When you’re trying to raise funding for your business in the middle of a global pandemic, sometimes you have to do something a little off the wall to get noticed.
For Community Bean Coffee founder Nathan Stone, that meant spending 22 days walking, working, eating and sleeping on a human-sized hamster wheel that powered a coffee grinder, and live-streaming the whole thing.
More than 300km later, he had raised $10,445 to get his ethical business off the ground.
Community Bean is a coffee brand with sustainability roasted into every stage.
Beans are ethically sourced (either Rainforest Alliance-certified or sourced directly from the growers), packaging is sustainable and home-compostable, the courier partner is carbon-neutral, and the inks used in all materials are soy-based and non-toxic.
“We’re going as neutral as we possibly can to make sure we’re sustainable from end to end,” Stone tells SmartCompany.
At the same time, the founder wanted to build a business that gave something back to the Australian community.
For every kilo of coffee sold, Community Beans donates $2 dollars to an Aussie charity, depending on which blend you buy. One blend sees dollars donated to Foodbank Australia, another directs funds towards a charity dedicated to taking plastics out of the ocean.
For the third blend, $2 per kilo goes towards a charity that uses recycled sports equipment to help teach health and fitness skills to underprivileged children, including in First Nations communities.
The business brings a string of Stone’s passions together — coffee, sustainability and charity and giving back to communities.
It’s also something he’s been thinking about for some two years. But, in February, he found himself jobless due to COVID-19.
“I thought this was a good opportunity for me, just to go back to producing something I actually cared about … something that would make an impact.”
Stone had the idea, the time and the passion, but he needed the funds to get Community Bean off the ground, and turned to crowdfunding.
But, getting people on board for a coffee business during an economic crisis requires a little pizzazz.
“I knew no one was going to care about sustainable coffee overnight,” he says.
“Hence why the hamster wheel came about,” he adds.
“If I could grind coffee, live-stream the whole thing, and grind it out until they started caring, that was what was going to make an impact.”
The campaign actually had a $30,000 maximum target, although Stone admits he was “probably overshooting”.
But, he did raise more than $10,000, and that’s plenty to get the business on its feet.
The daily grind
Stone spent a total of 22 days on the human hamster wheel. When he started, he expected one of two things to happen: either the campaign would hit its goal within a few days, or his body would give up on him after five days or so.
Actually, the campaign didn’t pick up steam quite in the way he’d hoped. But, his body lasted much longer than predicted.
While the first two or three days were “fantastic”, that early joy was to be short-lived, he says.
“The first two to three days were fantastic,” he says.
“Days four to seven were really, really hard. My body was breaking down, my ankles were swollen, sleeping on the wheel was super uncomfortable,” he recalls.
He was also spending 12 hours a day alone in the coffee factory.
“Just walking continuously even if no one’s watching was really, really difficult, mentally. And physically I was in a lot of pain, too.”
After day eight, however, things turned around again.
“I started to walk backwards,” Stone says.
“It put a lot less stress through my knees and ankles.”
That revelation allowed him to continue for another full ten days, before the pain came back.
“I was getting dizzy spells, I was not remembering things,” he says.
Ultimately, on day 22, he had to get off the wheel and seek medical assistance.
“In hindsight, I probably could have done it a bit differently, but it was fun,” the founder says.
“It was painful … but here I am, still standing.”
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Stone may not have raised the $30,000 he was hoping for, but the $10,000 cash injection allowed the business to make a bulk purchase of ethically-sourced coffee, as well as its compostable bags. It also covered the cost of setting up a website, and some other admin fees.
The human hamster wheel scheme also served to spread the word about Community Bean. One of Stone’s TikTok videos got more than 800,000 views.
Now, he’s focusing on gaining traction in a difficult market and at a difficult time.
It may have been the thing that spurred Stone into action and brought Community Bean to life, but just as COVID-19 has disrupted everything else, it’s also, unthinkably, changed the way Aussies consume coffee.
Between bushfires, the pandemic and the economic crisis, cafes are struggling. In Victoria, they’re still only able to open for takeaway, and in Metropolitan Melbourne the strict lockdown doesn’t make things any easier.
At the same time, people are still working — and getting their caffeine fixes — at home.
It’s a trend Stone is feeling the effects of.
People from all over the country are ordering bags of beans for home consumption. The founder has also had some success getting the product into those offices that still have staff on site.
“It’s really easy for them to just change suppliers in order to be sustainable,” Stone notes.
But, cafes have been “hesitant”, he says.
“They’re worried about keeping their business afloat right now.”
With any luck, as the worst of the crisis passes, more small businesses will be able to think about diversifying their coffee offerings.
But, in the meantime, Stone is planning to narrow his target market.
“There are cafe owners who are very environmentally focused, you’ve got organic cafes out there,” he notes.
“I think it’s about finding our niche in the cafe world.”
Ultimately, Stone has a vision of acting as a consultant to cafes, helping them to operate as sustainably as possible. He also dreams of opening up his own chain of no-waste establishments.
“I was working in a cafe 12 months ago, and I could see the amount of food waste, and waste in general, that was being produced,” he explains.
Some 250,000 tons of waste from cafes and restaurants end up in landfill each year, he says. Of that, between 50% and 80% could have been diverted from landfill and composted.
“I’d like to use coffee as a tool to teach businesses and cafes how to be more sustainable in their approach to waste management. That’s what we’re all about.”