Although he wouldn’t call himself an entrepreneur, it is hard to argue that James Colbourne isn’t driven by that classic entrepreneurial spirit. Founded in 2018, his business, Cricklewood Coffee Roasters, in north-west London, has grown from a van outside a train station, to a local subscription service and café selling award-winning java.
Despite his lack of barista experience, James managed to make coffee his career. But how did he do it? We spoke to him about why he started roasting his own beans, how he bought his first van, and what made him keep going when times were tough.
Why did you start your own business?
As James puts it, starting his own coffee business was a “knee-jerk reaction” to being made redundant.
“It wasn’t planned – I didn’t do months and months of research,” says James. “I guess I panicked. It’s quite easy to be in a career for 15 years and carry on doing the same thing, and I’d become pretty disillusioned with it. But I realised I didn’t want to turn into the kind of person that company wanted me to be.”
After losing his job as senior digital design manager at MTV, James had started to get more involved with his local community, helping to maintain the gardens outside Cricklewood railway station.
Talking to the station manager one day, he asked whether anyone had ever considered setting up a coffee van there. The funny thing? “I wasn’t overly into coffee, to be honest.” Yet eight months later, James was selling hot cups of coffee to morning commuters.
How did you fund your business?
When it came to funding his business, James looks back with amused horror. “I did a really stupid thing – I spent the last bit of my redundancy and a bit of money on a credit card.”
This helped him buy a second-hand, three-wheeler Piaggio Ape for £6,000 – coffee machine included.
“Redundancy money sounds really good on the surface,” adds James, talking about the risks involved in the way he funded his business. “But if you haven’t got a job, that money quickly goes.”
What was your biggest challenge when you first started?
The first year of running his business was tough. “I was getting up at half four in the morning. It was a complete shock to the system,” James recalls. “And it can be really, really difficult when you’re struggling to keep going.”
His biggest challenge was one faced by countless businesses: after six months, he simply wasn’t making enough money. “I wasn’t selling enough cups of coffee,” James says, “so I started roasting.” This was to reduce the amount he was spending on his main cost, the coffee itself.
A few weeks after he began roasting his own coffee, he made a decision that changed everything – he entered the Great Taste Awards.
“I remember thinking, I am going to give up. And then that summer I looked on the [Great Taste Awards] website, and saw that I won. And I cried.”
The importance of winning this award went beyond the uplift in business it provided to Cricklewood Coffee Roasters. “You’ve made something, and someone has tasted it that you’ve never met, and they’ve given it a star,” James explains. “And that was enough to make me think that I could keep going.”
What has most surprised you about running your business?
It’s heartening to hear James’s biggest surprise about running Cricklewood Coffee Roasters: the kindness of strangers.
James has countless examples of getting a helping hand from people he didn’t know. “Previously, I had roasted in my shed and kitchen,” says James. “However, when I was on the van, I met a guy who had some warehouse space in Cricklewood, and he gave me that for free.” Although James eventually started paying rent at the warehouse, it was that initial gesture that helped him scale up his business.
It was a similar story with the Cricklewood Coffee Roasters logo, designed by world-renowned typographer Erik Speakermann for a “couple of bags of coffee” following an exchange on Twitter.
“It’s pretty humbling,” reflects James. “It’s amazing how many people help you out that you don’t know.”
What are your running costs?
When it came to taking the next step and finding business premises, James faced another hurdle: the cost of expansion.
“I looked at getting a shop in Cricklewood,” explains James, “but I worked out that I would need takings of £500,000 a year.”
Fortunately, another meeting at the railway station helped him find his current location. One of the first regulars he had at his van was a property developer at Argent, the group responsible for the major redevelopment at King’s Cross. “He used to get off at Cricklewood and buy a coffee from me, and we started chatting.”
Through this connection, Cricklewood Coffee Roasters managed to become part of a development Argent was working on in Brent Cross Town. This allowed him to open his own café with rents that are more manageable than were otherwise available.
It was yet another example of those small, chance moments that keep a business going. “I had thought about not progressing with the business if I hadn’t moved in here,” says James. “Unless you are going to get loads of funding from somewhere, it is really difficult to grow organically. And hopefully this location will give me that opportunity.”
» MORE: How to grow your business
Do you feel the pressure to have a range of skills as a small business owner?
James is pretty positive about the many faces a small business owner has to wear. “The nice thing about working for yourself is that you get to do loads of different things.”
“I don’t feel any pressure at the moment – the only thing I want to do is keep building,” explains James. “If you have a problem or something goes wrong, you fix it and move on.”
This is one of the biggest contrasts with his former career. “My previous experience in corporate roles is that there is a lot of complaining about the past. When you work for yourself, you have to keep going forwards every day and not look backwards.”
What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs?
“I don’t class myself as an entrepreneur,” says James. “But if you want to work for yourself, pick an area you are vaguely interested in and just do it.”
However, he encourages people to do it for the right reasons and keep their financial expectations in check. “I wouldn’t do it for the money. Choose something you feel you want to do for the rest of your life, and invest the time in trying to do it properly.”
» MORE: How to start a business
Is Faceless Banking the Future for UK Businesses?
We asked 500 decision makers from UK businesses what they thought of online-only, or ‘faceless’, business banking providers. Generally, businesses are moving toward an acceptance of online-only banking. Here, we take a deep dive into the results of our survey.
Entrepreneur Spotlight: Maya Haiman-Eilon of Mont58 Coffee
For NerdWallet’s Entrepreneur Spotlight series, Maya Haiman-Eilon, co-founder of Mont58 Coffee, spoke to us about the importance of sustainability, and how the business has dealt with rising costs.
How the Business Energy Bills Discount Scheme Works
The Energy Bills Discount Scheme isn’t a business energy price cap, but it does offer businesses money off their energy bills. We explain how the scheme works.