Robert Rudnick is one of three co-founders of Coffee Circle, a provider of high quality and socially-conscious coffee across Germany. Uniting the principles of social responsibility and fair trade with a passion for high-quality coffee, Coffee Circle sells coffee sourced from Ethiopian farms, as well as brewing equipment and other accessories, and donates a portion of profits towards various development projects in Ethiopian coffee-farming communities.
The winning startup team of betapitch Berlin 2012 will receive coffee cups from Coffee Circle, as well as 1 kg of Germany’s best coffee.
What inspired you to found Coffee Circle?
We were inspired by a trip we had taken to Ethiopia. One of our co-founders, together with his brother, had started an organisation over there which helped found a school for orphaned girls to learn skills for the job market. We had been helping him with the final stages of the project, right before the school was to open. During our time in Ethiopia, we tried the local coffee, which we found to be exceptionally good. At the time, we were looking for ideas for a project on which we could start a company. We had been really interested in food and espresso, but not so much in filter coffee, which is how it was served there. After tasting the Ethiopian coffee, we decided that it was so good, that all we would have to do is import it, and it would then sell itself with its quality alone.
Doing good through selling coffee was not our original aim, but, after seeing how poor the living conditions of Ethiopian coffee farmers were, we decided we wanted to help them out as well. We then decided that we wanted to not only sell good-quality coffee to customers but to bring them closer to the product, and make them part of the “circle”, as we call it, giving them a say in how the company is run and in how we spend our money. We give one Euro from each purchase back to the coffee farmers, and our customers can choose which project they wish to support.
So there is as much of an educational element to Coffee Circle as there is one of providing consumer goods?
Yes. We have to educate our customers about what makes good coffee. Many of them go to the supermarket and choose their coffee based mainly on the packaging and all the funny words printed on it. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of people thinking they know more about coffee than they actually do. There is a huge difference between the coffee you can buy from us or from other small roasters, and the coffee you get in supermarkets. It’s very hard to sell coffee through the internet, because people often assume they know more than they do about coffee, and are skeptical towards any form of online advertising. What we do to attract customers is simply show them how we work. We try to be very transparent about our process – we show them pictures of every step, and explain to them how coffee is grown, harvested, and roasted; and what kind of effect each of these processes has on the coffee, on the farming communities, and on the environment.
At the time of your founding, was there much of an interest in high-quality and socially-conscious coffee in Germany, as there had been in North America for several years? Since Coffee Circle was founded, have you noticed an increase in awareness?
When we founded Coffee Circle, there wasn’t much of an interest in socially-conscious coffee in Germany. Concepts such as fair-trade, or the idea that coffee could be a truly high-quality product, were unknown to a lot of people. Though a few other companies centered around high-quality coffee have started up since our founding, we find we still have to reach out to a lot of people who may not yet be used to the idea of buying coffee online, or who may not know just what sets our coffee apart from the others.
You work based on the principles of fair trade and direct trade. What exactly is your relationship – as Coffee Circle – to the coffee-farming communities in Ethiopia?
We’re based mainly on direct-trade, though the concept is still virtually unknown in Germany. Our principles are very much connected to those of the Fair Trade labeling organisation though.
Our projects mostly have to do with education or health. In 2011, we completed 5 projects: we built a well, equipped a health-station, supplied a school with furniture, supplied another school with books, and built a sports facility. Focusing on health and education would ensure that our work would not only help the communities initially, but would have a bigger impact on their ability to eventually help themselves.
Before founding Coffee Circle, we had already had some experience doing development work: Moritz [Waldstein-Wartenberg] had been working extensively in Ethiopia, and I had also done some development work in South Africa as part of my studies. Together, we decided to take our experience and come up with three founding principles for our work. First, we decided that we wanted to meet with the coffee farmers and their families on the ground, and base our projects on that – not only on what would be convenient for us. Second of all, there should be no dependency on us. We wanted to have a lasting impact on the communities, but without any running costs that they could not pay back themselves. Finally, we decided that the impact of our work should be measurable, and that we should be able to see just how successful our projects would be.
Finally, what’s one thing you expect to see at this year’s betapitch? What would you like to see more or less of?
One thing I do not want to see is copycats (Editor’s Note: Rest assured: there will be no copycats at the final round of this year’s betapitch, as they will all have been disqualified!), nor do I want to see companies based on a simple idea without much thought. However, I’ve seen a few betapitches, and participated in the first one, and I know that there have been plenty of companies that have combined great original ideas with a creative and innovative use of technology and other resources.
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Cost is a big one here. In regards to total transportation costs, the last mile comprises up to 53% of those - making it the least efficient part of the supply chain. Expectations of free shipping and next day deliveries add up to this.
Due to increasing digitalization and convenience services in every area of people's lives, the smooth and flawless process of getting the delivery to one's doorstep is exceedingly becoming what customers care most about. On top of that, for companies that package being delivered is an extension of their brand. The consumer is basically coming face-to-face with the brand, which makes it the biggest opportunity to heighten customer satisfaction.
If you live in a city and have even slightly observed your urban surroundings you’ve probably witnessed it first hand - urban congestion and crowded cities make it pretty tough to satisfy the growing demand and rising expectations of super quick deliveries. Add unpredictability in transit (like weather conditions), an incorrect address or remote locations, just to name a few, and you can see where this is going.
The worst part is, all those delivery trucks and vans that also produce a fair bit of emissions, are often only half full when they roll out for deliveries. This is mostly due to low drop sizes and stops along the route that are far and few between.
It’s not all hopeless though - Where there is a problem, there are solutions.
Same old, same old - isn’t always all that bad. Sometimes, all that’s needed are some new perspectives! The city of Utrecht, for example, implemented a zero-emissions electric barge nicknamed the “Beer Boat”.
Since 2010 it’s carrying beer and food to the city’s downtown restaurants by using waterways. Other electric barges in Amsterdam not only deliver but even collect organic waste, which is then turned into biofuel in processing plants! Isn’t that cool?
It becomes clear that cities, logistics, as well as urban planners, are equally part of solving the inefficiency of the last-mile. Tackling this mountain of issues calls for teamwork!
A centralized platform, hub or network for similar companies, could do the trick to fill up the delivery vans & trucks that are barely loaded. Parcels could be distributed more efficiently between different companies and their delivery vehicles.
Like a big pool of parcels from different companies with every single parcel going into that one van with the same route!
Delivery Driver Experience and Smart Delivery Vehicles are also areas with huge potential for improvement and innovation.
Ellie: Two years ago we adopted a new legal structure for Jolocom GmbH according to the purpose model of ownership, manifesting our commitment and dedication to building a self-sovereign organization. That means we can’t take VC funding or sell public shares of the company.
Volker: Jolocom is a community driven organisation – both in a tech sense but also much further beyond. We’re hugely involved in the DWeb community where we organize and attend events for the decentralized community. Every year we also help organize and attend the DWeb Camp in San Francisco, which brings together all kinds of creatives so this technology of tomorrow is built in a collaborative way.
Next to that on-demand experiences have become firmly embedded into people’s everyday lives - be it a mobile app to book a ride, send flowers to your loved ones or order lunch to your office. It’s all possible and has made premium features like real-time tracking a standard. The online consumer expects nothing less and certainly doesn’t like to wait.
Making that quick and instant gratification happen is another story though. Groundbreaking ideas and innovations are needed to tackle all these factors. Does your startup have one?
Volker: There is this really nice place, called Green Rabbit with salads and baked potatoes where I like to go to. Sometimes I just keep it simple and go to Lidl.
Ellie: I eat a lot in west.berlin cafe which is here around the corner and I love the Matcha Lattes from Starbucks.