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.