An Unexploited Brand and the Man Shifting the Coffee Paradigm
“And I know that it sounds so old school, but it’s so old school, it’s new school. I can’t be bought is a really cool thing to say. It means a lot to me.”
Introduction by Gus Laessig & Interview by Theo Constantinou & Dustin Seidman
My two year old son has a toy, where you put round blocks through round holes, square blocks through square holes, and so forth. When he first played he didn’t get it and didn’t recognize the difference, and tried every piece in every hole. He was frustrated and, to be honest, I was too, until he finally squirreled a triangle through a pentagonal hole. He smiled and clapped, and I, instead of correcting him for playing with the toy differently than it’s designed, purpose rejoiced with him, realizing that with perseverance and determination, he reached his goal and proved there’s never just one right way to accomplish something.
Todd Carmichael is no square peg, nor is he destined to play the game according to the directions. He’s a multiple-dimensional, forward thinker, who writes his own rules and designs his own personal adventure. He thinks of solutions and, is in fabrication when we begin to realize the question. He designs and invents not out of necessity, but from innovation and momentum. He’s a leader in a parallel dimension of make believe that we don’t think exists, until it’s a headline. He is a bold, headstrong daredevil, that will not except no for an answer.
I once described a dream of mine to Todd that involved a business venture, and he immediately said “why is it still just a dream?” It was his logic that insisted that, if you can think it, you can achieve it. I believe that is still how he processes his thoughts, and it is widespread across his company, family and friends; he breaches your expectations and overshadows your imagination. He will push to the limit of exertion and, will abide and endure with his last breath.
Our conversation with Todd Carmichael began at La Colombe’s industrial roasting warehouse in Port Richmond, just north of Philadelphia. The dialogue below is the actual transcript from our interview with Todd, not just an extraction of quotes for articles’ sake. These two hours changed my life forever and gave me the courage to pursue Paradigm Magazine as my life’s purpose. If you can take away only one thing from this entire piece I hope it is the vision of a man with true integrity, conviction, and the courage to do the right thing, not only in business, but in life.
It’s just called being decent; it is part of your responsibility. We are born in the super box of life, and the rest of the stadium is not the real world. If you open the dictionary and look up the word human being, it is not you; you are barely human, that is the truth. A real human is a woman, and she is dark-skinned, uneducated, 3 or 4 kids…she has to walk hours every day for water, and she doesn’t really have any cupboards filled with food. That is the human condition. She is going to die young and it is going to be a struggle all the way through; that is being human. Sometimes we lose that perspective and, I’m not saying feel guilty or anything like that, but with all this advantage, what are you going to do with it? Exploit it for yourself? No. I think that you should simply do the right, responsible thing, and you know…and coffee roasters are in a really individual place because, if you say well, you should help your neighbor, and my community involves 17 other developing countries, that’s where I spend my time. It is hard for me to walk through these villages like a wine sommelier and say, bring me your best wine. For me, it is about working with each one of them, and coaxing the best out of each farm. And then coming back year after year. These coffee growers have had it up to their eyebrows with promises from people who are going to do so much for them, and then, they get what they need and are off to the next thing / place, whether that be Burundi or wherever. I am more a hang-out-there kind of guy.
So, it sounds like you help the coffee growers take their agriculture to another level, and that makes your coffee better…you help them grow, they help you grow.
Everyone benefits. Every farmer on the planet thinks of one thing; next year. It’s always next year. That is what farmers think about and, if they know they have a source that they are growing for where there is an endpoint, that I’m coming next year and am going to take eight containers from you, it is a different commitment and a different sense of like “thank God.” There is less risk so, when it really comes time to work his farm, he has no problems; that’s it. What if next year no one shows up? How hard are you going to work if there is that chance? But, when you have a done deal, and you know this guy is going to cruise through town and say, I’m going to be there July 15th, the farmer is prepping it and, when there is some great stuff happening your pushing that stuff aside. I guess it is a business model too. Have you ever traveled in any of the harsher third world countries? You start making promises to yourself. You get this feeling like, not on my watch, not when I’m here; it just naturally happens.
From where you are now to your roots in Seattle, it is an amazing story. You started at Starbucks, were you working under Howard Shcultz at the time?
No, I don’t think he was there until like 1986. That’s how old I am. I think Shcultz came on as a supplier of some sort, or marketing, but I don’t think he actually joined the company until about 1986. I bounced around a bit, but I was at another place called Espresso Roma at the time. Back then, no one really knew what they were doing. I’ll just tell ya, everyone was just kind of like throwing darts, seeing what would work. I was aware of Illy Café and, just the story of Franceso and his family, and what they’ve done meant a lot to me. At that time, the highest grade of coffee was Italian and we were just riffing on anything we could riff on. So Espresso Roma came and I was like, this is my Italian, but they weren’t Italian at all; just some company out of Oakland or something. That was the start for me, a farm kid who left the farms. First, I was an endurance guy who ran cross country. The University of Washington wanted me to run for them and paid for my school and, for my family, that was the only way you’re going to go anyway. I then fell in love with the idea that there was a larger world and, to see those coffee bags with names like Peru was just so extraordinary to me. I remember just touching it, saying to myself, this was in Peru. You have to put it into perspective; this was pre-internet, farm-boy. Peru was just, it actually existed, and that is what started the whole thing off. The idea that, this is an incredible thing to do and I was a farm-kid, so I knew what humping grain sacks meant, but also had this promise of adventure; and that is always at my core.
I read in an article that, your mother told you that, ‘it’s your world, go out and explore.’ Is that how you started running distance?
Distance was kind of an extension of it, that was back in the day. I mean we didn’t have TV and, we would say that we were bored, and she would just point outside and say go. It was a very rural area so it meant getting on a bike or, just cutting across the mountains on foot, and that is what I did. As a boy that age, you wanted to see how much bigger that could get. When distance running came along I wasn’t aware; I was just this skinny quasi-active kid who did a lot of hiking. When I ran for the first time, I killed it. I couldn’t believe that I was that good at anything. I said to myself, I am really good at this and, I was an All-American by the time I was a junior.
Before you were 18 I read that you ran a mega-marathon?
It was a 100k; 62 miles. The longer the race goes, the better I am. When I went to the university, I got to choose my event in track. I picked 10k on the track and I just loved it. What is that, like 24 laps or something on the track? I can’t remember and, it’s to my advantage because, for some reason, my mind doesn’t break down. They used to call me the tick. A tick can wait on a branch for months for an animal to come by without moving, just waiting. I can do that in a storm. I’ve spent weeks in a tent just waiting or, when I’m running, I just get into this area where I just kind of shut off.
Based on that, how did you become so comfortable in your own skin and mind? We were talking on the way over here about this film Papillion with Steve McQueen, where he is put into solitary confinement and eventually goes a bit mad. Do you get to those points where you question what is going on, or do you always have that mental toughness?
I think that, if you are trying to exercise mental toughness, you will lose; it’s almost just like letting go. A couple things you don’t do like, say 40 days out on the ice all on your own. I’m gonna back up. First your brain will take care of itself by kind of losing it a little bit. It will, and you have to let it happen. You will generate people that are with you, you will generate conversation, you will feel like there are phantoms everywhere and you will have conversations with them, but that is perfectly natural; your body will do it. You will find an object and turn it into a being, you will have conversations with it. That is just the truth. I mean the first time I saw Castaway, I was with my wife and I said, that is just ridiculous because, I spent a little over 60 days on a raft in the South Pacific and I never talked to anything. But, if you are exerting yourself, and by then I had lost like 60 pounds, you do. At first you recognize your doing it and you say to yourself aw I shouldn’t do that, then you kind of loose yourself for a while and, its kind of like an itch or a scratch that you itch and then your realize that you shouldn’t do that, but then you find yourself doing it again and you go, fuck it, it feels good, and you kind of lose it that way. The important thing to do, is to never project into the future, ever. You gotta stay in that moment and, as long as you can stay in the moment you can stay there forever, because the moment isn’t long at all.
You have a lot of great line / quotes that you’ve come up with over the years …
Have I ?
You have your own isms, if you will, can you talk about your journey across the ice in Antarctica. You talk about when you reach your life’s achievement you’re like, really happy, but then you kind of mourn its loss …
Yeah, it’s crushing.
You’ve always found your next adventure, but what is it that you’re chasing with La Colombe, what are you trying to reach?
Right now I’m just taking care of the company until my kids get older, and I want to hand over something that is dynamic and, that has enough strength and character that they can’t screw it up…no, I shouldn’t say that. I have a very long-term approach; this isn’t a grow it flip it company. Illy Café is my model. They are in nearly every country in the world that actually imports things, and I guess they actually have a numerical value like 5 million a year, and it took them like 60 years to get there; well there you go that’s what I’m doing. I think what’s next after this is to settle other planets …
It’s not a business exercise, it is creating an entity that should really be a growing concern, and I’ll tell you why … there is no US non-retail oriented dominated coffee, it’s for the same reason as there are Italian companies; American men and women start their little roaster and then get it to a point and, their first 20 million dollar check they take their ticket and that company is slayed. Whereas Illy is still the same family, there you go, no stock options and I really appreciate that it’s like the Mars company, it’s like Concerto Pasta, Barilla, and like, Parmigiano-Reggiano. These are beautiful products that are intended to be with us forever … and that’s what I would like La Colombe to be … you know, and I don’t think there is any point where you go I just sold two million pounds, awesome. No, uh-uh. And then its just to make that ride more and more worth while, be more impactful all the way through, and then croak and then hopefully someone puts a painting of me up on that wall. That’s the game, you know. And I know that it sounds so old school, but it’s so old school, it’s new school. I can’t be bought is a really cool thing to say. It means a lot to me. What’s wrong with just having some freaking integrity now, its really bizarre that … you know, I think back to my grandpa, he did everything to help his neighbors and there was no way you could buy him out of his job right. What if you ran out on to the field and there is a quarterback on the football team, and you said, I’m gonna give you 200 million dollars never to play again, and that guy is going to say fuck you, this is what I do!!! I enjoy this. Well, you’ll never make 200 million by playing. What’s he gonna say, get off the field, right? Well nowadays, it just seems like every company you could just run up to and say, how bout I give you 50 million, and then they just leave the game. There is no love of the game. At the same time, you’ll find in coffee that, everyone that purports this I’m passionate about my, you’ll find that the most passionate people are willing to take checks and forget about their passion…well that’s not passion, dude. You know, I shouldn’t put it into negative terms, just for me I think, having character and having compassion, just the man that I want to be. So I take care of my farmers and I use every opportunity I can get to help those who are truly disadvantaged, take care of my employees and make great coffee; it’s that simple. And I can get up every day of my life and do that.
There are really only two types of people I have met in my life that have that viewpoint of humanity: one, someone showed that to you and it was beautiful and you wanted to give it back and two, someone didn’t and you want to change that. Which one is it for you?
I don’t know. I’m kind of a funny guy. I enjoy team sports but I’m kind of a solo dude, I’ve never really leaned on anyone. I think it’s just awareness. You look around and go dude, maybe it’s born from this whole thing like, what’s the meaning and why are we here? Deep philosophical issues that I’ve struggled with for a long time. You’re here to make the greatest positive impact you possibly can and success is measured by one thing only; what you’ve done with your opportunities. I’m not really an object-driven dude. I have some tee-shirts and stuff, but it’s actually action that drives me.
How do you co-mingle with “the other sect” that’s in your neighborhood?
You get two types. There’s the type like “Why?” In the Western world, our lives are so risk-less. So, adding just a little bit is crazy. You know, walking across Antarctica isn’t as risky as walking the streets of Calcutta, which 7 million people do.
Did you ever have true fear for your life?
No, because by that time, there was so little brain activity going on. I was malnourished and so close to exhaustion that, there is only one thing going on in your head: go, go, go. The dangerous thing about that is…have you ever had that dream where you didn’t finish your final exam in college and someone is calling to take your degree away? I couldn’t sleep for months cause I just kept hearing go, go, go. No, I didn’t think about that, there was a moment when I was two days from the pole and I was down, and I spent the second night working on the stove. You don’t have very long to live. That was freaky, you know, but I finally got my shit together. Once you get to real altitude, you look at something and it’s like being weirdly stoned. That’s kind of where I was trying to put these stoves together. And I remember thinking yeah, I could die here.
Were you thinking about your family?
You guys are two young to appreciate stuff like that. I’m 48, man. That’s another thing, you know. When you’re at base camp in Antarctica, you have some dudes who have done some things and there are all these tents set up. All these ripped dudes, and they were like, this guy’s never gonna make it, he’s gonna fucking die. Ironically, I’m thinking, you’re gonna die. When you get this idea like, holy shit, I have two more months of this, then you realize it’s not adrenaline dude. It has to be purely mechanical and you have to stay in the moment. You have to applaud and be the tick. I’ve been doing this for 13 ½ hours, I should stop. When the evac plane came in at the end of the first day.
Do you have a certain regimen or, do you just eat everything you can get your hands on?
I made some mistakes the last time. I slimmed down, I was thinking more like a marathon. It was a lot more difficult on me than it should have been; I had to invent a whole new cart. There’s a place called Devil’s Golf Course and, the only way to explain it is that you’re standing and looking out. No one had ever crossed it. And you get there and find out that this is like razor blades. The desert is the base of two mountains. And the basin is just ripped up.
I wrote down a quote that embodies you, by Rockefeller, “I do not think there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”
I agree, totally. I always say, endurance and will; that’s it. The combination of the two, and pretty much everything is achievable. Both my business and adventures were challenges in their own way. Expeditions are a very internal thing. But then, when you’re married, it requires the cooperation of your wife. I had so much luck. First, I met Lauren on television. She was the host of the morning TV show and she says to me, why aren’t you married? They love the notion of you being a trekker, but once they’re in a relationship, it stops. And she said to me, “I can handle that.” But you know, I’m more careful now that we have children.
You talk a little bit about luck. I read a bit about you working in Seattle for Ernst and then, how did you end up in Monte Carlo? Did you just say fuck it? What was that like for you and why did you make the decisions to go to where you did?
I remember the moment I decided. It was in a meeting and, I knew that I was doing what I thought I should do; you go and get a degree and get a professional job. I loved the challenging work, but I hated my life. And what was worse, I was sitting at this conference room, a Styrofoam cup and a donut, and to keep myself occupied, I was thinking who at this table would I want to end up like. I went all the way around the table and realized, fuck, this is not what I want. I remember feeling like I was going to choke. And long streams of doing tax work. It was like chess to me, strategy, and I loved that, but I couldn’t breathe very well so, I excused myself from the meeting. I fucking went home. The next day I came in and said, I’m leaving. It was something like, you go where the action is. What I thought was really interesting, was international tax law. Like the kid who didn’t know, I just bolted; I went to Monte Carlo. I figured, if I fail, I fail. I’ll always have that accounting background. I think that, you know, I can keep myself in the moment, but when I look up, I don’t want to see the end. As long as I feel there’s another corner.
Do you consider yourself a survival kind of guy? Like those TV shows?
A lot of explorer guys like to badmouth Bear Grylls, but he’s got some serious talent. That’s just jealousy cause he’s the dude. He gets to study it, you know, he’s the man. The year he broke his shoulder, his parachute didn’t open….he’s a rockstar man. I like the challenge. I like disassociating with my body. We spend so much time in it, we think this is us, but it’s not. You have to separate the two parts, your mind and your body. What I really like is just looking at the horizon and thinking, I’m just going to keep going past that.
Would you almost consider yourself a modern-day Odysseus?
Kind of, you know, but my wife doesn’t understand why I have to go and suffer. First of all, it’s the closest thing that an active mind can do towards meditation. Trekking requires you to do all this: breathe deep, focus ahead, find inner space, don’t think too much. And again, it’s like you only have this one thing to think about.
For me, I’m my sponsor. I’ll always lecture; I lecture a lot to kids, but I don’t understand why a guy at 35 needs to lecture. The sponsorship people, I wave off. It’s just not me. When you’re a married man with children, and you’re taking off on expeditions, you just don’t have a lot of time. It’s an unexploited brand. And that’s really what they’re looking for. You could make a lot of money and just kill it. There’s an investment firm that did like Vitamin Water. Right now, La Colombe is numbered at like $30 million. But I would hate for my son right now, to say to his friends, you know, my dad used to own La Colombe. To finish off your life just minding your treasures, you’re not growing anymore, you’re not impacting anyone, you don’t have contact with real people. I’m active, in motion, and I feel like if you sell, you’re not in motion anymore.