Name: Bin Chen
Title: Co-Founder of Boba Guys
City: San Francisco, CA
Passion: Boba + building community
Boba Guys, located in the Mission district of San Francisco is doing something different. Homebrewing tea, mixing it with local organic milk, and topping it with the chewy boba we all know and love. Bin Chen, and co-founder Andrew Chau have taken the traditional street treat and surprised us with unique flavors, and an intimate storefront. Bin’s journey is testament to keeping good company, starting small, and dreaming big. With three spaces in San Francisco, and one upcoming in New York, Boba Guys are on a mission. To grow with intention and integrity, all the while breaking down cultural barriers and building community.
Photos by: Elle Wildhagen
How and when did you find your passion?
I definitely subscribe to the notion that there’s a job, a career, and your calling. So, what company would I want to join that would be most ideal for me? From a creativity standpoint, from a career standpoint - as many boxes as I could check off. What company would that look like? As I vetted each one, I found that they didn’t have the entire package. I needed to build it for myself. We began with pop-up events, and I saw the excitement. Which is really awesome, because when you build a digital product, you don’t really see that connection. It’s a lot more visceral and alive when you are doing the physical act of giving someone something. It was so eye opening for me. It eventually led to our store.
Initially it started as a product for ourselves. We liked it, we wanted to see it. We do food and beverage, but since we are from the startup world, we wanted to start really lean. So we started with the pop-ups. It was all a theory. People had to make a mental leap from traditionally paying two dollars for a street food drink, and trust that they were going to have a different experience. We brew our own teas, we don’t use powders, make our own homemade syrups. That was a huge, huge bet that we made. It was a low financial risk, because we did it as a pop-up, but it was a high social risk. If we did it, and no one came, that would have felt terrible. And that’s when people did come, and we began to grow our menu. That’s how we started doing horchata boba, because we are in the Mission. We started doing things that were exciting and different.
Tell us more about doing the transition to doing what you love.
I was at Timbuk2 for five and a half years, the longest I’ve ever been at a company. I’m proud to say that Andrew and I met there. We bonded over ping-pong and foosball. It was one of the few companies that I truly, truly loved. It was because of the culture. Everyone worked really hard, was scrappy, and wore a lot of hats. People had fun, and they enjoyed coming to work. That hadn’t always been the case for me. I knew that when I was soul searching and looking for jobs, I wasn’t afraid of hard work, but I wanted it to be something that I could connect with. Also, for others to connect with.
I'm so proud to say that now Boba Guys is attracting top talent. I thought we would never get to the day where a boba shop would attract someone who’s running an incredible company, willing to give up their own dreams, or maybe they were going to start a company, and they realized they can achieve all of their goals and dreams here. To think that Andrew and I build and that is mind-blowing.
How did/do you hone your skills?
It’s important to align yourself with good people, hire the best talent, honor your employees. Factor in what they care about. We help grow them into their passions, and if they graduate, we’re happy for them. They make an imprint on you and your company, and help you to keep growing. I hone my skills through my community.
We have an employee, Kalen, who is into podcasts. We are all podcast junkies. We were like, “Hey, you know what would be great? If you had your own podcast!” We bought him all the equipment he needed, and he just ran with it. This little place that just started a boba shop is able to open doors in all these different avenues. It’s really special.
Tell us about a time in your earlier transition to living your passion when you failed. How did you feel? What did you learn?
I use failure almost as a certainty. We have a very stable core business. It allows us to fund the rest of the things that we care about. Retaining good employees, treating them well, paying them above industry standards. Doing things like the podcast. The tea is just a medium for the change we are creating in our community. Down the road we want to throw events. We’re even teaming up with Ankit Shah, founder of Tea with Strangers. In our new Hayes Valley location, we want to create a space where strangers can meet and have a dedicated place to come together and foster community. That’s always been the goal, to foster community.
What has been your biggest fear about living your Passion?
Our biggest fear had already passed. Our biggest fear was that we left something incredible on the table, and we didn’t have the guts to cash in that lottery ticket. That we were not willing to give up our high paying corporate jobs. That we would see this done and executed by someone else. It would have been infuriating and frustrating for me. Now the biggest fear is losing sight of what we set out to build. My fear is, as we grow, that we lose sight of what we did in the first place. If we stop doing what makes this so rich. If it becomes something that I was trying to leave in the first place. If it were to become any other copy-cat corporation. We did something novel, and we are seeing that bear fruit now.
How do you overcome your fears?
We know we shouldn’t take any of this for granted. There will be others who do what we do, but we want to be the model of how to do it best.
Was there a time when you were running out of money? Did you need to give up a lifestyle to pursue your passion? Tell us more about that and how you coped.
And we’ve been bootstrapping this. We’ve never taken any outside investment. We kept our full-time jobs. It’s because we didn’t want to owe anyone anything. We also didn’t want anyone else’s influence early on. We are so mission and culture focused that we wanted to make sure it was done right, even if it scarified some growth.
Is there a community that supports you? Who are they?
I have a lot of them. We would be lying if we said we did this on our own. Everything has been on the backs of giants. Timbuk2 taught us a lot about culture. Patagonia and Chipotle still have such alignment with their vision. I know Andrew looks up to Howard Schultz. John J. from Wieden + Kennedy. I can send hims an email and he will get back to me. And Amit Gupta from Photojojo has been really helpful. These people really see it. They aren’t deep in the weeds like I am. Ahmed can dissect things very intelligently. Pascal Rigo from La Boulange is a big proponent of Boba Guys. Every time we talk he has something illuminating to share.
What is self-love to you? And how important is it to your journey?
I think an entrepreneur, by definition, tends to give a lot to the company. Between time, resources, and mindshare, it’s like running a marathon. That’s not unique to me. I happen to be in San Francisco, this magical place where it doesn't take long to get to the redwoods. It doesn't take long to get to nature. I can go on a walk or a bike ride, even this afternoon. And Boba Guys works a different side of my brain. When I rode my bike to the pop up, was engaging with people, and making things with my hands, I was working a different skills set. It wasn’t exhausting. That’s not work. So I was able to flip-flop that and make it my day job. You find what energizes you and that is your calling. It’s the best tell-tale sign you can find for self-love. You would be happy to do it even if you weren’t getting paid for it. Until I find myself getting detached or burned out, which hasn’t happened yet, I’m having a blast. I build self-love and care into work.
On Advice to the Community
Please share a piece of advice with our community of men and women who are looking to leave their traditional jobs and live their passions.
Follow your dreams, but don’t be an idiot about it. Start so small, that it achieves a tiny win. A lot of people do all this planning, and think they need all these resources, or time. Give up some of your weekend or evenings. Start today, start tomorrow. Go buy some of the raw ingredients and start doing what you’re doing. Many people keep kicking the can down the road. Few people realize it takes very little to start. It takes time, but you can start scrappy.
For our readers, get 10% off Boba Guys teas and tea ware by using code: LAUNCH10
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