In the middle of Panamanian jungle, a small town has been forming. Not just any town--a place that is reimagining everything from civic infrastructure, to sustainability, education, ethics, creativity and more--all while celebrating the lives and passions of everyone who encounters it.
The place is described as "a new village being built in a Panamanian river valley to bring together entrepreneurs, artists, scientists and modern day romantics." This is Kalu Yala, the brainchild of Jimmy Stice, a real estate pioneer, marketing aficionado, and an all-around cool guy with good ol' Southern charm.
I had a recent opportunity to travel to Panama, visit Kalu Yala, and witness Jimmy and his team's work first hand. In this live-from-the jungle episode of my interview series, Innovation Crush, Jimmy discusses how Kalu Yala came to be, what he's had to navigate to build his vision, how the essence brand extends beyond its physical locale, and what it takes to be a leader of a massive undertaking.
Here are few ways to build your own empire from scratch:
1) Build a brand, not a company.
The road to Kalu Yala is more than two miles of bumpy, rocky, and hilly under-developed terrain. You splash through deeper-than-comfortable potholes and you spot monkeys in the trees, while wondering if the cattle truck you're on the back of will even make it to the final destination. Admittedly, Jimmy could pave the road. However, the path immediately makes you feel like you're heading someplace extremely different, and is a big part of the overall Kalu Yala brand experience.
Jimmy describes how almost everything you see, feel, touch, and eat here is by intricate and deliberate design--all with a goal of tricking your senses into reconnecting with nature, yourself, and others. As Kalu Yala and a countless number of other innovators are proving, through proper deep branding and design thinking, any company has the opportunity to become a movement.
2) Do everything too soon.
For all intents and purposes, Kalu Yala is a startup. It's a young operation, and there is a slew of investors, a passionate team of skilled experts, an advisory board, and all the woes of operating in (literally) uncharted business territory. Through all its unfinished glory, Jimmy has offered up Kalu Yala as a place to get away for the likes of TEDx (recently held a summit for TEDx license holders), and more recently HATCH, a gathering of leading creative entrepreneurs, artists, and business innovators. With the influx of talent comes ideas, resources, collaborations, newly converted brand advocates--and in the case of Kalu Yala, a few people who simply decide to stay and help shepherd the vision.
In our own entrepreneurial journeys, we typically feel like it's too soon to let people peek under the hood. At every point of your development, find ways to let people emotionally connect to your brand and your vision.
3) Make way for other people's skills.
As a leader, Jimmy has learned how to get out of his team's way. In addition to his multi-hyphenated full-time staff, Kala Yula's top rated live-work program allows college students to bring what they have learned to Panama, and develop projects on and off the grounds. Thus, a solution to--or a discovery of-- a problem can come from any person at any time. Jimmy has realized that his job is to allow others to evolve, and do the things they are passionate about; while simply ensuring that the tasks match up with the overall vision he's created.
The struggle to be hands-on with every part of your business is real. But God only gave us two hands. The more we try to hold on to tasks and action items, the fewer things we can reach for.
4) Be ethical.
Seems like a no-brainer, but every endeavor has its short cuts that could eventually come back around to bite us in the you-know-what (remember Uber's not-so-due-diligence on its drivers?). Especially when going into an underdeveloped region or business territory. For Jimmy, ethics and values are what guides the decisions he makes every day. Sometime this means a longer, bumpier road ahead, but as stated earlier, it builds an intriguing part of the overall experience.
5.) Dig in deep.
Quite literally. In the beginning, Jimmy and his team showed up with tents, rice, pasta ... and shovels. During their first tropical rain shower, they dug trenches around their tents to keep their things from being washed away by Big Mama Nature. Kala Yula was officially there to stay. In a more figurative sense, they participated in local culture, got to know their neighbors (mainly farmers and land owners), built meaningful relationships with civic institutions. All this in addition to the book-learning Jimmy and his team had in real estate, socio-economic monocultures (trust me, it's a thing; he explains it in the interview), economics, marketing, and ecology.
While a fresh-eyes perspective can lead to smart creativity, diving deep into the culture you're observing allows that perspective and vision to be razor sharp.
Listen to the full interview here: