Chris Smith: “Be prepared to hear no before you hear yes”

The organization is designed to raise funds that are distributed directly to a network of autism-based nonprofits and to Humblemaker-sponsored events developed for children on the autism spectrum. These specially tailored events are therapy-based — giving children living with autism the ability to experience a new world: discover the ocean & nature, enjoy music, and interact with […]

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The organization is designed to raise funds that are distributed directly to a network of autism-based nonprofits and to Humblemaker-sponsored events developed for children on the autism spectrum. These specially tailored events are therapy-based — giving children living with autism the ability to experience a new world: discover the ocean & nature, enjoy music, and interact with peers of “typical” development. These unique peer interactions not only foster positive role modeling for children with autism, but simultaneously build self-confidence and encourage leadership skills with the “typical” children that participate.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Smith, the Co-Founder of independent craft coffee & beverage company Humblemaker Coffee Co., alongside his long-time friend and Co-Founder Bryan Marseilles. They started Humblemaker in 2016 out of a desire to share their passion for the outdoors with their children and leave them something they built from the ground up that has a lasting, positive impact on society.

Humblemaker proudly donates 10% of annual profits to their program, #TenForAutism to enable children with autism to experience surfing, music, and the great outdoors. Funds raised are distributed directly to a network of autism-based nonprofits and to Humblemaker sponsored events developed for children on the autism spectrum.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Bryan and I have known each other since the early 2000s when we worked together on a startup eyewear brand. He served as Creative Director, and I ran global sales, and we have been great friends ever since. Bryan stumbled into the cold brew business in 2011 and helped to launch the boutique craft coffee brand, Seaworth Coffee, which had some tangible success back when the cold brew category was just starting to take off. During this same period, I worked in GM and CFO roles in the fashion lifestyle space with several emerging brands, but always had that entrepreneurial itch to build another brand from the ground up. Being that I was such a huge fan of cold brew, along with Bryan’s creative instincts, I suggested that we start a new project that reflected our shared passions for coffee, surfing, music and the outdoors that would also leave a positive legacy that our young sons would be proud of one day. Neither of us had a deep knowledge of the food & beverage space but felt that we could leverage our combined experience to create a successful lifestyle coffee brand. ​We started concepting the brand in late 2016 and brought it to market in early 2017 with our original two 7-oz. bottled cold brew products: The Little Victory and our hemp-based Bright White, under the brand name Humblemaker.

We often get asked how we came up with the name Humblemaker. For us it has two meanings. The first is very literal in that we are “humble makers” of product, of creative, of coffee shop retail experiences…this stems from both of our parents raising us to be humble in life. The second is we saw it as a positive play off the old term “widowmaker” — a life experience that shakes you to your core. We wanted to ask the question: What’s your Humblemaker? Or what are the things in this life that make you feel humble and grateful. For us it might be watching a sunrise illuminate the desert for the first time or surfing off the coast of Maine in mind-numbing 34-degree water. It could be the day you get married, the day a child is born, or, in Bryan’s case, it could be the moment you understand that both of your children might be on the autism spectrum. It’s why we donate 10% of our profits to programs for children with ASD through our Ten For Autism non-profit.

As the brand and our resources grew, we wanted to share this concept with people and encourage others to tell their stories with the hope of creating a community of like-minded individuals who appreciate great coffee and life’s simple pleasures.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization? Story of the shop, timing, creating luck etc.

I’d have to say the most interesting story is how we opened our flagship shop in Seal Beach, CA. Bryan was working with our old friends at TankFarm on another creative project and visited their office a couple blocks from the beach. While he was there, they got to talking and they insisted on showing him a recently vacated coffee shop on the corner of PCH & Main St. Bryan then called me and said I needed to check this space out — he said it had this incredible vibe and he spoke with the building owner who was super cool. My initial reaction was: this is crazy. We barely have enough cash to pay our current bills. How the hell are we going to open a coffee shop? I told Bryan that he needed to focus on our current objectives and to call me later.

He called me back 15 minutes later and insisted that I at least have a phone call with the building owner. I was actually ten minutes away from the shop location that day, as I was meeting with a potential co-packer a few miles away. Begrudgingly, I said I would come by after my meeting. So we met with Bob, saw the space, and I told Bryan was right (something you don’t hear me say very often : ) ). I told Bob that this would be a perfect space for us, but we had just started our Pre-Seed capital raise and we’d need 3–6 months before we could consider taking on an endeavor like this. He then responded, “What if I invested in your business, would that help?” I very surprisingly answered yes, and he said to put together a proposal for him to review and perhaps we could make something work. I sent him something the very next day, we had a conference call the following Sunday, and we verbally agreed to a deal less than a week later.

That not only jumpstarted our funding round but also gave us an incredible location to meet with other potential investors moving forward. The randomness of all factors coming together to make this happen really blows my mind sometimes, but Bryan and I both are firm believers in creating your own luck. Opportunity plus preparation lead us to that point in time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we first launched, we threw the idea of a cold brew shot out to a few local distributors. All of them said they were having a hard time selling juice shots and that cold brew shots were a terrible idea! As we all now know, juice shots have done very well since then, and the shot category as a whole is a very exciting space to be in. Today, the shot serving size is our most sought-after product. A lesson in trusting your gut, I suppose.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Bryan has a very real, personal connection to the autism community. He has been an inspiration to watch in how he has so successfully juggled being an engaged dad, caretaker, business partner and creative machine. We decided that we wanted to take the opportunity we had to leverage this brand and business to have a really positive impact on those living with autism…especially kids, teenagers and young adults. We even have a few of the original members of the TOMS Shoes team as investors and advisors, and, as most know, they really set the bar for how to use business to make a social impact. So, we’ve determined that autism is our cause, and we can use the success of Humblemaker to make a real difference.

As for Ten for Autism, it is a 501c3 non-profit created by Humblemaker to encourage for-profit businesses to donate up to 10% of their annual net profits to enable children with autism the opportunity to experience surfing, music, and the great outdoors. We structured it similar to Patagonia’s 1% for the Planet so that other businesses can join and donate up to 10% of their profits or create training and job opportunities for teenagers and young adults that are on the spectrum.

The organization is designed to raise funds that are distributed directly to a network of autism-based nonprofits and to Humblemaker-sponsored events developed for children on the autism spectrum. These specially tailored events are therapy-based — giving children living with autism the ability to experience a new world: discover the ocean & nature, enjoy music, and interact with peers of “typical” development. These unique peer interactions not only foster positive role modeling for children with autism, but simultaneously build self-confidence and encourage leadership skills with the “typical” children that participate.

So far, with very limited resources, we’ve been able to support other events hosted by A Walk On Water and plan to get involved with The A.skate Foundation. We’ve also been able to work with a student program through Los Alamitos High, a local high school near our shop in Seal Beach, where students come in a few days a week to learn how the shop operates. We show them everything, ranging from folding boxes to making lattes on the espresso bar. It’s beautiful to be able to see their confidence grow from week to week and know that they are part of the Humblemaker crew.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There was one student in particular from the program at Los Alamitos High who actually started to come in and work with us at the shop. In a conversation with his family and the program leader, they shared with us how much of a positive impact we had on his life and how the shop is all he talks about. I will never forget sitting with them in the shop as they told me this. We may not be able to change the world, but if we could have this same impact 1,000 times over, we certainly would.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We’re not as much trying to raise awareness, but more so trying to have an impact directly on teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum through providing job opportunities in the community. As a coffee shop, we feel we can really have an impact this way.

In order to have even more of an impact, more towns and communities throughout the country, and more specifically, other coffee shops, restaurants, etc. could replicate this model. This would require the support of government and community leaders to fund and create programs similar to that at Los Alamitos to help transition these students into adulthood. Typically funding for these types of programs stop when kids graduate high school, and they are often left with the question, “what now?” The opportunities we provide as a coffee shop could easily be replicated to provide more students with opportunities to find careers and hobbies they are passionate about post-graduation.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

This may be cliché, but leading by example is key. As a leader — whether in a job, family, sports team, etc. — you should never ask someone to do something you haven’t done before or that you aren’t willing to do yourself in that moment. Beyond that, good leadership is identifying people’s strengths and putting them into situations in which they can succeed. Putting people in positions where they can easily fail is a demonstration of poor leadership — people should never be set up for failure.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. We knew this was a different space from our background in the lifestyle-fashion world and knew it was going to present challenges just like any other business we’ve been involved with. However, I didn’t fully grasp how much capital is needed to truly compete in the beverage industry. I’m half kidding — but I would have told myself that we’re going to need a bigger boat and to fill it all with working capital.
  2. I also wish someone had told me to surround myself with some industry vets earlier in the process to accelerate building the network, partners, and relationships. We have that in place now, and we’re starting to cook. It’s exciting to watch it evolve.
  3. Raising capital is a full-time job in itself, and if you’re not raising capital then you’re not able to run your business to its fullest potential. It costs money to have the right resources in place to run a business — PR agencies, creative agencies, wholesale agencies, staff, etc. The solution? Capital. Raising capital allows us as business owners to execute our plans and distribute jobs to the right people accordingly, rather than taking on a lot of the work ourselves. A business is like an orchestra — it only sounds good when all of the pieces are working together at the same time. Same goes for running a business, when you have all the players systematically doing their part, that is when you will see the most success.
  4. Be patient, because this is going to be a long process. Success is going to take a lot longer than you anticipate or want. A lot of people see others that have achieved success and expect to see this right away in their own business. Most of the time success is actually a very long time in the making and takes much determination and patience. Of course, there are overnight success stories, but for the majority of people, it will take longer than what you planned or hoped for.
  5. Be prepared to hear no before you hear yes. You may hear three no’s before someone finally gives you a chance. Be prepared to go back to the drawing board — your first idea is not always going to be the best. It could be the 3rd, 4th, 9th or 10th attempt. For example, the wellness cold brew shots we have now are actually the 3rd or 4th iteration of the product, and they got better and better as we went along. These shots have gotten a better response than anything we have done before, and as mentioned, we were originally told they weren’t a good idea. Never give up too soon, stick to your gut instinct, but be open to a variations of your original concept.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We have our Ten For Autism non-profit, which is still in its infancy stages. I think back to two summers ago when we were selected as one of 100 forward thinking food and beverage brands invited to Kroger’s Innovation Summit. I would love to go back there, not with our Humblemaker hats on, but with our Ten for Autism hats on to get all of those businesses on board with this initiative. I would also love to get all of the local businesses on Main Street in Seal Beach involved and really the whole community. Right now we have one, but if we had 1000 indie coffee shops or any businesses on this mission with us, that would be incredibly impactful and our impact would become exponential.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is more of a mantra than a quote, but this has really gotten me through the last five or so years. “You never know what’s around the corner, good or bad. Nothing is permanent. Just keep going; good things come to those who wait.” There have been quite a few events in my life that I never would have anticipated. For example, I would have never thought we would open a coffee shop. Being open to opportunities and new ideas can lead to incredible things.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet Barak Obama. He is such an incredible leader, and someone who has really helped to move our society forward in so many ways. He just seems like an all-around wonderful and human being and a really special person. With everything that has been going on in the world especially — I would love to sit down and chat through it all with him. This came to mind six months ago for me, and it is now more relevant than ever.

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