A Bootstrappers Beginnings
Seth Stevens, owner of the successful fund raising company, Your Cup Counts, came to have the entrepreneurial spirit pretty naturally. His mother was flipping houses long before it became such a popular business. His father is an accomplished country song writer and his grandfather, in addition to being a pastor at 3 different churches, was an expert piano tuner on the side.
Seth met his wife Heather while attending college in Georgia and they eventually married and moved to the Charlotte, North Carolina area, serving as youth pastors. It was here that Seth discovered his love of coffee, or more precisely, the common bond the humble bean could create in social settings.
He discovered that even though he had an office at the church building, the traditional location for counselling and relationship building, it was the local coffee shop that created the real relationships with his students. So it was here that his vision of a community hub, the coffee shop, was born.
Building the Dream
In 2000, Seth and Heather moved to Boiling Springs, North Carolina, to head up discipleship retreats for a local ministry. Home to Gardner Webb University, they saw right away that this small town would be an ideal place to make the coffee shop dream a reality. Withing 9 months, an investor was found, leases were signed and construction was underway and Broad River Coffee Company was born November, 2001.
It wasn't long before it became apparent that their investor's business values weren't in alignment with their own and they parted ways. They pulled out of the deal and repayed the investment. Before their dream had barely gotten off the ground, amidst the trumoil of 9/11, Seth found himself on uncertain ground both personally and professionally.
In debt to the contractors, they had no choice but to seek out other sources of funding. The Small Business Administration authorized a loan with a local bank and the business was able to move forward. With the support of friends and the local community, the business slowly began to take shape. Friends pitched in with everything from demolition to laying tile and the once uncertain decisions to move forward melted away.
Not So Smooth Sailing
As spring bloomed into summer, the doors opened, the coffee flowed and they finally had their coffee shop. With focus and determination and a lot of hours, they went about building the business. In hindsight, they could see that after that first summer he should have thrown in the towel but was too "dumb" to know it. Fourteen hour days and $100 in sales was not the business formula they had envisioned and the $700 per month power bill ate up any income and then some.
Without the support of their family, friends and the community, they would not been able to keep the dream alive. Seth recalls the day an elderly customer leaned over the counter..."Do you need any money to help grow your business? I want to help." She invested in their first coffee roaster and Broad River Coffee Company began roasting their own coffee.
Even with his wife's full time teaching salary, they still had to find other ways to support the business till they could bring in enough business to survive. His mother, Lynn, moved to town and together they did whatever they could to bring in some income. They were lucky enough to land some catering jobs for local pharmaceutical companies and would often get up at 4 in the morning to fill orders. She would prepare orders with their only oven and a hot plate while Seth would roast beans on his single roaster.
Turning the Corner
It took about 2 years for the business to become stable. Seth learned a lot about coffee, business and the importance of even seemingly small decisions.
Seth recalls one of the most important decisions he made:
"We started roasting coffee as a strategic move to take more control of our finances and, equally important, our coffee quality for our customers. Roasting lowered our cost of goods by 40-50% depending on the bean. However, the decision came with trade offs. The most basic and important one is that I had to divide my time and learn new skills that were not directly related to the retail operation. Time is absolutely the most valuable commodity we have. Business people I run into think that their time isn’t valuable..but your time must be managed for max effectiveness where it matters."
With his hard earned business knowledge, Seth was able to successfully open a second shop with a 3 year licensing deal. He learned yet another valuable lesson from this new growth: absentee investors aren't as into "dreams" as they are into making the most profit as easy as possible. The investors eventually determined they could make just as much if not more profit from simply renting the space where the shop was located. The 3 year contract expired and they went there separate ways.
He decided to continue on his own and eventually opened his second company owned store in Shelby, North Carolina, about 20 minutes from his first shop. Additionally, he partnered with an investor in a neighboring county supplying beans and supplies under a licensing deal. That part of the company is still thriving today.
A New Dream
It was 2007, and Broad River Coffee Company had 6 years of struggle, growth and knowledge under its belt. Seth and Heather now found themselves thinking of another dream and felt confident that it would be more successfull and have more of a social impact than their original dream. The new dream would come to be "Your Cup Counts". Seth saw a huge need in the non profit community for a long term, more profitable and better marketed fund raising tool.
This dream came with its own set of hurdles and learning curves. A website was created, plans were made and by 2008 the sale of the 2 coffee shops was completed and Seth was left with a pretty stable wholesale roasting business and an exciting new dream. But a year or so after the sale and working on Your Cup Counts, he took a position heading up a local non profit to keep the income flowing. The wholesale business became stagnant and the new dream languished.
In 2010 he resigned his position with the non profit and focused all of his time and energy on building Broad River Roasting, www.broadriverroasters.com, the wholesale business. Once the roasting business was once again stable and growing, he turned his full attention to Your Cup Counts, www.yourcupcounts.com. After rebuilding the concept from the ground up, it was re-launched in September, 2013.
Growing the Dream
Your Cup Counts took off quickly and in an effort to increase the value to customers and keep the concept progressive, Seth invested heavily in commercial printing equipment. Custom branding allowed their clients the opportunity to "brand" their coffee beans with commercial quality labeling
and greatly increased the company's reach.
In January, 2015, the company will launch a new web application that will allow fund raising clients the ability to create their own catalog of products and design full color, commercial grade labeling for those products. Seth feels that this strategic move will cement their place as the #1 provider of quality products with high profit margins for small and large fund raising projects.
With diligent preparation throughout the past year, the company will invest heavily in facilities, packaging processes and state of the art roasting equipment througout 2015. He believes the next 2 years will see the company rise to a value of at least $4 million and with the strong foundation that supports it, the future of the company looks promising.
Coffee for kids!
Seth shares what he considers the most important lessons he has learned over the last few years.
"The biggest obstacles that we had were the following..in order of how important I think they were:
I was under capitalized from the beginning. This is something you hear about as a hazard for new businesses, but I have come to believe that it is the #1 reason that most new businesses don’t succeed. Vision, creativity and execution are nothing if you are sucking air everyday and bouncing checks. You need to have flexibility to make necessary decisions and you are crippled if you don’t have cash (this is true of established businesses as well!)
Location is not just about the physical place (i.e. how it looks, will it function, etc). I came to realize that I could create an incredible environment, offer the best product and service, etc...but if my town dies for 3 months in the summer, Fall Break, Spring Break, Christmas Break, etc because the college students all go home, then I am going to have a hard time building a coffee business. The location has to have a population and a cash plan that will support it during the dry times.
Product Mix matters. It is very tempting to try to offer as many products as possible to meet every customer’s needs but that, generally, is a fallacy. It is very expensive and a cash drain to offer a huge menu of items unless those items are made from a core base of common products. It is better to be amazing at a few things and be known for that (as long as people actually want those products)."
He welcomes feedback and loves to share what he has learned on his journey and especially what the future holds...
"People can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @yourcupcounts to discuss anything related to this article.”