Stride Stories: Discovering cacao
[Aaron Koch makes premium drinking chocolate in Portland, OR. Below is his long and winding (and fascinating) road as an independent worker.]
Stride: What were you doing before you were self employed?
Aaron: I’ve had a lot of jobs and they all seem pretty random. I’ve been a high-rise window washer. I taught sailing in the San Francisco Bay. I delivered sailboats in Indonesia. I built trails for the forest service. And I was Pierce Brosnan’s head groundskeeper for about a year.
Stride: That’s amazing. Was there something that happened in your life where you thought: I want to carve out my own path?
Aaron: Before I finished college in Oregon, I got into an exchange program to go to Hawaii. I was really interested in organic farming and the concept of permaculture, so I moved to Kauai because it’s really big there. I started off at a coffee farm and ended up at a permaculture farm that had a bit of everything. I would travel between Hawaii and Indonesia – surf in Indonesia, run out of money, come back to Hawaii to work, and then do it all again. One of the times I came back to Hawaii, I found this cacao farm to live on, and that plant really intrigued me. cacao needs to be grown in the rainforest because it needs shade. If the direct sunlight hits it for too long it’ll burn the leaves and it won’t produce pods of cacao. When I realized that this kind of growth could help preserve the rainforest, I wanted to get involved. I started messing around with chocolate-making and just kind of hit the ground running.
Stride: How did you deal with the financial aspect of starting your own business?
Aaron: I approached it step-by-step... not looking too far in the future, but keeping my costs, making sure to stay within my means. Portland is a great town for doing that, costs are relatively lower, so it lets you try out new ideas. It’s harder to try out new ideas in cities like SF and LA because the cost of entry is so high. I was just visiting Portland and was about to fly back to Kauai, and people were like why don’t you just move here? I looked into the idea and within four hours I found a shipping container, a warehouse, and a room in a house that was five blocks away. It was meant to be. So I cancelled my ticket, bought the shipping container, and rented the room. I’ve been here for 2.5 years.
Stride: How do you deal with the funding aspect of starting your own business? Do you have other jobs?
Aaron: When I first got to Portland, I had 3 jobs. Now, I do this and I do some modeling stuff. Last week I was in a commercial for a hiking company. Those are my 2 gigs – chocolate making and modeling. Not a bad life.
Stride: Are there things that you struggle with on the business side of being a freelancer?
Aaron: Sure, I struggle with the uncertainty. It would be really nice to have a consistent salary coming in. But that’s what you accept when you decide to start your own project. It’s not guaranteed that it’s going to be successful. But this struggle is worth it for me because I’m fascinated with what I’m doing and I enjoy it. It’s fun to build something and watch it become well-known.
Stride: Seems like you know a lot about the agriculture and farming aspect of growing the cacao bean, but how did you learn more about the industry – distribution, pitching to stores, etc.?
Aaron: My formula is asking a lot of questions and meeting as many people as possible. I go to many different trade shows and food expos. I don’t buy a booth, but I walk through and meet people in the food industry. I just reach out to people and see if they’re free for coffee… generally, they’re more than happy to meet and answer my questions. If they don’t know the answer, they’ll point me in the right direction. Networking and researching. That’s all it is. Before the internet, I don’t know how people did this!
Stride: What are the best things about being self employed?
Aaron: It’s an adventure! Part of the reason I’ve had these unusual jobs is because I get bored easily, and I’m always looking for something entertaining. Building a business is one of the most entertaining jobs I’ve ever had. It’s a puzzle. You wake up everyday and you’re like, how am I going to solve these 5 issues that I’m dealing with? You’re constantly on a boat that seems like it’s about to tip over. That feeling keeps me very entertained.
Stride: What do you think sets Treehouse apart?
Aaron: We’re the only single-serve drinking chocolate that you can make with just hot water. I like drinking chocolate, and I noticed the stuff I was buying had a complicated process to make. I saw a need for my product. I wanted something that was super easy to make but was also high-quality. I’m one of the only ones who has experience as a cacao farmer, so I get to see both sides.
Stride: What is your best business tip for people that are going to make this switch to self employment?
Aaron: The two skills that people should focus on the most are failing fast and team-building. Put your business through as much pressure as possible and really weather test it early. Additionally, no one’s ever built a successful business alone.
Stride: Tell me about your health insurance experience this year.
Aaron: I never had health insurance in my life, so it was completely new for me. I heard there was a deadline coming up and I had to get insurance. Two days before the deadline, I went online and googled “affordable health insurance,” and I found some short-term coverage to protect me if something crazy happens.
Then I found Stride through a video you made with Alex Honnold. This climber I know was basically recommending his personal health insurance service to me, so I called you guys. That’s when I learned the plan I had was actually not a legitimate health plan (it doesn’t exempt me from the government fine), but simply short term coverage. Now you’re helping me figure out what to do about my coverage. It’s complicated.
[Author’s note: Because we are outside of the open enrollment period, we were unable to enroll Aaron in a full-priced, long term health insurance plan. However, we connected him with the appropriate government department, to help him get accessible coverage in the meantime.]
Stride: What is your biggest health concern for America?
Aaron: When I came to America (from Singapore), I was really shocked how difficult it is to find a decent meal at a decent price. Growing up in Asia, I ate steamed fish and vegetables for $2. I got really used to having affordable, healthy food at my fingertips. Coming to the states, the only option you have for the most part is a fast food meal. That’s sad.