I first learned about guayusa tea and met fellow Brown University alum and Runa co-founder Tyler Gage at NYC’s Fancy Food Show 2010.
Over the years, I have watched the company grow from a scrappy start-up into a multi-million dollar innovator in the tea category, responsible for introducing guayusa to the global market. Yet, it wasn’t until I read Tyler Gage’s excellent book Fully Alive: Using the Lessons of the Amazon to Live Your Mission in Business and Life did I come to appreciate what an awe-inspiring feat that he and his co-founder Dan MaCombie accomplished.
To build a guayusa supply chain from scratch in the middle of the jungle in Ecuador, where you know no one, have very little resources and are not a native speaker, is one of the most impressive things I have seen in my eight years of covering the organic food industry. Creating and growing a successful organic business is hard enough but to do it under these conditions takes the meaning of ‘difficult’ to a whole new level.
I recently caught up with Tyler Gage to talk to him about Fully Alive and asked him to share his insight about being an organic food entrepreneur.
In the book, you talk a lot about plant medicine and shamanism, and both are a very big part of your life. What is it that Westerners do not truly understand or appreciate about each of these things and how did they help you get through the tough times at Runa?
“Shamanism” is a slippery word with really no inherent definition. It’s often used to attempt to classify the loosely shared spiritual practices and beliefs of indigenous peoples, but my personal understanding of shamanism focuses on the use of practical techniques to help us consciously access and influence the subtle layers of life.
The key to this approach, and where the book focuses heavily, is learning to relate to obstacles as teachers. One of my favorite indigenous sayings is that “White man medicine makes you feel good, then bad. Redman medicine makes you feel bad, then good.”
Rather than avoiding our difficulties, our fears, our shadows and our limitations, diving directly into them (as uncomfortable and “bad” as that can feel at first) is the gateway to unlocking deeper potential. I think Fully Alive is about this practice of digging deeper.
Looking back, what is the biggest learning you had when building Runa?
One consistent theme of learning centers around finding strength in vulnerability. By admitting, time and time again, that we really didn’t know what we were doing trying to build a supply chain in Ecuador, or start a beverage company, we confidently invoked our vulnerability. And the (many) times we arrogantly thought we knew more than we did, we almost always made terrible mistakes.
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!
If there is one single thing that you could have done differently, what would it be?
I definitely wish I brought on more experienced executives to support our growth sooner. We definitely could have been more focused and efficient with our growth if we would have been willing to pay higher salaries for more experienced people at an earlier stage of the company.
You were able to get Channing Tatum, Leonardo DiCaprio and Olivia Wilde as investors. How did having celebrity investors change the trajectory of Runa and what advice would you give to other organic brands who are seeking to land celebrity investors as well?
It all comes back to authenticity. We weren’t pretending to be “socially responsible” or invent some good story that would be good for marketing. Our mission is our fundamental commitment. The beautiful, storied history of guayusa is inextricable to our business.
While “celebrity” is the title that most often gets attributed to these people, more concretely, they are professional storytellers and tend to gravitate to things that have amazing stories.
What is your best piece of advice for young entrepreneurs looking to build an organic food or beverage business?
One practical piece of advice that I’ve found incredibly helpful in the early days is to focus on 3-month goals. Setting 3-month goals allowed us to forget the overwhelming challenges ahead and focus on smaller, achievable tasks.
In addition to helping us stave off the paralyzing overwhelm we felt we tried to think longer term, our 3-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.
Tyler Gage’s Fully Alive is incredibly well-written and is an inspiring story of how building a business and making a positive difference in the world are not mutually exclusive. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.