Transparency, open-sourcing style philosophy and raw honesty—which expose the failures, successes and lessons learned while building a business from nothing—is the essence behind Runa cofounder Tyler Gage’s recently published book, Fully Alive. It’s clear he wants the natural products industry to continue to succeed and grow by inspiring would-be entrepreneurs to cope with the unknown, the chaos and the uncertainty of success in leveraging a market-based solution to solve problems they find themselves wrestling with.
From scholar to unfamiliar entrepreneurship
Tyler’s journey to Runa evolved from a love of plants, their wisdom, their history, their medicinal properties, and ultimately a love of the indigenous communities who understood, respected and protected their sacred role with humans and the world. This fascination turned a would-be Fulbright scholar into a mission-driven entrepreneur that bridges the indigenous world with the modern world. Through guayusa, a ceremonial plant important to the indigenous Kichwa communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Runa’s goal is to provide a stable option for these communities to participate in the global market.
When all else fails, social enterprise prevails
Guayusa is a plant native to the Ecuadorian Amazon and central to the daily cultural traditions of the Kichwa, but it was a completely undeveloped supply chain. Tyler and cofounder Dan MacCombie laid the groundwork to commercialize guayusa into loose-leaf teas, RTD teas and energy drinks for U.S. consumers. Through a hybrid social enterprise model, Runa became part foundation, part for-profit certified B Corporation. After years of studying medicinal plants and learning from indigenous communities of Ecuador, Runa’s humble approach was to offer income from guayusa cultivation to provide sustainable jobs. The thinking was that selling guayusa in the U.S. would act in lieu of many-a-fizzled-nonprofit development initiatives, and free communities from participating in the global oil and mining markets—i.e. companies setting up camp in the Amazon and effectively destroying the precious land and natural resources with which they reside.
Conventional wisdom vs. Runa wisdom
Tyler gives any would-be entrepreneur a valuable contrast between the traditional business-minded approach and the Runa approach in the early stages of formation. Some worked to their advantage, while others did not (you’ll have to read the book to learn more).
- Business experts
- Fundraising from a few strategic investors who understand the beverage industry
- Equity financing
- Scaling deep by increasing turns/velocity in existing retailers
- Multi-year plan
- If foundation arm exists, for-profit heavily funds it, dictating structure
- Liberal arts approach—ask, learn, research
- Fundraising from anywhere and anyone, including crowdfunding
- Convertible debt that allows cash payback instead of equity stake
- Scaling wide by expanding doors and distribution
- Planning in increments of three months.
- Foundation retains a certain amount of independence. Runa only contributes up to 5 percent to its foundation arm. The logic is, the company want the foundation to empower farmers to better negotiate with the buyer, Runa.
To be Fully Alive is to celebrate failures along with the successes
In the end it all seems to be working, but not without struggles. The detailed failures and setbacks Tyler experiences cohabitate with the thinking and the mission that helped Runa overcome barriers and roadblocks. The Kichwa embrace life’s darkness along with the light. Our faults, failures and mistakes co-exist with our successes—that is what it is to be Runa, meaning Fully Alive. Tyler incorporates this into his being and offers perspective on how understanding our own darkness can forge a path that creates authenticity and mission in our life and business.
Catch Tyler Gage at Natural Products Expo East.
What: Standing Out by Standing Up: The Role of Mission in Business
When: 3:45-5 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017
Where: Hilton, Holiday Ballroom 1