Meeting Changing Challenges

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When Oahu native Mylen Yamamoto showcased her chopstick invention on the eighth season of “Shark Tank,” the exposure generated by the show offset the lack of a deal.

“Three weeks ago, we were able to show our idea to 5 million people in one night through ‘Shark Tank,’” Yamamoto told Pacific Business News. “Although we didn’t get a deal, our web traffic went up 275 percent, and we received a lot of interest from restaurants and distributors. We had online orders every second while the episode was airing.” (See the episode here: bizj.us/1p64z5)

The idea for Cropsticks, or eco-friendly chopsticks made of bamboo that snap horizontally to create a holder, came about in early 2015 when Yamamoto was on a flight to Singapore.

“My chopsticks kept rolling off my tray table, and I thought there has to be a better way,” Yamamoto said.

She brought the idea to her students at Loyola Marymount University where she was teaching an entrepreneurship class, and after partnering with Jay Chang, a manufacturer who owns a bamboo company, the product was launched.

After getting into XLR8UH — a venture accelerator at the University of Hawaii — Cropsticks made its restaurant debut at Roy’s Eating House 1849 at the International Market Place, and has since expanded to all 10 of the Roy’s Hawaii restaurants as well as MW Restaurant. In the past month, Cropsticks sales have tripled, and in a seed investment round, the product raised more than $200,000.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur? No, I actually always thought I was going to be a teacher. My dad taught for over 40 years in Hawaii’s Department of Education, and it made me want to teach. Entrepreneurship just kind of happened for me. My first business was a talent management company that I launched in 2012, which is how I got hired at Loyola Marymount University. While it was hard to leave that secure job last year to pursue my businesses full time, I’m very passionate about what I am doing.

What is the biggest challenge of your business? With Cropsticks, we are the first to the market, which means that people are not sure if it is going to be a hit or not. Chopsticks have been around for over 4,000 years, and this is the first time it is being done differently. Every time you introduce a concept, there is education involved, so it has been a challenge to make sure all stakeholders understand the business. I think it is going to be a hit, and we have received a lot of great feedback so far. Our challenges are constantly changing — last year we were worried about funding, and hopefully our challenge next year is that we need to produce more.

What is the biggest reward of your business? I love the people that I work with, and that we are creating something bigger than ourselves. I come from the public school system —all the way from Moanalua High School to Cal State Los Angeles — and I didn’t come from money. I want to show people that if I can do it, you can do it. Leverage the resources you have to create success.

What do you wish you would have known before you started? I am definitely fortunate to be surrounded by people smarter than me, and I have avoided a lot of mistakes because of my mentors. I think it is important to file your provisional patent as soon as possible, and get an attorney if you can afford one.

What is next for the company? Our company mission is to leave behind a greener environment for future generations, and as a result, we are in development for our next product that uses the by-product of our of Cropsticks. There is a lot of bamboo residue from making chopsticks, and we are looking into how we can expand our line with that by-product. We are also looking into securing larger accounts — our dream would be to work with Disney and P.F. Changs — and maybe partnering with an airline like ANA or Hawaiian [Airlines]. Then our business will have come full circle.

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