Tea expert David Lee Hoffman speaks to Terry Gabel's "Midwest Entrepreneurs" class on Feb. 26
Seniors in Monmouth College professor Terry Gabel’s “Midwest Entrepreneurs” class will soon be able to say something that tea expert David Lee Hoffman, who spoke to their class on Feb. 26, cannot. They will be college graduates.
“At the end of my name, I started using ‘CDO,’ so I could have a title like the other businessmen,” Hoffman told the class. “You probably don’t know what that means, but it stands for ‘college dropout.’”
Hoffman, who finds and exports rare handcrafted teas from China to the U.S., has built a successful business, so much so that he paid $418,000 in taxes in a recent year. He did it without a college degree and also without any formal business training, other than helpful tips from his father – a successful businessman in his own right – such as “Do the best you can.”
“My accounting skills were like a 10-year-old,” he said of his very basic system of recording revenues and expenses. “That worked for a while, but then the business got too big. I was doing $1 million a year out of my garage.”
In addition to their business studies and future diplomas, most of the students have another edge over Hoffman. He told the class, “I was able to build my business without any help from modern technology.” And also, he said, without any acumen for paying taxes and hiring personnel.
“I didn’t have a life. I was only getting three-and-a-half hours of sleep a night. I knew I had to hire some help, but I hired people for the wrong reasons. I learned I had a weakness there, and that I wasn’t good at that.”
Hoffman’s tea business is his second successful venture. He also told the entrepreneur class about a system he developed for cleaning valuable textiles from Asia. Using a “sonic cleaning tank,” he was able to clean such items as a 15th-century textile by gently agitating the material and removing contaminants. He called the business a “stressful” one, because some of the textiles he was asked to clean were worth more than his house.
“No one else was doing this, so I had lots of customers – museums and collectors,” he said. “The process created clean, vibrant textiles.”
His next venture, he said, got its start about two decades ago, although it had been a longtime passion.
“I started drinking tea in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that I went to China to support my own habit,” he said. “I couldn’t find any good tea in this country.”
As was the case with textile cleaning, Hoffman succeeded, in large part, because he was the only provider of the service.
“No one else was going to China to buy tea directly from farmers like I was. After a while, my reputation grew. I was fortunate in the area of marketing. I never had to market myself. Everything I did seemed to get picked up by the press. If your idea is original or newsworthy, someone will pick it up. I didn’t have to advertise. It was all done for me.”
In addition to having a great idea, Hoffman also told the students to not flinch in the face of adversity.
“As Winston Churchill is known for saying during World War II, ‘Never, never, never give up.’ If you have the drive and the passion, stick with it. Don’t get caught up with the money. Money is a distraction. If you have a good plan, you will get support,”
Known by some as the “Indiana Jones of Tea,” Hoffman founded and directs The Last Resort, an ecology research center, and The Phoenix Collection, an archive of fine teas and a follow-up to his former company, Silk Road Tea, which he sold in 2004.
Hoffman has named several fine teas, including Drum Mountain Clouds and Mist, Tongyu Mountain Green and Camel’s Breath. He is the subject of filmmaker Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht’s 2007 documentary “All In This Tea,” which was screened at the college earlier in the week. He concluded his three-day visit to Monmouth’s campus with a tea sampling.