How I Got the Idea

Gourmet cof­fee. High-end cos­met­ics. Rideshar­ing ser­vices. These founders hit the road—and came back in­spired to start some­thing big

Inc. (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

from the founders of Vos­ges choco­late, Warby Parker, Tatcha, Lyft, Kayak, Toms, and more

TMark Twain RAVEL, fa­mously wrote, “is fa­tal to prej­u­dice, big­otry, and nar­row-mind­ed­ness.” That’s true in busi­ness as much as in life, as count­less founders have dis­cov­ered: Blake My­coskie of so­cia­len­trepreneur­ship shoe stal­wart Toms, Paul English of search en­gine Kayak, and Dave Gil­boa of eye­wear em­pire Warby Parker can all trace their com­pa­nies back to for­ma­tive travel ex­pe­ri­ences, as does su­per­en­trepreneur Richard Bran­son, who was so ir­ri­tated by a can­celed flight that he ar­ranged to char­ter a re­place­ment for him­self and his fel­low pas­sen­gers—cre­at­ing the idea for what be­came Vir­gin air­lines.

Travel’s in­spi­ra­tional ef­fects on busi­ness have been widely chron­i­cled in academia, too. A 2015 study pub­lished in the Academy of Man­age­ment Jour­nal found that pro­fes­sion­als who worked abroad and deeply en­gaged with their host cul­ture pro­duced more cre­ative in­no­va­tions than their non­trav­el­ing co­horts. And a study pub­lished this sum­mer in the Jour­nal of Ap­plied Psy­chol­ogy found that build­ing friend­ships with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cul­tures can en­hance an in­di­vid­ual’s cre­ativ­ity, in­no­va­tion, and, be­lieve it or not, the like­li­hood of be­com­ing an en­trepreneur.

“When you’re in your home and your rou­tine, you’re less likely to step out of your bound­aries,” says Koel Thomae, who tasted a new kind of yo­gurt dur­ing a long-de­layed trip to her na­tive Aus­tralia. Thir­teen years later, Thomae has turned her ver­sion of that recipe into $170 mil­lion, 240-em­ployee Noosa Yo­ghurt.

“You get into ruts,” she adds. “Travel au­to­mat­i­cally pushes me out of that rut.”

On the fol­low­ing pages, suc­cess­ful founders de­scribe get­ting way, way out of their ruts—and emerg­ing with the in­spi­ra­tion for a com­pany. —KRIS FRIESWICK

I HAD MY FIRST CUP of spe­cialty cof­fee in San Fran­cisco five years ago and im­me­di­ately be­came in­trigued. I did a lot of re­search on the mar­ket, and I even bought a pop­corn maker so I could roast my own beans at home. When I talked to cof­fee traders, they all said the best cof­fee they ever had was from Yemen 15 years ago—but now it was re­ally rare, re­ally ex­pen­sive, and of­ten full of de­fects. So I thought, how could I repli­cate that one per­fect cup they had?

I re­al­ized I had to go and see these farms in Yemen. But I’ll be hon­est: I did not have a mas­ter plan. I knew I wanted some­how to con­nect my fam­ily’s coun­try with the U.S., and I thought cof­fee could be a way to do that. And I knew there was a grow­ing de­mand in the spe­cialty cof­fee mar­ket. So in the sum­mer of 2013, I dropped out of com­mu­nity col­lege to go. I fig­ured, best-case sce­nario, I’ll find amaz­ing farm­ers and start a sup­ply chain. Worst case, I would have a break for the sum­mer. I didn’t know what I was get­ting my­self into.

For ev­ery farm in Yemen grow­ing cof­fee, there were seven grow­ing khat. I thought that if I could pay them a higher price, and find the right buy­ers, I could help them re­place this drug. I went across the coun­try for more than four months vis­it­ing farm­ers. I got malaria and tape­worms; I lost 40 pounds.

I brought back sam­ples from 21 farms. Nine­teen failed ba­sic stan­dards tests, but two were rated by a cof­fee-qual­ity ex­pert, Willem Boot, as very good spe­cialty-grade beans. He said it was cof­fee of po­ten­tially ex­traor­di­nary qual­ity. So I went back to Yemen in mid-2014, to the two ar­eas where the cof­fee was rated high­est, and sent back more sam­ples—but they were hor­ri­ble be­cause of the way they were picked and sorted. I re­al­ized I had to slow down and put into place more rig­or­ous pro­to­cols. I also had to have ver­ti­cal in­te­gra­tion so the qual­ity would be good. I spent nearly a year do­ing that.

Then, in March 2015, two days be­fore

I was sup­posed to take my new sam­ples to a big in­ter­na­tional cof­fee con­fer­ence, the Saudi Ara­bian–led mil­i­tary coali­tion be­gan to bomb mil­i­tary tar­gets in Yemen, to de­ter a Houthi rebel takeover. There was a no-fly zone de­clared. I had worked the whole year to pro­duce these cof­fees to bring them to this con­fer­ence, and I was stuck, along with thou­sands of other Amer­i­cans. The State Department wasn’t help­ing us.

I de­cided to take mat­ters into my own hands. I went to the port city of Mokha, a very old, very his­toric port. I hired a boat to take me and my sam­ples across the Red Sea to Dji­bouti. I re­mem­ber be­ing in the middle of the ocean on this lit­tle piece of wood, the waves toss­ing us up and down, think­ing, “Why did I do this?” But I made it to the air­port in Kenya.

When I landed in San Fran­cisco, there was a me­dia frenzy. A le­gal aid or­ga­ni­za­tion I had pre­vi­ously worked for had put out the word about my jour­ney, and I was in­ter­viewed by NPR and the BBC. I made it to the con­fer­ence—and our cof­fee scored among the high­est of all the cof­fees around the world. Blue Bot­tle bought our cof­fee and even­tu­ally sold it for $16 a cup.

I’m try­ing to go back to Yemen in a month, to see the farm­ers. I spend a lot of time on mar­ket­ing and sales, but it’s im­por­tant to stay con­nected to the farm­ers as much as I can.

A Dif­fer­ent Per­spec­tive

The moun­tain vil­lage of Al Ha­j­jarah, south­west of San’a, Yemen. Port of Mokha founder Mokhtar Alkhan­shali trav­eled through­out Yemen try­ing to find re­li­able sources of high-qual­ity cof­fee beans that he could im­port to the United States. Then war broke out.

Mokhtar Alkhan­shali Port of Mokha

Tast­ing Room Mokhtar Alkhan­shali, founder and CEO of Port of Mokha (far left in the fore­ground), tastes cof­fee from farm­ers in the Bani Is­mail re­gion of Yemen in Novem­ber 2014.

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