In 2012, two tourists, Matt Scanlan and Diederik Rijsemus, got stranded in the Mongolian desert. When they left a month later, they had a wild story, lifelong friends, and the seed of an idea that in a few short years would turn the cashmere business upside down.
ON A CLEAR DAY IN JUNE 2015, Matt Scanlan loaded $2.5 million in Mongolian tögrögs into 32 plastic bags, stuffed them into the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, and lit out into the desert.
Scanlan, the then-26-year-old cofounder and CEO of Naadam Cashmere, was headed to Bayankhongor province, one of the most remote regions in the world, located deep in the Outer Mongolian Gobi desert. Each year around the same time, the nomadic goatherds in the area gather in a local village to sell their yield, whichconsists of some of the finest cashmere there is.
Leaving from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, Scanlan spent the next two days off-roading across unforgiving desert terrain with the bags of money piled so high in the back, the driver could hardly see out the rear window.
When he arrived, it was with a bold, risky plan, years in the making. When he left, he and his colleagues had 100 tons of cashmere, packed into a dozen tractor trailers, and the firm foundations of a socially conscious, sustainably sourced, ingeniously constructed clothing business that’s now on track to gross $22 million in its second full year.
And like many great entrepreneurial adventures, it all started with a phone call, a dive bar, a good friend, and some dumb luck.
SCANLAN WAS A FEW YEARS OUT OF NYU in 2012 when he quit his job as a qualitative analyst at a small venture capital firm in Manhattan. “It was way over my head,” he says. “Compared to a real analyst, I was an idiot. I was faking it. So I left, not really sure what I wanted to do. And that’s when Diederik called.”
Diederik Rijsemus, a Dutch friend, was heading to Mongolia with a backpack. They first met during Scanlan’s brief tenure at Dickinson College before, as Scanlan puts it, “they politely asked me to leave the institution and not come back.” (Ditto a certain elite boarding school: “I was always mischievous as a kid and more interested in knowing what the rules were so I knew how to break them,” he says—a mentality that would come in handy later.) By the end of the week, the two were sharing a bunk at a $20-per-night hostel in Ulaanbaatar. Soon after, they were out at a bar and hit it off with some locals named Ishee and Bodio, who extended an invitation to join them on a trip to the countryside the next morning.
“We assumed that meant, like, going out to Connecticut for the weekend,” Scanlan says, laughing. “We didn’t bring clothes or food. We thought we’d be back that night.” Instead, they drove off-road for 20 hours straight until the truck broke down in the middle of the night. “After a few hours, a couple guys with motorcycles rode by and picked us up, and we drove for what felt like another three hours.”
The journey finally ended deep in the Outer Mongolian Gobi, with nothing around for miles but a yurt belonging to a herder named Dash and his family, who came out to greet the visitors with a bottle of goat’smilk vodka. “We spent the night hanging out with these guys and had an amazing time. They were rowdy and so much fun,” says Scanlan. “When we woke up in the morning, we asked the two gentlemen who drove us out there how we’d be getting home. They told us they were planning to stay for a month.”
Scanlan and Rijsemus graduallycame to accept the situation. They slept on the floor, living off meat from the tiny stove in Dash’s yurt, and learned how to ride motorcycles in the desert, milk and herd goats, and perform a few Mongolian wrestling moves. “By the last quarter of the trip, we had all become good friends,” says Scanlan. “We started asking a lot of questions about how they lived. And we came away with some really hard facts.”
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