In this edition of ‘How to Succeed‘, we speak to Vikas Garg, founder and CEO of user-generated, plant-based app abillion on his successful finance and tech career, passion for sustainability and how he is striving for change – one vegan dish at a time.
With a community of 300,000 (and counting!) strong and members spanning over 130 countries, user-generated, plant-based app, abillion has raised $6.5million in funding in support of its sustainable social media platform since the initial idea was conceived in 2017. Aiming to “remove obstacles for individuals hoping to lead a more plant-based lifestyle,” abillion is an ecosystem whereby consumers are able to share reviews and information, with every member posting a review on the app receiving $1 back to then donate to some of the world’s most impactful organisations.
A lifelong vegetarian himself, Vikas adopted a vegan lifestyle in 2008. With an ambitious goal for the app’s community to donate one million dollars this year and already exceeding 700,000 reviews on the platform, the entrpreneur’s vision for a sustainable future continues to strengthen. In this edition of ‘How to Succeed’, we speak with Vikas about his successful finance and tech career, his views on sustainability, words of advice for other budding entrepreneurs and well as his go-to vegan recipes. Read on…
Tell us a little bit about your background – how did you enter this industry? Was there a moment or event that really influenced you to become an entrepreneur?
I’m originally from India, but I grew up in New York City. My family moved to the United States when I was four years old. I grew up in an Asian American family and that meant a strong work ethic was instilled in me from an early age. I started interning on Wall Street at the age of 14 and, after university, built a successful career in finance. I actually started my first company when I was 16, a marketplace selling camping gear and vintage Polo, Versace, Moschino, North Face, etc. it was called UrbanWarez and the money I made helped me pay for part of my college fees.
After working for my whole life in finance, I was in my mid 30’s and wanted to start something of my own. I thought about starting something in finance— it was what I was familiar with — but I didn’t see myself working in the sector for the next 30 years. That’s when I realised I wanted to align my passion for veganism and animal welfare with my career. I wanted to give back to society, and at the same time cultivate a business idea that could guide people to live more sustainably and to make giving to charities habitual. After much soul-searching and market study, I started abillion in the summer of 2017 with the goal to help close the gap from where sustainability seems like a task to a platform where it is the most accessible.
Who is one person who has been instrumental in your success?
My wife Sonia. She’s my best friend, my partner in life, mother to our daughter, a brilliant leader at work, she finds time to stay fit and social. She constantly inspires me to be the best version of myself possible.
Tell us about a significant point where you truly began to feel recognised; that you’ve “made it”.
During its initiation, abillion raised US$2 million in seed funding, which broke records as the most significant seed round for a plant-based start-up that year in Singapore. This was a pivotal milestone for us, as it gave us the means to be able to scale the operation. It also highlighted the growing belief in veganism and its positive impacts on the planet.
To you, what’s the most important aspect, trait or criteria for someone to succeed?
Without a doubt, the key to success is to truly believe in what you are doing and your cause. It’s also important to surround yourself with successful and positive people and be fully committed to your core values.
What’s some of the key challenges that taught you a pivotal lesson? What was the most important thing you learned building abillion?
There have been many challenges along the way, but I think the main ones were in the first year or two; our team was small, and whilst we were working so hard each day, progress overall felt quite slow. Now, we have an amazing team of over 30 employees, many of whom are experts in their relative fields, which certainly helps!
One thing I have learnt is the importance of creating an amazing team, who continue to inspire me (and each other) every day. The abillion team is super diverse, which is important as it means that everyone brings a fresh perspective to the table.
What did you wish you knew at the start of your career that you know now? What words of advice would you want to give your younger self?
To go with your gut and work in a job and industry that truly matters to you. Making the move to leave my previous role and start abillion was of course very scary at the time, but it has more than paid off, and working towards a goal that I believe in every single day is priceless.
Your crucial tip for productivity? Do you use a particular app? Meditate?
One thing that really helps me to stay motivated and productive is to wake up early and go for a swim or a run first thing in the morning. It helps me to clear my mind and sets me up for the day ahead.
What does an average work day look like for you?
It depends on the day of the week! My two-year-old sleeps through the night 25 percent of the time, so on mornings when I’m well rested I’ll start with a run or swim at 6am. I work from 8am to 6.30pm and the rest of the time is for my wife and daughter. Mondays and Tuesdays are a lot of meetings with the team, talking through projects and calibrating. The rest of the days are a bit different, talking to our members and a lot of stakeholders, like consumer products companies, restaurant owners, and our investors. We’re also growing our team so on an average day I might meet or interview someone who is being considered for a role at the company.
What do you like to do when you’re not working, how does it help you or how does it make you feel?
Spending quality time with my family is the most important thing to me, and how I spend most of my non-working time. I also love music, and I started baking during lockdown, which is also very relaxing!
Tell us more about abillion. What is the concept behind the app?
abillion is a user-led platform that encourages people to share reviews of vegan dishes or products, with the ultimate goal of using user-generated content to create an ecosystem for the plant-based movement. For every review posted, abillion credits its members $1 that they can donate to close to 70 of the world’s most impactful organisations, who lead conservation, education and diet change efforts. We have the world’s most valuable and unique consumer data set for sustainability. We have 700,000 reviews on our platform and as more members post reviews, our dataset continues to grow exponentially. We leverage this proprietary dataset to help investors, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers identify market gaps and growth opportunities in the socially responsible consumption wave. We bridge the gap between the consumers and the businesses to create a more sustainable world.
We are the first company to launch Awards for plant-based products and dishes. I think recipients, be they cities, brands or restaurants appreciate that our awards are based on real consumer data and preferences. We’re not telling the public that something is number one based on the opinions of a small panel of celebrity judges; we’re awarding someone a first place award based on thousands of data points based on real member feedback. This gives our awards a level of credibility and data integrity that sets us apart.
What was the motivation behind the concept?
I grew up in a vegetarian household. Being vegetarian growing up in NYC was actually pretty limiting… I mostly ate a lot of dairy, pizza, things like that. It was always a challenge when going to restaurants and having to ask 2-3 questions, and became even more so when I became vegan.
In 2008, however, I made the decision to embark on a vegan diet, having realised that some of the advertising surrounding the health benefits of incorporating dairy into your diet was perhaps not as truthful as I’d once thought. This was also around the time I got my dog, and although animal rights have always been very important to me, the emotional connection I made with my pet really got me thinking more deeply about the impact of my vegetarian diet, and how becoming vegan might be more beneficial for the environment.
The eventual decision to launch abillion felt like a natural one. I wanted to create a platform that would ultimately help people to make the transition from where making sustainable food choices was difficult, to where it was actually the simplest and the more natural thing to do.
Was it important to you to be able to contribute to charity?
Yes, this was very important to me. When I started abillion, I realised instead of spending huge amounts of money on marketing, I wanted to donate that money to nonprofits that were changing the world. I wanted to give back to society and see if I could harness technology to make giving a habit. One of our missions of abillion is to guide people in making social impact and sustainability habitual.
Our giving program is unique in the social media world. For every review shared, users are credited with US$1 which, all on the app, they can donate to some of the world’s most impactful organisations, who lead conservation, education and diet change efforts. This helps users to make the connection between their daily habits and the impact they are having.
You’re an avid cook! Care to share one of your favourite recipes with us?
I adore the Eggplant Lasagna Roll-up recipe from Minimalist Baker for the extraordinarily versatile tofu ricotta filling recipe included in it. If I want pasta I’ll swap out the eggplant for cannelloni shells. The eggplant rolls are also wonderful piled into a soft Italian hero bread – they’re even better than the eggplant parmesan subs that I grew up eating in NYC slice joints! Although now that I’m thinking about it, maybe the stuffed pasta shells would be even better tucked inside the bread.