4 Startup Lessons We Can Learn from Kauai

Maybe I’ve just become a beach bum or a total granola, but getting on a plane and heading home from Kauai sucked. My wife and I just spent our belated honeymoon on “The Garden Island,” and, honestly, neither of us wanted to leave. However, a week with my buns on the Cocpit™ bench and in the Hawaiian sand has made me antsy to get back into the startup grind. Although most of my time was dedicated to hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and other honeymoon fun😍🤑, I couldn’t help but notice the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Kauai.

Let me get this off my chest: I am not a fan of most entrepreneurship related media out there today. I feel like most of it is more suitable for a high school football half-time pep talk than for substantive startup advice. I apologize if my thoughts in this post sound more like sappy startup jargon than they usually do. That being said, I really do think my trip to Kauai offered me an entrepreneurial perspective from a totally different culture. Here are 4 entrepreneurial insights I took from the Kauaians:

1. Having the Determination to Make Your Own Way

When you think Hawaii, you usually don’t think of the next unicorn, nor do you think about fast-paced startups. But I made some interesting observations as I met many small-scale entrepreneurs of Kauai.

I believe there are two main motivators for entrepreneurship: opportunity and necessity. When it comes down to the reason anyone launches a startup, that person essentially does so because they either see an incredible opportunity or they have to in order to economically stay afloat. Granted, the most prominent motivator for Hawaiian (especially Kauaian) entrepreneurs is probably necessity. Many there start businesses because they simply have no other relevant employment opportunities. However, I don’t think this makes their entrepreneurial activity any less noble. Look at our country today. How many people when faced with unemployment choose idleness over innovation? Millions! Yet, I observed countless islanders doing just the opposite. Rather than playing dead and accepting a handout, they creatively made an income that allows them to support themselves.

2. Courageously Taking Risks

On the last day of our trip, my wife and I spent the afternoon at an incredible waterfall and swimming hole tucked deep in the Kauaian mountains. While we were there, we met some new friends who lived on the east side of the island. One of them spoke up and told us that she graduated from high school in Utah and studied at SUU. We didn’t know her personally, but I won’t forget her story she shared with us.

She told us that she had just been feeling that she needed to move to Kauai. So one day she bought a one-way ticket to the island and never looked back. Now she is starting and operating a farm on Kauai and is apparently doing really well!

In general, I feel like a lot of people I met were similar to this girl. They’re not preoccupied with risk. They’re not focused on the probability of them failing or the consequence of them messing up. They are comfortable with risk.

3. Utilizing God-given Talent

On Tuesday, Lexi and I spent the day on the North Shore of Kauai enjoying the most amazing mountains, shorelines, and views I have ever seen. On our way back to our condo in Kapa’a, we stopped by a local farmers market nestled against the base of a giant green mountain.

As we meandered through the little white canopies of vendors, we came to some awesome bamboo bowls, vases, and decorations. A shirtless, sun burnt, and long haired “bruddah” rushed out to help us. He told us about how he just decided to move to Kauai one day. He bought a tiny house and a little piece of land and started growing bamboo and other crops. He had the idea of creating vases, dishes, and other art out of the bamboo he was growing. He told us about using his grill and other firing techniques to make his work unique in design. He discovered a God-given talent.

This man will never be a billionaire or even a millionaire. However, it is awesome to me that he was able to discover a talent within himself, cultivate it, create products of value, and use them to build the life he had always wanted.

4. Working in Cahoots with Other Startups

Maybe this is the most obvious observation I made, but I think it may also be the most valuable. Kauaian entrepreneurs know how to work together. Let’s look at food trucks as an example:

Why do food trucks always park right next to each other? Wouldn’t they want to separate themselves from their competition? Perhaps a reason food trucks rendezvous together is cheaper places to park. I think it’s smarter than that though. They round up because they know that if they work together they can attract more people to their location, and the food trucks can then compete for their attention.

Farmers markets are also great examples of working together. The simple principle is this: as startups work together and collaborate with complementary or similar companies they can create a bigger presence in their market, greater challenge market incumbents, efficiently segment their consumer base, and further differentiate themselves from their competitors. If only there was a better way for startups to do this…

We’re smart to remember what Peter Thiel has been known to say: “Competition is for losers.” It’s amazing the things you can learn from observing other entrepreneurs, especially in other cultures. You can learn how they funnel their determination, take risks, or utilize their talents. You can also observe how they work with other entrepreneurs in similar circumstances to win more customers. Sounds like a part of something we’ve been working on…

(photo credit: Alexis Glauser Clement)