On Episode 26 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby is joined by Mark Rioboli, who has a chat with Shelby Smith of Gym-N-Eat Crickets, a small startup with the goal of making insect protein more accessible to health- and environment-conscious people. Shelby discusses her early career, which took her overseas into the investment banking world, and how and why she ended up making the decision to return stateside to start such an unusual enterprise.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby; I’m a Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera Wealth Management LLC, and today my colleague Mark Rioboli, another Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera, and I, will be chatting with Shelby Smith. Shelby is the owner and founder of Gym-N-Eat Crickets, and her firm’s mission is to deliver a high quality, highly sustainable source of protein from start to finish. They raise every cricket that goes in their product. So I’m going to hand over to Mark now, and Mark will get us started.
Thank you, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be here. I think this is gonna be a lot of fun. Shelby, I’ve known you since 2012 when you did an internship with our firm, and you enjoyed it so much you hopped on a plane and left the country. So what led you to that decision?
Yes, I did! I ran kicking and screaming from Philadelphia as fast as I could, away from Mark. No, I’m kidding. You know, after I graduated from St. Joe’s there in Philly, with my finance degree, I didn’t quite go in your footsteps. I was one class away, I think it was Intro to Tax, from finishing up my double major in financial planning, but it was an 8:30 second semester senior year, and I just could not justify getting up that early when I only had two classes total. So that dropped it down to just one. And it was only an independent study. I did finish that independent study.
But so I did not get my double major in financial planning, but I had the degree in finance, and then I had the opportunity to go over to Ireland and be part of a program called Sport Changes Life. So it was a three part program. It was part service. So we coached in underprivileged areas. Part education, so I earned my Master’s in Finance from Trinity College in Dublin. And then we got to continue our playing career in the Irish Premier League. So that was cool. Basically what happened is everybody kept giving me free school because I was good at basketball. So I just kept taking it.
Great. Now you just hit a chord with Mark, because as you can tell, he’s from Ireland.
Yes, I was detecting—
And I promised I wouldn’t—I was promising not to interrupt, Mark, but you know, I’m—no Dublin, Shelby?
Yes. You are not Dublin based on your accent.
Correct. And Trinity College. That’s a very posh college, you know that?
It is indeed. And then I worked in Dublin 4, down in Ballsbridge. afterwards. So I was very posh.
Another posh neighborhood. So you got a very good experience of Dublin.
I sure did, and I’m gonna guess with your accent being what it is, you might be a Waterford potentially? But I don’t know
Did you do finance in college or linguistics?
I spent five years in Ireland and I became very well versed in the variety of accents around the country. Let’s put it that way.
So in order to get this interview back on track, I will say you’re exactly correct, and I’m now going to hand it back to Mark because otherwise we could be here for another 20 minutes.
Well, thank you! So what took you into—you were working for five years at the bank, and from what I remember, it was a very good position. What led you to decide, “Hey, I want to get out of corporate America, get back to the US, and get into some sort of farming?”
Yeah, man, I wasn’t even in corporate America—I would call this corporate Ireland / Canada. Because I was actually—so the original plan was to go over to Ireland to just get my master’s degree, play for a year over there, and then I would come back and at the time—so I actually took my LSAT my second semester my senior year, because before I got picked up by the program, called Sport Changes Life, I had the intention of going and getting my law degree and my MBA at the same time. You can do those hybrid programs for four years. The academic athletic advisor had suggested that I go that route to get both my MBA and my law degree at the same time. So I’d actually taken my LSAT, and then I got accepted into Sport Changes Life, and their master’s programs over there are only about a year in length, so that would have worked out perfect—I would have gotten my master’s in finance, come back to the U.S., three years for law school, and away we would go. But I ended up falling in love with Ireland, and really loving the team that I was playing with.
So I finished up my courses at Trinity in April of 2014, and then I needed to write a dissertation. And the option for people to continue playing in Ireland generally, is to coach in the schools. I really don’t like coaching, so that was not going to be a good fit. So I needed to go use this brand new finance degree. And the team that I was playing on liked having me as part of their team for whatever reason, and so they actually originally set me up with an interview at an accountancy firm in Dublin, and I got offered a position as an intern there and accepted it. And then a few months later, before I was due to start that position, another position came up on this trading desk for a Canadian bank that had just been established in Dublin. And I thought, “You know, I’ll just go interview and see what happens—I would rather do that than accountancy anyways,” and ended up getting that position as a risk management intern on like I said, brand new trading desk.
When I started, I was the seventh employee, and we had about 30 million in trades on the books. So we were teeny tiny. There was no risk department, there were no risk systems, so basically, I had to build that from scratch. Fast forward about three months, and I had five interns of my own, and then fast forward another three months, and they moved me into a junior trading position.
So we did mainly securities borrowing and lending—equity derivatives is the major umbrella that it falls underneath. So I did that for a few years, but I just was bored. It was 14 hours a day stuck at a computer. Mark, you’ve known me for a while. I am not the type to just kind of sit around, like it’s just not in my nature.
In retrospect, it’s a lot easier for me to see. But so I just really was not enjoying it, but didn’t really have a plan. And I saw the golden handcuffs, getting sparklier and sparklier the longer I stayed. So I said, “You know what, I think I’ll go home. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. But I think I’ll go home.”
The wonderful thing was because everybody kept giving me free school for basketball. I had no student debt. So I was essentially free and clear after graduating from all of my different degrees, which gave me a lot of flexibility, and a little bit of a safety net so that I could just kind of be like, “Well, I’m gonna go figure it out,” because I had no bills to pay essentially.
That’s fantastic. Did you save? Ddid you follow good financial planning advice, and did you save while you were at the bank?
Of course I did! There are times now when I am, what, four years out of it, that I wish that I had had roommates, and maybe had a little bit lower rent—had lowered some of my living expenses so that I would have had a larger nest egg to throw into my entire business. But you know what? It is what it is. Like I said, I’m not strapped down with lots of student loan payments and everything else, which I know a lot of my peers are. So I come at it from—I feel very blessed in that respect.
Absolutely. So when you got back to the US—both of your parents were farmers. I remember you telling me that you would never be a farmer. How did you get from there to crickets?
Yes. I told just about everyone growing up that would listen, and even people who would not listen, that I was not going to do anything in ag and I was not going to be in the state of Iowa. Oh, how the tables have turned, but—
“Ag” by the way—”ag” is short for agriculture, right?
Yes. “Ag” is short for agriculture, the entire industry. It’s very broad and a lot more variety than I ever appreciated growing up, but that’s another story for another day.
So, it was honestly when I moved back—like I said, I did not have a plan. When I moved back, it was October 1st of 2017, and harvest was in full swing at that point. So it just made sense for me to hop in and help during harvest while I quote unquote, “figured out what I was going to do next.”
The other portion of it is maybe a little bit of succession planning on the part of my parents. I am one of two kids—so my brother is four years older than me, and he’s actually an F-16 pilot in the Air Force. So he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2009. He is way cooler than me—no matter what I do, he has a way cooler job and I’m totally okay with that. So that being said, growing up, he would have been the one that would have made way more sense to come back and take over the farm. Needless to say, he’s slightly busy. He actually also has four kids under the age of eight, so he is really busy, but he has taken all that grandkid pressure off of me, so it is fantastic.
So my parents really had nobody to come back and take over the farm. My dad’s one of ten kids; he grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Iowa, came down here to Central Iowa and started from scratch. And so everything he has built, obviously, you know, I think, ideally, my parents would love to be able to leave something to the next generation.
So that was kind of when I came back. It was dabbling in like, “Hey, would I like to do this kind of agriculture, just traditional mono crops, corn and soybeans, things like that?” Turns out, I’m not really cut out for that, in many ways, shapes and forms. But it was a really interesting experience. And it gave me a very different contrast and off ramp from the banking world to, shall we say, a more blue collar, salt of the earth kind of a situation. So that was a good transition.
Just a little bit—just a little bit different, right?
Yeah, but not much of a culture shock, shall we say.
So how did you then decide? I remember, you’ve told me in the past, your father never wanted to deal with livestock because they require a fair amount of attention on an ongoing basis, and you can’t disappear for a week for vacation with livestock. And so knowing that, you went into—I guess you would call crickets livestock, right?
Yes. Well, so I would not say that it was my dad so much that had the issue with livestock, I think that he originally would have liked to continue the dairy farming. It was my mother, I believe, that put down the ultimatum of “If there are cows involved, I will not be involved.” So I think that was how he landed on the corn and soybeans.
But so for me, honestly, I didn’t initially think about crickets as livestock—I very much do now. But they’re miniature, and they don’t require quite as strict of a schedule as traditional livestock, and cows that you need to milk, and things like that. But the way that I got into it was actually a conversation that my dad and I had post-harvest, when we received a gift basket from one of our landlords. It was full of maple syrup, which is like, not something you see in Iowa very often. But it was—it came from a farm in Iowa. He looked at that, and he said, “This is what you need to do—something like this with higher margins, something that’s totally niche, that people don’t do commonly. You can blaze your own trail, basically make your own market, like you need to figure something out like this.”
So that kind of planted the seed, and then I listen to a lot of podcasts. I started listening to them probably in 2015. And believe it or not, eating bugs came up on like three different podcasts. So now Mark, I know you’ll appreciate this being from Ireland. Everybody is usually convinced that I ate my first cricket in Ireland, and I’m like, “Oh, no, no. What you need to understand about Ireland is food culture-wise, the Irish are very similar to the Midwest, in terms of food culture.”
Yes. So we are usually three to five years behind the trend is the way that I would call Ireland, and so not known for our progressive palates. So let’s just say that I did not eat my first bugs in Ireland. Surprise, surprise, I’m sure.
And let me interject there Shelby—it wouldn’t have been a cricket. It would have been a grasshopper.
So yeah. It came up on podcasts.
Good. Did you, as you were planning this business, you were in the early stages—was it your intention to combine your physical activity—the gym part of it—in with a high quality protein source? Was that a goal or was that more by accident?
In retrospect, I would love to say that it was a very clean cut goal that I did 100% by design, but I would probably be pulling your leg slightly there. It was a little bit of an accident, and it just, ultimately as this has grown and morphed and evolved, what has remained true in the entire thing, the entire brand: I am sort of the constant, and so whatever—which makes sense, if you think about it—anytime you build a brand like it needs to be authentically you, so that it is consistent across everything.
So I’ve made it abundantly clear that that is the way it’s going to be from the beginning. So naturally, you know, I tend to do fairly extreme physical things on occasion. So tying that in just makes sense for me, it would never make sense for me to come out with the latest, like, junk food craze with a cricket twist, because that’s just not something that I would incorporate into my life normally. So that just felt like a very natural—natural marriage, if you will.
Yeah, I think it’s a perfect combination. And it was really my initial interest in the product, was from the health aspects of it. So that I think works very, very well.
You’ve been a sole proprietor the whole time. Talk about some of your struggles in starting a business like this.
Yeah. Well so, I have a few part-time employees, and then I have five contract growers, which, I mean, they’re on contract. They don’t get 1099ed by me, but I’m contracted to purchase their crickets, and I taught them how to raise the crickets and everything.
But starting out on my own, in many ways, I look back and kind of wish that I had a co-founder, and then there’s days where I have friends who have co-founders and absolutely tear their hair out, and so there’s other days, I’m so glad I don’t have a co-founder, and basically, anytime something goes wrong, I get to blame it on my boss, so it’s great. Some days, she’s having a good day, some days, she’s having a bad one.
I mean, the biggest challenge for me, if I look back, is I had no idea what I was doing on either side of my business, from raising the crickets—I don’t know, Mark, have you ever tried your hand at raising some crickets?
No see, but you could start a cricket business too, because that’s exactly how I was almost four years ago. So it can be learned! It’s not that complicated. But so I was learning how to grow this animal, and then I was also learning the food business on the other side. Two things that I had absolutely zero experience, zero knowledge in. And if I look back four years now, I kind of go, “What the heck was I thinking?” Like, what? I was just, you know, had just turned 27 years old, was full of just naive enthusiasm, I think, which, you know, that can carry you pretty far sometimes.
So I think my whole business model was a challenge, because it was so new. But I also think personality-wise, like that’s what attracted me to it. I’ve never been one to do what everybody else does. It’s just not in my nature. I’m a little naturally rebellious, naturally contrarian. So I think it just, that was the biggest challenge with everything at the beginning, because it just—forget the like, actually running the business planning things out, like financial forecasts, all of that stuff. That’s super easy. That’s a spreadsheet, it’s making that spreadsheet come to life. That was the hard part, and continues to be the hard part.
So you said the financial piece of it was easy. I suspect the bank experience helped with the projections and some of the basic business planning as well as your financial planning background. You do have employees now—you have a few employees. What challenges have you experienced in terms of adding personnel?
Adding personnel has been very interesting. So that’s been like a last 12 months development for me that has come in out of necessity, and probably needed to come six months earlier than it did. Part of it is always a question of “what level of sales do I need to be able to sustain this, and live to fight another day? What tasks? How much time am I actually dedicating to tasks that I could easily delegate to someone to free me up for the more value-added things?”
So there was a lot of, I wouldn’t call it soul searching, but just a general assessment, like general, honest, high level assessment of where was my time being devoted, and were those actually moving the ball forward, and what would have moved the ball forward 12 months ago, needs to be reassessed to see if allocating my time to that—is that we’re really needs to be? Like what are the high value things in my business that only I can do? Because there are some things that are that way. And what are the other things that I can delegate away?
I am not perfect at that. I am still working on it. But having two part-time employees has helped massively. The other thing: Here in Ames, Iowa, we actually have the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, and have for like multiple years, even though we’re in a college town. So getting consistent labor is difficult. For me, oftentimes, it is, you know, 16, 17, 18 year olds that want like an after school job or something, which works great for my setup. But I am not looking forward to recruiting for some more like, key employees. So things like you know, a head of sales or a head of operations, that’s like, the really key employees that may be salaried or something like that—that may end up being a harder find for me. So that’s something I’m not looking forward to. But you know, it’s one of those things, I think with building a business, you just have to be flexible and roll with the punches as they come at ya.
What’s the one key takeaway that you’d like to share with the listeners, in terms of how to approach decision making?
I would say that “perfect” is the enemy of “done.” I think if I waited until time, conditions, situation, market timing, all of those things—if I tried to, you know, nail that perfectly before I launched, it would have never happened. Even things down to like packaging for my first product, flavors offered for my first product. Man, I look at that stuff in retrospect, and I go, “It is a miracle anyone bought anything.” But the fact is, people did. Even though it was subpar packaging in my eyes, or you know, the flavors weren’t quite what they should have been.
But that’s how I learned. it was very iterative. Not everything went well. But that’s the reality of it. So “perfect” is the enemy of “done.” Don’t wait until it’s perfect, because it never will be.
That’s how I was going to sum up your whole sentence there. My personal favorite is the banana bread. I think that’s a great one. I’ve had them all, but that’s probably my favorite.
Finally, what was the last non-financial related decision you had to make today? Just something as simple as you know, coffee or tea, or—what was the last non-financial decision?
It was which tea did I want? Did I want one with caffeine in it, or did I want one without caffeine?
So it depends on the kind of day that’s ahead!
Well, for what it’s worth, I chose caffeine.
I’m gonna ask one other question too, before I wrap up here, because this is one which I think is particularly relevant to your stage in the life of your business. Shelby, are you able to separate your personal finances from your business finances at this point?
No. No, well, yes and no. Again, I—so I still live in my parents’ basement, so that helps on the whole, like, expenses side. And then I have not poured everything that I had from my previous career into this one. So that helps. There is a separation there—slight delineation. But the rest of my life, I mean, you know, you own a business for freedom, right? But then the business owns you.
But that being said, I enjoy being owned by this business right now. So yes, there is a separation—sort of. But the lines are getting grayer by the day.
Great! Thanks for sharing that.
So thanks very much to Mark and Shelby for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Shelby Smith, also known as the “Mother of Crickets,” is originally from Ames, Iowa where she grew up on the family farm. A natural athlete, she parlayed her basketball skill into several scholarships for both undergrad and postgrad study in the United States and in Ireland.
After several years overseas during which time she received her Masters in Finance from Trinity College, Dublin, and worked for the National Bank of Canada, she returned to Ames in 2017, and eventually founded Gym-N-Eat Crickets. Gym-N-Eat Crickets and its partners raises their own crickets, which only require a fraction of the energy and resources to produce the same amount of protein as traditional sources, such as beef, pork, and chicken.
Cricket-based bars, powders and more are highly nutritious, full of complete protein—including all nine essential amino acids. They are also a good source of iron, calcium, B-12, omegas, and fiber.
Modera is an SEC registered investment adviser which does not imply any level of skill or training. For additional information see our Form ADV available at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov which contains a full description of our business, operations and service offerings including fees. Statements made in the podcast are not to be construed as personalized investment or financial planning advice, may not be suitable for everyone and should not be considered a solicitation to engage in any particular investment or planning strategy. Statements made are subject to change without notice.