Today on Begin Anyway, we welcome Christian Schauf.
Christian and I were classmates at UW-Madison; since then, his life has been a series of epic adventures performing with his band internationally and for troops in Iraq, building skate parks for soldiers at international American military bases with Harley Davidson and the X-Games, bringing Crispin Cider to market, celebrating his 30th birthday in one of Saddam’s former palaces, partying with Richard Branson at Necker Island (and nearly losing his life while there), appearing on Shark Tank…just to name a few – truly remarkable experiences. These experiences became realities from a ‘say yes; what’s the worst that can happen’ mentality.
Christian’s current project is very much a culmination of all of these experiences. Uncharted Supply Co. is Christian’s brainchild, established to “build products and services to keep people safe and protected, and to educate families, friends and communities on personal preparedness.” Christian sold his house, bought $300k in inventory, did his homework, worked, his connections, and now has a thriving business.
Christian’s focus is always to “dig deeper, work harder, get smarter, and as the quote goes ‘be so good that they can’t ignore you.’” His work ethic and ‘say yes’ mindset have lead him to some amazing places already, and, undoubtedly many more in the future.
Let’s dive in.
You’ve been a high achiever all your life. What drives and motivates you most professionally?
I think high expectations were instilled at a very young age, and that definitely shaped me. Even though I have often been told I should ‘celebrate my successes more,’ I’ve always believed that humans are capable of so much more than we often realize. Personally, I’m more concerned with making the most out of my life and always looking forward to new goals.
I remember friends having huge high school graduation parties and celebrating like crazy, but even at my college graduation, I grabbed my diploma, had a burrito at chipotle, and my parents helped me load up my apartment and move. I had to be at work on Monday.
You grew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin – I’d imagine that background shaped your professional life as well?
I think above all, it taught me how to work. They say ‘iron sharpens iron,’ and my parents definitely sharpened me as much as possible. To be honest, most obstacles in life today just don’t feel that ‘hard’ to me after growing up the way I did.
Beyond the hard work though, my parents were extremely innovative. They were world-class marketers and innovative thinkers in an industry that was steeped in old-school logic. I learned to question why things couldn’t be done differently, not to be afraid to follow ideas, and simply do all the things that differentiate you from competition. I mean, my parents were cloning animals and growing and processing their own bio-diesel to run our trucks and tractors on our farm 20 years ago.
You had many remarkable experiences immediately following college. Was this more a period of seeking your passion or a time when you embraced as many experiences as possible?
I look back and am not sure what I was thinking, to be honest. I always have had this ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ attitude. I never felt completely fulfilled sitting at a desk and I just had very little holding me back from saying ‘yes’. Additionally, I think ‘yes’ can be addicting and once you go down that path, the world gets pretty fun and interesting.
You had an incredible personal and professional life experience performing with your band for troops in Iraq. This led to you designing a PA system that would allow performers to reach more bases, building skate parks at military bases, and even having your 30th birthday in one of Saddam’s former palaces. What was that experience like? What major lessons or experiences do you continue to draw from that time?
When it came to our band, we always were doing things differently. We didn’t just play the expected venues. We played just about anywhere there was a crowd, and money came second to opportunity. This mentality always opened more doors and let us focus on things other than the expected.
When the Iraq opportunities presented themselves, we jumped on it, but as we spent time there, we had ideas to help them solve problems they’d had for years. It also took us places we’d never imagined and literally nobody had been before. Things snowballed from there. Next thing I know, we’ve expanded beyond simply playing gigs with our band, but we’re bringing others, developing action sports demos, and even bringing in big brands like Harley-Davidson to help us make these events better for the troops.
Life is very much ‘choose your own adventure’. Every action has a reaction and I think we were good at going for it at a young age and that set us up for bigger opportunities as we grew older. It’s funny how deciding to start a band in Northern Wisconsin leads to sitting in Sadaam’s old bedroom celebrating your 30th birthday and creating content for Harley-Davidson. But none of this would have ever happened if we didn’t just go for it.
Tell us about your current project–Uncharted Supply Co. You identified a need that many people may not even realize exists and created a product. How did you go from an idea or general concept to creating an original product for retail?
Uncharted is somewhat an extension of everything I’ve done in my life. I’d learned how to look for gaps in market. I’d spent tons of time in outdoor and military situations and had some previous experience building products and starting companies.
When I was sitting in a car one day in LA, watching people fail to navigate the most basic weather situation, it sparked an idea. I researched and gathered as much information as I could, and decided that I believed there wasn’t a great ‘preparedness’ brand in the world, and, if done correctly, there was a big opportunity in the marketplace. I did my homework and then just said “ok, let’s do it.”
I sold my townhome, bought 300k worth of inventory, and remember telling people I may have to drive around for a year selling products out of the back of my truck, but if that was the case, so be it. Starting anything like this is a big risk and at some point, you’ll have that moment where you just have to jump.
I heard it described once as “jumping out of the airplane and assembling your parachute on the way down.” That’s what it feels like. If you wait until you have all the answers, you’ll never start. You have to trust your gut, take a leap of faith, and in my case, I always operate best when I put my back against the wall and don’t have a way out. I force myself to make it happen.
What about sourcing products, identifying manufacturers, and building the infrastructure to support your business? Did you have an established network to rely on or was most of it ‘learn as you go’?
Yes and no. I’d previously helped start a few other companies, so I had some connections, but I’d never done consumer goods before, or designed a product from scratch. The beautiful thing about today is that with enough digging and research, you can find anything you need. The internet is littered with examples of how to—and how not to—do just about everything. I had dozens of dead end meetings, but a few that led me down the path I’m on right now.
And one more point to this—many of the people I met with told me, simply, that this was a bad idea. This included big CEO’s, founders of large companies, and the like. Many of those same guys are now asking to invest. Trust your gut, listen to people, get their feedback, and then make a case as to why you are right and they are wrong. If you can’t, maybe it’s time to take a step back. If you’re right, then make it your goal to prove them wrong—in the kindest way possible.
What are your plans for scaling and expanding of your platform? You had the opportunity to feature your product on Shark Tank. Any valuable insights on growing your business from that experience?
Shark Tank was a wave. Some companies know how to surf and others don’t, but all waves end. We did a really great job of leveraging that moment as much as we could, but it’s now simply a moment in our story, and not our entire story. In the end, we want to make the world a safer place, and we feel we make products that everyone in the world should own—but maybe don’t realize they should.
We are hyper-focused on educating and communicating with a variety of audiences in a way that is educational and entertaining. If we do that, we are successful. From a technical perspective, we’re a direct-to-consumer company. Everything we do is online and we’ve become experts at everything from digital ad buying to podcasting to content creation. That said, we’re also exploring how companies like Warby Parker (who also began as direct to consumer) are now opening retail locations and doing so very effectively.
Embracing and learning from failure is a significant part of success. What lessons have you learned about overcoming the fear of failure? Have you used rejection as fuel in your career?
Rejection: I may or may not have a chip or two on my shoulder. It used to be something I didn’t talk about much, but I believe today that a chip is fine, as long as you channel that emotion in a positive way. It’s motivation pure and simple. There’s a lot of people that have passed through my life and either compromised me or my trust, lied to or about me, etc. The kind of stuff that can have a significant effect on your life, but at the end of the day, the only way you can really prove them wrong is to prove them wrong. Dig deeper, work harder, get smarter and as the quote goes ‘be so good that they can’t ignore you.’
As far as failure goes, I love the quote from Theodore Roosevelt…
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I admire people that get in the ring, I consider them all successful. And I hope I’m one of them.
What have you learned about yourself from the less desirable professional experiences that you have had? How do these lessons make you a better business owner and leader?
I’ve been fortunate to have a few, but not too many! I’d say the most frustrating situation was one where the boss was simply dishonest—to me, to the board, to other employees, and to my team members.
People look to a leader to be clear, consistent, reassuring and inspiring among other things. Once there are different narratives flowing around an organization, fingers begin to point and sides begin to form. That happened at my last job and I had to walk away knowing that there were inaccuracies in even how I was portrayed. To this day, I’ll get calls from people telling me that my old boss said this or said that. Frustrating, right? Keeping my mouth shut is one of the harder things I’ve ever had to do, but when our first year sales were 15x theirs in their 8th year, and we were a team of 2 with zero investors, compared to a team of 30 with tens of millions invested, I think things became more clear.
As the leader of this company, I wake up every day focused on providing meaningful direction, inspiration and a good amount of fun for everyone helping build our company.
I like to focus on productivity v. activity. I prefer to let people be measured by the end result, and not how many hours their butt was at their desk. If people are incentivized to create results and that can improve their lives as well, I believe they’ll work harder and smarter and we all win.
What’s the most significant piece of advice you’ve received from a mentor or role model that has influenced your career as an entrepreneur?
My parents taught me what hard work truly is. They taught me honesty and integrity. And if I’m honest, I think they also inadvertently taught me to use brains and brawn. Watching my dad and mom slowly get smarter and more efficient over the years was a big lesson coming from a couple that would grind harder than anyone on earth and likely owed much of their early success to simple sweat equity.
Joe Heron, who I started Crispin Cider with, was likely my most quotable boss. To this day, I use his lines almost daily. “Market space, not market place.” “How do you find a needle in a haystack? Put more needles in the haystack.” “Don’t confuse activity with productivity.” “If you don’t have sales, you don’t have a business.” Joe is a great entrepreneur that pushes everyone hard. He’ll also light you up if you are not doing your part. I appreciated his tough love.
Working at Periscope, an ad agency in Minneapolis, my boss Quan Hong had a sign that said “meet them there.” I always loved that advice as well—if you’re trying to market or sell to someone, you must understand them at a cellular level. Go to their events, sit in their office, and understand their culture—look at things from their perspective first. It’s a powerful thing many people forget.
Finally, experience is a wonderful teacher. Nothing teaches you more than getting in the ring. You will make mistakes, but the beauty of making them when you’re just starting is that nobody is watching.
What do you do to stay centered amidst the chaos? Any daily practices or activities to clear your mind/keep your mind functioning?
For me, I need to get a few hours of physical activity in a day. The intensity level depends on how I’m feeling, but I don’t give myself much cushion. I am a big believer in comfort zones and they only get bigger if we continue to push on the edges of our comfort. This morning, I got up before sunrise, and ran half a dozen miles through the mountains at 7k’ elevation in a 50 pound weight vest in the snow. I don’t do that everyday but I definitely do something everyday.
Feeling uncomfortable and challenging myself for a few hours makes sitting at a computer almost feel like a reward. I’m less anxious, more focused and generally happier. As a bonus, I like to listen to podcasts while I workout and try to find a lesson or two to practice that day.
I love a good cocktail. If you could sit down for a drink with absolutely anyone, who would you choose and why? And what are you drinking?
I think the cocktail depends on the company! If I’m going to sit down for a conversation, I’m likely drinking a great whiskey on the rocks.
If I could talk to one person, wow…. That’s a tough one.
I’m sure this would change by the day, but this weekend I watched (for the 10th time) Running Down a Dream—the Tom Petty documentary. That guy was all-time, and I’d love to ask him a few questions…
Thank you so much to Christian for his time and invaluable insights. Be sure to check out Christian’s current project, Uncharted Supply Co., for a bit of adventure for a great cause!