The Path to a Perfect Cup: An Interview with Workshop Coffee.

Start Your Own Venture
February 2015

This is  guest post by Anna Ryzhenkova, from our current Escape Tribe. Here she interviews James Dickson, Founder of Workshop Coffee, on his startup journey. 

My friends and family know almost too well how obsessed I am about quality when it comes to food and drink. Even more so I am passionate about companies that take pride in what they do – add to this the courage to abandon a corporate world in order to build a business incorporating these values – and you are pretty much my hero.

This month I had an opportunity to meet James Dickson, the founder of Workshop Coffee. James and his team have built a company that took the coffee experience to a whole new level, making me fall in love with the beverage all over again.

Here’s what he had to say about setting up his own business, his challenges and inspirations along the way, and things to keep in mind when you decide to build a company around your passion.


 

Given that you were working in a completely different field earlier in your career, how did the idea of Workshop Coffee emerge?

A lot of people ask me that. I was a chartered surveyor by trade – dealing with various aspects of property finance. Then the 2008 financial crisis happened. Potential to have a career in that industry had evaporated. There was not enough transactional activity and I quit pretty much the day I qualified as a chartered surveyor.

I had been interested in coffee for a while. A few people had introduced me to the ‘third wave coffee movement’. The idea behind it is to treat coffee as an artisan foodstuff in a similar way you may treat say red wine for example. It is happening all over North America, parts of Northern Europe and Australasia, and London has exploded it in the last 4 -5 years. I started to really get into it.

The idea of Workshop Coffee was to create a physical space where we could run two businesses. One was a wholesale business and another a retail business. Given my background, I saw this as an attractive opportunity. Doing it out of the same real estate would help us to spread our occupancy cost. When I found the Clerkenwell location, our first café, I knew it was the right space. I thought, if we could do that, we would create a higher quality product.

We would become vertically integrated: sourcing, roasting and retailing our own product, achieving higher quality. So that was the idea and involved the concept of on-site roasting.

Was it always coffee for you or were there any other contenders?

It was always going to be coffee although I have always been a wine lover too, which helped massively. There are common angles between coffee and wine. Both are by-products of mother earth and both need to be treated in a certain way, so there was that kind of heritage there. But there was no market opportunity with wine in the way that there was with coffee. There was a chance to redefine a coffee shop by roasting onsite and demonstrating to the customer.

Before you started, did you already have a network of ‘coffee’ contacts?

I did a lot of research but I did not have any contacts in the industry. Fortunately, I have managed to persuade certain key people in London that specialised in coffee to come and work for Workshop. We started with a very basic franchise relationship with an Australian company. This did not work but we have discovered that we have actually got pretty good at sourcing and roasting coffee ourselves.

Did you put together a team before you went into building the business or found people along the way?

It was whilst it was all happening. I basically recruited the team as I was going through the opening stage. It is always ‘chicken and egg’ when you set up a business. You just have to start somewhere and the key point for me was finding the right site to fulfil the vision of what it was that I wanted to do.

People always wonder about funding the first steps. How did you go about it? Do you have any tips?

Family and friends but also EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme) is very good. That is where an investor gets a tax relief on the equity that they invest. It is a very good scheme and a very good source to raise capital.

I am sure you have faced many challenges along the way, could you talk about some of them? What helped you to keep going and not give up?

Well, perseverance is normally the name of the game. It is the highs and the lows. You have big highs and you have very bad lows, which is the nature of the way it is. That is an enormous challenge but once you realise how it works you can kind of manage it.

So, the two key elements are doing your homework and perseverance. You have to believe in what you do and you have to enjoy it. I was very lucky to meet some great people that helped me, people from the industry who wanted to come and work for the company. This was a big thing.

One of the greatest challenges is recruiting the right people and putting them in the right positions in the company. If you get that wrong it is very difficult to recover from it in the early stages. You have got to have the right people in the right positions.

What do you feel was the main component that has contributed to the success of the company?

There are three parts to this. We were always a product led business. We have always believed in product above anything else. We did not care about promotion and gimmicky advertising. We never did any of that. We believed that if we could source, roast and sell the most delicious coffee that we could find, that would solve a lot of our problems.

The key for us was getting our product right. We then became vertically integrated by definition. As a result we carved out a very niche part of the London coffee scene. There were people that were sourcing and roasting but not retailing, there were people who were retailing but not sourcing and roasting. We were doing everything, so we were totally integrated. I think that is an enormous part of our success.

I think the by-product of that was that we were able to then attract fantastic people to come and work for us. I think our biggest success is that we have pioneered jobs for people who wanted to have a career in coffee. If you wanted to work in coffee 6 -8 years ago, you could not really do it. Now you can have a career in coffee.

Who inspired you?

I think I always wanted to set up my own business. I wanted to create something. I never really enjoyed working for other people. Also, my career started at a time when there were not really many opportunities so I had to take matters into my own hands. I was around 26, the market for a chartered surveyor was limited and I felt like I would much rather get involved in a small emerging industry and become an entrepreneur in that space than struggle for survival in the corporate world.

What is next for Workshop Coffee?

We have 60 people at the moment and we are growing at a very good rate. We are looking for a new facility that would enable us to roast more coffee. We want to expand, opening 3-4 dedicated coffee bars around West and Central London and possibly the City. This will take us to around 7-8 coffee bars in London plus our café and roasting facility, and then possibly international expansion as well.

Any advice you can give to people that are thinking of starting they own business?

Normally success is a by-product of doing what it is you want to do. If you have a business idea and it feels good when you wake up in the morning even though you don’t know if you can make a success out of it, then you would probably make it a success eventually. If you get up in the morning and you don’t want to get out of bed, you probably have got a problem.

 

Anna Ryzhenkova is a former Business Development/Sales professional who has joined the Escape Community as she has left the corporate world is search of new challenges.

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