The StartupNation Blog Trends, tips and real-life anecdotes from industry experts

Rick’s Magic Beans

One sunny day in Chicago, Rick Riehle decided to call it quits and go travel—there is something about the timing of this piece that makes that statement seem like a dare. It’s every office dweller’s fantasy. I can just see his fellow cube mates prairie-dogging up across the division, waiving their staplers and cheering him on with bottles of scotch from their desk drawers. People can do odd things and take all kinds of action when it’s sunny out.

“I was fortunate I went when I did because when I got back, the industry was hiring like mad, and I still had a spot.” And, before the term ‘lucky bastard’ comes to mind… “I had gone traveling with two Norwegian women and a Buddhist priest. We just sort of connected on our travels and started going to places as a group—it was fun!” I don’t know many people that can top that one on the “What I Did This Summer” list.

When I met Rick, it all seemed very logical that he was roasting coffee beans. There is something about the developer-type that ties them to caffeinated products. Perhaps it’s the night owl hours they keep or the frenetic pace at which their thoughts race.

Why coffee?  Even before his interest in technology coffee was an interest but he never thought it would be his livelihood. It’s funny though, when people soul search they always say “it was a convergence of things” that led them there—events in their lives, experiences, etc. For Rick, everything he was interested in on the side: organics and ecological awareness, travel and global awareness, cooperatives and sustainable business practices—led him to focus on coffee beans. 

The interesting thing about food, and coffee in particular, is that it is a very democratic item. Almost everyone consumes it, and by doing so forms an unconscious bond with and experiences the essence of another culture. Even (dare I say) instant coffee or a cheap cup from a local gas station has a (albeit loose) connection to another place—to where, I cannot guess.

Coffee connects the diverse cultures of producing regions with the café cultures of consuming regions.  It was the first commodity to have a Fair Trade certification. “Coffee draws attention to global economic and social disparities, yet it does so without the hard edge of, say, textiles and sweatshops. It is something that divides us yet pulls us together.”

Rick started his business with funds from his local Nest Egg and just recently turned the corner of breaking even. For everyone who has not experienced that yet, he can in fact confirm for you: Angels do come and sing, the sun shines more, and everyone smells of freshly cut grass. Ed McMahon does not appear with an oversized check though. So Rick plods along like everyone else, but with a lighter step because HE is The Man he is working for.

About Rick
A former developer and systems integrator, Rick has a very calm intensity that doesn’t belie the wheels are always turning while he is talking to you. I read his blog and came across a post where he is mentoring someone looking to start a coffee cart, and it’s clear he is a model-the-way kinda guy. Rick gives the kind of advice he’s learned by doing things himself.

  • “Learn as much as you can about coffee and the coffee business. The more you know about coffee the more you’ll be a resource for your customers.”
  • “Find employees who are interested in coffee for coffee’s sake. Find employees who like to share their knowledge and experience with others.”
  • “Taste coffee from as many sources as possible. Ask roasting companies about their practices. Please yourself first – find the coffees that you like – and don’t worry so much at the start about pleasing your customers. If you like the coffee and you know something about how it was produced and roasted, then you’ll know why you like the coffee and you’ll be able to explain it to your customers.”

About Pangaea
Pronounced pan-GEE-ah, the name comes from a period when the continents of the earth were together as one continuous land mass, a supercontinent called Pangaea. “Pangaea” has its roots in ancient Greek: παν, pan, meaning entire, and γαια, gaia, meaning earth. For [the company] Pangaea invokes ideas of connection and relationship. What is done in one place has an impact in another.

Things are done a little differently…. Pangaea is an employee owned cooperative, a business owned and democratically controlled by its members, and whose primary goal is to serve their members’ economic interests.

If cooperatives were people, they would not be Trump, they would be Greenleaf: economically self-sustaining and able to turn a profit like any other businesses, but whose primary purpose is service, not profit. The distinctions in purpose, along with the core principles under which they operate, render cooperatives the businesses equivalents of egalitarian states. Abstract and idealistic, perhaps.

How Do They Give Back?
Pangaea operates from a simple, yet core set of principles: our coffee is 100% Organic and 100% Fair Trade. (That amounts to 200% of something…taste, I imagine.)

On top of that Pangaea donates coffee chaff to neighborhood gardeners and Seattle Tilth for use as an organic fertilizer and mulch. Their biggest contribution stems from their structure as a cooperative and the effect it will have in their stakeholders’ lives.

A bit about Fair Trade:
Fair trade is social, market-based movement focused on reducing global poverty and promoting sustainability. The approach advocates the payment of a “fair price” for items adhering to social and environmental standards in areas related to the production of a wide variety of goods. Most consumers will recognize the fair trade concept in conjunction with handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit, and flowers.

Fair Trade deliberately targets relationships with producers and workers who operate in a marginal area of society (and the global market) in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability greater economic self-sufficiency. Some argue that programs supporting fair trade are subsidizing others think that it’s looking at trade from a more holistic perspective.   More

Espresso Shot Insights (what’s this?)
• Redefine Balance
• Model the Business You Want
• Think Long Term

Redefine Balance
“Yesterday I had a slow morning and it was sunny – so I went sailing; I never could have done that with a normal job.” I thought a moment…even with flex hours, I have to confirm that I would never be able to walk in with a straight face and say I was working from home; but I also don’t fare well at poker. He was right. “I take care of personal things when it’s most efficient to deal with them [during my work day]. Sometimes that has me doing dishes at 1am and doing a face plant later, sometimes it has me taking a really relaxing walk through a park on my way to deliver an order—and I like that variety.”

There is that ‘time is money’ and ‘work will always be there’ but “if you get focused on little clichés like that, you don’t get to step back and enjoy that you get to take your time” [doing the things the make life great.] “I no longer make a distinction between my business or personal life” he delivers an order, gets his groceries and it’s more of a logistics issue than respecting time blocks.

While clichés are true for a reason, Rick raises a valid point in not getting too trapped in such language.

Model The Business You Want
People in a coop unite voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. “There is a misconception that coops are hippy throwback organizations, that they aren’t there to make money.” He has a point, people do think that—including me to some degree.

Blame it on having parents who knew how to say “no” or blame it on big company experience—I just don’t understand how you can rely on “a collective” to make decisions which affect the economic potential of a business, where’s the leadership coming from? It gives me a light case of hives just thinking about it. I suppose that is why a few years ago I started purchasing books on servant leadership and stopped buying books by Jack Welch.

However, there are policies and processes in place that can mitigate the actions of those who would lead the organization off of a cliff—like any other non profit or for profit board would.

“The middle class has been hit hard by things like the policies of supply-side economics. Obviously, the economy now is a very big complex thing and no one can point to any one cause, but those were certainly contributing dynamics.” Coops are designed to mitigate those factors. Without the movement and standards of fair trade there would be no pressure to do anything differently.   

Communication and information sharing are ways to affect change. One example Rick sited was from the documentary Black Gold: The farmers in the Andes were getting gouged and were not aware of what coffee costs. They don’t have access to market information. They have no idea that a cup of coffee goes for 3$ a cup.  Someone is standing in the middle of the village speaking to [coffee growers] in their native language asking questions like ‘what do you think the cup of coffee is in Europe?’ There is a silence. Basically, when they find out there are the rumblings for a revolution.”

A powerful clip to show in any boardroom these days, given the delta in pay between the average CEO and his C-class (directs) has gone from 80% to over 160%.

[So-many-thoughts-on-this-but-must-focus.]

Think Long Term
Having a clear vision of the kind of life you want to achieve is the surest way to path to getting there. While working on his current business, he thinks about what he’d like to do in the future. “I have lots of things I would like to do. I would like to get the company to a point where I can be flexible to do other things, like to teach liberal arts related subjects at a college. I also want to be aware enough to move on and not suffer founder syndrome.

As Pangaea grows Rick would like to draw more attention to the cooperative model. “Cooperatives are vastly more robust and prevalent than most people realize—if taken as a group they would represent the ninth largest economy in the world—yet they are still overlooked and misunderstood.” Rick would like to make his effort as practical as possible—somewhat of a blueprint. I have a feeling his experiences, if he documents them, will make interesting case studies for future students to play out and debate.

Parting Words…

  • My most rewarding business moment was when I didn’t have to fund the business this month. I would other rewarding moments are when I get a compliment on the quality of the coffee.
  • My scariest business moment was when a component of a roaster failed two days before a tradeshow. I spent most of the day catching up on roasting to get ready for the show. Making that deadline was stressful, but the rest of the day was a breeze – there are a lot of big ups and downs.
  • Every entrepreneur should drop the word “should.”
  • Success to me means living a deliberate, considered life. Finding balance and happiness while doing something you like.
About the Author: Christine Haskell

Christine is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft with several years experience in the .com industry. She recently started social venture labs, an idea incubator for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and [...]