The Humble Funguswith Jesse Noller
A career climbing the ladder in tech and software left Jesse Noller feeling disillusioned and isolated. He found connection, community, and purpose in a different kind of complex distributed system—mushrooms. Today he’s the proprietor of a spore-to-table business called The Humble Fungus. (Content warning: This episode mentions suicide.)
For free and confidential emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Jesse Noller on Twitter | Instagram - 1:02
- The Humble Fungus website | YouTube | Facebook - 1:10
- Community Food Share in Louisville, CO - 3:32
- The Humble Fungus "About Us" page - 14:12
- The Humble Fungus on Patreon - 20:50
The Full Transcript:
Jesse: [00:00:00] I’ve got three dogs and six chickens. All of them are named Karen.
Wailin: [00:00:05] All of the chickens are named Karen?
Jesse: [00:00:06] Every one of them.
Wailin: [00:00:07] And the dogs, too?
Jesse: [00:00:08] No, no, no. The dogs are not named Karen.
[00:00:11] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:15] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
Wailin: [00:00:18] And I’m Wailin Wong. We are coming up on a year of this pandemic and all this turmoil we’ve lived through has upended people’s lives in a bunch of different ways. Maybe it’s upended yours. Maybe you’re reevaluating, is this where I want to live? Is this the career I want? What relationships are the most important to me?
[00:00:35] Today on Rework we have the story of someone who spent his entire career in tech and left it all behind to become a mushroom farmer. It’s a story of extreme grief and loss, but also a story of finding purpose and creating new life in both metaphorical and literal darkness.
Shaun: [00:00:53] A quick warning for listeners, this episode talks about suicide. So if that’s something you want to skip, please do.
Jesse: [00:01:01] My name is Jesse Noller. I come from a tech background, complex distributed systems, but now I’m a mushroom farmer. I actually grow my mushrooms all the way from cultures or spores to actual mushrooms you eat.
Wailin: [00:01:18] You heard that right, a mushroom farmer. But this story starts long before Jesse became a fungi guy. Prior to that, he’d spent his entire career in tech and software.
Jesse: [00:01:28] I’ve worked for startups. I’ve been a founding engineer at startups before on the east coast. I worked for Rackspace back before it went private equity. It’s all been tech and it’s all been making other people rich.
Wailin: [00:01:43] In the mid 2010s. Jesse was living in Texas and had a pretty high profile in his industry. He had a senior position at Rackspace and was also director of the Python Software Foundation. But he was growing disillusioned with the industry and going through a lot of personal turmoil.
Jesse: [00:01:59] I had been isolated in Texas for five plus years, had a really nasty divorce, kids moved away. Rackspace wasn’t the greatest company and I ended up being the director of layoffs. Everyone ended up working from home. I was just grinding away and getting stressed and trying to get more salary and get more stock, go to meetings and go to useless stand ups and try to fight internally against this moral and ethical trash fire, that tech became or has become.
Wailin: [00:02:35] About two and a half years ago, Jesse made a change. He moved to Colorado and he got a new job working remotely for a big tech company. But even these big changes didn’t seem to help.
Jesse: [00:02:45] It was just more of the same, right? It was more isolation. It was more we don’t really support remote work, we’re just doing it because we think you’re a whiny prima donna. That isolation, loneliness, losing my kids, those thoughts just accelerated as tech got worse. And the company got worse.
[00:03:08] What I really found is my life was missing connection, and life. And so I have the dogs, ended up getting chickens. But really, it’s, I started growing houseplants. Living by myself, I had extra space in the house. And so I ended up converting the two extra bedrooms I had to greenhouses, basically. And I started crops for Community Food Share Lewisville. Hundreds of pounds of produce, and I donated every single pound of it because I could. I had a spoiled tech baby salary.
[00:03:41] In my life, I’ve always appreciated the scientific method. And as a kid struggling with ADHD, I understand this now to be one of those coping mechanisms where things that I can’t observe aren’t real, or they’re not trustworthy, or I don’t understand them. And so I learned things by just working through them, testing, observing, having controls, being able to break down, observe and learn and fail. What I found is really digging into that missing part of me just quickly got me back into biology and chemistry. And then all of a sudden I start getting ads.
Wailin: [00:04:24] You know how this goes. You’re on the internet looking at something and then you start getting targeted ads that follow you around. Mine these days are pretty consistently about skincare, comfy clothes and subscription boxes for cute things from Japan. Well, Jesse started getting targeted ads for something a little bit different.
Jesse: [00:04:43] I start getting ads for mushroom grow kits. And I’m like, why not? And so I picked up a couple of books on fungi and I start learning about them. And I grew like 30-40 pounds of mushrooms.
Wailin: [00:04:59] What happened is that Jesse got super into his new mycology hobby. In fact, while he was still working at his big tech job, he started his mushroom business, The Humble Fungus as both a side project and an escape hatch.
Jesse: [00:05:12] I honestly was hoping that this would be my last tech job. Right, I was hoping I’d be able to make money, be able to pay off all the debt from the divorce and God knows what else, fix all that, and then walk away from it. Looking back at now I realize just how toxic what we’ve kind of built really is. The way we structure our businesses, the way we handle equity, the way we incentivize people, it’s like, most of the tech companies, they don’t incentivize connection or teamwork. Those thoughts just accelerated as tech got worse. And the company got worse.
[00:05:49] And I actually started this business, The Humble Fungus, I started this last summer. I was already dropping off mushrooms to the food bank. And I was like, why not make this a business where I can do something equitable. I can honestly say I had everything done, incorporated, and I had the site up within three months. This was my passion project. This was who I was going to eventually become. And this past November is when I finally said, listen, I took four months of medical leave, I burned out, I came back, nothing had changed. And in fact, all the old fires that I had left burning were still there. I finally hit a point where it was just completely untenable. So I resigned.
[00:06:32] And the next day, I actually tried to take my own life. Looking back at that now, and that was in November, for me, was a moment in time where my identity had been wrapped up in my tech career and chasing a salary. And trying to just desperately be the thing that everybody else is. And happy and rich and everything.
[00:07:05] I started in this sector when I was 16. I was in tech, and I can honestly say it ruined to me. Spent some time in the hospital, done lots of therapy. It’s been it’s been rough pulling back because I’d started the business, obviously, in the summer, and I lost most of November because of this. My customers have been so patient with me, I believe now even more that this is the right thing to do. Although it’s scary.
Wailin: [00:07:36] Jesse describes his business as spore to table. On his website, you can buy supplies and ingredients for any stage of the spore to table journey, whether you want to grow your own mushrooms from a colonized petri dish, or you just want a couple of pounds of gourmet mushrooms to eat. Basically, if you’re into mushrooms, Jesse will take you as deep as you want to go.
Jesse: [00:07:56] I went from basically knowing nothing about fungi and mushrooms, and really growing things this time last year to now it’s my life. It’s been one thing after another of falling down this rabbit hole of fungi are everywhere. They’re connected. They’re in our cells, they’re are in our bodies and understanding that magic, and just really kind of taking my brain from tech and saying I understand and I’ve always spent time around large complex systems. Fungi is now my large complex distributed system.
[00:08:38] I moved into this space a couple months ago. I’ve only got about 1200 square feet. Half of it’s a lab. Half of it is dark chamber for mushroom spawn to grow. And then the other part of that is a greenhouse.
Wailin: [00:08:52] What do you get up to in your lab?
Jesse: [00:08:54] At the very, very, very basic building blocks, the seed that makes a mushroom is a spore. And so in the lab, I grow those spores out, I isolate them, determine genetic characteristics I like, like fast colonization or I find out that this strain is particularly disease resistant. I’ll clone it. Sometimes I’ll buy mushrooms from the grocery store just to clone them. I make liquid cultures which are basically fungi suspended inside of a nutrient broth that you can then use to grow mushrooms. I’ve got probably 150 to 200 quarts. And that’s enough liquid culture for me to make thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pounds of mushrooms.
Wailin: [00:09:47] How many different varieties are we talking about?
Jesse: [00:09:50] What I have right now is I’ve got a catalogue of about 30 species. And that includes morel, chestnut, every type of oyster mushroom you could think of, turkey tail, reishi, shiitake, maitake, beech, blewit. I’ve set my goal to be relatively audacious. I want to fruit everything.
[00:10:12] When you’re growing the fungus, it goes through three stages. You start at a liquid culture or an agar plate, then you move to spawn. So you can get a lot of fungi to make mushroom spawn. But to get it to fruit, which is the final stage, is a different challenge entirely. So, for example, with morel, I can clone them, I can make the spawn but fruiting them, actually getting morel fruit, is very hard. And it could take several years.
Wailin: [00:10:42] Really?
Jesse: [00:10:43] I’m trying to fruit things that people have told me repeatedly. You can grow those mushrooms in captivity.
Wailin: [00:10:49] They can only grow in forests is what people are telling you.
Jesse: [00:10:51] Yeah. And so I want to grow all of those and I’m trying to grow all of them that I can in captivity. And so that’s the challenge, right? In addition to trying to keep the bills paid by selling fresh mushrooms and mushroom grow kits each day, I look at my genetics library and I’m like, okay, what’s the weird one I’m gonna fruit today.
[00:11:13] Mycology, a lot of it is mysterious and I want to demystify it. It’s just like any other complex system. Once you sit down and you break it down into its core components, you can isolate those. You can say, okay, soil pH is a thing. Let’s test that. Let’s test higher pH solutions, lower pH solutions. Let’s test more water, less water. Any complex system can be reasoned about if you can break it down into its most logical components. And science, at least for fungi and growing things gives us that capability.
Wailin: [00:11:49] I also wanted to ask you a question about being alone and doing work by yourself. Because you had earlier talked about isolation, and how hard that can be. And it occurs to me that when you’re working by yourself as you are now because you’re the only person at Humble Fungus, and you’re in your lab, you are surrounded by living things, but they’re not human things.
Jesse: [00:12:15] Yeah.
Wailin: [00:12:15] How does that isolation feel? Either the same or different than the kind of isolation you were feeling before.
Jesse: [00:12:26] Working at corporate America, living by yourself, working on a remote team on a team that has no communication skills, that isolation is deeper and darker. With this, you know, it’s a struggle every day, especially… COVID made it worse, like a million times worse.
[00:12:46] And so luckily, it’s like, I lean on my therapist, my psych, and my support system as much as I can. But really, I’ve gone more and more online, like I post a lot on Instagram. I try to share a lot of this with people just to make it so that I feel like I’m getting some sort of feedback loop. Because especially with ADHD, I’m always looking for a mirror. Right now, that’s Twitter and Instagram and things like that. And that makes me mad, because the last decade, my social contact has been, you know, a three and a half inch by four inch phone or whatever the size is, it’s tiring.
[00:13:26] So I really, really lean on people. And there’s a lot of music, there’s a lot of podcasts. I listen to science podcasts, news, politics, sociology, lots of music, and I’ve got to mix up the music a lot. So I’ll go through like seven genres in a day.
[00:13:50] It’s good having the business, like well, who’s gonna mop the floor and vacuum? That’s you. Who’s going to get up and fulfill the orders today? You are.
Wailin: [00:14:00] I wanted to ask you about the goal that you stated explicitly on your website, which is that as you start adding folks, beyond your kind of sole proprietorship here, you want to be employee owned and operated. And I was wondering if you could talk about that decision and to state it so publicly as part of your plans? And maybe if you know, that fits more broadly into the kinds of guardrails that you’re putting up to make sure that this next act in your life doesn’t start to become something that would lead to ruinous effects on your on your well-being the way your first career did.
Jesse: [00:14:40] If I remember the point in my life, where I was the happiest and the most productive and I felt like I really belonged. They were in the startup days, small groups of people, but I remember part of it being ownership, right, that shared mission. We’re on a mission together. We are a team. And it’s going to be hard. And it’s gonna be tough. But we can do it together. Some days we cried together and some days, you know, we sang together.
[00:15:12] I remember one of my best mentors in my life just being like, listen, I may be the founder, and I might be well off and everything else like that, but if I’ve got to clean the bathrooms, I’m going to clean bathrooms. That stuck with me all of these years experiencing the upper parts of corporate America as that’s when I felt like we had meaning and we had something together.
[00:15:41] When I started this business, I said, how do I rekindle that feeling? If I bring on an employee, I don’t want them to be family. Right? That’s a method for abusing and gaslighting people. I am not your family, I’m your boss. But, I can be your friend. We can be close, and we can share and all of that stuff. How do I build that? And I realized it’s like, in tech, we give people stock options, right? A great big fat promise that they’re going to be rich one day. I can’t do that, right, I don’t have the funding. Financially, it’s like, in the land of COVID getting loans and investment is virtually impossible. I’ve got enough money in my savings account to last me probably another month. When I don’t have a pot to piss in, how can I give them that feeling of Manifest Destiny alongside me?
[00:16:38] And I said, I want to make it so that they own a part. Right? I want to make it so that, number one, leadership is not above reproach. Leadership must be held accountable. Number two, the employees must be held accountable. I just wanted to be able to do that. And employee owned, employee operated just really feels like it gives most. And it’s also the thing that’s going to hold up in times of economic uncertainty. And the best way to do that is like if I hire a person, and I sit there and I say, I’m going to pay you money, and I’m going to give you health care. But in return, you’re going to share some of the responsibility. I think that that just morally is how I would want to be treated. I want to be trusted. I want to be valued. And the best way for me to do that is to feel like I’ve got skin in the game.
Wailin: [00:17:31] I mean, it seems like this community that you’ve been able to plug into via the food bank and via just literally growing food for people that’s also like a… maybe that’s a complex system that’s not so complex.
Jesse: [00:17:45] So that’s the beauty of nature. And actually, that’s the lie of computer systems. Complexity isn’t complex, when you break it down to its parts. Community and people, feeding them, helping them. It is complex, there’s a lot of complexity in there. But at the end of the day, it’s still extremely simple. I’ve got food safety issues myself now. It’s like looking at my revenue. Like I said, I’ve got a little bit and I’ve got approved with Boulder County Farmers Markets now and I’ve got a crop finally coming in. So things are looking up aces. But after I quit tech, I went and got Medicaid, and I’ve got food assistance now. There’s nothing wrong with needing help. And I think that’s a big part of what’s happened to me over the past two years is learning just how much help I need. But also realizing how much I could help other people.
[00:18:47] So I’ve been poor. I spent a chunk of my childhood in a very, very bad part of Syracuse, New York, poor and going to the YMCA for food. And if I have privilege, and I do as a white male in America. If I have privilege, and I have time, and I have resources, why not try to fix the things that, growing up, I experienced. Homelessness, hunger, abuse, when you experienced those things yourself, trying to think about how to help people takes on a completely different connotation.
[00:19:23] I just want to be able to like, catch people when they fall, because I’ve fallen a lot and no one was there to catch me. If I can be there, to do that to people and give them a second chance, then it’s the right thing to do.
[00:19:41] You know, if you just want to reach out to me and you’re just interested in getting some mushroom compost for your garden, or just anything. You’ve got crazy mushroom questions, just reach out to me. Hit me up on Twitter, Instagram. Like I said HumbleFungus.com. And if you like mushrooms, if you want to grow mushrooms, I sell grow kits. If you want to have fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms, mushroom powder. I’ve got it all. And really I just want to extend the invitation to people to come and learn.
[00:20:17] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:20:26] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Music for the show is by Clip Art.
Shaun: [00:20:31] Jesse’s business is at HumbleFungus.com. As he mentioned, he shares a lot of information about mycology on social media. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @JesseNoller. That’s J-E-S-S-E-N-O-L-L-E-R. He has a Patreon as well which is at patreon.com/thehumblefungus. We’ll provide links to all of these in the show notes for this episode, which you can find rework.fm along with episode transcripts.
Wailin: [00:20:56] If you’re thinking about suicide, or worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support. That number is 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255.
Wailin: [00:21:32] You heard that right, a mushroom farmer. But the story starts long before Jesse became a fun guy.
Shaun: [00:21:37] BOO.
Wailin: [00:21:37] You didn’t like it?
Shaun: [00:21:39] Sorry.
Wailin: [00:21:42] Wow. Wow. Hostile work environment.
Shaun: [00:21:48] We can’t go through the entire episode without making one fun guy joke. My dad is going to love this.
Wailin: [00:21:56] Are you asking me to say spore-y for that joke?
Shaun: [00:22:02] [Sighs loudly]