This week is our interview with the Mahdi Brothers and Anthony Duncan, co-founders of Mad Optimist, a sustainable customizable body care brand with a community focus based right here in Bloomington, Indiana. All three are alumni of the College of Arts & Sciences here at IU, having graduated with majors in psychology, political science, and linguistics. In this week’s episode, they share their story of how they went from friends in college to business owners of a successful company, and why it’s so important to do what you love. We even dive into their experience being on the hit TV show Shark Tank, and advice on navigating starting your career after graduation.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
MOLLY: Hey Hoosiers! Welcome back to another episode of All Careers Considered. This podcast is produced by the Walter Center for Career Achievement, which is the Career Services Center that specifically serves students and alumni in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. We’re on a mission to help you achieve career success by supporting you in your pursuit of impactful experiences, designing your life, sharing your story and building meaningful connections.
My name is Molly Burkhardt. I’m the assistant director of Strategic Alumni Engagement for the Walter Center and I’m also the host of this podcast. You may have heard that you can do anything with the College of Arts and Sciences degree, and I’m here to show you that that really is the case by interviewing alumni from all over the country and the world to ask them how they got to where they are now. Next up is my interview with the Mahdi Brothers and Anthony Duncan, co-founders of Mad Optimist, which is a sustainable customizable body care brand with a community focus. That’s based right here in Bloomington. All three are alumni of the College of Arts and Sciences, and we had a great conversation about why it’s important to do what you love, what skills are most important to learn when starting a business, and what it was like going on Shark Tank, enjoy the interview!
MOLLY: Alrighty! Thank you all for joining me today.
MAHDI BROTHERS & ANTHONY: Thank you for having us.
MOLLY: So I’d love to get started. I’d love for each of you to kind of introduce yourselves and tell me a little bit about what your specific role is at Mad Optimist.
MOHAMMED M: Great. My name is Mohammed M, I am the CEO of the Mad Optimist. I primarily deal with the customer emails that come in and IT systems and setting up those and also strategic planning.
ANTHONY: I’m Anthony. I focus on marketing and I do like private label orders a week, we do a lot of those and a lot of other things in between.
MOHAMMED A: Hi and I’m Mohammad A Mahdi. I’m the COO and I prioritize more on the production managing, shipping and just overseeing all the employees that we have as well.
MOLLY: Very cool. Awesome. Thank you for that little introduction and sharing kind of what you all do individually for the company. So I’d love to backtrack a little bit if we can rewind and go back to when you were students at IU. So I know that Mohammed M, you’re a psychology major if I’m correct, Mohammed A, you were political science and if you were linguistics. So that’s super interesting, especially because you know, this is a podcast for Career Services for the College of Arts and Sciences. So I love seeing that you guys had those really interesting liberal arts majors. So I’d love to know when you went to college, when you’re starting at IU, what your initial plan was for choosing that major and maybe what you envisioned for yourself with your career, maybe when you’re starting college.
MOHAMMED M: Sure. For me it was more so of the experience. My parents gave the suggestion of finding a subject area that you most resonate with and just pursue that. And for me, I really like to learn about people and how people think. And so psychology for me was a subject matter that I enjoyed very much so.
ANTHONY: And for me, I’m Anthony. I went in actually thinking I might stay in academia in the field of linguistics. But as I learned more, I decided that that as a career, wasn’t something I was interested in. So I just kind of left it open after that. That was an open mind.
MOHAMMED A: For me, Mohammed A, just kinda like my brother too, I just chose what I was really interested in. And at that time, political science is really like, government and like how polar science is formed and everything as well. So I just took classes about that.
MOLLY: Yeah. I love hearing that you all, you know, chose the major that interested you the most, not based on, you know, exactly the type of job you thought you would get. And that’s what we try to tell students too. So it’s cool hearing that. So Mohammed A and Mohammed M you are brothers. So I’m curious, did you all know Anthony going into college or how did you all meet?
MOHAMMED M: Yeah. So after I graduated, I stayed in Bloomington. This is Mohammed M, and I worked for a few years and I, I thought it was best to go ahead and, and, uh, purchase a place of my own. And so. Uh, I bought a condo and, and, uh, decided to rent out rooms. And so, Anthony was basically someone who I rented a room up to and we became friends and now a business partner.
MOLLY: That’s really cool. So I’m curious, how did you all get the idea for Mad Optimist? Where did that, you know, at what time did you kind of get that idea and where did you get that idea from? Cause it’s really cool that you all have really carved out a specific niche, kind of in the body care/soap industry.
MOHAMMED A: Yeah. I mean, it actually just kind of evolved over many years. So we just started making soap in our kitchen and started a business and sold locally. And it was kind of changed over the years and we kind of discovered where we could make an impact in the industry beyond just making body care. And so I think we had the idea early on to do custom, so, but we kind of filed it away cause we thought it would be fairly difficult to do one-off bars of soap. But then later on we sort of realized that our process is really great for that. And as far as the social values of the company, those were always sort of built in just wanting equality and just trying different ways of running a business that we thought would be better.We’ve always kind of done that. We just didn’t necessarily share it or think about it as something unique. So it’s always interesting to sort of take a step back and look at what you’re doing and be like, wait, this is what is really different about us. Yeah, we make body care and we can even do custom but what are some other different aspects? So, a few years ago, we really all kind of came to a head and we decided to rebrand under the name of the Mad Optimist that really held all of our values just within the name alone. And now we’re just moving full steam ahead on all those ideas.
MOLLY: Very cool. Yeah. I love that. You all are obviously, you know, sustainable brands and everything, but you also had the, you know, sliding scale that you can pay for whatever you can afford. I think that’s a really unique kind of approach to it. And I thought that was really cool. So when you all decided to really launch the business, so you’re making soap in your kitchen and you decide that you want to kind of leave maybe whatever you were doing before and decide to really start this business, did you have any doubts about it, you know, what was that like kind of starting a business, especially since you all are coming from the College of Arts and Sciences and don’t have traditional business backgrounds, and we know that you all had transferable skills, but what was that like, kind of taking that leap of faith and starting the business?
ANTHONY: Well, it was, this is Anthony again. We’ve always had. three of us in our own ways are very project oriented. We learn about what we’re doing as we go. We weren’t ever of the mindset of let’s skip this specific degree and just focus in that area. It’s more of realizing that even in whatever job you get, you’re going to have to learn and make it your own and grow in that position. So when it came to starting the business, I was sort of, we didn’t really feel like there are any barriers in that sense. There were some things that were difficult to find and learn, but those would have been difficult even if we had gotten a business degree, because we’ve had many business interns since starting the company and we found that, it’s very specific to what you’re specifically doing, is what you need to know. And, regardless of degree, you have to figure that out and build it for yourself. And we’re just always confident in doing that ourselves. So that was part of it.
Any other comments on that from you guys?
MOHAMMED A: No, I think Anthony said very well.
MOLLY: Awesome. Yeah, I think that’s a perfect response to that one. So I also know that you all went on shark tank, which as someone who is an avid watcher of shark tank reruns, especially during the quarantine, I thought that was pretty exciting. So tell me a little bit about that. What was that like getting onto Shark Tank. What was your experience like? Just on a personal note, I would love to hear about that. I’m sure students would be.
MOHAMMED M: Yeah. Hm. It is pretty difficult. Well maybe difficult is not the right word, but it’s very involved. How about that? Yeah. There are a lot of different steps involved and if anyone out there is looking to start that process, by all means I would encourage them to go and do it. That basically how that happened for us is, we went online and we applied and basically we forgot about it. We applied, forgot about it and many, many, many months passed by. We actually thought that, they might not even be interested at that time. And then we got a phone call and from there it is quite an experience. And we’ve learned a great deal from going through that. And we didn’t even realize that the chances of getting the show on the air. I think there was an article that said, you would have better likelihood of getting into Harvard and Yale, and graduating with a degree from both of them, like those are your odds of getting on. And so when we actually got on, we were like, Oh, wow. I guess we met those odds.
MUHAMMAD A: It’s definitely, this is Mohammed A, it’s definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, definitely to be there to be on the show and to be getting your episode to air is amazing.
MOLLY: Yeah, that is so incredible. And I had heard that it was pretty competitive to get on there, but didn’t realize it was that competitive. So that is really impressive. And then after you all went on shark tank, I mean, what was the outcome of that? Did you all see like an increase in your sales? How were things after that experience?
MOHAMMED M: Yeah. We have a ton of sales that came in that day, uh, the day of the airing and the few days afterwards, as well, we were prepared like our website, we made sure that we ran a few tests ahead of time to make sure that it can withstand an ample amount of users. And it was really, really exhilarating watching the Google analytics in real time cause, we had a counter live on our other big screen and you see it going from zero, not zero, like from 12 and then at 50, then it went to like 230. Then it went up to 1000. Then it went up to like 1000, I’m sorry, 3,500. And then it went up to 23,000 and it would just climb, climb, climb, climb. And at the same time on my other monitor, I was also making sure that the servers, the load and everything were pretty good too. It is very, very fun and exciting. We had our staff here as well, and that was very nice too and it was justice to see that.
MOLLY: Yeah, I bet. That was really exciting. So just a couple more questions, thinking back to when you all were either a student or like right after you graduated, I’d be curious to hear what for you all was, one of the most beneficial, maybe it was a class or an internship or a research project or anything like that, that you feel like when you look back you’re like, “That really helped me and prepared me to launch a business or create this product. Just anything you feel like when you were earlier in your career, what was really helpful? Because students might, you know, kind of like to hear those connections and consider some opportunities that they could learn like you all did.
ANTHONY: This is Anthony. This is maybe not exactly some of the things you’ve listed, of course classes and internships are very important but what I found some of the most helpful things were outside of classes, but still resources that you get from attending are like optional classes you can get in various forms of coding. Which helped me, even though I’m not the main one in our company doing the coding, I can be a resource in that area, and just other random things like subscriptions to various things like, there’s a website called lynda.com, that I believe you at least in the past had access to, where you can watch videos and learn anything. So, you might be focusing on a degree area, but you can kind of expand on other skills outside of that or deeper, without paying any extra money, by taking advantage of those free resources.
MOHAMMED M: And I would like to expand on that more and I’ll give an example of, like starting a soap business. We kind of self-taught a lot about the soap industry and soap making but I don’t think IU has a course on soap making or even the history of soap making, however, from IU, gaining the skillset of web design, coding, graphic design, video editing, those are literal like skills that you can apply and in essence, save money in the long run, because if you don’t have those skills, then you end up having to buy those services. And so weaving a bootstrap business, a lot of the things that we did very early on, were all done in house. And so that saved us a lot of money. So my recommendation would be, is to try to take as many classes as you can to expose yourself to the basics or even beyond the basics of the skill sets that you can literally apply towards your business.
MOLLY: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. And I really liked that you mentioned, you know, those tangible skills that are really helpful in starting a business that students should think about kind of, you know, taking classes in coding or whatever it might be. So that’s really helpful, but I think that’s kind of all the questions I had. It was really great hearing a little more about your whole story. I think it’s really interesting. I’m excited to go buy some of your products. I haven’t done that yet, but I’m going to! But you know, just to wrap things up, if you all have any kind of last words of advice for students that maybe they are dreaming of starting a business or getting on shark tank or something along those lines, any just words of wisdom for them as they kind of start their careers.
MOHAMMED M: Yeah I would say whatever you go into, be extremely passionate about it and throw yourself in a 100%, because it’s going to be hard work. And when you’re in it, it shouldn’t really feel like hard work. It should feel very natural. But what I’m saying is, is that I don’t think about things in terms of like, oh, look at how many hours I’m spending on this project. There’s endless amount of hours. We would be up to like 6:00 AM working on specific projects and love it and wake up and do the same thing the next day. So in order to have that type of motivation, I think you have to be very, very passionate about what you’re doing. And so that would be what I would recommend, is be very, very passionate about what you’re going into.
Anthony, do you have anything to add or say?
ANTHONY: Yeah, I would second that.
MOLLY: Alrighty. Well, I think, sorry, Anthony, where are you going to go?
ANTHONY: Nope. Nope.
MOLLY: Yeah. I think that was great advice. I think you summed it up perfectly. And then if students wanted to get in touch with you or maybe just connect with you, I think I might’ve seen that Anthony is on our Walter Center Success Network, which is kind of our, you know, student alumni networking platform. But is there a place that students could connect with you or ask you any up questions that they happen to have?
Yeah, if you head over to our website, that’s the madoptimist.com, that has our email or phone number. People are welcome to call, that actually rings all of our phones and the email comes to us. And then the emails email@example.com and those don’t get lost in the inbox. They get directed to whoever they, here to best.
MOLLY: Perfect. Well, thank you all so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. And it was great learning more about your story.
EVERYBODY: Well, thank you for having us. We really appreciate it.
MOLLY: Thanks so much for listening today and thanks to my fantastic colleagues for providing production assistance and inspiration for the podcast each week. Those folks include Ian Sory, Camryn Schreiner, Maureen Langley. Amy Cornell and my entire Walter Center team to learn more about the Walter Center at IU and the services, resources, and events we offer.
Please check out our website at careers.college.indiana.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to receive timely updates from the Walter Center as well. To connect with alumni like the one in this episode, please make a profile on the Walter Center Success Network. It only takes a few minutes to create an account and start building your professional network.
If you liked what you heard today, be sure to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast to make sure you don’t miss an episode. And last, but not least feel free to reach out to me, Molly Burkhardt personally on LinkedIn, or send me an email with any questions or feedback you might have. Thanks again, everyone. And we’ll see you next time.