Travel, Mark Twain famously wrote, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."
That's true in business as much as in life, as countless founders have discovered: Blake Mycoskie of social-entrepreneurship shoe stalwart Toms, Paul English of search engine Kayak, and Dave Gilboa of eyewear empire Warby Parker can all trace their companies back to formative travel experiences, as does super-entrepreneur Richard Branson, who was so irritated by a canceled flight that he arranged to charter a replacement for himself and his fellow passengers--creating the idea for what became Virgin Airlines.
Travel's inspirational effects on business have been widely chronicled in academia, too. A 2015 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that professionals who worked abroad and deeply engaged with their host culture produced more creative innovations than their nontraveling cohorts. And a study published this summer in The Journal of Applied Psychology found that building friendships with people from different cultures can enhance an individual's creativity, innovation, and, believe it or not, their likelihood of becoming an entrepreneur.
"When you're in your home and your routine, you're less likely to step out of your boundaries," says Koel Thomae, who tasted a new kind of yogurt during a long-delayed trip to her native Australia. Thirteen years later, Thomae has turned her version of that recipe into $170 million, 240-employee Noosa Yoghurt.
"You get into ruts," she adds. "Travel automatically pushes me out of that rut."
On the following pages, successful founders describe getting way, way out of their ruts--and emerging with the inspiration for a company.
His research and development trip landed him in a war zone.
Growing up in San Francisco's Tenderloin as a first-generation Yemeni American, Mokhtar Alkhanshali of Port of Mokha had heard stories of the rich tradition of coffee cultivation in his family's homeland. In recent decades, economic hardship had forced many Yemeni coffee growers to switch to growing the more profitable drug khat, and the country's legendary coffee was becoming harder to find and poorer in quality. Alkhanshali decided to try to help build up the coffee industry in Yemen and traveled there to find growers. But a subsequent trip nearly cost him his life.
I had my first cup of specialty coffee in San Francisco five years ago and immediately became intrigued. I did a lot of research on the market, and I even bought a popcorn maker so I could roast my own beans at home. When I talked to coffee traders, they all said the best coffee they ever had was from Yemen 15 years ago--but now it was really rare, really expensive, and often full of defects. So I thought, how could I replicate that one perfect cup they had?
I realized I had to go and see these farms in Yemen. But I'll be honest: I did not have a master plan. I knew I wanted somehow to connect my family's country with the U.S., and I thought coffee could be a way to do that. And I knew there was a growing demand in the specialty coffee market. So in the summer of 2013, I dropped out of community college to go. I figured, best-case scenario, I'll find amazing farmers and start a supply chain. Worst case, I would have a break for the summer. I didn't know what I was getting myself into.
For every farm in Yemen growing coffee, there were seven growing khat. I thought if I could pay them a higher price, and find the right buyers, I could help them replace this drug. I went across the country for more than four months visiting farmers. I got malaria and tapeworms; I lost 40 pounds.
I brought back samples from 21 farms. Nineteen failed basic standards tests, but two were rated by a coffee-quality expert, Willem Boot, as very good specialty-grade beans. He said it was coffee of potentially extraordinary quality. So I went back to Yemen in mid-2014, to the two areas where the coffee was rated highest, and sent back more samples--but they were horrible because of the way they were picked and sorted. I realized I had to slow down and put into place more rigorous protocols. I also had to have vertical integration so the quality would be good. I spent nearly a year doing that.
Then, in March 2015, two days before I was supposed to take my new samples to a big international coffee conference, the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition began to bomb military targets in Yemen, to deter a Houthi rebel takeover. There was a no-fly zone declared. I had worked the whole year to produce these coffees to bring them to this conference, and I was stuck, along with thousands of other Americans. The State Department wasn't helping us.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went to the port city of Mokha, a very old, very historic port. I hired a boat to take me and my samples across the Red Sea to Djibouti. I remember being in the middle of the ocean on this little piece of wood, the waves tossing us up and down, thinking, "Why did I do this?" But I made it to the airport in Kenya.
When I landed in San Francisco, there was a media frenzy. A legal aid organization I had previously worked for had put out the word about my journey, and I was interviewed by NPR and the BBC. I made it to the conference--and our coffee scored among the highest of all the coffees around the world. Blue Bottle bought our coffee and eventually sold it for $16 a cup.
I'm trying to go back to Yemen in a month, to see the farmers. I spend a lot of time on marketing and sales, but it's important to stay connected to the farmers as much as I can.
A visit gone wrong brought her peace.
In 2009, Vicky Tsai had quit an unfulfilling job, her bank account was dwindling, she was newly pregnant--and she'd just run out of the Japanese blotting papers that helped her persistent dermatitis, a skin disease. When Tsai started looking for more of these papers, she learned about their origins as "beating papers," material used to shield gold as it's hammered into hair-thin gold leaf. The beating process changes the papers' properties and makes them uniquely absorbent. Curious, Tsai went looking for their source--and came back inspired to start her cosmetics company, Tatcha, which had about $50 million in retail sales in 2016.
I was lost, and I knew the answer wasn't going to be in my apartment in San Francisco. I had never spent time in Japan in a meaningful way, so I just thought, why not? You get to a certain point where you have nothing to lose.
I spent my first day in Kyoto. The hotel assigned me a driver named Toide-san. He took me around to all these different temples--but I kept throwing up, because I was pregnant. Halfway through the day, I asked him to drop me back at my hotel, where I went to sleep.
When I woke up that evening, there was a package waiting for me from Toide-san. Instead of picking up another ride, he had spent the afternoon burning CDs of every picture he had ever taken of Kyoto, before bringing them back to my hotel. He'd left a note: "Since you couldn't see Kyoto, I brought Kyoto to you." That was the day I fell in love with Japan.
The Japanese have a saying: "Ichi-go, ichi-e." It means "Just this one moment, once in a lifetime." You're never going to be able to recreate this moment, so how would you treat the people you meet, or your work, right now, if you put your whole heart and mind into something?
At that time, I didn't necessarily see the beating papers as a business. But I knew I needed this--these papers, this beauty, this philosophy--in my life. If it made a difference to me, maybe it would make a difference to other people as well.
I called my husband and told him I thought we had something here. But we had no money. I told him that if I sold my engagement ring, I could buy the minimum order for those beating papers from the gold leaf artisans who created them. I came home, sold the ring, bought my first batch of beating papers, and set up a simple website. That was the beginning of Tatcha.
He found a far-flung fix to L.A. traffic jams.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Logan Green spent a lot of time stuck in traffic. When he started college at University of California, Santa Barbara, he left his car at home and started a ridesharing service on campus, one that had just six vehicles. Green was invited to join the board of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District while still in school, but he quickly grew disillusioned by the unsustainable economics of public transportation. Frustrated, he left for a trip to southern Africa. The rest is startup history. Green's company, Lyft, generated a reported $700 million in revenue in 2016.
I was just heading into my senior year at college, in 2005, and my friend Matt Van Horn and I took a trip to Africa--Cape Town, Namibia, Botswana, and then Zimbabwe.
Throughout the trip, we saw these shared-ride vans. In Zimbabwe, they call them kombis, named after the VW van, though sometimes it's a pickup truck or a minibus, whatever is available.
In L.A., roads are nonstop traffic and noise. In Zimbabwe, the streets were quiet. People walked, rode a bike, or took a kombi. I don't think I saw a private vehicle the entire time I was there. No locals were driving themselves around.
I was blown away. Zimbabweans had created this incredibly scalable transportation system that got better the more people used it: The more kombis on the road, the faster the pickup times, the more destinations and routes that were covered. It operated on basic free-market principles. Entrepreneurs who would see a need for a route would charge market rates and fulfill that need.
It hit me then. Zimbabwe has solved this problem in a more elegant manner than we have in the U.S. This isn't about money. Zimbabwe has nothing in terms of government support. The system was created out of necessity, and it's because of the free-market principles that it's been able to scale up so successfully.
I didn't know how to translate that back to the U.S. It was about a year and half later that I started working on Zimride, which was named after that experience. Ultimately, Lyft evolved from Zimride.
A delayed souvenir solved her career crisis.
Katrina Markoff thought she was on track to become a professional chef. After completing culinary school in Paris in 1996, she spent nine months traveling around the world, cooking in restaurants. But she soon realized that she wasn't cut out for that life and wanted to do something else--she just didn't know what. At loose ends, Markoff returned home and was working for her uncle's e-commerce company in Dallas when she received a gift from a traveling companion, one that inspired what would become her $25 million company, Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
We were traveling in Hong Kong. I saw this very expensive necklace, from the Naga tribes in India. I wanted it, even though I thought, I can't afford to get that. But I kept thinking about buying it. So I went back the next day, and the necklace was gone.
My friend, it turned out, had bought it for me. She sent it to me when I got back to the States. I had thought the necklace was made of shells, but then I met an archaeologist who knew about the Nagaland area, in northeastern India, and he told me that it was made of tiger teeth.
I started researching the Nagalands, and I learned that the culture of the Naga people was being endangered. It felt important to me to help preserve and honor that culture. That night, I went through my kitchen and all the ingredients that I'd stockpiled for a dessert cookbook project. I had coconut and curry--common ingredients in the Nagalands. So I started making a curry coconut milk chocolate truffle, and I named it Naga.
That was the first time it occurred to me that chocolate could be a medium for storytelling about things that have true meaning for me. That night, I created 20 chocolate recipes. Dallas was not a food town 20 years ago outside of barbecue. I brought this chocolate, with flavors like wasabi and curry, to the office the next day. The people in the office went from thinking it was going to be disgusting to total surprise and delight and curiosity for more.
That's when I also saw that chocolate could be a way of getting people to open their minds to new ideas. That was what started the business.
Big trips inspire bigger companies.
Koel Thomae, Noosa Yoghurt: After tasting a new kind of creamy, full-fat yogurt while visiting her mother in Australia, Thomae decided she had to bring that recipe to the U.S.--and used it to start a company.
Paul English, Kayak: "You're more alert" when you travel, says this serial entrepreneur. A trip to Haiti inspired him to make enough money so he could meaningfully help the island's citizens. Online travel search engine Kayak was the result.
Go global, think local.
Blake Mycoskie, Toms: On vacation in Argentina, Mycoskie was moved by the difficult life of rural children, many of whom had no shoes. That was the genesis of his shoe company and its buy-one, give-one model.
Wombi Rose and John Wise, Lovepop: The naval architects were traveling in Vietnam on a Harvard Business School trip in 2014, searching for an idea for a startup. One day, they came across a type of card that used kirigami, a kind of origami that cuts the paper rather than just folding it. The result was Lovepop's 3-D greeting cards.
Turn travel fails into business wins.
Dave Gilboa, Warby Parker: He left his $700 glasses on a plane while traveling in Thailand and couldn't afford to replace them. Now Gilboa is a co-founder of the brand known for inexpensive, stylish specs. ￼
Jessica O. Matthews, Uncharted Play: When the power went out during a family wedding in Nigeria, Matthews got sick from the fumes of the backup diesel generators. She came home determined to develop sustainable fuel sources; her company makes kinetic-energy-powered products.