Wake up and sell the coffee: The story of Coffee Nation

Books: The Coffee Nation founder deserves credit for revolutionising his market, and his hard-won lessons should help many a start-up, says reviewer Charlotte Knight.

by Charlotte Knight
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2014

This was on my holiday reading list as I headed to South Africa, along with the latest William Boyd novel. A real case of Yin and Yang.

Wake Up and Sell the Coffee! is the story of Coffee Nation, the self-service coffee company that grew up serving decent coffee in petrol forecourts. It is better known in its new incarnation, Costa Express, the company that it was eventually acquired by.

As a New Zealander and coffee junkie, I'm always on the lookout for a good latte and was an early adopter of Coffee Nation when it appeared in the late 1990s. Anyone who has played a part in the UK coffee revolution wins my vote and I was keen to read the story behind the brand.

At this point, a confession is in order. Like a lot of entrepreneurs who may be interested in reading this book, I have a pretty short attention span and have a habit of reading from back to front and skipping huge chunks. How would I fare with this book (not short, I might add, at 270 pages with no pictures)?

First and foremost, Wake Up and Sell the Coffee! follows the personal journey of Coffee Nation founder Martyn Dawes, whose idea for the business came from a combination of seeing how popular takeaway coffee was in convenience stores in New York and reading about the business model of a photocopier company in the late 1990s.

Dawes comes across as likeable and interesting. Having started a branded business myself, the two qualities that I feel most define entrepreneurship are resilience and optimism. Dawes is clearly resilient.

His book relates the struggles of the early years: the enormous efforts in getting the product right; the problems with raising finance; the two steps forward, one step back. What doesn't come across is the infectious optimism that characterises real winners.

I rather got the sense that Dawes was a somewhat reluctant entrepreneur, weighed down by responsibility. I have no doubt that he believed in the potential of his business but one comes away with a sense that he was falling short of his own expectations.

I kept thinking, OK, Martyn, now you've got this and that sorted, you can start having some fun, and would come away wishing he could enjoy himself more.

What I really admire about the book is the structure and discipline. Dawes wrote it with the intention of encouraging more British start-ups to build and sell a high-growth business. He's trying to help people in the same boat - and he succeeds.

His end-of-chapter summaries are really useful; I found myself nodding to most of his conclusions. Readers who are about to embark on a similar perilous entrepreneurial journey will really benefit from his insights.

It's easy to forget now how bad the coffee was in this country. I remember arriving from New Zealand 13 years ago and things were desperate. I craved a flat white and couldn't get one anywhere!

Through Dawes's relentless pursuit of a machine that offered ATM convenience and fresh ground coffee, he moved the goalposts. I don't think he focused enough on his brand but he was a game-changer on the product front. His £23m exit is testament to that innovation.

What niggled me a bit was his deference to his chairman and board on most big decisions. I've never been one for management by committee. Surely one of the few luxuries of starting a business is being able to make decisions yourself and just get on with it? Maybe Dawes had over-demanding shareholders - it's difficult to tell - but halfway through the book I did want to give him a good shake!

Despite all this, I strongly identify with Martyn's journey and I can see many parallels with my own business, G'NOSH. We are moving chilled savoury dips to a different level and I have a vision of transforming a small market through real innovation. I've encountered similar obstacles but believe that commitment to product quality and sheer bloodymindedness will pay off.

High five to Martyn for his part in nudging the Great British consumer to love proper coffee, and hats off to him for sharing his entrepreneurial lessons with the rest of us. One final request to the author: can your next book be a bit shorter, please?

Now where's that William Boyd?

- Charlotte Knight is the founder of gourmet dips brand G'NOSH

BOOK

Wake Up and Sell the Coffee!

Martyn Dawes

Harriman House, £14.99

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