Hire fast and fire faster. With a small team, each person’s impact on the business is multiplied 100 fold. Hiring is tough for every company, but a mediocre employee won’t sink the ship in a medium or large company. It will in a small company. I hired a Director or Sales and within 2 weeks, I could tell that it wasn’t what we needed, so I made the tough decision to move on immediately. It was a hard discussion, but the ramifications of having an underperforming employee were even harder to accept.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Lamancusa, Founder and CEO.
Jim Lamacusa is the Founder and CEO of Cusa Tea & Coffee. A lifelong outdoorsman and accomplished Eagle Scout, Jim’s love of nature led him from his hometown of Cleveland to the Colorado Rockies, where — in between epic hikes and rock climbing excursions — he earned his B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Colorado and then MBA from Argosy University. As an undergraduate, Jim spent a semester abroad studying international business in Hong Kong, where he first fell in love with the world’s beloved beverage, tea.
Driven by his sense of adventure, after graduation Jim taught English in Thailand and spent a year meditating and exploring the Himalayan peaks of Nepal before moving back to Boulder for an entry-level job as a salesman for Eco-Products, maker of eco-friendly foodservice products. He worked his way up to VP of Sales, followed by VP of Sales and Marketing positions at GoodBelly, Dynafit/Salewa and, later, a small water bottle startup, but he always dreamed of following in his grandfather and father’s footsteps and starting his own company.
The opportunity to take the leap came after a round of unexpected layoffs at the water bottle startup, and in 2017 Jim launched Cusa Tea & Coffee with the goal of bringing truly delicious instant beverages to the world. As CEO, Jim oversees the brand’s growth and beverage R&D, and the company has rapidly grown to over 2,500 retailers, with a robust direct-to-consumer business.
Jim continues to spend every moment he can outdoors in Boulder, CO, where he lives with his family. He also teaches meditation, serves as Executive Director at a meditation center in Denver and (when he’s not drinking Cusa Tea) enjoys a smoky whisky.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My grandfather, father, and mother were all entrepreneurs, so I guess I have a bit of it in my blood. But after working at three fast-growing startups in Boulder, CO over the past 15 years, I’ve gotten a good sense of what it’s like to be an emerging company. My roles at these companies were always in Sales and Marketing, but as at any startup, you end up wearing every hat at some point. I love so many things about the startup world, but my favorite thing is the ability to take an idea from inception to reality in a matter of days, versus years, at a larger company.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Where do I start? I think the hardest time was when I was trying to create the product itself. I tried all of the methods that currently existed to make instant beverages, spending $75,000 of my wife and my savings, and they all completely failed to make a good tasting cup of tea. I experienced two weeks of depression and self doubt, questioning why I had blown so much of our money on a pipe-dream. Then I discovered botanical extraction technology and found a partner willing to work with me to modify it for a food purpose for the first time. As they say, the rest is history!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There are two areas in my life that help me continue, even when things are hard: meditation and mountaineering. I meditate daily for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. The benefits are too numerous to list, but it is also really hard to meditate that long and make it a daily habit. Part of the “meditation” is to continue to stay in the present moment, even when your body hurts, you’re bored, you’re tired, etc. I have been doing this for 20 years, so I guess I have gotten used to just continuing even when it gets tough. I also do a lot of mountaineering and it’s a similar story here. People tend to remember the exhilaration of the summit, but the journey to get there can be really hard. You have to keep moving even when you’re cold, hungry, and tired. I have learned to keep my head down and put one foot in front of the other
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I like to say that entrepreneurship is similar to a game of whack-a-mole. If anyone tells you that “everything is great”, they’re lying! Even when sales are great, you have to watch inventory and cash. You will order what you think is your most popular item, and then some other flavor will take off. Things are going well for us at the moment, but there is always another mole to whack! As for grit and resilience, both are the reasons we are still in business. It is extremely rare for a startup to find their way right out of the gate. The key is to always look for new opportunities that arise, test small and then go big, and don’t think that just because you “think” it should be a certain way that it will be. For example, I thought the easiest path to success for Cusa Tea would be with grocery stores. It turns out that getting a customer’s attention in a 25ft tea section is a lot harder than it sounds. We have found a much easier path with our eCommerce line.
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 I first started, I was running things very bootstrapped, so I couldn’t afford a big, expensive photo shoot. So, I hired a friend to take our first round of pictures focused on outdoors and camping. We had a small window of time, so we went to a local Boulder park, pitched a tent and started taking pictures. Within 20 minutes, rangers showed up and gave me a $100 dollar ticket for “setting up a structure” in the park. I tried to pay them off with free tea, but they weren’t having it! I learned from that experience that we need to be a bit more detailed and research local rules before we try to do something like that in the future.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think that we stand out because of how nimble and innovative we are. I refuse to do things a certain way because that’s what has always been done. I could have easily given up when my initial R&D work failed miserably. Even though my background is in sales and marketing, that didn’t stop me from searching for a technology that I could use to achieve my dream. When I found a botanical extraction process that could work for a food purpose, I jumped in and didn’t stop until we had something that would blow our customers away.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I know it has become a lot more widely known, but the benefits of daily meditation are incredible and I would recommend it to everyone. Most people I know have tried it and felt like they weren’t doing it right, so they stopped. It is really hard to do it wrong and you won’t see a benefit from just doing it every once and a while. Just like training for a 10K or a marathon, training the mind takes commitment and dedication. The end result I have experienced is far less anxiety and stress, and a huge boost in innovation and creativity.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people that have helped me along the way, but no one more than my wife. She has been the best partner I could imagine in this process. She believed in my vision and was willing to let me spend our savings on my pipe dream. She has also been my sounding board, shoulder to cry on, and biggest source of support and love during all the hard days. Let’s face it, starting a business from scratch is really hard. There are more bad days than good, and if you don’t have support from your spouse, it can be difficult for the relationship. I will say that I have seen other entrepreneurs throw everything they have into the business and forgotten their spouse. That usually doesn’t end well. I have made a goal of at least one date night a week, and I try to work smart versus work long hours so I can keep our relationship strong. I think we are doing something right after 17 years!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think this comes from all the small things you do and small decisions you make that add up to a bigger benefit. For example, I try to treat my employees how I have always wanted to be treated. Even though we are a small company, everyone starts with 4 weeks of PTO, a very flexible schedule, health insurance, retirement savings, and a one month sabbatical after 5 years of employment. I have also tried to make environmental responsibility a pillar of the company. We compost all of the used tea and coffee, use recyclable and compostable packaging, and our manufacturing facility is 75% powered by solar. I think all of these small things add up to a lot when you put them all together!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. You are going to need to raise a lot more money than what your original business plan says. As I said earlier, it is rare for startups to find their way immediately. We have had to make multiple pivots to find the right customers, the right products, and the right pricing strategy. Unfortunately those learnings come with a cost, and you are going to burn some money. For Cusa Tea and Coffee, we invested heavily into grocery stores for the first few years and spent a lot of money to push velocity only to realize that it was going to cost a lot more money to go this path than what we expected originally. Once we pivoted to direct-to-consumer, the business has skyrocketed and we are seeing a great return on investment for every marketing dollar we spend.
2. Early feedback from first customers is indicative of the future. Don’t ignore it. When I started Cusa Tea, I did everything, including hundreds of demos at grocery stores. Our original price was $9.99 for 10 servings because that’s what Starbucks Via sold for. Many people said they loved the taste, but told me that it was too expensive. It took me a while to drop my own ideas of what should be and take a hard look at what the reality was. We were too expensive. We are now at $5.99 and selling like crazy. So it’s a lower margin, but sales are phenomenal.
3. Entrepreneurship is like a game of whack-a-mole. You will never feel completely at peace with the state of the business. When I started, I kept thinking that once I got through our Series A fundraising, or once we got into REI, or once we launched coffee, everything would be easy. Unfortunately that’s not the way it works. Once you solve one problem, another will take its place. The challenge in a leadership position is to determine which problem is the biggest deterrent for growth and focus there, then go to the next, and then the next.
4. Yes, your business is important, but it does not define who you are. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs in our community throw their entire life into their company and define themselves on their success or failure. From what I’ve seen, having a successful startup comes from three main things. A great idea, a lot of hustle, and a bunch of luck. There are a ton of companies with great ideas and strong work ethic that didn’t have the luck in market demand to make them a success. I try to constantly remind myself that even if this doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean I am a failure. It doesn’t define who I am.
5. Hire fast and fire faster. With a small team, each person’s impact on the business is multiplied 100 fold. Hiring is tough for every company, but a mediocre employee won’t sink the ship in a medium or large company. It will in a small company. I hired a Director or Sales and within 2 weeks, I could tell that it wasn’t what we needed, so I made the tough decision to move on immediately. It was a hard discussion, but the ramifications of having an underperforming employee were even harder to accept.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow us at @drinkcusa on IG!