Ep 79: 5 Lessons Surviving In The Wild Has Taught Me About Business With Cotopaxi CEO Davis Smith (Part 1)


Special guest Davis Smith, founder of the outdoor company Cotopaxi and an avid survivalist shares with us his experiences of how surviving in the wild and running a business is not all that different.

He’s sharing the 5 lessons he’s learned in survival situations that prepared him to lead his team and business through various crises and challenges.

You’ll get exceptional insight as dental practices continue wading through unknown territory brought on by the challenges of the pandemic.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • The one thing you cannot do whether you’re in a survival situation or any other crisis
  • How seeing his friend caught in a current taught him this important lesson
  • What Davis did when he was surrounded by three sharks and how it applies to practice strategy
  • What type of people to surround yourself with during challenging times
  • How a rising tide and a satellite phone made him realize this valuable lesson

Listen now:

Guest Bio

Davis Smith grew up in Latin America and lived for several years in Ecuador. When he wasn’t in school, Davis was exploring and camping in Cotopaxi National Park. It was here that he developed a lifelong reverence for the strong, hard-working people of the Andes. His time in Latin America also showed him the plight of those in abject poverty.

Davis later moved to the United States, where he pursued advanced degrees in business and international studies. He started several successful e-commerce businesses, two of which took him to Brazil, where he lived from 2010 to 2013. Despite his success, he wanted to do more to make a difference in the world. For his next venture, he decided to merge his love of travel with a poverty-fighting business model. Each customer’s purchase would give to those living in the world’s poorest regions. He named the company Cotopaxi to represent the spirit of adventure, optimism, and determination that he’d experienced during his time in Ecuador.

Kati: Hey Double Your Production Listeners. We have got a pretty unique episode for you today. I am super excited and that when Wendy and Dr. John are allowing us to create a podcast out of this awesome lecture, that was taken from one of our retreats. We have four retreats a year. You can find out more information about it at our website, www.theteamtraininginstitute.com. But during these retreats, we oftentimes get to have some really neat speakers come and join us.

Today we are sharing a lecture from one of those speakers whose name is Davis Smith. Now you may or may not have heard of him before, but he is not involved in the dental world. He is involved in the product industry and owns a company called Cotopaxi. They'll introduce more about him today, but I just wanted to let you know, give you a heads up where this audio comes from, what Davis has to say is really neat and inspiring. And so I'm going to turn it over to Wendy and Dr. John. And again, please visit us at that website to get any additional information on how you can be involved in these retreats and hear from these incredible speakers.

Wendy Briggs: I am delighted to announce that Davis Smith has joined us. So I'll do a quick introduction so that you can know what to expect as Dr. John mentioned those of you that were at our salt Lake summit a few years back, had the pleasure of seeing Davis speak to us live. He is an amazing speaker. From Cotopaxi and how Davis and I met is we both were asked to be mentors at the Royal Business Academy in Prague, in the Czech Republic. So we spent a week together with a bunch of other incredible mentors and we're able to mentor other business owners, people that wanted to be business owners on how to grow their business.
And I learned so much from Davis in that week and it was a delight and an honor to get to hear his story and see some of what he's built in his career. So I'm not going to take too much of his thunder away. He may have a plan to tell you some of his story, but I know you'll really love to hear from Davis. A few months ago, I read an article that he had written during the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and thought this is something that our members. Need to hear. So Davis welcome. We're so glad you're here. And I believe if you start you can go ahead and unmute and share and everyone will be able to see your face.

Davis: Perfect. Hopefully everyone can see me. Okay. It's great to be with you this morning. I wish this was in person, but we all know the next best thing to be an in person is to be on zoom together. Guess to start off, I'm going to and for those that have seen me speak previously, there's I got some fun, things that are going to be talking about today that you haven't heard, but I'm going to share one story that you have heard and towards the end of the, this this chat, and then I'm going to give a quick update on that story, which I think you'll find interesting.

I grew up in Latin America. My dad was an adventurer. This is, this was my life. We made our own raft and we floated the Amazon river fishing for Parana. We'd go survive on uninhabited islands and make our own spears and spearfish and eat coconuts to survive. This is what I thought was normal. It turns out it's not, but I grew up loving the outdoors and loving adventure and it, and I've continued that tradition.

As an adult, I continue to to do survival trips every year. I'll go on one or two survival trips where I'll go strand myself someplace and live off the land. And it turns out that this year. There was some, there were some interesting learnings. There were, we had all of us had an opportunity to adapt to uncertainty. And it turns out that my experiences as an entrepreneur and as a survivalist had a lot of similarities. A lot of the lessons that I learned as a survivalist have helped me adapt and respond as a leader. Now I know many of you watching this are also owners of small businesses you're or you play out a key leadership role in helping run a small business. And I think that some of these lessons that I've learned would be helpful. So I'm going to share some of those with you.

The first lesson I'm going to share five lessons that I've learned in, in, in survival situations that prepared me to leading crises. The first is survive then thrive. And this is one of my survival trips. I went with a few friends and we rented these little sailboats. They're actually more like rowboats with sales on them. Not too much to them. There's no motor or anything. And then we just sail from Island to Island and survive. We brought no food for a week and we just eat coconuts and we'd spear fish. And. It was amazing, but one of the things that you learn in a survival situation the first day is always the hardest because you have so much adapting to do, it's a shock to the system. And what you have to learn is you have to, you, you cannot wait. It's not a wait and see situation. You have to act immediately. So you have to secure shelter, water, food those things that help you survive another day.

And it turns out that as a leader, a business leader in crisis, like this year, it's one of the things that's most important to learn is that there's no, wait and see there's no, let's see if this gets better. It's, let's take action today to ensure our survival. And when COVID started we acted immediately the first few days of the crisis in mid March we contacted every one of our landlords. And we told them we needed to renegotiate our lease. We did an immediate within the first we closed our office on Friday March 13th on on Monday, a few days later, we had an all hands meeting and we we ended up cutting salaries across the entire team in a small way that would allow us to adapt quickly and ended up saving jobs because we ended up responding so quickly. And so it's about figuring out ways to react very quickly to survive and then immediately going into thrive. So once you've ensured your survival, that you can live another day.

It's time to figure out ways that you can accelerate during that time. And as a team, we started brainstorming, we had a shared Google doc. We brainstorm a hundred ideas that would either help us build the brand that would help us cut costs that would help us drive sales, or that would help us have an impact in our community. And so we started brainstorming all these ideas and it allowed us to go take advantage of the situation, of this time to find opportunities to go grow the business. And we've, we started this year with two retail stores. We're ending the year with five retail stores. It might seem like the craziest thing to open up retail stores right now, but we saw that landlords were desperate to fill empty spaces. They were willing to sign leases that they would never sign otherwise. So we came in and captured opportunity that maybe wouldn't have existed otherwise.

This second lesson when in trouble don't wait, communicate. I was on a survival trip last year with a couple of friends. And they'd never been on a survival trip. Was helping them and teaching them how to spear fish and how to do all these things. And it was so fun. But there was one part where we were swimming in the ocean out to this reef to go spear some fish. And there was a very strong, current current that was so strong that it was, it was actually, it was completely exhausting. We were swimming and we were, you could basically look at the ground down below you and you were swimming in the same spot, even though you're swimming pretty hard. So we weren't making any progress. This current was quite strong and pretty soon I heard my friend yelling help, help. And it about gave me a heart attack. But we, I swam to them. My other friends found to him and he was just completely exhausted. And he had a weight belt on because when you free dive down, if you're gonna dive down 20 or 40 or 50 feet or 60 feet, you want some weights to pull you down and help you get down faster. And so he immediately released the waist, but the weight belt the the weight belt and we started we grabbed him when we swam to shore. I'm so glad that he communicate . If he had not, if he'd been felt on too embarrassed, I don't want to sound weak. I don't want to say anything. He likely would have drowned.

And in a crisis situation, we have to be willing. To voice how we feel there's during this crisis, there's a lot of things that are, that, that are going to be hidden. And we need to be able to communicate with our team. We need to hear how they feel, and we need to understand what their mounts, what their mental health is, or if they see challenges or problems that we're not aware of. And in my business, we went from having a weekly executive meeting to having every single morning. First thing in the morning, we started every day with an executive meeting. We moved our monthly, all hands meeting to weekly, and we started over communicating. We started asking people, we're on zoom. So you don't have those natural collisions that you might have as you walked through the hallway to go into the kitchen or go to the bathroom. When you run into a friendly co-worker. Instead we challenged our executive team to have daily collisions with positive collisions with our team. So they'll go on zoom or Slack and they'll just reach out daily to some new person and just check in and see how they're doing. Over-communication is one of the keys to survive.

The third lesson when sharks attack, stay strategy focused versus fear focused. So I was on a survival trip recently where I was with some friends. There were seven of us. So this group of seven we do trips every year together. We go climb big mountains or do fun adventures. They wanted to do a survival trip. I'd done a survival trip with one of them before, but the rest were pretty new to it. The first day was not good. We did not. I spear one little fish, not enough for all of us to eat. And we were starving by day two and we were desperate for food. We're swimming out to this reef and we see this coral head and down below I dive down and look underneath and I see this huge mutton snapper, big enough fish that it could feed all of us. And I swam up to the top and I'm like, guys, it's like a miracle. There is like a perfect fish. I think I can get it. I'm going to go down there if I miss it, or if I, you guys be ready to get this thing if it swims out. So I dive down and I just get so lucky I get this perfect shot. I surface with this fish. We're all like celebrating and sharing within seconds. There are three sharks within feet of us and they are, they want this fish as bad as we do. And we had to make a decision, where we going to be? Where are we going to be fear, focus or strategy focused. And we're pretty hungry. So we quickly became strategy focused. We did not want to abandon this fish and swim away in fear. We changed our strategy. We adapted and we I put the fish into a little fish bag and we swam backwards. So we use our spirits to fend off these sharks as we swim backwards, back to shore. And within a few minutes, we were back at shore and we had our fish. And so the tendency and in a crisis is to be fear focused and to make fear focused decisions.

Had a CEO friend that shared an article with me in the first about 10 days of this crisis. And it was amazing. This article that she shared was a game changer. For me, it was an article that was written about an interview that was done with 59 CEOs and they recorded these interviews and they broke the three the CEO's that the three groups, those 59 CEOs, there was the fear focus CEO, the unfocused CEO, and the strategy focused CEO, and the fear focus CEO was using words like coronavirus, COVID, Trump, government. The CEO was also consuming like five times more media than the other CEO. So it was just obsessed with finding out more and was making fear focused and fear based decisions in his or her leadership. The second group of CEO, unfocused CEO had the head in the sand was not making any changes, was playing this, wait and see thing to see if things got better. Interestingly that CEO was also like seven times more likely to use the word vacation. Somehow the CEO is just thinking about going on vacation which I know we all felt like going on vacation, but that's obviously not what we should be focused on. The group that inspired me the most was the strategy focus group. These CEOs. Were me easy because they were consuming less media, but they were more aware of the success stories that were happening with COVID. They were using words like opportunity. They were using words like buy and growth. And as I read this article, I saw some of myself in that fear focus CEO, and I saw some of myself in the strategy focused CEO. And I decided I did not want to be that fear focused CEO. I want it to be strategy focused. So I shared this article with my whole team and we read the article. And then the next day we had an all hands meeting where we discussed this article. And I asked everyone, I challenged everyone to ask themselves if they are being the fear focused, unfocused or strategy focused associate manager, director, VP, and as a team, we decided that we want it to be collectively strategy focused. And it was a game changing day for our business.

The fourth lesson. I want to share or is is that surviving is hard, but surviving alone is even harder. And don't know if any of you have seen the show alone where these guys, these people are dropped off. Men and women are dropped off in this remote part of British Columbia and there's black bears and cougars and everything, and they have to go survive for as long as possible. It's crazy. I'm a survivalist. I look at that and I think, I don't know if I could do that. It's all by yourself. I like surviving with other people. It's a lot more fun and it turns out that you can actually survive better. And these are some of my friends that I go do survival trips with and They're also the group of friends that I've relied on this year, along with a bunch of other CEO friends.

During this crisis, I spent a lot of time reaching out and reconnecting with other leaders and understanding how they were adapting, how they were responding, what they were seeing, what impact they'd had and in connecting with others, it allowed me to better respond in a time of crisis. Earlier this year in February this group of friends and I, we went to the Brazilian Amazon for a week and we survived off the land. We slept in hammocks. We we caught a native crocodile. We had monkey swinging around overhead. It was a gnarly experience and the one thing that we did that was unique about this trip was we actually hired a guide, which was not something I'm used to doing. And I admit the first day I told some of my buddies on a trip. I wish we didn't have the guide. I think we could do this on our own. And then the night came and that dark humid air was filled with this guttural roar of of Jaguars. And every night we would hear these Jaguars counter calling to each other. We heard Jaguars attacking a sounder of pigs just a couple of hundred meters from us. It was terrifying. And this guide that we had. Set up fires around the camp and he'd put candles around every single one of the hammocks. It turns out Jaguars have no fear of water there. They're amazing swimmers. And they hunt in the water, but they are afraid of fire. And this guy would stay up at night. Then he tend to fires and we light the candles around us and he would tell us to, he told us he wanted us to not sleep deeply, but to sleep calmly. So he wanted us to not be overcome with fear, but he wanted us to be aware of our surroundings. And I just think how much harder that would have been to survive on my own. So in a time of crisis, surround yourselves by other leaders and people that can help you navigate the crisis that have experienced and they can help you think through ways that you can navigate differently.

The last lesson before I jump into some other things is remember that the sun will rise again. A few years ago, I went on a trip to Belize and my, my cousin and I. We'd love to adventure together. We brought these little kayaks that are called aura kayaks. They fold up like origami and you can put them on a, in a backpack there they're big, but you can fly with them. And we flew to Billy's. We got on this little chicken bus rode through the little hills of Belize back down to the coast. And we found some guy with a skiff that we paid to take us out into the middle of the ocean, 50 miles into the middle of the ocean. There's an, a toll on, and so basically it's a ring of coral on one side it's about 5,000 feet deep. And the other side it's between two and 50 feet deep, so pretty shallow. And we stuck our kayaks out on the middle of this, one of the pieces of coral that was raised above the ocean floor. And we went on the spirit of fish and we cooked it on this reef and we just watch this amazing, this, the most amazing sunset. And then we opened up our kayaks and we use them as sleeping pods, and we slept on top of this reef.

As the night got darker and the waves started crashing louder and louder on this reef. And we started watching the tide rising, and we had a couple little marks that we were watching on the coral as the tide was rising. And pretty soon we started realizing this reef was completely disappearing underneath us, and we thought the tide was going to be turning, but it hadn't turned yet. And it was very scary because we were in the middle of the ocean. There was no land in sight, no way to get help immediately. And we had a satellite phone, so we called up a buddy and we said we need your help. This is, these are our GPS coordinates. Will you tell us when the tide is going to turn, we'll call you back in 10 minutes. So we call them 10 minutes later and they told us. You're in luck. The tide is turning in four minutes and sure enough, we watched the tide turn just in time and go back down and we were able to sleep that night. But there were some moments where we were overcome with fear and it was so helpful to be reassured and to understand that the sun would rise again. And so when we go through a crisis there's moments where we're going to be full of fear, or we're going to be full of uncertainty where things seem to be going wrong in every possible way. But we have to remember that the sun will rise again. And it was one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen. And I've, I'm so grateful for these opportunities that I've had to to enjoy the outdoors and to learn how to adapt in crisis. And I found that it's been so helpful for me as a leader.

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