ARTO Owner on Generational Businesses

In 1962 Arto Alajian arrived in the U.S., having fled Egypt and his shoe-manufacturing business. He became a milkman in Los Angeles, and then a ceramic tile installer, and then, in 1966, a tile maker.

Fast forward to 2024, and ARTO, the company, is a global supplier of handcrafted ceramic, porcelain, and concrete products. Armen Alajian, the founder’s son, now co-owns the business.

He and I recently spoke, addressing the challenges and rewards of generational, family-owned companies. The audio of our entire conversation is below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: What do you do?

Armen Alajian: I’m the co-owner of a company called ARTO. We make rustic and elegant handmade ceramic and concrete tiles. We manufacture in California and sell online and in showrooms in Los Angeles, nationwide, and globally.

My dad, Arto Alajian, started the business. He and my mom had a factory in Egypt. They made leather shoes there, but the government took their business. So in 1962 they came to the U.S. My dad was a milkman in the morning and went to school at night to be an airplane mechanic.

He eventually met a woman who made ceramics. She did mission restoration work. On his milk route, my dad would take her ceramic bricks to restaurants and moms in El Segundo and Santa Monica and return on weekends to install them. That’s how he started, in 1966. His first product was a clay brick.

My brother Varoujan and I started installing at a young age. My parents divorced when I was 10, and I was estranged from my father. He fired me five times, and I quit five times. We argued about the business.

Later on, we made peace, and we grew. My dad called me and said, let’s figure it out. And we did. He respected me, and I respected him. Before he passed, we were partners and friends.

My brother is an owner. I’m learning how to be a CEO. I’ve always been a partner. My brother is a full-on partner and owner, and we discuss strategy.

He has one kid. I have eight. We’re thinking about the next generation. Being in charge of your destiny is the trick, controlling your income and liberty. He wants that for his kid; I want it for my kids.

We can only offer our children an opportunity. We can’t force them. Generational businesses are nothing more than being a family.

Bandholz: Are your kids interested in the business?

Alajian: Yes. I let my kids work in the business when they were younger. I’m a salesman. When we traveled the country in a van and saw customers, we homeschooled. The kids would walk in, shake the person’s hand, and say, “Hello, my name is Adam,” or, “My name is Sarah.” So, they’ve all been around business. They love business. But I forced them all to leave and work for other people, too.

They have since returned. They all want a role in the company. I insist they come in early and leave late — the old-fashioned style of working. And then find your place. I want the kids, at the end of the day, to be owners. They don’t have to be operators.

Bandholz: I intend to give my kids ownership if the business interests them.

Alajian: A business becomes generational when operators are separated from owners. My kids who become operators will be treated like executives and compensated well if they perform. But owners have a separate mentality, whether working the business or not. That’s the way to extend it to the third or fourth generation.

But the key is to give kids the option to be operators, owners, or both. Don’t force one or the other.

My goal used to be achieving generational wealth. But no more. My wealth isn’t money. True wealth is that my kids’ kids know and love each other. Money is a tool to help you keep a family together. Wealth isn’t actual cash. It is experience and the ability to survive the next generation because liberty comes from having capital in your pocket.

Bandholz: Where can folks buy your tiles and bricks?

Alajian: In 300 stores around the U.S. or at Arto.com. Our Instagram is @artobrick. I’m on LinkedIn.

OverstockArt Founder Thrives 22 Years On

Before Shopify, YouTube, and Facebook, there was OverstockArt. David Sasson launched the company on the Yahoo Store platform in 2002 in Wichita, Kansas. It sells original, hand-painted reproductions of works by Van Gogh, Monet, and more.

Much has changed since 2002, but not Sasson’s passion and resilience. He has faced legal crises, replatforms, and competitors. Yet OverstockArt thrives.

In our recent conversation, he shared his journey, outlook, and advice for budding entrepreneurs. The entire audio is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about yourself.

David Sasson: I’m the co-founder and CEO of OverstockArt.com. We launched in 2002. We’re an ancient company by ecommerce standards. We sell art online. Our main product line is hand-painted oil reproductions of works by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and artists of that caliber. We reproduce them by hand, and customers can choose the frame. We do all the framing in our facility in Kansas and ship to consumers nationwide.

Bandholz: How does copyright come into play?

Sasson: Everything we deal with is in the public domain. Copyright law is complicated. I’m not a lawyer, but the vast majority of art in the U.S. is in the public domain if produced before 1923.

There are global limitations due to treaties among countries. For instance, there’s art in the public domain in the United States but not in Europe. We stick to art produced before 1923.

Bandholz: How does your operational system work?

Sasson: We work directly with studios overseas. We built our own supply chain software, which we use to create orders for the studios. The orders include imagery, part numbers, and the quantity to make. The studio produces the reproduction and uploads a photo. We then approve or reject it. Once we approve it, the studio will prepare the shipment to our facility here in Kansas.

Our site shows photos of the reproductions, not the originals. Once customers place an order, it will usually ship the next day for three- or four-day delivery. Selling art requires holding very broad and very shallow inventory. We have a lot of variety. We anticipate what will sell and how many to hold of each piece.

We’ve built a fairly sophisticated supply chain and demand planning tool that tells us how many to order for each painting. The model helps us hold stock profitably. It’s not simple.

With Prime, Amazon changed consumers’ delivery expectations. Now everyone wants an item in two days. The closer we get to that, the better we are, although customers understand longer waits for custom orders.

Bandholz: You’ve seen many changes since 2002.

Sasson: In 2013, we almost went out of business due to copyright claims. We had to take down a lot of questionable art, including Picassos. We paid attorneys and others — the stress was heavy.

We had a strong 2012, and our studios struggled to meet the demand. We started 2013 at the same pace and suddenly faced a copyright legal crisis. We had to remove a considerable percentage of our stock, plus many of those items were in transit from our suppliers. So I’m paying for a product that I can’t sell, and I don’t have suitable replacements.

Our sales dropped by 50%, but our costs stayed the same. We went through all our cash, and I had to put money back into the company. We couldn’t focus on increasing sales because of legal problems. For a time, I was convinced we would go under.

We finally turned a corner in 2016. By 2017 we saw real success. By the 2017 holiday season, we were suddenly flush with cash and doing what we wanted, not what we had to.

I believed in our mission, and we came through, but it wasn’t without doubts and difficulties. If you’re a new business owner, be ready because these situations can happen. It can be challenging in the moment, but it will get easier.

Bandholz: Have you considered selling OverstockArt?

Sasson: An entrepreneur’s goal should be to build a great business. If you’re having fun, why not keep doing it? If I sold the company, I would probably start another one. It’s what I do. If the perfect opportunity presents itself, I might sell, but I’m not seeking it. I want to build a great company. If founders set out to create something amazing, everything flows from there. I don’t see a reason to do something else.

Every decision in life has consequences, especially for business owners. Many folks don’t want the responsibility, and it’s common to run into problems. But if we are willing to step up, do the work, and believe in ourselves, we can push through obstacles.

My number one suggestion to newer entrepreneurs is to take time to think. I spend much of every Friday away from the office, often at a coffee shop. I’ll bring paper and write. I’ll think of a question or a topic, start writing, and read what I wrote. That’s how I come up with solutions to problems. Entrepreneurs seek action. We see something and go after it. But we can improve and develop an edge by pausing to reflect and brainstorm.

Bandholz: Where can folks connect with you?

Sasson: Our website is OverstockArt.com. I’m on LinkedIn.

Charts: Global Executives’ Plans, Projections Q1 2024

According to McKinsey & Company’s March 2024 survey, global executives are less optimistic about demand for their companies’ goods or services than in 2023.

However, respondents maintain a generally positive outlook regarding their companies’ profitability.

Most surveyed executives anticipate that the size of their companies’ workforces will remain unchanged over the next six months.

The McKinsey March 2024 survey also queried respondents on their economic outlook for the coming year.

Amid Downturn, Ecommerce Investor Perseveres

The post-Covid ecommerce hangover has hit Roman Kahn. He launched his first direct-to-consumer brand in 2013, acquired others, and in 2021 founded Peak 21, an aggregator with equity investors. The outlook was good.

Fast forward to 2024, and many ecommerce companies are struggling. Mergers and acquisitions have cratered. Yet Kahn perseveres. His team reviews dozens of purchase candidates every month, albeit cautiously.

In our recent conversation, Kahn shared his investment criteria, current market conditions, and predictions for a recovery. The entire audio is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of what you do.

Roman Khan: I’m the founder and president of an ecommerce holding company called Peak 21. We buy, grow, and sell direct-to-consumer brands. My DTC experience began in 2013 when my wife, Jennifer, and I started Linjer. We sold leather bags but now it’s mostly jewelry. We launched it on Indiegogo.

By 2016, we were doing a couple of million in annual revenue — big enough for Jennifer and me to quit our jobs to work on it full-time. In 2017, Linjer produced $1 million in EBITDA — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. By then we had raised quite a bit of money on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and built up street cred. Folks were reaching out, asking us how we did it. We decided to diversify. We needed more brands, and Meta ads were working well.

I took that $1 million of cash, our street cred, and combined sweat equity with cash to invest in three other DTC companies. Each was doing less than $1 million in revenue annually. By 2019, we were doing $50 million in sales as a group.

When Covid hit in 2020, revenue ballooned to $100 million annually. In 2021, investors were knocking on our door, particularly Jeffrey Yan, whose family owned Forbes Media up until this year. He came to my office and said I needed to take on external capital to buy more prominent companies.

We set up a special purpose acquisition company — a blank check company — called Peak 21. Jeffrey Yan and others invested eight figures in equity. We’re now using that SPAC to buy companies. We seek brands doing $5 to $50 million in annual sales.

Bandholz: What’s an ideal acquisition candidate?

Khan: The pool is shrinking. I’ve spoken with many owners. My acquisitions team talks to 100-plus businesses every month. Only about 10% have a product-market fit that can grow with low budgets. Our main criterion now is size. We look at the fundamentals. What’s the customer acquisition cost? And the repeat buyer rate? The best scenario is 70% of first-time buyers repeat in the first quarter. We know the investment will likely work out at the rate.

Two, we look at customers’ buying habits. For instance, we own a company called Nutrition Kitchen. It’s a daily meal delivery service. Daily rather than weekly or monthly habits play a significant role.

Beyond consumables, we look at contribution margins on three levels.

First, we calculate revenue (net of taxes and coupon-driven sales) and shipping fees collected at checkout. That leaves us with “profit contribution one” — PC1.

Then, we deduct roughly 10 variable costs, such as warehouse storage, pick-and-pack, shipping fees, returns, and exchanges. That results in profit contribution two — PC2.

Lastly, we deduct marketing to determine PC3.

From PC3 we subtract operating expenses to arrive at EBITDA.

A key acquisition metric is a 50% or higher PC2 while maintaining a competitive suggested retail price.

Bandholz: A hundred candidates a month is a lot to review.

Roman: Many ecommerce companies are struggling now. Revenue and EBITDA are down. Out of our six main brands, two are struggling massively. Overall we’re okay. We’re growing with a diversified portfolio. But those two are a nightmare. We have lent over $1 million to each one in the last 24 months. So it’s been hard. Many founders are holding out until 2025 or 2026 to sell.

We buy companies in four ways. One is cash. Two is seller financing. Three is using debt, where we borrow the money against the acquired company’s value. That avenue, I should add, is very challenging now. The fourth method is an equity swap wherein we acquire a company with Peak 21 stock. Cash is scarce right now. Our willingness to pay a lot of cash upfront is low to non-existent. We’re often the only real buyers when talking to a company.

For the market to improve, two things need to happen. First, investors must get over the losses from aggregators, such as Perch, Thrasio, and others. Second, interest rates have to come down. Once that happens, liquidity will loosen up, and hopefully, the market will return, likely by Q1 2026 in my estimation.

Bandholz: How can listeners contact you?

Khan: Our site Peak21.io. They can message me on X or on LinkedIn.

Scaling individual impact: Insights from an AI engineering leader

Traditionally, moving up in an organization has meant leading increasingly large teams of people, with all the business and operational duties that entails. As a leader of large teams, your contributions can become less about your own work and more about your team’s output and impact. There’s another path, though. The rapidly evolving fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have increased demand for engineering leaders who drive impact as individual contributors (ICs). An IC has more flexibility to move across different parts of the organization, solve problems that require expertise from different technical domains, and keep their skill set aligned with the latest developments (hopefully with the added benefit of fewer meetings).

In an executive IC role as a technical leader, I have a deep impact by looking at the intersections of systems across organizational boundaries, prioritize the problems that really need solving, then assemble stakeholders from across teams to create the best solutions.

Driving influence through expertise

People leaders typically have the benefit of an organization that scales with them. As an IC, you scale through the scope, complexity, and impact of the problems you help solve. The key to being effective is getting really good at identifying and structuring problems. You need to proactively identify the most impactful problems to solve—the ones that deliver the most value but that others aren’t focusing on—and structure them in a way that makes them easier to solve.

People skills are still important because building strong relationships with colleagues is fundamental. When consensus is clear, solving problems is straightforward, but when the solution challenges the status quo, it’s crucial to have established technical credibility and organizational influence.

And then there’s the fun part: getting your hands dirty. Choosing the IC path has allowed me to spend more time designing and building AI/ML systems than other management roles would—prototyping, experimenting with new tools and techniques, and thinking deeply about our most complex technical challenges.

A great example I’ve been fortunate to work on involved designing the structure of a new ML-driven platform. It required significant knowledge at the cutting edge and touched multiple other parts of the organization. The freedom to structure my time as an IC allowed me to dive deep in the domain, understand the technical needs of the problem space, and scope the approach. At the same time, I worked across multiple enterprise and line-of-business teams to align appropriate resources and define solutions that met the business needs of our partners. This allowed us to deliver a cutting-edge solution on a very short timescale to help the organization safely scale a new set of capabilities.

Being an IC lets you operate more like a surgeon than a general. You focus your efforts on precise, high-leverage interventions. Rapid, iterative problem-solving is what makes the role impactful and rewarding.

The keys to success as an IC executive

In an IC executive role, there are key skills that are essential. First is maintaining deep technical expertise. I usually have a couple of different lines of study going on at any given time, one that’s closely related to the problems I’m currently working on, and another that takes a long view on foundational knowledge that will help me in the future.

Second is the ability to proactively identify and structure high-impact problems. That means developing a strong intuition for where AI/ML can drive the most business value, and leveraging the problem in a way that achieves the highest business results.

Determining how the problem will be formulated means considering what specific problem you are trying to solve and what you are leaving off the table. This intentional approach aligns the right complexity level to the problem to meet the organization’s needs with the minimum level of effort. The next step is breaking down the problem into chunks that can be solved by the people or teams aligned to the effort.

Doing this well requires building a diverse network across the organization. Building and nurturing relationships in different functional areas is crucial to IC success, giving you the context to spot impactful problems and the influence to mobilize resources to address them.

Finally, you have to be an effective communicator who can translate between technical and business audiences. Executives need you to contextualize system design choices in terms of business outcomes and trade-offs. And engineers need you to provide crisp problem statements and solution sketches.

It’s a unique mix of skills, but if you can cultivate that combination of technical depth, organizational savvy, and business-conscious communication, ICs can drive powerful innovations. And you can do it while preserving the hands-on problem-solving abilities that likely drew you to engineering in the first place.

Empowering IC Career Paths

As the fields of AI/ML evolve, there’s a growing need for senior ICs who can provide technical leadership. Many organizations are realizing that they need people who can combine deep expertise with strategic thinking to ensure these technologies are being applied effectively.

However, many companies are still figuring out how to empower and support IC career paths. I’m fortunate that Capital One has invested heavily in creating a strong Distinguished Engineer community. We have mentorship, training, and knowledge-sharing structures in place to help senior ICs grow and drive innovation.

ICs have more freedom than most to craft their own job description around their own preferences and skill sets. Some ICs may choose to focus on hands-on coding, tackling deeply complex problems within an organization. Others may take a more holistic approach, examining how teams intersect and continually collaborating in different areas to advance projects. Either way, an IC needs to be able to see the organization from a broad perspective, and know how to spot the right places to focus their attention.

Effective ICs also need the space and resources to stay on the bleeding edge of their fields. In a domain like AI/ML that’s evolving so rapidly, continuous learning and exploration are essential. It’s not a nice-to-have feature, but a core part of the job, and since your time as an individual doesn’t scale, it requires dedication to time management.

Shaping the future

The role of an executive IC in engineering is all about combining deep technical expertise with a strategic mindset. That’s a key ingredient in the kind of transformational change that AI is driving, but realizing this potential will require a shift in the way many organizations think about leadership.

I’m excited to see more engineers pursue an IC path and bring their unique mix of skills to bear on the toughest challenges in AI/ML. With the right organizational support, I believe a new generation of IC leaders will emerge and help shape the future of the field. That’s the opportunity ahead of us, and I’m looking forward to leading by doing.

This content was produced by Capital One. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

Don’t Outsource Revenue, Says Hair Growth Founder

Faraz Kahn began losing his hair at age 21. Years later, when searching for startup business ideas, he focused on his own experience. The result is Fully Vital, a direct-to-consumer seller of hair loss serums and supplements that he launched in 2021.

He and I recently spoke. We addressed his launch of Fully Vital and lessons learned afterward. Relying on agencies and consultants for customer acquisition is among his biggest regrets. “Don’t outsource revenue,” he says.

The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of what you do.

Faraz Khan: I founded an ecommerce business in 2021 called Fully Vital. We make and sell hair wellness products mainly targeted at women over 40. I’ve been losing my hair since I was 21. I tried pharmaceuticals such as finasteride for a decade.

For years, I worked as a web developer and marketer in Los Angeles. In 2019 I decided to change careers and consider opportunities in ecommerce. I focused my search on longevity and being youthful. I started a podcast and interviewed leaders in the longevity field, but I wasn’t making money. So I looked at my own hair loss for ideas.

I researched extensively. Many companies sell stuff. I wanted to offer unique products to a broad audience. I went to international conventions. I flew to Thailand for a conference of hair transplant surgeons and stem cell experts. I learned enough there to realize the key to hair growth is doing many things simultaneously.

Working with physicians and scientists, I developed a serum and supplements for hair growth and density. Then, recently, we launched products for delaying gray hairs. I enlisted my friend Dr. Sandra Kaufmann, who’s written two books on longevity. She designed the protocol for delaying and reversing gray hairs. We now have two product lines.

I was new to ecommerce and didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve made a hundred mistakes, but here we are, still improving. I’ve got friends in the longevity space who are gracious enough to have me on their podcasts. Every time I do an episode, my messaging has gotten better. We discuss the science, how we developed our solution, and our target markets.

Part of my challenge is translating that authenticity into direct response marketing and Facebook ads. Our field requires education because many women, particularly, have tried many things for hair loss. We have to be authentic.

Bandholz: You’re offering subscriptions.

Khan: Yes. We’ve worked on the subscription offer to make it enticing, which involves educating the shopper. Our products take about 90 days to see results because of the hair cycle. With education, subscriptions have increased — about 40% in the last six months. Our goal is to convert 20% of all buyers into subscriptions.

We’ve focused much of our efforts on serum versus supplements because the margins are better. We need good margins to make advertising profitable.

Bandholz: What would you do differently if you could start over?

Khan: My biggest mistake was not focusing on Facebook ads, the cash cow for most direct-to-consumer businesses. I didn’t know Facebook and thought I wasn’t good enough. I’m not creative. I relied on agencies and consultants—with no results for those efforts. Our cost per acquisition exceeded $200, meaning negative margins. Then I went to Affiliate Summit West in Las Vegas and met people profitably spending $10,000 per day on Facebook ads.

That led me to change my outlook. I got into Facebook, owned it, and began editing some of our ads. I learned when to change creative, how many hooks we need, and hurdles in the conversion path. I had to get in the weeds.

I’ve learned our strengths and differences from other sellers. Our messaging has improved. Facebook’s algorithm changes required us to double down on our messaging at every consumer touch point.

We tried TikTok Shop, but nothing moves the needle like Facebook. Now I spend most of my time there. Last fall, I retained an incredible creative strategist. She encouraged me to spend more on Facebook. It’s made a big difference for me to be involved in the details.

Don’t outsource revenue. That’s my advice to entrepreneurs.

Bandholz: Where can people buy your products?

Khan: Our website is FullyVital.com. I’m @FarazKhan1000 on X and @antiaginghacks on Instagram.

Charts: Retail Sporting Goods Trends Q1 2024

The global sporting goods industry will grow at a compound rate of 7% through 2027. That’s according to “Time to move: Sporting goods 2024,” a January 2024 report by McKinsey & Company.

The report foresees optimism by sporting goods industry leaders in 2024, coming off an uneven, inflationary 2023. McKinsey suggests caution, however, owing to shifting consumer preferences and sustainability concerns.

The study addresses shifting consumer preferences from traditional organized sports to individual varieties such as pickleball (159% growth from 2019 to 2022) and off-course golf (57% growth during the same period).

Challenges to the global supply chain continue. The McKinsey study included the results of its 2023 survey of worldwide supply chain leaders. Most are implementing renewed planning and resilience measures to counter supply uncertainties.

Commerce Drives Culture, Says Media CEO

Phillip Jackson launched Future Commerce in 2016. The company produces articles, newsletters, and podcasts focusing on coming trends and developments in business.

He believes commerce produces a gentler society, one that fosters culture and stability. Commerce is culture, he states.

He and I recently discussed his company’s mission, large versus small brands, the maturity of ecommerce, and more. The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Who are you?

Phillip Jackson: I am the co-founder and CEO of Future Commerce, a small, bootstrapped business researching and producing media for ecommerce businesses. We work with large and small brands. We’re trying to predict the future of commerce, which was technology for the last 15 or 20 years, but now that every business is technology-enabled, we have to think about the next phase. We have four podcasts: Future Commerce, Infinite Shelf, Step by Step, and Decoded.

Ten years ago, big brands said, “We need to be online,” and “What does direct-to-consumer look like for us?” Let’s say you’re dealing with Mondelez (the food and beverage holding company) or some other conglomerate where you have individual brands with their own innovations teams, futures teams, and P&Ls within the business. They’re all resourced differently, have separate budgets, and are not talking to each other.

Some brands will find a way to achieve breakout success on the sly. You have little scrum teams or individual operating teams that don’t ask for permission—they ask for forgiveness and demonstrate success somewhere within the business. Some of the best innovations occur when they bring in entrepreneurs who understand how to get stuff done. They’re not just about theory, sitting in boardrooms, and figuring out spreadsheets. They’re good at rolling their sleeves up and getting things done.

Bandholz: You talk about an idea that commerce is culture. Can you explain?

Jackson: We’ve been at it with Future Commerce for about eight years. Over the last three or four years, ecommerce has mostly been solved. You can talk about all the tips, tricks, and tactics, but generally, it’s just buying a new piece of software.

The early exciting internet promise based on technology is gone. What has become exciting is going back to the fine arts. When I talk to folks in corporate roles, such as the head of commerce for YouTube or the head of innovation for Visa, they yearn for something deeper. Commerce is a human truth, and independent cultures have all created and found each other through trade routes. The world came together through this necessity of having something others need. Commerce is not just a value exchange — it’s a cultural connection.

We’ve learned that live-streaming isn’t the future of commerce, yet every analyst said it would be because that was happening in Asia. Maybe commerce is more cultural. Every independent culture has its own way of expressing itself, and maybe commerce is one of those. We’ve pared it down to “commerce is culture.” It is who we are at our core. It’s what we value.

A French philosopher believed that commerce makes people more amenable. When you have things you love, prize, and value, you don’t want to lose them. People who have nice things become better actors in society. As a nation becomes richer and attains wealth, it’s less prone to social upheavals. Commerce has a gentle effect on society and gives us the capitalist economy today.

Eric Bandholz: Where can people support you?

Jackson: Visit FutureCommerce.com. Find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

From Bankrupt to Thriving Entrepreneur

Study a successful entrepreneur, and you’ll likely uncover resilience. Take Aaron Marino. Twenty years ago his first business, a fitness center, failed, leaving him with half a million dollars of debt. Fast-forward to 2024, and Marino is a YouTube celebrity and thriving serial entrepreneur, mainly with men’s grooming products.

He first appeared on the podcast in 2020. We recently caught up. I asked him about failure, success, helping others, and more.

The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about yourself.

Aaron Marino: I’m an entrepreneur at my core. I started posting YouTube videos in 2008 about men’s styles, grooming, dating, and relationships. I called the channel Alpha M, and it took off. I wasn’t that great at it, but I kept doing it.

Over the years, it’s allowed me to start a few businesses and verticals. I have had 20 companies. Most didn’t work out, some worked out a little, and others have done reasonably well. A few years ago, I started a channel called Alpha Mpire, where I interview other entrepreneurs.

Failure was one of the best things for me. I had a fitness center. It was an epic failure. That was my dream from age 12 — to own a fitness center. I shut it down and had half a million dollars in debt. I then drove a beer cart at a country club just to put gas in my car. That was the scariest time of my life. I didn’t have a plan B. The failure forced me to try other things less scary. I was like, okay, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I’m driving a beer cart. I’m broke. I’m bankrupt, but I’m still alive.

Bandholz: How do you emotionally get through bankruptcy as an entrepreneur?

Marino: Stress and anxiety about money and inability to pay bills robbed me of joy like nothing else. I was making a hundred dollars every three weeks driving a beer cart. I was as broke as it got. My credit cards were all shut down. Declaring bankruptcy was a huge emotional relief. It was as if I got a new lease on life. I knew I would never make the same mistakes again. It shaped me in terms of how I think about money and debt. I became more responsible. I recovered and bought a $35,000 car within a year at 100% finance.

I believe there’s a time and a place for loans and debt. If you need it, you need it. A business has two ways to raise money: incur debt or sell equity. The choice depends on how much money and help you need.

Bandholz: You have several businesses now.

Marino: The largest is a men’s skincare company called Tiege Hanley. That was a partnership with two other guys. One of the founders put up $170,000. I generated marketing material through my YouTube channel. We had another founder who also brought equity and technical skills.

I started a hair product business called Pete & Pedro. I did that through white labeling. I started that whole business for $3,000. I went to a friend who was a stylist, and he told me to call people I knew, which began the process.

I started a sunglasses company called Enemy that’s no longer around. I funded it myself. I shut it down because the product was too expensive for what I was charging, leaving no margin for marketing.

I like putting up the money whenever possible. I don’t take substantial wild risks. I don’t need $100,000 to start a business. I can validate many of these businesses for much less.

Bandholz: Tell us about Alpha Mpire, the YouTube channel.

Marino: My original channel, Alpha M., focuses on men’s grooming. I launched it back in 2008. But I love talking about business. I started Alpha Mpire in 2021 to share my experiences and those of other entrepreneurs. I found a renewed passion. With this new channel, there were no expectations. I didn’t have to worry about sponsorships. I could talk about anything. It started to grow. It’s not the biggest channel — around 70,000 subscribers.

The internet has changed the game regarding entrepreneurship and business. It’s like taking a test with the book open. If you want to start a business, the information is out there. It’s never been more affordable.

Everybody has the same access and opportunities. Some people will take action. Most won’t. I tell new entrepreneurs to find somebody who’s done it before. Copy what they did, get their advice or somebody else’s, and then do it yourself. It’s not that hard. If I can do it, anybody can.

Bandholz: Where can people follow you?

Marino: Check out my mastermind community, TheWhiteLabelMpire.com, or my Alpha Mpire YouTube channel.

The era of cheap helium is over—and that’s already causing problems

MIT Technology Review is celebrating our 125th anniversary with an online series that draws lessons for the future from our past coverage of technology. 

In the nuclear magnetic resonance facility at Mississippi State University, three powerful magnets make it possible to see how atoms form bonds. Chemists there use the technology to design new polymers and study how bacteria bind to surfaces. To make it all work, they need an element that’s commonly found in grocery stores, but is also in perpetually short supply: helium. 

Every 12 weeks, the university pays $5,000 to $6,000 to replenish the liquid helium required to cool the superconducting wire coiled up inside the magnets down to -452 °F (-269 °C). 

“It’s by far the biggest expense we have,” says Nicholas Fitzkee, the facility’s director. “The price that drives our user fees is the purchase of liquid helium, and that has pretty much doubled over the past year or so.”

Helium is excellent at conducting heat. And at temperatures close to absolute zero, at which most other materials would freeze solid, helium remains a liquid. That makes it a perfect refrigerant for anything that must be kept very cold.

Liquid helium is therefore essential to any technology that uses superconducting magnets, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners and some fusion reactors. Helium also cools particle accelerators, quantum computers, and the infrared detectors on the James Webb Space Telescope. As a gas, helium whisks heat away from silicon to prevent damage in semiconductor fabs. 

“It’s a critical element for the future,” says Richard Clarke, a UK-based helium resources consultant who co-edited a book about the element. Indeed, the European Union includes helium on its 2023 list of critical raw materials, and Canada put it on a critical minerals list too. 

Again and again throughout the history of technology development, helium has played a critical role while remaining in tight supply. As part of MIT Technology Review’s 125th anniversary series, we looked back at our coverage of how helium became such an important resource, and considered how demand might change in the future. 

Countries have at times taken extreme measures to secure a steady helium supply. In our June 1975 issue, which focused on critical materials, a Westinghouse engineer named H. Richard Howland wrote about a controversial US program that stockpiled helium for decades. 

Even today, helium is not always easy to get. The world’s supply depends primarily on just three countries—the US, Qatar, and Algeria—and fewer than 15 companies worldwide. 

With so few sources, the helium market is particularly sensitive to disruptions—if a plant goes offline, or war breaks out, the element may suddenly be in short supply. And as Fitzkee noted, the price of helium has climbed rapidly in recent years, putting hospitals and research groups in a pinch. 

The global helium market has experienced four shortages since 2006, says Phil Kornbluth, a helium consultant. And the price of helium has nearly doubled since 2020, from $7.57 per cubic meter to a historic high of $14 in 2023, according to the United States Geological Survey

Some research labs, including Fitzkee’s, are now installing recycling systems for helium, and MRI manufacturers are making next-generation scanners that require less of it. But many of the world’s highest-tech industries—including computing and aerospace—will likely need even more helium in the future. 

“At the end of the day, what’s happening is helium’s just getting more expensive,” says Ankesh Siddhantakar, a PhD student in industrial ecology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “The era of cheap helium is probably gone.”

A high-tech need

Helium is the second element on the periodic table, which—as you may recall from high school chemistry class—means it has just two protons (and thus two electrons). 

Thanks to their simple structure, helium atoms are some of the smallest and lightest, second only to hydrogen. They’re extremely stable and don’t easily react with other stuff, which makes them easy to incorporate into industrial or chemical processes. 

One major use of liquid helium over the years has been to cool the magnets inside MRI scanners, which help doctors examine organs, muscles, and blood vessels. But the cost of helium has risen so much, and the supply has been so volatile, that hospitals are eager for other options. 

MRI manufacturers including Philips and GE HealthCare now sell scanners that require much less helium than previous generations. That should help, though it will take years to upgrade the roughly 50,000 MRI scanners already installed today. 

Other industries are finding ways around helium too. Welders have substituted argon or hydrogen on some jobs, while chemists have switched to hydrogen for gas chromatography, a process that allows them to separate mixtures. 

But there’s no good alternative to helium for most applications, and the element is much harder to recycle when it’s used as a gas. In semiconductor fabs, for example, helium gas removes heat from around the silicon to prevent damage and shields it from unwanted reactions. 

With rising demand for computing driven in part by AI, the US is investing heavily in building new fabs, which will likely drive more demand for helium. “There’s no question that chip manufacturing will be the biggest application within the coming years, if it isn’t already,” says Kornbluth. 

Overall, Kornbluth says, the helium industry expects to see growth in the low single digits over the next few years. 

Looking further out, Clarke predicts that most industries will eventually phase out nonessential uses of helium. Instead, they will use it primarily for cryogenic cooling or in cases where there’s no alternative. That includes quantum computers, rockets, fiber-optic cables, semiconductor fabs, particle accelerators, and certain fusion reactors. 

“It’s something that, for a cost reason, all these new technologies have got to take into account,” Clarke says. 

Given its importance to so many industries, Siddhantakar thinks helium should be a higher priority for those thinking about managing strategic resources. In a recent analysis, he found that the global supply chains for helium, lithium, and magnesium face similar risks. 

“It is a key enabler for critical applications, and that’s one of the pieces that I think need to be more understood and appreciated,” Siddhantakar says. 

A delicate balance

The helium we use today formed from the breakdown of radioactive materials millions of years ago and has been trapped in rocks below Earth’s surface ever since. 

Helium is usually extracted from these underground reservoirs along with natural gas, as John Mattill explained in an article from our January 1986 issue: “Helium can be readily separated from the gas before combustion, but the lower the helium concentration, the higher the cost of doing so.” 

Generally speaking, helium concentrations must be at least 0.3% for gas companies to bother with it. Such levels can be found in only a handful of countries including the US, Qatar, Algeria, Canada, and South Africa. 

Helium shortages are not caused by a lack of helium, then, but the inability of producers in those few countries to deliver it to customers everywhere in a timely manner. That can happen for any number of reasons. 

“It is a very global business, and any time a war breaks out somewhere, or anything like that, it tends to impact the helium business,” says Kornbluth. 

Another challenge is that helium atoms are so light Earth’s gravity can’t hold onto them. They tend to just, well, float away, even escaping specially designed tanks. Up to 50% of helium we extract is lost before it can be used, according to a new analysis presented by Siddhantakar last week at the International Round Table on Materials Criticality

Given all this, countries that need a lot of helium—Canada, China, Brazil, Germany, France, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the UK are among the top importers—must constantly work to ensure a reliable supply. The US is one of the largest consumers of helium, but it’s also a leading producer.

For decades, the global helium market was closely tied to the US government, which began stockpiling helium in Texas in 1961 for military purposes. As Howland wrote in 1975, “The original justification of the federal helium conservation program was to store helium until a later time when it would be more essential and less available.” 

But the US has slowly sold off much of its stockpile and is now auctioning off the remainder, with a final sale pending in the next few months. The consequences are not yet clear, though it seems likely that agencies such as NASA will have to pay more for helium in the future. As Christopher Thomas Freeburn wrote in a 1997 article titled “Save the Helium,” “By eliminating the reserve, the federal government … has placed itself at the mercies of the market.”

Customers everywhere are still overwhelmingly dependent on the US and Qatar, which together produce more than 75% of all helium the world uses. But the US has produced and exported significantly less in the past decade, while demand from US consumers rose by 40%, according to the USGS’s Robert Goodin

Eager to fill the void, new countries are now starting to produce helium, and a flurry of companies are exploring potential projects around the world. Four helium plants opened last year in Canada, and one started up in South Africa. 

Russia is set to open a massive new plant that will soon supply helium to China, thereby edging out Algeria as the world’s third-largest producer. 

“Russia is going to become the number-three producer as early as 2025, and they’ll end up accounting for a quarter of the world’s supply within the next five years,” says Kornbluth. 

Qatargas in Qatar is opening a fourth plant, which—together with Russia’s new facility—should expand global helium supply by about 50% in the next few years, he adds. 

Some companies are now considering sites where they could extract helium without treating it as a by-product of natural gas. Helium One is exploring several such sources in Tanzania.  

Will it be enough? 

Back in 1975, Howland described the helium market as “an example of the false starts, inefficiencies, and economic pitfalls we must avoid to wisely preserve our exhaustible resources.”

He also predicted the US would use up much of its known helium reserves by the turn of the century. But the US still has enough helium in natural-gas reservoirs to last 150 more years, according to a recent USGS analysis

“As with a lot of other things, it’s going to be about the sustainable management of this resource,” says Siddhantakar.