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Developing a Career in Coffee: An Unfiltered Journey Beyond the Love for Beans

Starting a coffee career extends far beyond the love for the brew; it's a journey into the very soul of coffee culture and industry complexities. This blog post aims to peel back the layers of what it truly means to pursue a profession in coffee, grounded in the real-life experiences and lessons learned from founding Memli Coffee Lab. We'll explore the nuances of turning a passion into a viable career, navigating the challenges, and embracing the opportunities within the coffee world. From the importance of understanding the coffee economy to maintaining integrity amidst industry pressures, this guide serves as a beacon for aspiring coffee professionals. Join us as we delve into a candid discussion on developing a career in coffee, offering insights and a framework for those ready to take the plunge into this richly rewarding field.


It was 2016 and I still remember the words of Tim Wendelboe around the cupping table at the London coffee festival: "If you love, coffee, don't start a business in coffee". It's stuck in my head for a long time and seven years later I finally understood what it meant.


Whether you're a seasoned barista, a roaster eyeing the global stage, or an entrepreneur dreaming of your own café, this post is for you. Here, we unfold a framework for those poised to start their coffee career or business, offering a roadmap through the highs and lows, the uncertainties, and the victories. Let's dive into the heart of the coffee industry, where passion meets profession, and where every cup brewed is a story waiting to be told.


Why You Are Starting?

The journey into the coffee industry often starts with a simple love for the drink. For me, it began with two things: hospitality, transforming the perception of coffee and life through coffee, and the complexity of flavors and the emotions it created for coffee lovers through the prism of flavors and aromas.

However, as we ventured deeper, we discovered it's not just about enjoying a cup but understanding the impact behind each sip. This realization is crucial; it's about seeing beyond the surface and recognizing coffee as a gateway to addressing larger issues like sustainability and ethical sourcing. Most of a coffee career has nothing to do with coffee. Farming, roasting, brewing, and tasting look cool and exciting; what about accounting, legal, permits, paperwork, maintenance, repairs, marketing, labeling, and shipping? These activities take more time than your passionate coffee activity.

Therefore, starting with coffee should be more than just the love and the passion for the drink, otherwise, coffee will become a love-hate relationship.


What Motivates You in Coffee?

Basically, what can you do every day even if you aren't paid for? What is in coffee that pushes you further when your energy level is low when all the odds are against you? What started as a fascination with the sensory experience of coffee evolved into a commitment to making a difference. At Memli Coffee Lab, we're driven by the potential to transform lives through coffee. From supporting sustainable farming practices to fostering community education, our motivation transcends the beverage itself. It's about leveraging coffee as a tool for positive change, aligning with our core belief that every cup has a story and an impact.


The Coffee Industry

The coffee industry is vast and multifaceted. On one side, a very collaborative, supportive community of amazing, talented, and altruist people willing to help each other and move forward for a brighter future. On the other hand, the remains of a neocolonial industry where money is the final answer on a bigger scale. Unfortunately, not the beautiful industry that you can see painted in media. As a neocolonial agricultural crop, it encompasses a lot of challenges and issues that we are yet to fix. I'd highly suggest two books for you to get to know better the coffee industry: cheap coffee and the business of specialty coffee.

When I first delved into this world, I was struck by its complexity. Memli Coffee Lab was born out of a desire to navigate this industry with integrity. We've faced challenges, from navigating the supply chain to ensuring fair compensation for farmers. These experiences taught us that success in coffee is not just about quality products but about understanding and respecting the journey from bean to cup.


The Coffee Economy and Market

Understanding the coffee economy was a pivotal moment for us. We learned that coffee prices are not just numbers; they're indicators of the livelihoods of millions of people. In founding Memli, we committed to transparency and fairness, ensuring that our practices support not only our business but the entire supply chain. This understanding of the coffee market is not just academic; it's a moral compass guiding our decisions and actions.

Expect low margins and tough decisions. Bootstrapping, loans, getting investors? It's up to you: your situation, your aspirations, your ambition, and your plans. Stop comparing yourself to others. A coffee career is built on a very long term. It is not a cash-cow, a quick rich method you can invest yourself in.

If you're in it, expect to be in for a good decade.


Thinking to Be Unique (Realistic Unique Selling Product)

In the crowded coffee market, we all want to be unique, to have something different than the others. Unfortunately, specialty coffee is only 5% of the global market, and we are all pursuing similar values and principles to Unfortunately, specialty coffee is only 5% of the global market, and on paper, we are all pursuing similar values and principles to a degree. In reality, action does not necessarily follow words. As I always say, it's how we do anything that we do everything. If I had known this mantra when I started, I would have avoided so many mistakes and disappointments. If a partner cheats in a card game, you can be sure they may be tempted to cheat in business. This approach has required us to be both innovative and realistic, ensuring that our unique selling proposition aligns with our philosophy and our mission. It's a delicate balance but one that has allowed us to carve out a distinct space in the industry.


Uncertainties

The journey has been full of uncertainties. From crop failures to fluctuating market prices, we've learned to navigate these challenges with agility and resilience. The key has been to stay informed, adaptable, and always ready to pivot our strategies in response to the changing landscape. This ability to manage uncertainty has become one of our greatest strengths.

You cannot control what you can control so focusing on uncomfortable things is useless and bound to create anxiety and stress. Instead, focus on what you have in control. For example, you can't control the rain but you can control how you dress outside or how you react to the rain.

The universe doesn't care about you, accept and adapt.

Building Up Courage

Courage has been essential in our journey. From the decision to start Memli Coffee Lab to the choices we make every day, bravery is at the core. It's about more than just risk-taking; it's about believing in our mission and pushing forward, even when the outcome is uncertain. This courage has allowed us to innovate, to challenge the status quo, and to make a difference. Life is short, and fear is only temporary. None of us know when we will die, but we know with 100% certainty that we will die at some time. Therefore, there is no point in fearing it.


Having Skin in the Game

I first heard this expression from Nassim Taleb, which means not putting others at risk without putting yourself at risk first. Investing in Memli Coffee Lab meant more than just financial commitment; it meant putting our beliefs, our reputations, and our futures on the line. This level of investment has been critical. It's shown our partners, our customers, and ourselves that we're fully committed to our vision. This skin in the game has been a powerful motivator and a reminder of the stakes involved.


If you force people to eat their own cooking, naturally, they start cooking better.

Morale and Selling Your Soul

Maintaining morale amidst challenges has been a constant effort. There have been moments when compromising our values seemed like the only way forward. However, we've remained steadfast in our commitment to ethical practices and quality. This integrity has sometimes come at a cost, but it's a price we're willing to pay. It's about not selling your soul for short-term gains but staying true to what you believe in, no matter the challenges.

The advice "If you love coffee, you should not work in coffee" was a turning point. It underscored the importance of ego-centric altruism—pursuing one's passion while contributing to the greater good. This philosophy is at the heart of Memli Coffee Lab. We've faced moments where the path of least resistance was tempting, but our commitment to our values led us to make choices that benefited our community, our partners, and the environment, even when it was harder on us.


Conclusion

A career in coffee, as experienced through the journey of Memli Coffee Lab, is a testament to the complexities and rewards of the industry. It's about more than just a love for coffee; it's about a commitment to making a positive impact, navigating uncertainties with courage, and staying true to your values. This path is not for the faint-hearted, but for those willing to take it, it offers an opportunity to transform a passion for coffee into a force for good.


1. Define Your Why

Start by understanding your motivation. Is it the love for coffee, a desire to impact the coffee supply chain positively, or a combination of both? Defining your "why" will provide direction and purpose.


2. Educate Yourself

Knowledge is power in the coffee industry. Invest time in learning about coffee sourcing, roasting, brewing techniques, and the global coffee market. Understanding the intricacies of the coffee supply chain and market dynamics is crucial.


3. Identify Your Unique Value Proposition (UVP)

What makes your coffee business unique? Is it your sourcing ethics, your commitment to sustainability, or an innovative product or service? Your UVP will help you stand out in a competitive market.


4. Build a Resilient Business Model

Consider the economic realities of the coffee industry, including price volatility and supply chain challenges. Your business model should be resilient, ethical, and financially viable.


5. Embrace Altruism

Pursue your passion with a mindset of contributing positively to the coffee community and the world. This philosophy will guide your decisions and actions.


6. Prepare for Uncertainties

The coffee industry is subject to many uncertainties, from crop failures to market fluctuations. Develop a flexible business plan that allows you to adapt to these challenges.


7. Cultivate Courage

Starting and running a coffee business requires courage. Be prepared to take calculated risks, innovate, and push through obstacles with determination.


8. Commit Fully

Having skin in the game is about more than financial investment. It's about committing your time, energy, and passion to your coffee career or business. This commitment will be the foundation of your success.


9. Maintain Integrity

In the face of challenges, it's tempting to compromise on values for short-term gains. Resist this temptation. Integrity and ethical practices will build your reputation and ensure long-term success.


10. Seek Community and Support

The coffee community is vast and supportive. Connect with other coffee professionals, attend industry events, and seek mentorship. Building a network will provide valuable insights, opportunities, and support.


Starting a career or business in coffee is not a path to instant success but a journey of continuous learning, growth, and contribution. By following this framework, you're not just launching a business; you're becoming part of a global community that values quality, sustainability, and ethical practices. Let your passion for coffee be the catalyst for a fulfilling and impactful career in this dynamic industry.



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