I’m just catching up with my podcasts after a long vacation so StartUp‘s latest titled “Building a Perfect Cup of Coffee” really caught my attention. I really like StartUp because it provides such nuanced portraits of the business world which is a topic that really doesn’t get much of this type of coverage. Most business stories feel like promotional blurbs for CEOs, product coverage, or market reports while the real life of work and business doesn’t get its due. After all, we’re all engaged in this work thing day in, day out, so it does merit the attention! But the name – StartUp – is funny one. I suppose the term “start up” was hijacked by the technology industry over the past 20 years but even before then you’d hardly call any new business a start up. The real thing that unifies most of the business stories in this podcast isn’t that they’re classic scalable start ups but that they want to be.
I always feel that inherent tension between that name and subject but this episode made it particularly vivid because it profiles Port of Mokha, a coffee import business that is trying to grow fast with venture funding while remaining rooted in the Yemeni farmers who grow its coffee. You can’t get much more slow growth, traditional business, than importing coffee. It is quite literally a slow growing plant tended by farmers who are plugged into a very physical supply chain which ends up in your cup at places like Blue Bottle. That business story wouldn’t be out of place in Amsterdam hundreds of years ago, San Francisco’s port in the last century, or pretty much anywhere trade has ever flourished.
What’s different about StartUp’s story on Port of Mokha is that it unites an amazing founder story with venture funding pouring out of Silicon Valley investors – it really wants to explain why that cup of coffee costs $16 but never quite gets there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story, but there’s a huge missed opportunity here because the bigger story behind Port of Mokha is the iceberg, white whale, your metaphor for hidden giant here. Because the existential questions inherent in Pork of Mokha’s business are whether (and how) you can build a truly sustainable supply chain. I’m not saying this would be easy to report, Yemen is a war zone right now and this season of StartUp focuses on one business per episode, but it really feels like the bigger story is still sitting out there waiting for attention.
I want more because I’ve been working the same beat in the mezcal world at Mezcalistas. The questions of sustainability and sourcing really are existential for mezcal because if you can’t grow enough agave and plan on the crop’s maturity, you don’t have mezcal to sell 6, 8, 10 years down the line. Similar questions define the coffee world: The people growing coffee and agave share similar concerns while the baristas and bartenders serving drinks and the consumers buying them at high end cafes and bars across the globe are very concerned with making a conscious choice about their products. They want products that are produced sustainably in the belief that producers should get paid fairly and treated well in order to create a more stable and ethical world. The mezcal world has even had a version of this story.
This isn’t new, nor restricted to our little corners of the universe, but it is of growing concern. The real question isn’t simply ‘Is this coffee worth $16 a cup?’ it’s ‘How do I know that this cup of coffee is worth $16 a cup?’ Because that’s the real question about anything that has a high cost. The good news is that everyone wants to hear this story, there’s so much green washing out there that we’re in danger of devaluing it. But consumers remain concerned with this topic, producers want in on it as well, and business have been building incredible management strategies to comply. So, where’s that story in this episode? You get pieces of it but the focus is still on the company’s founder and the scalability question – ie can he grow his company to the valuation that his investors expect and not ‘how can you scale while remaining sustainable’ which is the really interesting one. Here’s an argument for more focus on the big questions behind the entrepreneurs!