Pricklee Co-founder Kun Yang On Being A Resilient Cactus In The Harsh World Of Start-up

There is no doubt that the cactus flourish in tough and hot deserts, and as prickly as they are on the outside, who would have thought that cacti are packed with antioxidants on the inside? 

Five minority Boston healthcare workers from completely different ethnic backgrounds believed that the cactus was the plant of the future after one of their founders, Mo, shared his grandmother’s refreshing beverage recipe.

Pricklee co-founder Kun Yang, told the Asian Hustle Network that they jumped headfirst into the CPG vertical with no prior experience. Read as Kun shares their humble beginnings, the challenges they have faced bootstrapping Pricklee, and their learnings and advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Kun was born in the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, Chengdu, and migrated to Canada when he was three years old. He pursued a career in healthcare, “at strict encouragement of my parents” he adds. Growing up, for many first-generation immigrants, the thought of entrepreneurship was not a viable choice.

Meeting The Guys 

We all met between 2015-2016 in Boston, MA after we had finished pharmacy school and started our professional careers. We really couldn’t have come from more diverse backgrounds, hailing from South and North India, Lebanon, Guyana, and China. Despite this, we quickly realized how much-shared experience there was in being a first-generation American, no matter where our families were from. And that shared experience was powerful enough to build a business with.

How The Idea Sparked

Growing up in Lebanon, Mo (my cofounder) and his siblings would always drink Cactus Water, a delicious, hydrating beverage that their Grandma Zahra would make from the resilient prickly pear cactus! The cactus was so symbolic of Grandma Zahra because there was no one that represented resilience better than her.

Fast forward to 2018, when Mo saw prickly pears in our local grocery store and decided to share his best impression of grandma’s recipe with us. After just ONE sip, we were blown away by the refreshingly delicious taste, and equally impressed with the natural antioxidants, electrolytes, and vitamin C it contained. Turns out, Cactus Water literally defends your body like a Cactus by boosting immunity, recovery, and hydration. It was like nothing we had ever tasted, and so we decided then and there to create Pricklee, a delicious celebration of health, happiness, and the resilient human spirit.

Facing The Hurdles Of A Start-up

Being first-generation Americans, the two biggest challenges we faced were (1) finding business mentors and (2) fundraising large investment rounds.

Finding the correct business mentors was such a challenging process because when we first started, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. This resulted in a longer stealth-mode phase for our brand-building process, wherein we didn’t launch Pricklee until February 2021 because it took us almost 2 years to just learn the CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) business – mostly through trial and error. We networked extensively in various Slack and Facebook groups, where we eventually found some incredible mentors and advisors along the way, and that expedited our time to learn dramatically while reducing the cost of learning as well.

Fundraising as a first-generation American is always going to be difficult, because most, if not all of the early-stage leads are going to originate from your direct peer network. Since most of our peer networks have never founded nor invested in startup businesses before, pitching prospective investors also came with the added burden of education of the fundraising process in and of itself. Furthermore, the likelihood of generational wealth in the form of larger check sizes wasn’t available to us from the start, meaning our family and friends’ rounds were of smaller check sizes to begin with. There was really no easy way of overcoming this challenge, and like the first problem, it just required a ton of networking, patience, and resilience like the Cactus! 

Biggest Takeaway After A Year Launching Pricklee

Building a business founded upon a brand ideal and/or mission that’s bigger than the product is so important. Not only does it increase the likelihood of success for your business, but it creates external value for your community – this creates a sense of purpose and pride for your team and employees to live by every single day, making for a much more engaged and productive team. For Pricklee, that brand ideal is all about inspiring resilience by supporting physical, emotional, and mental health.

What Makes Pricklee Unique

Our differentiator is the mission we wake up to every single day of our lives:

“To inspire YOU to be resilient like the CACTUS.” 

Pricklee celebrates the cactus as a symbol of resilience, not only because cacti thrive in the toughest environment on the planet, but because if you look closely – it resembles a human being that’s winning. That’s why we support positivity, equity, and mental health.

Additionally, the cactus is naturally packed with antioxidant-boosting health benefits like immunity, recovery, and hydration, AND it’s also drought-tolerant, requiring nothing but rainfall to grow! From the roots to the fruits, every component of the cactus can be used for food and/or cosmetics, leather, oils, or even biofuel. It’s truly a sustainability superstar. 

The best part about championing a hero ingredient that celebrates the human spirit is that we’re all capable of being resilient – it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you do, or what you look like. Just look at these past two years – we continue to give, to support, to share, to create, to hustle, to love. And that’s because we’re stronger together than we are apart.


Advice To Aspiring Entrepreneurs

There is no shortcut to success. Be wary of the gurus that overpromise a solution that’s too good to be true, because it most likely is. We live in an age of digital sensationalism and manufactured hype – don’t buy into it. Word of mouth is the only hype that is lasting, and that takes a ton of time, effort, and education to foster. As the saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get.

And remember, if the going gets tough – just channel your inner Cactus and stay resilient! <3


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