How Two Entrepreneurs Used Their Complete Lack of Business Experience to Their Advantage
The following edited excerpt is from Tyler Gage's Fully Alive: Using the Lessons of the Amazon to Live Your Mission in Business and Life.
My co-founder Dan MacCombie’s thesis had been on marsh crab habitats in New England. Mine had been a magical realist novel. We’d been friends since the first week of our freshman year at Brown University, and now, one week after graduating, we found ourselves in Ecuador with the dream of co-founding a business together. And not your everyday sort of business, but one that would require us to build a supply chain for a rare Amazonian tea leaf called guayusa (pronounced “gwhy-you-sa”) that had never been commercially produced before.
Since the only thing we had known up to that point in our lives was applying ourselves in school, we decided that, rather than trying to pass ourselves off as business experts, we would stick to our strengths and approach our work exactly like what we were: liberal arts students. We knew how to research, ask questions and process information from sometimes contradictory sources, and figured that this spirit of learning could get us at least a few miles down the road.
We threw ourselves into maniacally reading about the history of indigenous federations in Ecuador, Fair Trade, international supply chains and everything in between. We tried to meet with everyone we could, sending up to eighty introductory emails a day to government officials, academics, business leaders and forestry experts.
We also traveled extensively, visiting dozens of indigenous Kichwa communities. When we told them we wanted to buy guayusa leaves for cash and add them to organic energy drinks for sale in the U.S., the reaction was often quite harsh. Imagine a dozen or so people sitting, listening acutely, pausing for a minute with blank faces and then bursting into hysterical laughter. This wasn’t normal chuckling, either, but more like cackling. When they calmed down, they would talk among themselves in Kichwa. One might then ask in Spanish, “You give us actual money just for guayusa leaves? And sell it where? In the United States of America?” Then the merriment would start again. Guayusa had never been sold or commercially produced in any way, not even nationally, so our idea sounded insane to them.
After the laughter subsided and we explained that, no, this wasn’t a joke, the conversations became serious. We received one consistent message: Don’t f@$k with us.
We heard about the many failed development projects that had been foisted on the Kichwa people, and the local leaders were very clear: “We don’t want false promises and expectations, and we don’t know if we trust you guys. What we need is for people to buy our stuff. We think what you are doing is kind of crazy, but if you can do it, and generate income for our people, we’ll be happy to work with you.”
Related: Mastering Business Basics at Any Age
By admitting that we didn’t have a clear vision for how to effectively partner with these communities and just listening to their ideas and feedback, we confidently invoked our vulnerability. We clearly stated that we weren’t there to “help” but that our simple hope was to partner in building a business that could grow and profit all of us. Thankfully, they responded with equal transparency and respect, defining for us what a successful partnership would look like.
When we got to Ecuador, we clearly had no idea what was going to happen. By being willing to embrace our vulnerability and act like students instead of business experts, we opened ourselves up to constructive conversations. We learned that it’s hard for anyone to criticize you for being uninformed or inexperienced if you’re the first one to say you don’t know anything! Especially in the world of business, vulnerability is usually considered a curse, but this misperception can be quite disempowering. We can find strength in our vulnerability by using our honesty and humility to ask for and get help where we need it. We often tend to hide or deny our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, thereby creating a blind spot that actually makes us weak.
Here are three practical tools we used to get started when we had no idea how to start:
Setting three-month goals allowed us to forget the overwhelming challenges ahead and focus on smaller, achievable tasks. For example, in three months we could make connections with the national indigenous federation, figure out what we needed to do to get an export license and hire a local team member. Three months later we would set another short list of goals for the following 90 days.
In addition to helping us stave off the paralyzation we felt when we tried to think longer term, our three-month goals also helped us build credibility. Often, in the early days, people we spoke with assumed we were nice college kids having an adventure before running back to the U.S. When we got that reception, we simply shared the goals we had set for the coming months. When we met our targets, we got back in touch with those people, let them know about our progress, and told them our goals for the next three months. After a while they couldn’t help but admit that these kids were actually getting things done. This persistence and proven focus helped us land some of our earliest outside investors as well.
10 cold emails a day
Every day we sent at least 10 cold emails to people we had read about or heard about in our research (though sometimes up to 80!). When we got to Ecuador, we only had two leads in the whole country, so we were desperate for more connections. Though only one to two people would respond, this strategy resulted in seven to 14 new connections each week. Some of the people who responded were even national leaders and leading researchers who we never expected to be open to a conversation with us. At the end of every call or meeting, we would always ask, “Is there anyone else you can introduce us to who can help us learn more?” We would then get a whole new set of leads and off we went.
I’ve become a huge fan of taking the time to free form write in my journal all of things I’m afraid of: “If I fail people will judge me, people already are judging me for thinking I can do this, I’m afraid we’ll run out of money, etc. etc.” This practice helps me be in a healthy relationship with the inescapable terror that comes along with trying to start a business, and honors it rather than shames it. Further, we got in the habit of adding two important sections to our investor newsletters: “What’s Not Working” and “How You Can Help.” Ironically, we found that we were able to build more trust with our investors by being honest about our mistakes and inviting their support.