Shane: A lot of people feel trapped in jobs. They feel something is missing, but don’t easily find the courage to leave. You left an investment banking job in Hong Kong and came back and started a very unsexy company out of Hollywood, perhaps the mimetic capital of the world. Let’s start with that story.
Luke: Yeah. I arrived in Hong Kong through purely mimetic forces in my life that had brought me to a great undergrad business school at NYU, Stern. And went the investment banking route without having really paused and given it a lot of thought as to why I was doing that.
That’s really the route I wanted to go on, what that career track looked like. After I graduated, I worked for a private equity company in New York City. But I worked on a deal and I got an offer to go work in Hong Kong, in investment banking for Citigroup out of their Hong Kong office.
And at the time, it was weird to go from private equity to investment banking. But I realized that first of all, I wanted to be in Asia. There was a lot of very exciting things going on in China at the time. I thought it’d give me a good chance to kind of be in China at the very beginning of what we now see was a total boom.
So I made the move, got on a plane and went to Hong Kong, didn’t know a soul there other than the guy that recruited me to come out. And was working in investment banking in sort of what was a dream role. I mean, they treated me as a junior guy more like I was a VP.
I was doing crazy things. I hope this doesn’t get anybody at Citigroup in trouble, but I was going to do due diligence on Chinese coal mines by myself. They’re sending me down in underground minds, “Hey, make sure this company has the assets they say they have.” Well, it looks like a mine to me. I don’t know.
And I was putting together pitch books, one for a Thai petrochemicals’ company. I was the sort of the senior analyst on the deal. And I went there and presented it to the senior management of the company myself. I don’t even remember why. I mean, maybe it’s because the managing director was out sick or got called away and they didn’t want to cancel the meeting.
So I was doing crazy things. I mean, anybody works in finance knows that this is not normal. So it was a good gig. I was making a lot of money, but I was totally miserable. And I’ve always had the desire to start something. And my cousin and I had been kicking around an idea for a business ever since we were in college. I went to NYU, he went to Columbia. I was a year ahead of him.
So he just graduated and moved out to LA for a girl and started to call me and email me and say, why don’t we start that business that we’ve always talked about? You don’t seem entirely happy. I know this. You’re never going to be satisfied until you find out if this works or not.” And the business is quite simple.
I mean, it was a healthy vending machine company, is the business that we had in mind, right? It was just to put the healthy version, the healthy alternative of everything that you normally find in a vending machine into the machines. Brand them in a really cool way. The name was Fit Fuel.
Put LCD screens into them so we could display health facts and nutrition information. Sell ads, eventually get people’s attention as they walked by kind of state of the art machines. And they’d be healthy, everything in them would be healthy. So the plan was to put these in schools and airports and any place where it was hard to find healthy food.
And at the time, that was a pretty novel idea, right? I mean, the sort of the health food craze was taking off. That was the business. So here I am in my office in Hong Kong contemplating whether I should go move to LA to start what is essentially a vending machine company. Right?
I just never wanted to talk about it that way. So I just say, “Oh, I’m going into the food distribution business” or something like that. I got to move halfway around the world. I really don’t want to go to LA. I’ve never even been to LA before.
And my business partners asked me to come to LA. And I said, “Sean, I don’t know if I moved to LA, just because you’re dating a girl there.” I was, “Are you going to marry this girl?” He’s, “I think so, but I’m not sure.” And I said, “I need more than that. Do you got anything else?” And he said, “Well, there is one other really good reason.
And that’s the location is actually the perfect location for our business, because it just so happens most of the large distributors for the kind of products that we want to sell in our machines are all in the area. They’re all in Southern California.
So we can order from any of them, have the products in our warehouse practically the next day. Shipping costs will be low. It will just streamline our business.” And I said, “All right, all right. So those are two good reasons.
That’s enough.” So I moved to LA to start what was Fit Fuel, what became Fit Fuel. But it was nerve-racking to be pretty alone in Hong Kong and the next day after I got my bonus asked a few of the senior people if I could meet with them. And walked into one particular managing director’s office, and this guy was really eccentric.
He wore socks around the office and he kicked his shoes off and put his feet up on the desk with the socks and looked at me and was, Hey, you owe me a beer.” And I said, “I owe you a beer?”. And I said, “Why?” He said, “Just because. Let’s go get a beer.” So we went out and got a beer and I told Steve, “Hey, I don’t know how to tell you this.
I’ve really enjoyed my time here, but I’m leaving.” And he said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to go start a company in California.” He said, “Oh, you’re going to Silicon valley. You’re going to go the startup route.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he’s, “Well, tell me about it.” And I fumbled around, “Yeah, I’m getting into the food, the distribution business.”
So what kind of distribution food? Well, how are you going to distribute it? And finally, there was no way around it. I had to just tell him that we’re going to put this stuff in vending machines and scale it. And I made my best case for why this was actually a massive market.
He was supportive, but he sort of said, “I want you to understand that if you do this — if you leave this soon.” It’d been less than a year. “You’ll never work in investment banking again. You won’t work in corporate finance because nobody will really trust you anymore.” Right?
Once you’ve sort of got that bug. I think he was right. But it’s kind of a jarring thing to hear at that stage in your career. It’s, “All right, I’m 23 years old. And if I say yes to this opportunity, it sounds like I’m closing the door to another one.
Is that really what I want to do?” But ultimately, made the decision to go to LA and moved into a small little apartment on Cahuenga in the 101, a little Hollywood apartment with a garage that was just big enough to house some inventory.
And we got started. And I didn’t know how things were going to go, but that ride back from Hong Kong to Los Angeles was a very lonely and quiet ride for me. I don’t think I watched a movie, I didn’t listen to any music. I just sat there and stared out the window and just sort of wondered what in the hell I just did.
Shane: There are four things I want to follow up on there. And in no particular order. One of the things that you said was money, you were making a lot of money, but you were miserable. Can you go deeper on that?