A hunt for the chaga mushroom led to a business opportunity for ChugaChaga cofounder and CEO Luke Evans. The fungus was known only by some (at first) as one of the world’s superfoods (think broccoli and salmon). Growing in symbiosis with birch trees, mature chaga mushrooms are packed with powerful nutrients and antioxidants, as well as perbiotics and adaptogens (Google those terms -- you’ll be glad you did).
For two years, Luke and his associates – chief marketing officer Marc Iskandar and chief operations officer Adam Kaiser – developed a collection of smooth-tasting chaga recipes, as well as a worldwide network of harvesters who hand-forage pure wild chaga. It grows in the cold northern climates of Russia, Canada and the northern United States. The result: the world’s first organic and non-GMO-certified bottled chaga tea product line.
Luke’s entrepreneurial adventure was paved in chaga. He grew up in the New York Catskills, and worked as a chef in a local restaurant. While there, he befriended a world-traveling chef, who became his mentor. The chef asked Luke if he knew of any birch trees nearby, which by chance were as close as Luke’s backyard. Those trees produced more than ten pounds of chaga for the ecstatic chef, who told Luke that the in-demand fungus could sell online for as much as $80/pound.
At the University of Albany, Luke met his future business partner, Marc, who was a disgruntled political science major looking to change the world (that part would be coming soon). Luke hipped Marc to chaga. On weekends, they arose at 4 a.m. and traveled to the nearby Adirondacks, just to forage for chaga. Mission accomplished: their dorm room was filled with the fungus, while they spent as much time as they could in the library researching both chaga and entrepreneurship. They eventually dropped out of school and pursued the dream full time.
Their first pitch was at a startup series in Troy, NY. It did not go well. Luke broke every pitching rule: reading off scrap paper and letting them see him sweat. However, the partners worked on their presentation skills, and sought advice from experts. Within two months, they won a capital region competition.
These two broke entrepreneurs convinced a local credit union in Albany to loan them some money to start the business. This led to a successful Food-X program, which is the biggest entrepreneurship incubator in the world. Next step: a product launch.
The business lessons they’ve learned (so far): most people in this world are willing to help you if you just ask. As well, the only way you are really going to learn is by doing. Experience is the best teacher. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.