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Interview with Roastworks Coffee – Building A Brand

Interview with Roastworks Coffee – Building A Brand

Photographs by PIP ANDERSEN

At 33, Will Little; down to earth and humble as you like, heads up a Devon based coffee company that exports to ten countries across the globe. Despite their success, it’s not about the money he tells editor Tracey Duke.

On a beautiful summer’s evening, Will Little and I meet for coffee and a beer in Exeter’s oh so hipster; Hotel Du Vin.  With his jeans, trainers, floppy hair, beautiful English accent and deep rooted core values, he’s about as far from the corporate image as you can get.

So tell me about you Will. How did you find yourself MD of Little’s Coffee at just 27?  How did your journey start?

Ok, so I was born in Finland, in 1984, to a Finnish mum and an American Dad; they’d met at college, in Sweden, back in the late 70s.

I was probably about 3 or 4 years old, when they decided to start a coffee roasting business. We were living, at the time, in Finland but in the winters we would fly to California and head up to Palo Alto, where my Dad had an uncle, to escape the horrid, depressing Finnish winter. We’d spend maybe a month at a time there.

I remember my parents telling me that they used to go and visit some of the new, up-and-coming artisan (coffee) producers, while they were in Silicon Valley.  At the time, and this is like the mid to late 80’s, there were loads of what I guess you’d call ‘ex hippies’, pretty much, who had gone into organic farming or baking or coffee roasting or whatever and in the Bay Area (San Fransisco) especially, there was a bit of a food Renaissance going on. It was a very organic, ex hippy, kind of thing and they were really inspired. They weren’t really hippies themselves, but they had that sort of vibe; they were alive in the 60’s.

One year they came back and they were like, ‘we’re gonna pack in our day jobs and start roasting coffee like these guys in California’. They bought this Coffee Roastery, that was going out of business, for 33,000 Finn Marks; the equivalent of £3000 or something.

Fast forward the clock to 1995 and they’re ready to broaden their horizons.  I think my parents have always had a slight nomadic approach to life, in that home is where the heart is; it’s not necessarily a fixed location. Hence the fact that my Dad moved from upstate New York, to Sweden to Finland; they were quite open to idea of moving around.

We decided, as a family to move to England in 1995; partly to progress the business and partly because it was just something to do. I was 11 when we moved here, to Kingsteignton; they moved the Roastery to Heathfield and I went to Teign School.

Is that when you became interested in coffee?

Honestly, I didn’t really have any interest in coffee at all.  What your parents do, is rarely what you think you’ll do; it’s not usually very cool. When I had opportunity, I jumped ship and went to Exeter College to study graphics.  That’s where I met my wife; Caroline.

Oh really!  It’s amazing how many business owners started out in graphics.

For sure. We both studied graphics; I ended up with a D and she got an A, but I was the one who ended up the graphic designer! But hey! So I went to college and then went on to Farnham in Surrey; it’s a specialist art and design Uni. Caroline actually went to a different uni at first; she went to Ravensborne. She didn’t really get on there, so decided to move to the same university I was at, but a different site. She was in Epsom and I was in Farnham; about 30 miles away from each other.

What came after Uni for you?

When I first graduated I worked, for a while, as a music & media technician at a school. I thought, maybe, that I wanted to be a teacher at one point, but realised pretty quickly that I felt too young to teach. I didn’t feel that I should get to tell a child what to do, when I was only a couple of years older than them myself.  I figured that if I was going to teach, it would be later in life.

I packed that job in and managed to land myself an internship at a Graphic Design Studio that a brother of a friend worked at. It was just one of those random things; you know how sometimes you have a conversation with someone and then it leads to something else.  I got a phone call, out of the blue, from this guy saying; “oh you met me the other week.  We’re looking for an intern and you said you quite liked graphic design” and I was just like ‘sure thing’.

I ended up spending three weeks there during my summer break and I loved it! They then offered me a job as a Graphic Designer, working in the Tower Bridge area of London.  Caroline & I were both working in creative jobs which we stuck at for about three years.

Living in London was all good for a while, but eventually we got to the point where I was starting to get annoyed with the commute (we lived in Streatham) and it was all really beginning to grate on us. This is all around 2009/2010.

So basically what happened, is that around the corner from where I worked, was a Coffee Roastery; Monmouth.  These guys have been around since the 70s; they’re really very well respected. They had their Roastery on Hanbury Street, which is really near to where my office was; their cafe was just down the road in Borough Market.  I started going into the cafe, pretty regularly and I’m really starting to rediscover coffee for myself at this point.

The thing was, their coffee was cool and these guys were really cool. It wasn’t like my parents; it was like really cool people making great coffee.

What was really interesting though, and bear in mind that I really didn’t know that much about coffee back then, is that I always remember my Dad going on about how, back in the 90s, he’d be sitting around a dinner table cursing the fact that everyone was drinking burnt Espresso; I remember him getting really irate about the fact that everyone was drinking ‘burnt Italian style crap’; oily and dark. He was adamant that that wasn’t how it was supposed to be and that they were ruining the flavour of the coffee.  Seriously, this is what my parents used to talk about!

Obviously I was aware of Costa and Starbucks, as I was going through Uni and working in London, but it wasn’t until I went into Monmouth, that I realised there was another company in London, roasting a similar kind of coffee that my parents were roasting; ie lighter roast, single origin coffee. The difference is that they were really cool about it.  I realised that these guys were doing what my parents are doing and that maybe there was actually some logic to what my Dad had been saying.

That was the turning point in your career then?

For sure; that’s when things started falling into place and I started getting interested in coffee again.

The whole London thing was grating on us, more and more. I remember one Summer, we were just having a really crappy time.  We got burgled and that sent us on a bit of a downward spin. They stole all our Macs and stuff; the whole thing was just really rotten.

I was getting a bit annoyed with work too.  I worked for this really great small, boutique, Graphic Design studio specialising in the computer games industry and property. I was working with CBRE** and Knight Frank; when Park Lane was sold, I designed the brochure for it. It was great, really great, work, but I got to the point where I realised I didn’t want to be slaving away for someone else’s cause.

I like the challenge of doing something well and I like winning the pitch, but it bothered me that, essentially, I knew that my boss was getting richer and richer and that he was the one getting the reward, not me.  I was getting £20,000 a year, or whatever, and that bothered me; not because it was really bad money, but because I was thinking about the future.  I was thinking about where I wanted to be in 10 years time.  Ok, so it may have been £60,000 a year, but I’d still have been doing the same job and every time we’d win, as a company, I’d get a pat on the back and my boss would get a new Audi A4.  And no; that wasn’t how it was going to go down.

Is that when you made the decision to come back to Devon?

Yes; in fact here’s the full, unedited, story of how Little’s and Roast Works came together.

So basically, I was on the phone to my parents one lunchtime. I remember my mum was like ‘we’ve got this Waitrose listing’ (for Little’s) and I was like… ‘Waitrose?  That doesn’t sound right!  What Waitrose?  Ok, well that’s pretty cool’.

So, within a couple of weeks, they’re really busy supplying 40 Waitrose stores.  Comparatively that was small, to where we are now, but things had really stepped up a gear for them. Suddenly I’m thinking that my parents were really doing something quite cool and I was definitely ready to move back.

I asked my mum if she thought the business would be able to support a wage and a half; I was prepared to take a minimum wage and Caroline happy to do some freelance work, with a promise to do everything we could, to get more business through the door.

My parents were keen; they were crazy busy and they needed the help. So we moved back in August 2010 and basically jumped right in.

That was seven years ago and it’s got busier and busier to the point that we had to move factories, to Willand where we’ve now been for 18 months.

With Little’s, we’ve really spent those seven years refining and decluttering a very cluttered and idiosyncratic family business.  Whilst it had some great ideas, almost everything has needed to be sorted out; apart from the product recipes, it’s a completely different business now.

And the suppliers?  Did you keep them?

The only thing we’ve kept hold of is the suppliers and the recipes.  And now, of course, we’ve got a national listing with Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, as well as Ocado, Holland and Barrett, Wholefoods & Harvey Nicholls.  We also export to ten countries.

Yes, Little’s has grown, but the focus hasn’t really been on growth; the focus has been on taking a 30 year old family business, with some good ideas, and getting it to the point that Caroline & I can run it, without my parents there, to allow them to retire.

And so how does Roastworks fit into the picture?

I love the challenge of building a consumer brand that really talks to our customer. I love the challenge, with Little’s, that it’s a real FMCG brand; you’ve really got to get your FMCG hat on when you’re thinking about brand building, marketing and sales.  I love that but I’ve always had this niggling thing, in the back of my mind, about coffee and the discovery I’d made in London about cool people making coffee. Even though Little’s was growing, there was still something missing.

So 3 years ago I decided to buy, with my own money, a little 5kg roasting machine.  Honestly it was piece of crap;  an Italian built machine, which I bought for £5k and plonked it in the back of the old Little’s unit.  I just started experimenting and roasting a bit of coffee for a few friends of mine in Exeter.

Because I had the supermarket contacts, from Little’s, it wasn’t long before the coffee I was playing around with, ended up on the desks of buyers.

At that time, three years ago now, there wasn’t really much speciality coffee, at all, in the retail sector, so we got attention pretty easily. Before I knew it, we had listings in several farm shops, Harvey Nichols and Wholefoods. That opened the door and, about a year later, we got a listing in Marks & Spencer.  That was when the whole thing started to evolve.  It actually kind of got out of hand; we really weren’t prepared for the next phase.

A lot of people ask me whether it was a hobby and, whilst I say it was, I probably always knew I wanted to do it properly. I went into it very cautiously though; I wanted to see, completely organically, whether it would be a big hit or not.

What I didn’t want, was a business that I needed to push to work. I figured that if people loved it and it sold itself, great!  If not, I’d have pretended it was just a hobby.

But it was a success!

Fortunately/unfortunately it was a roaring success.  We were unprepared and it got completely out of hand.

At around the same time, we ran out of space in Little’s unit; so it was a good point to look at a unit for Roastworks too.  I managed to find two industrial units, next to each other, where we are now, in Willand.  One was slightly bigger than the other; perfect for Little’s and Roastworks took the other one.

And how do you feel about the future of the business?

Honestly; I feel like this is the first year of our future.  Even though we’ve been doing it for seven years, with Little’s this is the first year that we’ve actually been doing it properly right.  We’ve got a marketing function, a sales function and we’ve got people in the office helping with order processing.  We’ve got a full production team now and my parents have taken a step back from the business.

So the platform is in place.

Correct. I’m the Managing Director of both businesses and my challenge, now, is to balance my time between Roastworks and Little’s so that neither suffers. Little’s is ten times bigger than Roastworks, in sales, so I should really be doing 1 day a week with Roastworks. It isn’t anywhere near that at the moment.

Now, of course, Roastworks has just won a national listing in Waitrose with 5 products; that’s a huge step. Things don’t stop, they don’t slow down.  It gets quicker and bigger, but it’s ok.  I keep waiting for that day when Roastworks goes wrong and I can say, thank God for that; it was just a mistake, I’ll just pull the plug on it.  But it just doesn’t seem to be going that way.  I need now to put some firm plans in place for my future and how am I going to manage those businesses as they both grow.

So maybe even having to bring in another MD?

Absolutely.  It’s something we’ve already thought about.  We’ve got to face up to the fact that I just can’t do both things; I’m not doing them both justice by splitting my time like that.

As Branson says…. you have to hire the best team and then step out of their way.  But that’s hard, when it’s your baby.

Honestly, I don’t find it hard.  Branson also says; ‘hire people who are better than you’. What I’ve always wanted to do, is surround myself with people who are way better than I am.  I think we’ve been quite successful at doing that. Tom, our sales guy is an ex Sales Director at Pukka Teas.  I can’t afford him full time, but luckily he’s freelance now and does a day and a half for us.  I’m learning from him, every day. We can be in a meeting with Waitrose, for example, and he’ll ask the question that I’d never dream of asking.

What question?

He’ll always ask for that extra bit; ‘are you sure we can’t get one more product in’ and I’m always way too nice and wouldn’t ask. He’ll always got that extra step; it’s inbuilt into him, the ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ mindset.

He’s had amazing training and knows how to get the results. He’s too cool; drives around in an old camper van, great lifestyle, late thirties. He fits us perfectly; non corporate, normal guy but really, really, effective.

Abby, our marketing girl is great; she knows her stuff and is really on the ball.  We’ve got an excellent team; really hard working. That’s what will take us forward. Keep hiring really shit hot people.  As soon as you take your eye off the ball and you’ve got someone in the team dragging it down, it doesn’t work.

And that’s one of the reasons we moved, factory wise, as well.  We’re not in London or anything like that but, before, we were so in the middle of rural Devon, that recruiting was tough.  If you’re in Exeter you’d never have taken a job where we were before.  Now we’re right by the M5, just outside Exeter, so its feasible.  It’s definitely made the difference.  You always have to think about the bigger picture and where you’re headed.

So if you find it difficult to ask for the extra during a meeting, how do you feel about asking for help, generally?

Asking for help is something that I’ve never been afraid to do; I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually know what I’m doing; I’m always learning.

Does anyone know? Honestly? Are we all just feeling our way through the dark and learning as we go?

Maybe. But, if we are, I really hope that that doesn’t continue for the rest of our lives.

You might be right though.  It strikes me that there are a lot of business savvy people in the world but I feel like many of the big things I’ve done in business, I’ve never done before. That’s why we’ve hired a lot of consultants over the years and why I still work with a few now.

I think it’s really valuable to turn to someone and say; ‘Hey; you’ve done this before. What happens now’ and they’ll say; ‘I can’t tell you exactly, but when I did it last, this is what happened’.

In many cases, I just don’t have the frame of reference and so yes, I agree with you; I guess you never really step out of the dark in that way. You’re always learning as you go; feeling your way through. It feels that sometimes I’m making decisions that are so grand, so profound and apart from gut instinct and maybe a calculator, I really don’t know how they’ll turn out.

Are you ever afraid to follow your gut feeling, even when it might not match the forecast spread sheets?

No, I’m not.  And that’s one of the things that bugged me in London.  I’m able now to make those decisions.  For sure you’re gonna get it wrong sometimes; we’ve got it wrong a few times.  But, when you don’t get it wrong, actually even when you do get it wrong, it’s still a good feeling because you know you’re gonna learn from that. So long as you haven’t made the company bankrupt, in the process, it’s actually a very positive thing. I love being in control of that.  I’m not a control freak, but I like being able to make my own decisions; to be my own boss. It’s all about managing risk.

So where next?  What’s the next phase looking like for you?

Next up I’m formalising what Roastworks is doing; making sure that it’s a little more future proof than it is at the moment. I’ve got a pretty serious customer now in Waitrose; I’ve got to look after and grow it.

You know what, I’m going to go out there and say that I want to be the brand that brings speciality coffee to peoples’ homes.  I think that it’s possible, now, to go out and get a pretty decent cup of coffee in most cities around the UK. Take Exeter; we’ve got some independents doing a really great job. However, you walk into a supermarket or independent and you don’t see the same brands, or the same quality of coffee.

How am I gonna do that? I have some ideas, but one step at a time.  With Little’s we just need to keep growing, with export a key thing.  We’re going to launch a lot of new products with Little’s and move into other sub-categories; still staying with flavoured coffee, but away from instant coffee to capitalise on some of the other categories that are booming at the moment.

One day we may even make ready to drink products, but not yet.

So let’s talk money.  What does it mean to you?

Honestly, I’m not really chasing the dollar. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to have some commercial success out of this as well.  I’d like to do certain things in my life that require a bit of money, but I’m definitely not one of these people who wants to be rich. I really don’t care for the money.  Creating that work/life balance is key.

Last year we hit a £1,000000 turnover.  I remember thinking at £500,000 turnover, which my parents had managed to do when I first joined the business, that getting to a million would be amazing.  Then we hit a million and it was like ‘oh, well we have to get to 2 million now’. I would have thought that that was success, but it’s not; it’s a sliding scale and that carrot keeps moving further and further away.

You never grab it and say; ‘yay I’ve got it’.  You set new targets and the new targets are two and then three million; it never really stops.  So all I’m going to get is busier and busier.  More and more stressed out.  Is that what I want? Do I want to be three times busier and three times more stressed than I am now?  I might have three times more money, but what am I going to do with money if I’m working all the time?  I don’t want to be that guy; you know the one with bags under his eyes, a drink and a weight problem.  I could easily be that guy, but I’m just not going there.

And so how do you switch off?  What do you do for down time?

Honestly, I just put the alarm on, close the doors, walk out, go home and cook dinner.

I’m not really a big sports guy. I’ve never been sailing & I’m not that into golf. I’m really just a big foodie; a massive geek! I do want to travel more though; I like exploring things and then doing the foodie thing when we’re over there. I’m a big fan of Copenhagen, Stockholm and all those places.

So to wrap up, as with the very best dinner party, if someone’s completely new to your brand, which coffee would you point them too?

So there’s six products in the Roastworks range which are all very different.  The idea is that if you work your way through all those products, you’ll experience a very different thing with them all. It’s a journey of what speciality coffee has to offer; kind of like basic coffee grammar.  It ticks off the main contenders; the bright and over the top, fruity Kenyan, to the tea like Ethiopian, to the chocolatey but lemony Columbian, to the cherry like Rwandan. They’ve all got their distinct character and they all taste very different to each other. That’s the big idea with that retail range; to take everyone on a journey where’s there’s something for everyone.

By all means have a flat white or a skinny latte, but let’s get people talking about the espresso that makes the drink.  People still think of a coffee as tall or short, or white or black and it’s not about that.  It’s about the actual beans and the origins of the beans.

Will Little is the co-founder of Roastworks and the MD of Little’s Coffee.

Follow them @RoastworksDevon



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