Interview with Andrew and Kathy Abraham

Andrew and Kathy Abraham

Thirty-year-old Andrew Abraham was trained as a physician. In his first year of residency, Andrew started his company, Orgain, which manufactures a certified organic fluid nutritional supplement—an organic “Ensure”. Founded in 2009, Orgain is now profitable, and its revenues exceed $6 million and growing rapidly. The company has no full time employees. Andrew and his wife Kathy live in Orange County, California, with their two young sons.

Andrew and Kathy Abraham on the advantages and disadvantages of leaving a professional career to start a business, and why Andrew hung up his stethoscope to gamble everything on a drink.

Q:  The first year of medical residency is an unlikely time to start a business.

A:  I was working hundred hour weeks, and Kathy was pregnant with our first child.  Kathy used to joke that she slept more in a night than I did in a week.

Q:  What were you thinking?

A:  The idea for this business grew from my own personal story. In 1999, when I was a senior in high school, I was diagnosed with a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma.  I was treated with surgery, chemo, and radiation. I lost a lot of weight, and couldn’t tolerate food.  I completed my senior year from my hospital bed.  My treatment was effective, but at the time I had to sustain myself on these “healthy” drinks that tasted horrible.  I started reading the labels—it was all terrible stuff.  The first ingredient was GMO corn syrup, then artificial colors and flavors.  So I started making my own shakes at home.

Q:  So you decided to create a product that you wish you’d had when you were in treatment?

A:  Exactly.  Once I got the idea, I couldn’t sleep at night, I couldn’t stop myself.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night with packaging and ingredient ideas.  I just had to create this company, and it couldn’t wait. It was a different kind of stress than medical training—I actually enjoy the challenges.  But in retrospect, maybe I should have waited until I’d finished my residency.

Q:  It sounds like your sense of mission was a huge part of your decision.

A:  Definitely.  If I had an idea for an organic gummy bear…I don’t know.  This beverage has an impact.  Emails and letters have poured in.  Some people who’ve written us told us that it is their sole source of nutrition.  They have diseases like esophageal cancer, and can’t swallow food.

Q:  You no longer practice medicine, and are devoting yourself full time to Orgain.  Weren’t you tempted to stay in medicine, after all that training?

A:  I was made chief resident, and then offered a job at my hospital.  Also my dad, a pediatrician, wanted me to come work with him in his thriving practice. I did practice medicine at my father’s clinic, but I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do.  Working at my dad’s clinic, I saw 30 or 40 patients a day.  But at Orgain, I am helping thousands of people on a daily basis.  It was a tough decision, though.

Q:  Medicine would have been more secure, financially.

A:  It’s been a huge leap.  I’m always on my toes, learning on the go.  I’ve had to learn a whole new language, the language of business.  When we were getting started, a buyer for a national vitamin retailer asked if we could give him FOB pricing.  I said, of course.  I had no idea what it meant.

Q:  Kathy, did you worry about your family’s security, when Andrew decided to leave medicine?

Kathy:  Of course you worry, but I couldn’t help but notice Andrew’s passion and drive for this.  The force of it gave me confidence that this company would succeed.  I thought, something good will come of this.  There have been some dark nights of pure fear and anxiety, but as long as I saw him happy I was OK.  If he had gotten wobbly, I would have worried.

Andrew:  When I’m wobbly I keep the door closed.

Kathy: I think it also helps to have a backup plan.  Andrew can always return to medicine.

Andrew:  Kathy thought she was marrying a doctor, not a businessman.  I switched the security contract along the way.  A few times she’s handed me my stethoscope and white coat and said, can we go back to a normal life?

Q:  In a way, leaving a professional career to start a business is a double-edged sword.  You do have something to fall back on, but there’s huge “opportunity cost” to abandoning a profession.

A:  I see another issue for professionals in business.  They may go into it a little cocky, believing that business will be a walk in the park, easier for them than for others. They can think they know more than they really do, because they’ve had training and become expert at something. They are in for a serious reality check.  I finished college in three years, and then had all my medical training, but I’ve been completely humbled by the food and beverage world.

I keep in mind some great advice my dad gave me:  boast about your weaknesses and let your strengths speak for themselves. I know my limitations and I’m not afraid to tell people.  I’m now OK with admitting I don’t understand, could you please explain it to me.  I always seek out others with more experience.  But I am confident about what I DO know.

Q:  Do you have any advice for professionals who are considering starting a company?

A:  Do as much as you can to develop your business while you are working your professional job, until you reach the point where you can no longer do both.  Don’t just drop everything for a great idea.  Figure out what you think you’ll be sacrificing by making the switch—how much time and money it will take to get to profitability—and multiply by five.