Todd Carmichael has always been up for an adventure. The founder of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee Roasters climbed Mount Rainier on a whim at age 15. At 44, he set a world record for making the fastest solo trek across Antarctica to the South Pole (his record has since been broken). Here he explains how, along the way, he managed to build a coffee empire that earned the No. 2,256 spot on Inc.'s 2019 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. --As told to Dan Whateley
The key to life is this: Everyone's a fraud. I started a company that's now reaching close to a billion-dollar valuation and I wasn't fucking qualified. I wasn't qualified to be an entrepreneur at all. I was a farm kid with an idea.
I understood seeds, and I understood the mechanics of heat. And I found a job in a tiny coffee roasting place in 1982. I was 18, and it was a super tiny little company. It was called Starbucks. My first job was just to lug bags around the warehouse and deliver them to the coffee machines.
It was the old days. It was a bootstrap, classic startup feeling, you know, just trying to figure out things as you went along. I was studying business and doing coffee, and I kind of fused the two. And I just never separated them.
When you're the first of a family of many generations to ever go to college, you're kind of important to them. After you graduate, you can't just go make coffee for people. I graduated in 1986 with a degree in tax law. I owed it to my family to do that for a year, which I did. And then I jacked in my job and I did the most rational thing I could think of: I moved to Europe. I needed to figure out this European secret of coffee roasting. We were doing it in Seattle, but it was crap.
During that time, I lived like a rock star. Well, like a rock star before you have a hit. I lived the cheapest life possible in a tiny little sailboat in Antibes, France. It was basically like living in a van, but since it was a boat, it was cool.
I wrote the business plan in France. I spent my whole time there saving money. I never turned down an odd job, from full-on tax accounting to rebuilding marine diesel motors--all while living like a nomad on my little wooden boat. I thought I needed $100,000. And when I achieved that after five years, I called my best friend back in Seattle and said, "OK, we're going to do this." We started talking about what city we wanted to do it in. I wanted to launch from the East Coast.
When I got to Philadelphia in 1993, it was just down on its knees. I thought, this is perfect--it's what I'm looking for. A city that was going to come back. Something ready for a culinary renaissance. I lived off less than $400 a month and everything else belonged to La Colombe.
We signed a 50-year lease for $1,500 a month on what is now known as Rittenhouse Plaza, which has become untouchable real estate. I went in strong saying, "I'm not going to fail, but if I do, I'm going down in flames. If I succeed I want to reap all the benefits, so we're going to go 50 years on this thing." It had been vacant for so long that the landlord was willing to sign anything.
We started out as a pure coffee roaster and the goal was to roast coffee for the best restaurants in the country. In 1994, we landed the four most talented French chefs in the country at the time: Georges Perrier and his Philadelphia restaurant, Le Bec-Fin; Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City; the late Jean-Louis Palladin at the D.C. Watergate Hotel; and Jean-Marie Lacroix at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. I walked into the back of Chef Lacroix's restaurant and said, "I'm here to make coffee for the chef." I put it in front of him. No brochure. No prices. Just a single cup of coffee. That's how we sold it.
Over time, we also built out this café in Philly that was just cranking, which we thought was an anomaly. We finally got our nerve together--after 13 years--and said, "Let's open a second one," and we opened one in New York's TriBeCa neighborhood. We thought, holy shit, that anomaly happened again. So then we opened one on Lafayette in New York and it happened again. We don't have a giant team. We like designing it ourselves. It's all done in-house and we take our time.
I've heard other CEOs' stories, and they don't say this enough: It's not just raw talent and genius that make you succeed. Sometimes it's good luck--you just need those one or two big strokes of luck.
When I first started, I said to myself, this is an endurance sport. The winner is the last guy standing. I want to be wheeled out of here with a little blanket on my knees and oxygen tank. And by the time I do that, this thing should be quite beautiful.