How many companies were you running at the age of 19?
Milan Kordestani, a first-generation American, is chief executive of three companies spanning three very different industries. The Colorado College Tiger sophomore’s parents immigrated to the United States from Iran, met in California and settled near Silicon Valley, where Kordestani grew up.
He has since formed his own music label, Guin Records; is launching a new mobile app, Dormzi; and is studying agricultural business. Kordestani is also CEO and founder of Milan Farms, an enterprise that has blossomed from what began as a backyard hobby.
Kordestani spoke with the Business Journal this week about his drive to realize his dreams — one industry at a time.
You’re studying agricultural business at Colorado College?
So this all started as a sophomore in high school. I was raising chickens and growing saffron. My parents are Iranian and as a kid, I learned Farsi. My tutor’s mother used to grow saffron but she got too old and couldn’t do it anymore. She offered for me to do it.
Through that I learned a lot about the agriculture industry and farming. … I fell in love with chickens and started selling eggs throughout my neighborhood. I developed an idea that I wanted to pursue further and needed to get into the agricultural sphere. That’s what I’m studying in school.
Is your farm an official business?
It started as more of a hobby but it turned into a business. I got an LLC and trademarked the name of the farm, Milan Farms, and I have a website and things like that. The saffron [growing] is still an active business, but I had to give away my chickens when I came to college.
What’s your goal in agriculture?
I’d like to create a network of small farmers around the United States. Take the northern California region — I would want to connect all the farmers in that area who are growing chickens for meat. By themselves they’re not producing a lot, maybe 500 or 1,000 chickens [at a time]. But if you connect them all under one brand, you have enough to go into major stores. The goal is to give them a more stable income because selling at a farmers market isn’t really stable. The other goal is to sell a really high quality and humanely raised animal at a low price in stores so everyone can afford and support good practices.
What goes into that?
What’s challenging is a lot of farmers have only sold at farmers markets, so it’s kind of hard to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m a new guy but I want to buy all your product and sell it under this name in stores.’ There’s a hesitance for a lot of them to join. Once they see there’s a contract and they’ll get a steady income from it, they like that.
The other challenge is, getting into stores is really competitive. Getting into a store alone is competitive — getting into the refrigerated section, because of limited space, is even more competitive.
Getting in will be tough. But stores like Whole Foods and Safeway have good representatives working in the districts and they want to get new products in.
Have you already started?
We’ve been talking with farmers but haven’t signed anything yet because we want to have enough quantity before we start. We’re putting together our list now.
You’re also in tech and music?
Agriculture has taken a step back for now. I’m focused on it in the academic sense, but the others are easier to get done right now as a student. I can work with artists and get them into a studio to create music way easier than I can create a network of farmers. The same thing is true with the application I’m working on. It’s easier to have two people working on coding and apps than it is to do the farming thing. The farm aspect I’m working on by being in school and studying it and the market.
Talk about the app.
I’m CEO and co-founder of Dormzi. The other co-founder is a friend of mine who goes to [New York University] and she is COO. We also have four coders and one designer.
Dormzi started as — I wanted to work on some sort of app idea. I’m from [Silicon Valley] and that’s what you do. I was talking with my friend about what we should do. She said, ‘We’re in college. It should be something around that.’
She said it would be great if the app helped find people who can do regular tasks — run an errand, do your laundry, whatever.
We talked about how TaskRabbit exists and all these other services that do that. But the issue in college is they can’t get into your room or even your dorm because they aren’t a student. Students have to swipe in and most campuses are really secure that way. So we developed the model so students do the jobs. The idea has transformed into a community of students who help each other out. I might do your laundry and you help me by tutoring me the next day.
There are all sorts of services offered and it’s meant to be the app for college students.
Have you launched?
We’re launching at NYU first. They don’t start school until September. That’s when we’ll be on the app store. We’re starting with just one school because it’s easier to contain. We’ll have a focus group to test it out first. It’s kind of a soft launch. We want to make sure we get student opinions first and work the kinks out.
We’ll do that with 40 or so people and hopefully get it to grow after that.
And you’re CEO of a record label?
I started that at CC literally out of my dorm room. I had this idea — you know there are very few people in the music industry who are complete middle-men — not actually the talent but just orchestrating the whole thing? … I thought that would be really cool to do. I’ve always loved music and wanted to get involved somehow. I have a friend who sings and I asked if she thought it would be possible. She said, ‘If you get good artists, you could probably do it.’
I went online and found a bunch of artists online who are talented and want to get their music heard and then I hooked them up with producers I found online. … The ball started rolling and I figured out things as I went. This album I was working on, called the ‘Uncharted’ album, the whole purpose was to have 14 different voices, 14 different sounds, 14 different artists to see what people would like from what I release.
I like more of an old school hip-hop sound. It was important I had that sound but also cater to the now. From those songs we got three artists people really like. We’re at two months now and at 7 million streams. It’s done really well.
So you just found producers and talent online?
Everyone wants to make money in this industry. So I said, ‘I have this artist and I want to produce a beat with you that has this kind of sound and we can get the artist into the studio and record it.’
You have to pay them, of course, but they all do it because they all want to make money.
As I was creating these songs — I’m very hands-on with the business but I also like producing music — I would send tracks to friends and family and get feedback. ‘Do you like the sound?’ ‘What do you think of the lyrics?’
My sister was really involved with it and would send comments and tell me, ‘No, try this.’
I’d give her comments to the artist and producer and the song would come back so much better. I thought, ‘I need to work with her.’ My sister joined and she’s my partner as head of [artists and repertoire] and also COO.
Did you kind of fake it till you made it in music?
Kind of. I didn’t know much about the business side of the music industry.
I made so many mistakes and had to learn the language, the terminology. Someone would say something and I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and 10 minutes later look up what it meant.
Now I understand most things.
Are there common skills you incorporate across all these industries?
Yeah, dealing with people — managing people and working with people and taking everybody’s ideas and not taking everything as a critique when someone says something you might not agree with.
That’s been big. In the music industry I’ll call a producer and say I want to work with them and 30 minutes of the conversation will be them bragging about how great they are as a producer. That’s the majority of people within the music industry. Everyone thinks they’re the best — especially in hip-hop.
Where did your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
It came from Silicon Valley. There, everyone is doing something. But also my dad worked at Google. He joined while they were still in a garage. He was the 12th person there. He was there from the beginning and now he’s executive chairman at Twitter. He’s been a role model of sorts. Even my mother — she studied computer science and was a techie as well.
Any advice for other young professionals?
The key thing is just to get started. A lot of times you’ll have an idea and just sit on it — ‘Oh, it won’t work.’
I’ve found you start it and it probably won’t work the first three or four times but the idea changes and grows and pivots. That kind of happened with Dormzi: We had this idea and it grew to the model of students doing [the work] because that got rid of the barriers on a college campuses.
The ideas change, but it’s important to just start.