Hitting the Wall
Hey, I’m Rusty. Welcome to our weekly newsletter, sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky K.K.. Each week the team will share a story as we set up a craft whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan.
Anybody ever hit a wall? At full speed? Not literally, but physically, mentally, emotionally? It happened to me and I remember the exact moment; it was a few weeks ago as I was writing my last newsletter update. I was about two-thirds of the way done with the article when I stopped, stared at the screen for a minute, then closed my laptop.
Pretty uneventful. I thought.
My intent was to get back into it a few hours later and finish the article. But that didn’t happen. What did happen, was, nothing.
Every time I thought about the article or even opening my laptop, I pushed it off. It felt really heavy. I should have felt bad, I was letting down my partner, my team, my business, really, everything I have been passionate about for the past couple of years. But I didn’t.
That was probably the scariest thing for me - I felt nothing. I was numb. Maybe with a tinge of crispy.
How did I get here?
Let’s take a look back at the past year.
First, I love my jobs. So much so that none of them feel like work. I work all the time, but I don’t think of it as work. My ‘day job’ is very interesting, and opening a whisky distillery? C’mon. Can anybody think of a more fun job? But, the flip side of that is, I can work 60 hours a week and not even think about it. I should have been more conscious of burn-out, and usually I am, but this year has been special.
This past year I’ve been doing my normal job, as well as dealing with the challenges of COVID19. On top of that, I actually got COVID while trying to spin up two business entities (Japan & US) for Kamui Whisky K.K.. I’ve been running full-speed for the past year with no breaks.
If you’re watching from the outside, you could probably see it coming. I, on the other hand, had no idea.
I’ve built my career on being the guy who can take on a big, complex, time-sensitive project that looks impossible, and deliver. I’d often work long, crazy hours for weeks or months at a time with lots of pressure. This time felt the same to me, but I didn’t realize that, instead of weeks and months, this was becoming a year at an intense pace.
I was running at full-speed when I hit that wall. And it totally blindsided me.
As an employee, in any normal company, taking time off is a given. But as an entrepreneur, rarely, if ever, do you take time off. I started my first business when I was 23. Every position I have ever held; my pay has been directly tied to my performance. If I wasn’t being successful, it was on me. I was responsible.
As a business owner, everything falls on me. Taking any time off, in my mind, meant the business would stop. So I resisted as long as I could and after, literally, every business partner I work with encouraged me to take time off, I finally did.
I went up to the mountains, into nature, a slower pace, away from technology, quiet, peaceful. Very similar to the vibe Rishiri offers. A week off felt like a year. It was exactly what I needed.
I’d like to share two important things I learned from this:
1) It’s 100% vital to take time off to recharge. Health (mental, physical, otherwise) needs to be the number one priority.
2) How thankful I am for the team we have here. We, literally, could not have formed a better team.
Even with me taking time off, and thinking everything would stop because of that, it didn’t. I was also worried that Casey, or the team, might get upset with me because I wasn’t pulling my weight. They weren’t. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
I cannot express enough gratitude for this. Especially to Casey, as a partner. Rather than being upset, he empathized, asked what he could do and encouraged me to take a break.
And I think this is the perfect segue to introduce you all to the team. I’ll do it in the order I’ve met them.
I get asked a lot about Casey and I. We go back a long time. We both started at a recruiting firm years ago on the same team. A friendship developed through that and, as we both grew and moved to different companies, or started our own companies, we have always supported each other and partnered as much as possible.
Over the past 10 years, besides starting up our Rishiri Distillery and fighting the licensing system, Casey has founded and built a successful technology company in Japan. As a foreigner, that is no small feat.
As a partner, he is nothing short of amazing. Thankfully, we both have the same vision so that makes it easier. But, outside of that, he’s focused, persistent, and driven, but also comes with a bucketful of empathy. He allows space for people to excel and just offers guidance around that.
So, instead of being irritated or pissed about me not finishing the newsletter, his response was ‘dude, take a break.’
Miku is Casey’s wife and a total badass entrepreneur. She is extremely smart and a ball of ambition. Not only was she voted ‘Woman Entrepreneur of the Year’ in Japan a few different times, in a few different ways, in the last few years; she’s also the mother of two toddlers. She has been instrumental in securing investment for us and, literally, a master of presentations and powerpoints. Oh, yea, and a freak for Uni (sea urchin).
Azuma-san is an artist. Buildings are his canvas. He is nothing short of amazing. I studied fine art in college and tend to think I’m more critical than others on, well, most everything, when it comes to craftsmanship and art. So I knew I was going to have a strong opinion on the appearance of our distillery. I would not be quiet about it either.
After our bike ride on the day of the festival, we sat down to discuss the plans for the distillery. I started to explain what my vision was and he held up his hand and said, ‘Let me show you what I have so far.’ He proceeds to pull out some plans and drawings. I just shut up. He had already took every idea I had and put it on steroids and ecstasy. It’s safe to say, those of you who visit the distillery will be shocked with how good Azuma-san has done.
Kosaka-san, Rishiri-cho Govt Team, “Virtual” Operations Manager, Japan
This guy, half my size, actually challenged me to an arm wrestling match - and won. Kosaka-san comes from a long lineage of the most successful fishing family on the island. He chose the path of government and trying to make a difference in the community. He was one of our first advocates in getting Kamui Whisky K.K. established in Rishiri and has been an amazing partner. Coming from a fishing family and knowing, literally, how to fix anything and everything makes him indispensable. He has hilarious sense of humor and, although he is extremely responsible, he makes work fun.
His brother, and one of our investors, is the top konbu and uni fisherman in Rishiri (essentially in Japan), and very likely in the world. Their deep ties to the local area, and the sea create a deep sense of care and responsibility to create and see the best for the area.
Kosaka-san has been working on the local government team focused on making a difference in the community of Rishiri. We’re very lucky to have him as a “virtual” member of the team, as he still has a day job with the local office that extends beyond Kamui Whisky K.K..
Sato-san, Rishiri-cho Govt Team
We only made it this far because of the imagination and entrepreneurial mind of Sato-san. He’s the guy who tried to sell Casey an abandoned middle school on the first meeting. You would have never expected to find such an entrepreneurial, creative mind in a local government at the remote tip of Japan, but we lucked out. Not only did he see the vision of Kamui Whisky K.K. from day one, he had the political and bureaucratic skill to help us navigate what could have been a minefield. Many projects from outside of Rishiri before us have failed because they didn’t understand the local situation, and all the web of local relationships. Sato-san has shepherded us through those as well as St. Peter taking care of his flock.
When you do get to Rishiri give him a hug and bang out to some Rock n’ Roll with him. He deserves all our love.
Julia, Operations Manager, USA
I travel a lot for work and you can usually find me at a hotel or local bar tasting whisky in the evenings. I met Julia one of these business trips; she was a bartender at the bar at the hotel I was staying.
Wherever I land, and no matter what bar I walk into, the first question I ask is; ‘what do you suggest for whiskey; something craft or just left of center?’ I’m looking for locals or the outliers. Most times I hear the same sets of whiskeys; national brands.
When I met Julia, I asked the same question and she came at me with like 5 options and why all were good and what flavor profile. My jaw dropped. I was shook. For two years I’ve been asking this same question, all over the US, at different bars, high-end and low-end, and this is the first time I got an interesting answer.
I checked marked it to keep her in mind as we grew the business. I wanted her onboard. That time finally came a few months ago and lets just say Julia is the get-shit-done person for the team in the US. She’s my shadow and executer. She’s wicked smart and is instrumental in keeping the business inline and on track.
Javier, Head Distiller
We did a full-on search to find our Head Distiller. Maybe the best recruiting search I’ve ever conducted. We had a lot of interest in the position itself, receiving hundreds of applicants and we also had a lot of referrals sent to us through the industry.
We ended up interviewing over 40 Distillers, a lot of them from the more popular brands. But we didn’t want somebody to just do it. We wanted somebody who was willing to teach us how to do it. (and do it at the same time).
In the first 5 minutes of the conversation, I knew Javier was the person. He, cannot, 100% suppress his passion for distilling. You want to distill, right now, when you’re talking with him. And he’s a library of information. ‘Hey Javier, whats’ [insert question]? and most times he spews out the answer. And if he doesn’t have the answer, he gets it to you within a day. It’s insane.
He is a blessing and will be instrumental in the flavor of whisky.
Japan Founding Team Members
On the Japan founding team we also have Michi, Kisa-chan, and Maiko. I’ve not yet been able to meet them but they are all terrors of talent, with hearts of gold. Michi is a master or excel and business planning (and as much as Casey complains about the license process, Michi is doing a lot of the heavy lifting). Kisa-chan just gets things done; I’ve heard stories about how quick and how thorough she is on any task. And Maiko figures out the different things that just need to be taken care of, all while managing a household, and 3 young, energetic kids.
In the end it’s the people. Take care of your health and surround yourself with good people. Seems simple, but makes a world of difference.