Catalyst Trade started out scrappy, the way you start a band with your friends pretty much based on who’s got what gear. Got a drum kit? Okay, you’re the drummer.
You get the kit and the bass stack and your solitary guitar amp all situated around the mess in your garage, you figure out a dope name to call yourself, and then… you start playing music. You throw down that sweet riff that’s been bugging you all year, and you hold your breath til you hear what happens when the others get their hands on it and together you start shaping it into something with a real vibe to it.
It’s not easy, but things start working. You look at your friends and they look back at you, and you all smile. You don’t need cool hairstyles; you’ve got good music.
Now, you’ve got to figure out how to build an audience, play live, record albums, tour, and all this while trying to have a life on the side.
It’s a hell of a life, but you wouldn’t trade it for anything involving benefits and steady hours.
Given how much time Michael and I spend playing music in our basement (and how many failed bands we’ve both joined), the music metaphor is painfully apt for our approach to the coffee industry. Years ago, the two of us were just twenty-somethings from Kansas City with a new baby and lots of hope that we could somehow make a difference in the world of coffee while we tried to build a life together.
Truth is, like so many of our peers, we’ve been growing up while building our business. When we moved to Ethiopia in 2016 and dedicated our focus to the country that had opened its arms and embraced us with absolute love, we still saw so much of coffee business through an idealistic lens that overly romanticized everything from sunburn—if you got it on a coffee site—to culture shock.
We made a lot of mistakes. Most of them, in my opinion, can now be analyzed as real ignorance paired with relentless optimism. We thought that if we worked hard enough, tried hard enough, and believed enough, ANYTHING was possible. Bad business models would make money; doomed partnerships would thrive; unethical people around us could become ethical, if only we had faith.
We gathered partners over the years like band mates: you’ve got a direct connection to coffee and a need that we can fill? OK, let’s work together! You’re using the same words to describe your goals that we are? We’re destined to do great things together. You’re willing to pay us to work for you? Oh my gosh, we’ll mortgage our future for you!
It’s been a tough, but meaningful handful of years, beginning perhaps with the founding of our consulting company in 2014. Over and over we took hits of every kind that nearly derailed us. We kept looking at each other and saying, let’s try harder. We’ve got to keep the band together!
Core Values to the Rescue!
Neither of us came from business backgrounds (I was a music teacher and Michael a seminary dropout before coffee), and given what I’ve learned of the way business is generally done in the United States and elsewhere, I’m not sure that would have shortened our learning curve. There is no substitute for time behind the bar.
In 2017 we had lunch with a good friend and fellow business person. We shared how much trouble we were having making a gnarly high-stakes decision with lots of complexity and instead of helping us pro and con it over our chips and salsa like we’d been doing for weeks, he asked us, “Have you considered how it compares to your core values?”
“Core values?” We aren’t clueless. We knew what that meant. But he was using those words in a new way to us.
“I compare every decision to my core values,” he said. “Helps me make sure I’m on target.”
We took the rest of the day to write down our Core Values and—being the systematic nut that I am—I created a one-page Decision Making Template which revolutionized our business and, a few years later, I believe is the single most important tool we have ever built. Since then we have experienced increasing success by any metric we would choose.
We began to make calls that were cohesive with our stated goals; we also discussed those goals a lot more. We still made a lot of mistakes, but it became easier to identify them and pivot our business model in time to recover. The unique business we built grew, and thrived, and grew, until we founded Catalyst Trade with a few bandmates who had cool metaphorical music gear. And here we are, all of us, looking at a business that’s WORKING, that’s growing, and that has a real future.
How to Scale a Business the Right Way
You know which problem is most on my mind as Catalyst Trade’s General Manager? Good Growth. That’s what I’m thinking about right now. How can we take the unique, extremely high-quality business we’ve developed, and grow it without devolving into greed, chaos, or just plain old cookie-cutter patterns?
How can we:
Reach more producers while keeping our relationship and quality control standards extremely high?
Serve more customers while continuing to drive greater success for our current customers, with whom we’ve grown over the years and many of whom are our personal friends.
Make the challenging transition from bootstraps to enterprise without compromising the ethics and personal interactions we’ve built?
Grow our profit margins without succumbing to short term thinking and plain old ugly GREED?
Deepen our commitment to serving each stakeholder in the supply chain better, every damn year?
Core Values as the Foundation of Everything
It’s possible to write a ton of music without any idea of the music theory behind your songs. It’s possible to sort of intuitively create some really cool stuff. And it’s absolutely feasible to throw a ton of musical styles together and see what floats to the surface in your garage.
How does this haphazard approach stack up when the pressure rises though? When you’re facing the challenges of recording, dealing with music executives and shady business owners, fans, and people who aren’t fans, and you’re on the road months out of the year, what’s going to happen if you don’t know a few important things as a band?
You’d better know:
Who you are (what’s your band identity?)
Why you’re doing this (because at the end of the tour, that day job starts to look mighty tempting)
What kind of MUSIC you make
Or, I calmly posit, you’ll be screwed.
Extending the metaphor, it’s the same for businesses. A brand identity is one thing. Core Values that drive the company’s vision and strategy and decisions? That’s another.
A few years in, the business that is just a business will still be just a business. However the business that is founded on compelling Core Values and has stuck to those values will be so much more than just a business.
It will be a movement.
This is why, moving into 2020 and with strong growth forecasted for Catalyst Trade in the next few years, we are moving our Core Values to the center of our conversation in every way we can think of.
We are re-naming our product lines after our Core Values; tying every conversation we have on social media to one of our three Core Values; reviewing our Core Values at every company meeting and using an updated decision-making template to make all high-level decisions. We’re also re-designing our website on the structure of our Core Values.
In the world of coffee, just like in music, the stories of businesses and bands that fall apart long before they “make it” are endless. The stories about businesses and bands that held to their founding principles, grew with intention, and become MORE of who they were as they matured? Those are the stories I’m interested in.
That’s the kind of story we’re writing for Catalyst Trade.
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Want a copy of my Decision Making Template? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a PDF you can use for your own business.