Unexpected Business Lessons Learned From Sailing

How a family sailing trip inspired a coffee business, and the unexpected business lessons learned at sea.

Unexpected Business Lessons Learned From Sailing
[Photo: Flickr user Anna & Michal]

David Smith, CEO of High Brew Coffee, built his business in the most unusual of places–while sailing on the high seas. After selling Sweet Leaf Tea, the company he spent 12 years growing, the entrepreneur decided to take a break from the hustle-bustle of the business world and embraced his second passion: sailing.


“My wife and I long dreamed of taking a sailing trip with our children,” says Smith. “We both sailed frequently growing up and it was a passion of ours. We always thought [sailing] would be a great way to connect with our children and show them that lifestyle.”

While sailing the high seas, Smith came up with his next business idea: High Brew Coffee. “On the boat, I was always looking for something to stay alert,” says Smith. “I would drink a lot of coffee in the morning, but I just couldn’t do it in the afternoon heat.”

He started brewing coffee and pouring it over ice, but the high acidity of coffee often left him with an upset stomach and caffeine jitters. During his travels, Smith learned about cold brew coffee, in which coffee beans are brewed slowly–over 16 hours–without any heat added. The result is a drink that’s 67% less acidic and has twice the amount of caffeine since there’s no heat to burn off the caffeine. This cold, highly caffeinated, low acidity coffee was perfect for Smith’s long days on the boat.

Sailing not only sparked Smith’s next business idea. It also provided him with some crucial business lessons he’s applied to High Brew Coffee.

1. Be Calm in Rough Waters

“I can remember several times on the boat when we would sail into an unexpected squall where the weather deteriorated quickly,” says Smith. “Everyone on the boat would turn to me to see how I reacted, and then they would determine whether they should be concerned or not.”

As a leader and CEO, Smith knows his temperament during tough situations will dictate the tone of the office. “As the leader, you have to stay calm, survey the situation, and get through it without panicking [because] panicking will only lead to greater mistakes being made.”


2. Have Patience in Low Wind

While Smith enjoyed the slow moments on the boat that allowed him to unwind and relax, a lull in business is often much less enjoyable for entrepreneurs.

When High Brew Coffee was launching, Smith found himself tangled up negotiating contracts with beverage distributors and meetings with buyers–both activities that require a ton of patience. “Everything always happens a lot slower than you want it to when you’re launching a product,” says Smith.

Although this quiet time can be frustrating for an entrepreneur anxious to get his product off the ground, Smith says he had to learn to take advantage of this lull. He started looking for new opportunities by focusing on innovation, such as a new flavor or a new product line, and taking deliberate moves to create some motion.

3. Watch the Boom

The boom is the part of the mast that holds the bottom part of the sail down. When you’re sailing–especially when you’re moving in high winds–if the wind shifts a little bit and comes across the other side of the boat, it then forces the sail to shift from one side to another. This means the big heavy pole, or the boom, comes swinging across the boat.

“If you’re standing in the wrong place and are unprepared for it, it can knock you right off the boat if not severely hurt you,” says Smith. Preventing this from happening means always monitoring the subtle things–primarily wind direction, speed, and the angle at which you’re sailing into the wind.

Smith uses this same analogy in his business. While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the major activities of sales and production, taking your eyes off the smaller things–such as cash flow–can be detrimental.


“If I don’t keep a close eye on the fluctuations of our cash regularly, it’s easy to one day find we need money and it’s going to take a lot longer to get it than I planned for,” says Smith, who adds he regularly sees this problem with startup companies. “When things are moving really fast, it’s easy to get hit by even the smallest change [so] it’s important to always monitor the constants even when your focus is easily shifted elsewhere.”

4. Take Time to Enjoy the Journey

“Whether you’re on a boat, or building a business, it’s so easy to focus on your destination that by the time you get there, you’ve forgotten and all the events [and scenery] that took place during that process,” says Smith.

He purposefully built this concept into High Brew Coffee’s core values. “We like to take the time to celebrate our successes,” he says, making the journey more important than the destination.


About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction