I Am Generation T: Max von Poelnitz
Max von Poelnitz was sick and tired. Sick of the oppressive strictures of corporate life, and tired of sacrificing his health for his job. “It was one of those jobs where you had to get in before the boss and leave after the boss,” von Poelnitz tells Generation T about his former life. As well as pulling long hours, von Poelnitz, like many Hongkongers, felt his health suffer due to the lack of healthy food options near his office.
Quitting the corporate world to launch a healthy food startup, then, must have seemed like the remedy to both of these symptoms. His first venture, Secret Ingredient, was part of the burgeoning ‘meal kit’ industry. Launched in 2011, the company delivered fresh, pre-prepared ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes for healthy home cooking. The concept took off around the world—US meal kit company Blue Apron was valued at just under US$2 billion at its IPO last year—but it failed to take off for von Poelnitz. Hongkongers, it turned out, just don’t cook at home as often.
The natural next step, therefore, was delivering the finished product to the consumer. And so, from the ashes of Secret Ingredient emerged Nosh, a “virtual cafeteria that designs meals specifically for delivery.” The company works with partners such as Deliveroo to deliver calorie-controlled meals to the health-conscious, the time-poor, and, for the most part, the desk-bound.
It’s a business model seemingly more suited to Hong Kong. Decision-makers at Alibaba clearly think so—the company’s Entrepreneur Fund was an early investor. The numbers seem to back it up too. Since launching in 2015, the startup has delivered over 500,000 meals. Today, Nosh says the business is growing 45 per cent per quarter.
As a final vindication for von Poelnitz, a large part of Nosh’s business comes from corporate subscriptions, with companies eager to provide their employees with access to healthy lunch options that for so long weren’t readily available. Nosh now services 122 corporate clients, providing “dietician-approved” meals to offices across the city.
We sit down with von Poelnitz to discuss success, failure and how a typhoon changed his life forever.
What was your reaction to being on the Generation T list?
I don’t know what I’ve achieved to deserve being on the list. It’s best not to spend much time reflecting on what you’ve done. When you’re always trying to keep growing, it’s best to never really be satisfied with anything you’ve achieved.
What or who is your inspiration?
My mother. She’s a cardiologist but she doesn’t “work”; it’s her life. She doesn’t use the noun “work”. She does what she does because that’s the one thing she wants to do.
What was your biggest “A-ha moment” in business—a huge realisation that changed everything for you?
A turning point in my life was when I decided to quit my corporate job. I walked to the office during a typhoon, my suit was soaking wet, and I saw everyone arriving with their umbrellas looking unhappy. I said to myself, “This life isn’t for me.”
Where do you want to be in ten years?
I rate myself on how many people I can interact with as a business. We’d like to be dealing with 100 million customers.
See also: Meet 7 Young Game Changers Who Are Shaping The Future of Hong Kong
And what’s your ultimate professional ambition?
To run a company with 1,000 employees. I think I’m never going to be satisfied with any metric I hit, so I just pulled one out of the air that, at this stage, seems unachievable.
“The worst advice I ever got was go to college”
If you could go out for a drink with anyone in the world—alive or dead, real or fictional—who would it be?
Winston Churchill. People who can lead through difficult times always inspire me because that’s really what the startup life is. It’s leading a group to try to achieve a single purpose through thick and thin.
What habits do most successful people share?
First and foremost, they’re accountable to themselves. They push themselves; they don’t need someone else to push them to achieve. Next, they don’t dramatically care about other people’s opinions. When it comes to achieving your goals, if you listen to other people’s opinions you’re never going to get there.
Other than deciding to work for yourself, what’s the single most important decision you’ve made that’s contributed to your success so far?
Moving to Hong Kong. I was offered a job in Hong Kong on a whim and moved here three weeks later. It was a complete whirlwind; completely spontaneous.
How do you deal with failure?
It’s a really normal part of what I do [as an entrepreneur], so I’m dealing with it on pretty much a daily basis. Once I accepted it without fear and understood it as naturally occurring fact, it stopped bothering me.
What’s the next disruptor in your industry?
The automation of the workforce. Menial, unskilled labour is going to be handled by AI and robots more and more over the next 20 years.
Is there a quote you live by?
“Just ask.” I’ve found that so many people are afraid of just asking for what they want. Or even asking a question, engaging with another person—whether it’s in a negotiation or a partnership.
If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
“Fail fast and pivot quicker.” I operated [Secret Ingredient] for about six years and I had the opportunity to pivot a few times much faster than I did. More importantly, towards the end I held on for about a year and a half longer than I should have. If something is failing and you can see it, then I think my job is to move as quickly as possible to something else.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?
The worst advice I ever got was go to college. I shouldn’t have gone. For a certain type of person, university is a waste of time. I think I could’ve done more with the cash as well as the time. It costs US$100,000 in America; I could’ve taken that money and built my first company faster.
See also: I Am Generation T: Keshia Hannam
How do you define success?
I struggle with this a lot. I guess it first starts with financial freedom—and that means something different for different people. Ultimately, it ends with: “Are you satisfied with yourself?” Are you happy with who you are?
Don’t let anybody tell you…
That everyone has the same path to happiness.
Name three skills or qualities every young entrepreneur needs to be armed with.
You need to know how to sell; I don’t care if you’re an artist, you need to know sales. Secondly, you can’t fear failure. Finally, you need strong leadership skills so other people will work as hard as you for you as you do.
See all 50 of the game changing young talents on the Generation T List 2018.
Photography: Callaghan Walsh | Styling: Christie Simpson | Outfits: Theory