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Travis Boersma and the Dutch Bros Vibe

Disclaimer: I haven't met Travis yet. Any misrepresentation in this essay is my own.

Travis Boersma is the coolest CEO in America. 

He’s not the type you’d find on the cover of Fast Company; catch him at a Pearl Jam concert instead. But his company, Dutch Bros, has the most mind-blowing culture and strategy for a $400 million coffee chain.

If you’ve been to a Dutch drive-thru, you’ve felt the culture. The “Broista’s” are high-energy, curious about your day and not afraid to hold up the line of cars to ask what you have going on this afternoon, dude. Oh, and you can count on some suspiciously loud music on tap as well.

“It’s a vibe. It’s a feel,” Travis says.

And that vibe doesn’t happen by accident. Travis and his team have been fine-tuning it since 1992.

The Origin Story

In 1991 all was not well on the Boersma family farm. 

Dairy is a tough business to begin with. Then throw in some new environmental regulations about herd size and equipment, and the math just doesn’t work out. 

That’s where the Boersma family found themselves. Their farm in Grant’s Pass, Oregon was bleeding money. The help was let go and the two sons Dane and Travis picked up double shifts to cover. 

The brothers asked themselves, what’s next? Dane was 38, with a wife and kids. Trav was 21, with no attachments and a desire to do something big.

“[Dane] was in a place where he needed to bring home a living. And I was in a place of like, I needed to prove that I could, like, kill it.”

So when Dane said said he’d probably go get a job at Wal-Mart, Travis called him out:

“I was like, dude, come on, Wal-Mart? Like why don’t we do one of these crazy business ideas that we've talked about?”

They tossed ideas around, and Travis thought back to the makeshift mocha’s he’d mix up to cure hangovers in college. Soon the Boersma brothers were fine-tuning their drinks in the barn, with 100 pounds of beans to play with and some classic rock in the background.

The music started before the first cup was sold.

The First Cart

Two adult brothers setting up a coffee cart by their hometown post office takes some balls. And at 7am on day one Dane was ready to back out. Travis was all systems go.

“And I say to Dane, ‘hang on a minute. Let me go make you a mocha. I'm gonna put some music on. We'll get in the zone, dude it'll be great!’”

The Led Zeppelin and the caffeine turned Dane around, and they were in business.

That day they made $65 in sales, which paid for the product and the parking lot rent. The electricity was free—they poached it from the power line running to the Rush Limbaugh billboard.

“It felt like we partied all day.”

Sales kept going up, and they quickly expanded to five carts in and around Grant’s Pass. They added a cart inside of Fred Meyer, another next to Wal-Mart.

But cart no. 1 seemed to have an ‘X factor’ that none of the other carts could match. The original cart by the Post Office, the one with the 70’s music and the EZ-up tent and the Mr. Heater. 

What was it?

Control Your Environment

It was pretty easy for the Boersma brothers to see why the post office cart outperformed the one inside the Fred Meyer store: environment.

At the post office location, Dane and Travis could curate the vibe.

“We could be us. We could be real. We could be true. It was authentic. And over at Fred Meyer, man, you've got elevator music and shit going on in the store and you got trinket guys sitting next to you. And, I mean it was just weird.”

Control your environment.

Enter Tony Robbins

At some point in the pushcart days Dane had Travis come over to his house.  Dane’s plan: do the exercises from a Tony Robbins’ book, Unlimited Power Within. 

“Dane sat down with me and he goes, ‘Dude, let's just play this thing full out. Let's just do it, I mean, it's not going to hurt.’”

It was a goal-setting workshop, right there on the kitchen floor of Dane’s mobile home. They each wrote down a list of their dreams, without limitation.

Then they compared notes and laughed.

"And we’re like, ‘Dude, like, helicopter pilot, really?’”

But looking back Travis estimates that about 85% of those kitchen floor dreams have actually happened. 

Writing it down placed these goals in their subconscious, Travis says.

“And because we had written them down, because we'd exchanged them with each other they were like targets, we were driving toward them.”

Sixteen years later, Tony Robbins would again change the course of Dutch Bros, but not after some devastating losses.

Do Not Get Caught In The Fire

By Summer 2004 Dutch Bros was in a great place. 

They had a growing list of franchise locations, a warehouse full of product, and momentum.

On August 8—a Sunday evening—a fire started in a plastic dumpster next to the warehouse. By the time the fire trucks arrived the blaze had spread to the building. That night Dane and Travis watched the entire corporate presence of Dutch Bros burn to the ground. 

Travis stood in front of the still-burning building and called up a local roaster to get a backup plan in action. Boyd’s coffee down the street would roast the coffee for Dutch until they could rebuild.

“The goal, though, right out of the chute was get out of the fucking fire. Do not get caught in the fire.”

Friends of Travis who’d been through fires told Travis that he might want to get on antidepressants preemptively to deal with the aftermath. Travis refused. 

“I’m like, yeah, I'm not doing that. That's fucking stupid. There's no way that we're getting caught in this thing. We kept on and we kept persevering.”

Do not get caught in the fire.

Love is the Product

Travis calls 2004-2008 the “dark years” of Dutch Bros. 

First the fire, and then Dane started slurring his speech. It was the beginning of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

Travis was on a downward spiral as well.

“The business was doing well. I was not.”

Travis needed a change. By 2008, Dane could no longer talk, but Travis approached him with a thought:

“I came in and and I said, ‘Dude, I'm gonna take our key people, we're gonna go do the Tony Robbins stuff’ and he smiled, man, and it said a thousand words to me, you know, and the tears just rolled. So we did it.”

The team went to the seminar and they did it all: UPW, walking on fire, Date With Destiny.

“All this stupid, crazy shit that you never could imagine yourself doing in a million years. And it was uncomfortable as hell. But we did it all, man.“

One module was called Business Mastery. This is where the team had an intimate conversation: what business were they really in? 

Travis’ initial reaction: This isn’t rocket science, we’re in the coffee business.

But he thought about it some more.

“And it was like, nah wait a minute. We're in the relationship business.”

Travis points to this as a major turning point for Dutch. 

From this realization, Dutch Bros decided to only grow from within. No more franchisees looking for a popular brand to add to their portfolio. From now on every new shop would be managed by someone who started as a Broista.

“That little twist—with a decision to only grow from within—catapulted us to a level that we would never understand as it is today, and the culture became the priority and the sole focus.”

If they’re in the relationship business, what does Dutch Bros sell?

“The product is love. And it's it's doing the right thing. It's caring about people as a whole,” Travis says.

Love is the product.

Growth is Predicated On the People

That 2008 decision to grow from within has slowed Dutch’s expansion.

But it’s also helped Dutch avoid being a one-and-done, flash-in-the-pan sensation. 

“The goal for me is a growth rate that's predicated on the people that we have that are qualified and able to become fantastic leaders, that really love on people.”

Travis is aware of the tradeoff they made.

“I mean, we could have a thousand stores in the next ten years. We'll see, but I'm not going to grow one of them if the culture can't be intact and rock it.”

Dutch is in just eleven states, and Travis has big plans for expansion.

“The [challenge] that lies ahead right now is Mount Everest. And if I was going to use it as a metaphor, I want to make sure that we have tour guides that have climbed this son of a bitch many times over.”

Don’t Hold Onto People Forever

Dutch Bro’s has no problem with employees using them as a springboard. In fact it’s a point of pride.

“And so we plant that seed right from the very beginning. We want to know what some of your interests are, what some of your skills are, some of the things that you may want to pursue, some of the strengths that you possess, your goals.”

Travis explains that it’s a love-all, serve-all mentality. So if an employee’s current passions center around Doritos and video games, Dutch will meet them right there, and then encourage the employee to ask some quality questions about their future.

Travis is happy to see employees go on to become doctors, and lawyers and business owners. 

And for employees that want to climb the Dutch Mafia ladder, they have the opportunity to open their own franchise. It’s a six-figure salary from the start, with serious financial support from headquarters. Then they have the opportunity to manage up to ten shops, earning half of the net profits.

Travis just wants to see his employees be amazing, whether that’s with Dutch or not.

“I'm like, dude, go kill it, go crush it. Go meet the lady of your dreams. Go meet the man that you always wanted to have. Have this kick ass unbelievable relationship, have kids, like go live your life, go start that business dream, go become that doctor, go become that nurse.”

What’s the worst that could happen?

The brothers never considered failure as an option.

“You have a hell of a lot better shot at making your free throws if you believe you can make them.”

At the same time they addressed their fear by asking, what’s the worst that could happen?

Travis’ nephew, Brant, tells the story of when the two brothers were deciding whether to take the leap and buy the equipment to bring roasting in-house, around 1996.

By then, the Boersma farm had turned into Dutcher Creek Golf Course.

“[Dane’s] like, ‘hey, worst case scenario, we could always mow lawns at Dutcher,’ and Trav’s like ‘yeah, yeah, that wouldn’t be too bad.’”

Examine your fear. Ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?

Don’t Be a Dic

For Travis, leadership means giving your employees a chance to make mistakes, and a chance to own their job.

“if you're ruling with an iron fist and you're a dictator, you know, what's the first three letters of dictator? Don't be one, you know? I mean, hello, like, extend trust and and let people make mistakes and learn and grow.”

Dane shared the same approach. Help your employees find their sweet spot.

“[Dane] was like, ‘hey, you know, if you're good at something, then fuck, man, get great at it.’”

Travis has even loosened up on a rule from the early days of Dutch: no Country music to be played at the shops.

Travis doesn’t like the way Country has bled into every other genre. But he’s willing to make a concession for his Broista’s. 

“We used to say ‘no Country’. And, you know, I’ve kinda warmed up to that, almost.”

Delegate. Then Delegate some more.

Dutch Bros has grown into a 12,000 employee company, and Travis has learned to put exceptional people in place, and then let them do their job.

“I can certainly go spend time in the financial department or I could go over to HR and and I can get involved in growth and development. And, you know, that's probably not the best use of my talent or gifts. And if we're going to get into the nitty gritty and talk about P&L’s and and how to organize accounting, that isn't going to bode well for the organization.”

Delegate.

The Four Customers

Every Broista is taught to recognize which of four quadrants the customer falls in.

First there’s the customer that knows what she wants, and wants it fast.

Then there’s the customer that knows what she wants but is happy to stop and chat.

The third quadrant is the customer who doesn’t know what she wants, but wants it fast.

The fourth quadrant is the most difficult. This is the customer who doesn’t know what she wants, and doesn’t care how long it takes. 

But that fourth quadrant plays a special role at Dutch:

“Those customers are raving fan champion customers, oftentimes. Whatever that experience is, they're going to go tell their friends and family. They love to talk and share and converse.”

Treat these people right, and they’ll end up putting “Dutch Nation” stickers on their car.

Being responsible to each customer’s needs is a key aspect of the Dutch experience.

Coacha

Coacha is the annual corporate event at Dutch Bros.

As the chief culture guy, Travis’ nephew Brant is heavily involved. As far as he’s concerned, it’s not a corporate event. 

“Only in the sense that corporate means like, what, togetherness?”

Coacha is where Dutch’s music heritage gets turned to 11. Artists such as Macklemore and AJR perform. Body-surfing and smoke machines are in full effect. And Dutch coffee is served on-site in huge quantities, sending the energy higher. 

It’s a chance for outstanding employees to be rewarded and drawn into the Dutch family, and a chance for the leaders of Dutch to connect with the rest of the organization.

If the Broista’s at your local Dutch Bros look like the music festival type, it’s no coincidence.

Take Care Of Yourself First

Balance is a myth, according to Travis.

“I don't believe in having everything just balanced to where it's all equal. I think that's garbage.”

But he does believe in pivoting and re-assessing before you run yourself into the ground. He says that when 30 year old Travis would run into a problem, he’d just work harder. But he’s changed since.

“I have to…come back to taking care of me, whether it's it's nutrition or exercise or spiritual or whatever that is.”

And when all else fails, recognize that your intention is what counts.

“If I give an honest effort today, it is more than good enough, right? It is more than good enough.”

Take care of yourself first.

Play = God, Family, Work

Travis took this from a sign in his brother-in law’s office. He added the equals sign, and the formula helps him pursue long-term fulfillment instead of short-term pleasure.

Don’t do it for the play. Realize that the process is the play.

“God, family, work, play. And I go, man, that's the right order. If I could keep it in that order, I'd be like, so bitchin.’”

Mission Statement

In 2008 as Dane’s disease was well-advanced, Travis wrote down a mission statement:

“I, Travis Boersma see, hear, and know that the purpose of my life is to enjoy the journey, to maximize the moment, to be a loving, passionate, inspirational leader that defies the odds, to be a force for God and a force for good. I hope to meet the man that I am someday when I die, not the man that I could have been. My quest in this life is to continually improve along the course of the journey toward my deepest desires. And I know that I will never arrive until I depart.”

Don’t Swim Upstream

Life is like a river, where the ocean is the destination, says Travis.

“So the river has a destination. It's the ocean. So, you know, why not navigate it to the best of your ability? Why not? …You know, just give it a shot because you're here for this time, and that's it.”

He warns that it’s easy to get distracted by the twists, turns, and rapids. 

“And it can be a lot of fun. But don't get caught up there forever, you know, and certainly don't swim up current because if you're swimming against the grain, you're going against the grain. You’re going to exhaust yourself.”

Write Your Own Book

Life is also a book, Travis says. Make sure you’re the author.

“Man, whether you realize it or not, everybody has a book. My book has been a wild, fucking crazy ride. It's full of adventure. It's full of of shortcomings and mishaps and and great successes. But man, it's my book and sometimes other people have written my book, they've had it and been writing it. I had to go over and wrestle the fucking pen away and say, ‘it’s my book. I’m going to write it.’”

If you don’t write your story, someone else will. 

Write your own book.

Dead Presidents On Paper

Travis refuses to dilute the Dutch brand for fast money.

That’s why you won’t see cans of Dutch Bros Blue Rebel energy drink at Wal-Mart. 

“I don't want to whore anything out, man. Yeah, we could put it in stores and supermarkets and have a retail presence. But it's not about any of that for me.

Money is not Travis’ main goal.

“Dead presidents on paper, you can't take those things with you. Those things to me are report cards or measuring sticks on how well you're doing. Maybe they’re certificates of appreciation, that's cool.”

You Don’t Arrive Until You Depart

The problems start when you think you’ve made it, says Travis.

“If you get big, fat, comfortable and happy…that's when all hell breaks loose.”

Travis has no plans to retire. He’ll keep course-correcting until he can’t anymore. It seems Dane’s early death has made him keenly aware of the transience of life.

Maybe that’s why Dutch Bro’s is focused on boosting love before profits.

“This life is short, man. We’re like vapor.”