In the mountains of Peru, an ayahuasca retreat tailor-made for the startup set
In March 2014, the CEO of AirHelp, Henrik Zillmer, appeared on Fox to explain his company to the channel’s business anchors. Are you an airline passenger whose flight was delayed or canceled? For a cut, AirHelp’s app will assist in securing the hundreds of dollars you might be entitled to. On-screen, in his open collar and suit jacket, Zillmer exuded the low-key poise of someone on his tenth startup, which he was. The anchors peppered the Danish-born executive with questions, and he coolly fielded them before a backdrop of downtown San Francisco.
In the two years after that Fox interview, the company Zillmer launched with three people grew to more than 200, with backing from Y Combinator, Khosla Ventures, Ev Williams, and other high-profile investors. So it was unusual this past spring when, on three occasions in the Peruvian Andes, Zillmer ceased to exist.
Michael Costuros killed him. Or rather, Zillmer paid Costuros to kill him, or at least to facilitate the temporary annihilation of his self by seeing what the hell one of the world’s most powerful natural hallucinogens would do to his consciousness, his spirit, and, above all, his business prospects.
For the past five years, Costuros, a 44-year-old Marin County executive coach, has led an annual trip to South America for entrepreneurs keen on “leveraging the healing power of ayahuasca.” Where ayahuasca retreats typically identify as places for deep healing and spiritual growth, Entrepreneurs Awakening also promises benefits such as “a new level of innovative thinking” and “increased tactical clarity.” Indeed, it’d be hard to conjure an exercise more disruptive than sacramental mind expansion; a recent Onion article proposing remarkably similar retreats for tech CEOs only affirmed that the whole thing makes sense on some level.
Cut to this past spring, when Zillmer, a former lieutenant in the Danish army, was gearing up for ten days in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. He’d be joining nine fellow entrepreneurs there, each having paid a little less than $10,000. Chris Hunter, co-founder of the company behind the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko, signed on in hopes that it would help him navigate some sticky professional relationships. Jesse Krieger, publisher of Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press, wished for insight into growth strategies. Other participants included the founder of a financial technology company, the scion of a footwear empire, and a firearms executive looking for a pivot. Under the guidance of Costuros and a local shaman, they would participate in a San Pedro ceremony — San Pedro is another powerful plant-based psychedelic — followed by two separate ayahuasca ceremonies.
Speaking from New York before the trip, Zillmer, who said, “My work is my life, and my life is my work,” talked of finding a balm for the back-to-back meetings that fill his weeks and for his flashes of frustration. “Being able to keep calm and more professional in communication is something I hope to achieve,” he said. “It’s been a tough road. The bigger the success, the bigger the shit show.” Three days later, he boarded a plane for Peru.
The participants — all men this year — spent their first day traveling to the retreat center, getting situated, and enjoying massages. At 8 a.m. the next day, they assembled in a small, open-air structure. Following an initial cleansing ceremony, they drank their first batch of medicine (fermented wheatgrass and dirt is how Krieger described the taste) and lay down on thin mats under a thatched roof. There they’d remain for ten hours.
The first 60 minutes of the ayahuasca ceremony felt like two weeks for Zillmer. Uncontrollable vomiting and feverish shivering aside, he was unable to move and watched helplessly as his mind departed his body and descended into a vast black hole. A witness to his own death, he stepped into something that wasn’t life at all. He felt both nowhere and everywhere on a strange grid connecting all plants, animals, stars, and human beings.
“There were visions,” said Hunter, the Four Loko guy. “I literally saw the world through other people’s eyes — my wife, my dad, my mom — and that crossed over into business aspects. At one point, I felt myself step into a leadership role that had almost been waiting there for me.” Upon returning from Peru, Hunter felt closure about Four Loko and sudden clarity about taking over as interim CEO at a company for which he’d been an investor: Koia, a plant-based protein drink, will launch this fall.
It was during the second ayahuasca ritual that Krieger, the publisher, had his most dramatic experience. “Within 20 minutes, my whole life cracked apart,” he said. “It was, frankly, like being in another dimension — kaleidoscopic and undulating in ways a 3-D perspective couldn’t understand. There were snakes and pumas, too.” After coming back to the States, he said, “potential opportunities were suddenly, boom, ready to go. It was like a sorting mechanism.”
In Zillmer’s case, the torturous initial experience eventually gave way to something less hellish. Over the next few hours, and then over the days to come, he experienced a strange and periodically blissful new perspective, as though peering down from a mountaintop on his existence and all existence. It was, of course, ineffable. And then he was back in New York and in the back-to-back meetings about securing reimbursements for inconvenienced fliers.
“We hired an interior designer last week,” he reported soon after his return. A newfound desire for his team to enjoy their surroundings has been one of the more concrete changes in Zillmer. (That and inexplicably losing his two-Coke-Zeros-a-day habit. “Suddenly it’s too sweet.”) Mostly, though, his transformation has been conceptual. Rather than asking what his employees can do for him, he ponders what he can do for them. He finds himself thinking about their lives, their dreams. This is not just theoretical; after he came back from Peru, he promptly took over the entire HR department. “It seemed like the best way to implement these new ideas,” he said, casually. Asked how it’s been going, he reflected that people seem sort of psyched about all the new resources they’re getting.
“It’s not like I’m calling on the spirits left and right over whether to sign this or that deal,” Zillmer said. “It’s more like my gut feeling has changed, and I have more intuition — about whether this person is a good fit for the job, or this partnership is right for us.”
Zillmer conceded that empathy and intuition are not exactly radical concepts; much of the wisdom he vomited his way into is readily found in Facebook memes. What’s different, perhaps, is his interest in hearing it. “Before Peru, I would’ve said, ‘Interesting,’ and then kicked ideas like that aside. In a startup, you get blinded by the race to get to the top of your industry at any cost. You tend to deal with a problem only when it becomes big and otherwise focus only on growing. I think it would’ve taken me five to ten years to reach this point.”
As alumni from the retreats tell it, Zillmer’s experience is fairly typical. Keith Krance, founder and CEO of Dominate Web Media, made the trip in 2015. A year later, he remains transformed on deep levels. “I’ve never been so present with my family, with my son,” Krance said. “I’m sort of ADD, so that’s been a huge impact.” He’s also launched a podcast about marketing, Perpetual Traffic, that he first envisioned in Peru. With episodes like “2 Facebook Campaign Metrics that Drive ROI,” the show has attracted almost 100,000 listeners each episode.
Costuros, a onetime startup founder himself, contends that this enlightenment in the world’s C-suites is good for the planet as well as the bottom line. “Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves they can be, including companies. You can spend years working on it, or you can come to Peru and make a lot of progress in a week,” Costuros said. “It’s basically a Silicon Valley–style hack. Get there faster.”