event possible, taking full advantage of networking opportunities and identifying ways to expand his skillset. His internship with Kegonsa Capital Partners allowed him to see the investor side of business, which was a new perspective for Kavi. Through the WAVE course, Kavi launched DriveAlternatives, an app that allowed for crowed sourced solutions for alternative-fuel vehicles as a way to help consumers identify what type of car they should purchase. “WAVE was an awesome laboratory for business development,” Kavi recalls. Through WAVE and angel investments, DriveAlternatives raised $250,000 to bring their mobile application to market. While the idea and technology were promising, the electric car market was slow to take off, so DriveAlternatives struggled to generate enough users on their platform. However, because the team created an app at the time when mobile applications were just emerging, other businesses started reaching out for development advice. Once funds for DriveAlternatives were running low, Kavi and his team pivoted and started developing and consulting for other apps. The team created apps for a variety of industries including fishing, pet sitting, race cars, and more.
Kavi was contacted by a few police officers that were interested in creating a way to securely collect evidence with mobile devices. The officers explained when they arrived on the scene of a crime, they needed to take photos and video, record statements, and write reports which meant they relied on cameras, audio recorders, and other equipment that needed batteries and memory cards. Often the equipment the officers used wasn’t charged or memory cards were misplaced, so they used personal cell phones to collect evidence. The officers wanted a way to collect evidence digitally based on case numbers assigned by dispatch. This project interested Kavi because of the clear market need and his past experience in designing apps. Kavi partnered with the officers to develop the application they called iCrimeFighter and cops around the area quickly started purchasing it because it saved them time in the field. As adoption increased and departments implemented iCrimeFighter for their whole force, security and feature requests increased. To comply with all government regulations and encryption standards, Kavi’s team would need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. iCrimeFighter was able to raise $200,000 more than their goal due to the proven traction in the market and cashflow projections the company provided. Kavi took over as the CEO at the request of the shareholders in 2013 and stayed in the role until 2015. Now iCrimeFighter is the second largest digital evidence collection platform in the nation and used thousands of police officers and hundreds of agencies nationwide.
During a Weinert Center mixer for WAVE and Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp (MEB) students, Kavi met a guy that was paying for his education by running a company he bought off Craigslist. The business was simple, he collected a fee to put up and take down signs for realtors in Madison. Inspired by this idea, Kavi placed a reminder on this calendar to look at businesses for sale on Craigslist each month. That is how Kavi found Golden Acres Pet Food, a small family business with 20 years of experience. The owners were looking to retire but wanted someone to continue the business so that customers could still purchase high-quality pet food. Kavi set up coffee with the owner and a few interviews with customers before purchasing the business. While Golden Acres had loyal customers, it lacked a true brand and marketing strategy. Kavi knew that he could develop the brand and grow the business while delivering healthy profit margins. Updating the branding and making the product easy to use, Kavi worked directly with a co-packer to produce his product and essentially became a marketing and logistics company. Kavi grew Golden Acres Pet Food revenue over three times over in the four years he ran the business. This was a side project for Kavi while developing iCrimeFighter, he purchased, grew and sold Golden Acres.
While Kavi owned Golden Acres, he was attending a lot of health food events because people who feed their pets a raw diet, tend to care about their own health and wellness too. At these events, Kavi was introduced to kombucha. He quickly picked up a pretty strong ‘habit’ and was spending about $200 per month on kombucha. So, Kavi decided to make some on his own and found out that the margins were huge and that he was pretty good at making his own brew. During this time Kavi was also running Golden Acres in addition to teaching entrepreneurship at a local community college. Kavi reached out to Bryan Bertsch the owner of Deane's Kombucha to learn more about commercially brewing kombucha. After seeing how the margins compared to his pet food business and befriending Bryan, Kavi started planning his own brewery.
In 2017, Kavi had the opportunity to teach seminars in Medellin, Colombia at Universidad de Medellin and Universidad EAFIT. During his visit Kavi met Mauricio Bedoya, the founder of Mercado Del Rio, the largest gastronomic market in Medellin. Mauricio encouraged Kavi to find a business concept to bring to Colombia. Once Kavi became a tenured faculty member at Century College and moved his courses online, he started working to raise a small seed round to bring his kombucha brewery to Medellin. In March of 2019, Kavi shipped six growlers of kombucha to Medellin and started growing symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) in his friend’s closet. While the buildout and permitting process was slow, Kavi launched Don Kavi Kombucha in September 2019. Don Kavi has a small taproom that serves as an educational lab allowing for fast customer feedback as well as a marketing piece to build relationships with the brand. With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering businesses throughout Colombia, Kavi has focused his energy on distribution Kombucha throughout Colombia. “Be flexible, adaptable, and make changes quickly,” Kavi advises.
While the current environment remains uncertain, Kavi says Kombucha is not a fad it’s a functional beverage and we are on the forefront of the market. As a serial entrepreneur, Kavi suggests making connections with others that have started business. “You won’t regret it,” Kavi says; “use the mentors in the WAVE program, learn from their experience; they may not tell you what to do, but you will learn what not to do.” He also suggests that students remember to think about proven business models, “you don't always have to reinvent the wheel.” Growing an existing business provides a great opportunity to gain experience and credibility. “Get out there do something, start meeting people, ask for help,” Kavi says. “You are never going to get bored as an entrepreneur, it’s never a dull moment.”