I am an American. I am here in China to buy tea.
With little more than those words—translated into Chinese—written on a piece of paper, the man known as the Indiana Jones of Tea began travelling through rural China in the early 1990s in search of the world’s finest teas. It was the formal beginning of the Hollywood movie-like entrepreneurial odyssey that David Lee Hoffman shared with Midwest Entrepreneurial students yesterday.
I say “formal beginning” because Hoffman’s keen interest in fine, rare tea began much earlier. As he told the class, he left the United States to “live on the road” for 10 years in various Asian nations shortly after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During this time he regularly engaged in ritualistic tea consumption with remote rural tea farmers and Tibetan monks; even spending some time with the Dalai Lama. It was not until the early 1990s that he began buying tea for export to and sale in the United States. Today, Hoffman’s tea business is conducted under the name The Phoenix Collection, named in honor of Phoenix Mountain (home to some of the finest and rarest of fine Chinese teas) (see: http://www.thephoenixcollection.com/ and http://www.teance.com/category_s/71.htm).
However, as we were informed yesterday, tea was not Hoffman’s first entrepreneurial endeavor. Between his time “on the road” in rural Asia and the genesis of his tea business he successfully developed a unique sonic cleaning system for the cleaning of precious ancient textiles, fine art, and artifacts. With this invention, he secured the business of several important clients including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Textile Museum in Washington DC, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the Smithsonian. The idea for this process came from an unlikely (and macabre) source; news reports of a torture technique employed during the Vietnam War wherein prisoners were placed in wooden barrels full of water and then the barrel was hit with sticks (with sound vibrations being sent through the water). Hoffman experimented with the water-based sound vibrations process until he was able to clean fragile textiles and artifacts several hundreds of year old without damaging them. As he put it: “Sometimes bad things lead to something good.”
But the business of cleaning fragile, ancient textiles and artifacts was both tedious and highly stressful. Hoffman found himself working with pieces of fabric sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. What if something went wrong and one was ruined? He, too, could be ruined (at least financially). So, Hoffman’s entrepreneurial spirit drifted—as a “way to relax”—toward his true love; artisan teas of China.
Hoffman, the key figure in the acclaimed 2007 documentary “All in This Tea” by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, shared with the Midwest Entrepreneurs class several fascinating “ups and downs” of twenty-some years as a tea entrepreneur. Key among the “ups” discussed included working directly with rural Chinese tea farmers traditionally ignored by tea buyers and the notion of sharing their wonderful, hand-crafted teas with the rest of the world. “Downs” mentioned included, most notably, repeated early difficulties in getting the tea—once acquired—out of China. Here, he found that the then government-run exporting companies that he had to go through wanted to deal only with their preferred “national” teas; teas that were of far lesser quality than those Hoffman was buying directly from small farmers. As he told us, he was proposing a way of doing business that was as-of-then unknown to those he was dealing with in China. The key to eventually overcoming this dilemma, according to Hoffman, was taking the time to carefully build trust-based relationships with local Chinese farmers and business people (with the trust of the partner gained via honoring and conspicuously respecting these individuals). Like many entrepreneurs, Hoffman never gave up—even after quitting his tea business several times—and eventually persevered in seeing his dream of making the finest teas of China available to tea drinkers in the United States. Also, along the way, he sold parts of his business to others who turned them into highly successful ventures in their own right.
Students were also once again exposed to what was once probably the odd notion of a business owner not wanting the business to grow. We frequently hear media stories of businesses being obsessed with growth in terms of quarterly sales or profits or the number of employees or branch locations. However, we heard from Mr. Hoffman, just as we have heard from several other speakers so far this semester, that growth is often not very high on the priority list of the entrepreneur. In Hoffman’s case, he was becoming overwhelmed with business to the point where he was unable to adequately control operations (and, as a result, personally manage customer experience and satisfaction). Further, the volume of business was taking a toll on both his family life and health. He was sleeping but 3-4 hours a night just to keep up. Advice to slow down from a doctor led to his backing off and striving to find a better work-life balance; which he has maintained for some time now. Again, as we have seen and heard repeatedly this semester: When you are your own boss, you can choose to work however much you want to suit your preferred lifestyle.
Finally, in the title to this blog post, the post-nominal title of “CDO” follows the name of David Lee Hoffman. This title, as he explained it yesterday, originated in the course of attending prestigious national tea conferences in China. Hoffman noted on one conference program that he was the only tea expert listed without a professional notation of some sort behind his name; so he added one. Do you know what “CDO” stands for? According to Hoffman, it stands for “College Drop Out.” Yes, David Lee Hoffman, the Indiana Jones of Tea, never finished college; and no one ever asked him to explain the self-created title. And, he had no Chinese language skills at the start of his entrepreneurial adventure. All this just goes to show, yet again, that virtually nothing can stop a determined entrepreneur; particularly one as knowledgeable of and as passionate for their product as is David Lee Hoffman.
Thanks to all the students who ventured out amidst heavy snow for Mr. Hoffman’s presentation. See you tomorrow for a presentation by local commercial painter Joe Thompson.