Derin Alemli

To live a fulfilling life, you must know yourself first. Do things that satisfy you personally and play to your strengths, and don’t ever forget who you really are.


Derin graduated from University of Chicago Booth School of Business and entered the asset management realm. After finding success in hedge funds, Derin chose to start his own business, Down Beats. Down Beats was, and continues to be, a great success for Derin. Because of this, he went on to open a catering business, Square Roots Kitchen, in 2015. Square Roots flourished eventually leading Derin to the idea of opening a storefront. Partnering with a friend and fellow entrepreneur, Jason White, Derin will be debuting their high-tech, fast casual storefront in January in Chicago’s West Loop.

Where did the idea for Square Roots Kitchen come from?

I launched my first business, DownBeats, in 2012 and even after a busy career in hedge fund finance I found that owning my own business was even more hectic. As someone who had always had time to cook for myself I found it challenging to find good-tasting, healthy food in the marketplace. It was my need as a consumer, after having shifted my worldview to that of an entrepreneur, that showed me that there was something missing in the marketplace. Healthy, fast casual was lacking and I realized that I had a unique skill set that could solve the problem.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

We’re still very much in launch mode over at Square Roots Kitchen (SRK), which is always the most hectic time in a new business. My schedule varies a lot but it can essentially be broken up into two spheres – day-to-day operations, and long-term work. Every day I wake up early, get caught up on long term stuff before operations kick in, then work on SRK through lunch. I try to squeeze in a workout if I have time in the afternoon, and then it’s back to long term work after that. I have a lot on my plate right now but I have always found that the key to fitting in more work is to hire quality people who you can trust. Once you reach a certain level of success, it becomes too much to do on your own. So it’s paramount to have a team you can trust.

How do you bring ideas to life?

With entrepreneurial ideas, I try to bring them to life as fast as possible. I’m a big believer in lean startups. Ideas may be good, or they may be bad, but the only way to know that is to put them out in the world and see what happens. I think we all have a story. We all know someone who has said, “I came up with that idea before it was X company.” Maybe so, but you have to get that idea into the world if you have any hopes of building it into a company. Square Roots was initially intended to be a full restaurant from day one, but by going to market with catering we were able to prove the concept and achieve much better economic terms for our first store. DownBeats started out in my condo as a side business and evolved into something I didn’t even expect. Neither would have been successful if I had waited for perfection to get them to market. I had other ideas that didn’t get any initial traction and proved to not be great ideas – and I saved a ton of money in learning those lessons early rather than after making big investments.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I have loved seeing consumers becoming more health conscious. Diet is one of the most important inputs we have as humans to our overall health, so it’s good to see that the market is finally trending towards healthier eating as a norm rather than a niche.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Multi-tasking is key to my productivity. If I’m waiting for a meeting to start I’m answering emails. If I’m watching the news at home, I’m getting in some exercise. There’s always something that can be done with a few spare seconds, and by getting in the little things that will mean I can focus my full attention on the big items. Shaving seconds today, leads to free hours tomorrow, and that is efficient use of time.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Professionally or personally, life is too short to do things that don’t make you excited.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

Without getting too political – profit and morality are not mutually exclusive. I can be a good person and take care of people that have had less opportunity than me while also making money, so I know others can too.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

For me, that’s exercise. I start to go stir crazy if I haven’t gotten in a few good workouts throughout the week. Obviously I stress diet as well, but diet goes hand in hand with exercise. Whether it’s running marathons or doing yoga, whatever gets your body moving and your heart rate up is good for your body, mind, and productivity.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Growth is all about sales, and sales are all about the channels. It doesn’t matter if you have the best product or service ever, if it’s not being introduced to buyers who have intent to purchase then it won’t sell. All of the other things surrounding a marketing plan have their own importance, but without effective sales channels they won’t be effective.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Well, if I have to pick just one…

My go to market strategy with DownBeats was too simplistic – we had a good product in high fidelity ear plugs for concerts, so my first idea was to just go to concerts and sell them. Little did I know this was fraught with challenges and costs, and it was not even close to an effective way to sell the product. I had to pivot that business to be digital e-commerce first, and on-the-ground at concerts and festivals as a promotional tool rather than as a monetization plan. This was the first in many lessons on the importance of sales channels.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Whoever can figure out how to effectively and reliably set up connectivity at a remote festival, like an Electric Daisy Carnival, can make a fortune. The applications are broad and the monetization is pretty simple – there are 100,000 or more people in a confined area who want to message people that are there, get social outside of that for the “in the moment” shares, and connect with artists or find out what song they just heard with search engines or Shazam. They’re spending several hundred dollars to be there already, won’t they spend another $5 or $10 to stay connected?

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

It was a little over $100, but I bought a grill for personal use that has proven to be a fantastic investment. I use it at least twice a week if not more. Hopefully this unseasonably warm fall here in Chicago continues and I can keep cooking tasty and healthy meals.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I love the Google Apps suite, we use it in all of my companies. It’s cost effective and provides a ton of connected software between calendars, spreadsheets, documents, and more.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Any of Michael Lewis’s books on business, whether that be “Liar’s Poker,” “The Big Short,” “Flash Boys,” or particularly in the startup world, “The New New Thing,” provide a different insight into different parts of our business and financial markets.

What is your favorite quote?

“This above all: to thine own self be true”
-William Shakespeare

Polonius may quote this in a self serving fashion, but I prefer to interpret it differently. This quote, to me, always meant to live a fulfilling life, you must know yourself first. Do things that satisfy you personally and play to your strengths, and don’t ever forget who you really are, and you will live a profound life.

Key learnings:

• Growth is all about sales, and sales are all about the sales channels
• Life is too short to not be passionate about what you do
• Time is key to productivity, multi-task and work in parallel as much as possible
• Don’t ever forget about your health. We only have a short time in this universe, treat your body well with proper diet and exercise and it will do the same to you.




Twitter: @squarerootskit