By Tyler Gage
Building a startup is like being thrust into the middle of the Amazonian rainforest. You live every day on the edge of your comfort zone, vulnerable to unexpected challenges, constantly shifting to meet daily demands.
Rather than being a hindrance or sidebar to my business, the lessons I’ve learned from traditional healers in the Amazon have not only been essential to making Runa, the organization I co-founded, one of the fastest-growing beverage companies in the United States, they’ve also changed my life, enabling me to be happier, healthier, and more engaged.
In the Amazon I found teachings and practices for personal and spiritual growth that were not only powerful in their own context, but surprisingly translatable to my world up north. I discovered an inherent pragmatism in these traditions that sprang from a need to survive, and a desire to thrive, in one of the world’s most lethal ecosystems. Though how we meet our needs for medicine and food has changed from the traditional techniques developed thousands of years ago, the basic underlying questions remain the same: How can I be healthier? How can I best accomplish my goals?
One of my favorite indigenous sayings goes like this: “White man medicine makes you feel good, then bad. Red man medicine makes you feel bad, then good.” Rather than avoiding or trying to temporarily cover up 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 and longer lasting fulfillment.
When my friend Dan MacCombie and I started Runa, we had absolutely zero business experience. We had just graduated from college; I had earned a degree in literary arts, while his was in marine biology. We moved to the Ecuadorian Amazon to try to build a supply chain for a rare Amazonian tea that had never been commercially produced before, and had only two leads to start with. Instead of pretending to be business experts, we decided to embrace our vulnerability and extreme naivety by taking what we called a “liberal arts approach to business.” We knew how to research, ask questions, and process information from sometimes contradictory sources, so we spent months learning from everyone we could. Using this approach, we went from people literally laughing at us when we said we wanted to sell guayusa tea in the Untied States to having a fully functioning factory with 15 employees just 18 months later.
The first step is admitting what you don’t know. 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. Hiding or denying our weaknesses and vulnerabilities only creates a blind spot that, in turn, actually makes us weak.
As we started to raise interest, and had the good fortune to bring on Channing Tatum, Leonardo DiCaprio and Olivia Wilde as investors, we continued to resist the urge to feign perfection. One of the most powerful ways we found to put this intention into practice was to add a section to our investor newsletters titled “What’s Not Working.” We found that we were able to build more trust with our investors by being honest about our mistakes, and in turn, we received incredible support from them to help us solve the issues that were punching us in the face.
While your journey likely doesn’t have anything to do with the Amazon, we all live in jungles of one form or another, where we can dig deeper to move beyond the edge of what we thought was possible. Deeper fulfillment and support await us in this sometimes uncomfortable place of truth and transparency.