Q & A with Jasmina Aganovic
One of the most interesting things about talking to intrapreneurs is hearing the stories of how they came to their intrapreneurship journey. It is rarely a linear path and no two intrapreneurs have the same story. This definitely holds true for the intrapreneur we spoke to this week, Jasmina Aganovic.
Jasmina is the President of the Mother Dirt company, a company that is changing the way that we think about what clean actually is though science. Below we speak with Jasmina about how Mother Dirt was started, the unusual circumstances that lead to its intrapreneurial creation, and what intraprenuerism means to her.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Jasmina Aganovic and I am the President of Mother Dirt.
Mother Dirt is the consumer-facing side of a biotech company here in Cambridge Massachusetts called AOBiome and we work with a specific type of bacteria that once existed on our skin but has been removed with modern hygiene. We’re studying the therapeutic benefits of restoring that bacteria to our skin and, of course, we’re having a broader conversation about changing our perceptions of clean and what it means to be clean and healthy. I am responsible for building out the consumer side of the business, the products that go with it, and the day-to-day operations.
Can you tell us a little more about how Mother Dirt was born from the research AOBiome is doing?
For this, we have to back up to about 2013. The team was very small and I wasn’t a part of it yet. Jamie Heywood, who is our co-founder, and David Whitlock, our scientific co-founder, were interested in exploring the mechanism of this bacteria and seeing what direction the research could be taken in. A lot of our initial days were spent truly understanding how the bacteria worked, what it did, what it consumed, what it produced. Then we looked at all those things and said, “where could all of these things be helpful?” The most interesting part about it though was when we started to understand how easily-impacted these bacteria was by our everyday products. So when we started to look at the big context here we asked, “is modern hygiene as necessary as we once believed and how can we test this?”
So we did an experiment with around 30 people who we asked to abandon their modern personal care products, take water only showers, and then douse themselves in this bacteria twice a day for about a month for this study. One of the participants in the study wrote about her experience, which wound up being published in the New York Times magazine and the response to it was tremendous; viral in every way, shape, and form. Our little website crashed. We got so many emails from people interested in purchasing a product and helping to support our research and that showed us that there was an unmet need that was resonating with people that was unanticipated. We truly believed that it would be the microbiome enthusiasts, the academic institutions, that would be most interested in this as a topic. We did not expect the general public to be as interested as they were.
This is around the time that I connected with the team here and this idea emerged: “What if we start selling the product as people have been asking us to do and just stay in close contact with them and see how they’re using the product and what results they notice?” So we opened up a small beta and immediately sold out. We developed a four-month-long waiting list that only kept growing because people would be coming back to repurchase the products. That was really when we thought we could think bigger. This is not only a way that we can guide and shape our research, but it’s also an opportunity to have a conversation with the general public about what it means to really be clean and changing that definition.
So this is where Mother Dirt came from. It was essentially v2 of this beta that we did, and it also enabled us to gather thousands of data points that help to guide the direction that we can take out research in. Almost all of the indications that we’re currently pursuing on the clinical side came in some way, shape, or form, in anecdotal evidence from our users that we were then able to take into a more structured study and take through the scientific process. So there’s still a lot that’s yet to be determined, but that’s how we went about things.
That’s actually really interesting. A lot of the time when we talk about intrapreneurship we find that somebody within an organization sees a need for something and then validates it against the market. But in your case, that need was already being generated from the public and you guys just said “we can do something for them,” right?
Exactly. However, we were a bit constrained. We couldn’t make any claims because the science isn’t there yet. But we could say it makes your skin “look and feel better,” which is about as non-specific as it gets. But we said we’re just going to be really honest about it and that’s the best we can do right now. People can either take it or leave it. We’re doing this for the sake of learning not for the sake of profit, so we were able to build a consumer product business in a very unorthodox way.
So, because the idea for Mother Dirt actually arose from a consumer demand, did that make it easier to sell the idea to the AOBiome execs and directors?
We were all already bought into the concept. What the execution of the concept is, is an entirely different thing to accomplish though. There were a lot of very key decisions that needed to be made in the beginning that required a lot of buy-in from multiple people, many of whom are not in the consumer products industry. We had to very early on decide what rules from the consumer product industry are we going to follow and which ones are we purposefully not going to follow. Then lastly, and this was going to be the trickiest one, how are we going to reconcile all of our different viewpoints because everyone has a different angle?
I was entering a team that was mostly PhDs, scientists, and academics. My background is in chemical engineering, so while I’m clearly into the science as well, my experience in consumer products showed me that science does not sell past a certain subset of early stage users. It would sell in the beginning with your early adopters, but it fails to resonate when you try to reach groups that are several concentric circles out. So we needed to decide if we’re looking to resonate with just the early adopters and that’s what we’ll be happy with, or are we looking to resonate with a broader audience?
There was a lot of need for everything you would think about when you think about intrapreneurship; it’s buy-in, it’s a bit of negotiation, it’s understanding people’s different values, folding them in where needed, and communicating properly. The creation of the brand and how we executed on the business was definitely more of the intrapreneur general package than the concept itself.
You seem to have the concepts behind intrapreneurship down fairly well there at Mother Dirt, so maybe I’ll broaden the questioning a little bit and ask you, as an intrapreneur, what does intrapreneurship mean to you?
My immediate response to that question is the ability to take a concept and turn it into something tangible. Whether it’s tangible for your team or your company or your end user, it doesn’t really matter, but it’s turning it into something tangible. It’s the ability to see something through that pipeline of concept to end product in some way. That is what I think I’ve always viewed as the concept of an intrapreneur. I think that I view it that way because I’m a naturally curious person. In previous roles when I would be more siloed in specific areas, I would always want to know what’s happening before my role, what’s happening after my role, and what does the whole thing look like when you zoom out? Generally, I was always interested in not only my pipeline, but how all the pipelines fit together.
That’s actually a great quality to have and is also a great segue into my next question; do you think there are any specific skills that successful intraprenuers should have?
The first one, I would have to say, is the desire and the ability to seek input from other people. It’s this openness and willingness to say I have an idea, but I want to check it with other people. I’m curious to find out what other people think. They seek input throughout the process. It isn’t like they’re the quarterback and it’s all on them. I think your ability to seek input from other people who are not only affected by what you’re doing but that you are also relying on is a really critical part of it. First, I think it enhances your success, although there might be times when you disagree with the input that you’re getting and you have to know how to navigate that. But it will help you and educate you on what’s going on. It will be a wealth of learning and information. Often just the ability to take it piece by piece and ask for input along the way is a really important quality.
Speaking about taking input, you guys at Mother Dirt started off as clinical research, not as a consumer product. When you decided to make that leap, did you decide to take on everything yourself? Did you go out and seek partners who can help you broaden into this consumer space?
I actually had the ability to build out a team. We hired for diversity, and not the way that the term is generally being used these days, although I am an advocate for that as well. But we hired for the diversity of experiences and opinions and viewpoints. So you’ll find if you meet the people on the Mother Dirt team that they have very different personalities and backgrounds, but they are uniquely fitted to the role they have on the team. Especially because we were tackling something that had never been done before and we wanted out of the box thinking. We wanted people that were coming from different places. We wanted people with different personalities. We wanted that healthy push and pull of dynamics. So I was able to build out my own team and that element was always important to me and it was really necessary because of the unique nature of what we were doing.
Well, it sounds like you have built everything from the ground up there at Mother Dirt, but what do you think companies need to create that culture that encourages continuous innovation and intrapreneurship?
Well, I think there’s no single thing. I think it’s a culture of inclusion. I think it’s a culture that encourages curiosity. I think it’s a culture that makes people feel really comfortable with themselves. That’s really important because if they’re not comfortable with themselves, they’re not going to speak up and they’re not going to share their ideas. People need to feel comfortable in their role but still challenged. Curiosity and encouraging curiosity is, again, really important as well. That’s always been really important to me so I spend a lot of time thinking about it, but it’s interesting to see how those things wind up looking in actual practice. You can’t just say I want a culture of curiosity and bada-bing it just happens right away. It is really something that you have to put effort in to from day one and make sure that it grows and that it’s supported over time.
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