Interview: How I started a coffee company
Tommy Thwaites is the Owner of Coda Coffee, a wholesale coffee company. We interviewed Tommy live in front of a high school audience in Colorado.
I’ve been professionally involved in coffee for the last 14 years. I’m 32 now. I started when I was 18 years old.
Most of us drink coffee so we can go to work. You go to work so we can drink coffee. You’re the owner of a wholesale coffee company with your brother Tim. But this wasn’t on your radar until late in your high school career.
In high school I was a mechanic. I was working on lawnmowers, chainsaws…that kind of stuff. Getting dirty every day of my life. It was a good job. Paid well for high school. I could go out on weekends and put gas in my car. The core essentials when you are 17 years old.
But, I was just tired of getting dirty.
So while you’re working a stable job in a specific trade, one of your buddies from community college started a wholesale coffee business. Coffee is a risky business. Fourteen years ago, it was an almost futile enterprise. That made your friend’s proposition to you interesting, but a definite gamble. A gamble your parents didn’t want you to take.
My friend’s proposition was that if I was tired of being dirty every day, why don’t I come help them out. It’s pretty fun. You can sweep floors, fill orders. Once in awhile you can deliver. And we’ll go from there.
I remember going to my Mom and Dad to talk with them. They’re like, “you’re crazy. You shouldn’t do this. You have a decent paying job. It’s steady. Don’t go into coffee. It’s risky, and it’s going to ruin paying for college.”
That kind of thing.
They say you can’t win what you don’t put on the table. But you quit your job to work for a two man coffee operation. You laid down a significant bet. Luckily, it paid off.
We were 800 square feet in a fruit stand next to their dad’s gas station. Eight and a half years later when I left that company, we were in 50,000 square feet with $15 million in sales per year. My title was Executive Vice President.
Over the next few years you continued to work with your passion of coffee. You travel the world judging coffee making competitions, training baristas, and visiting tropical locations where raw beans come from. You stay intimately involved in the world of coffee, from origin to distribution at retail outlets.
Then you and your brother decide you want to become partners in a wholesale coffee company. And you find eager investors in the most unlikely of places.
My parents came full circle and actually invested their 401(k) in our company. My dad hangs out at the office quite a bit, just to drink coffee and read the paper and be in the way for the most part…but we love him to death. He will tell that story to anyone that’s willing to listen.
My dad hated 15 years of work, at least. He told us that if we could do something you enjoy, and not be where I’m at in 15 years, I’m all about supporting it.
You and your brother Tim manage all aspects of the business. Aside from working jobs that you’re passionate about, you’ve developed an expert skill set in a field that you have a genuine curiosity for. Which, even when it’s not easy, makes all the work worth it.
Looking back, I have no reservations. It’s been a total blessing. I love every day of it. But it hasn’t been easy. It has not been this grand cake walk to making millions of dollars.
It’s nothing like that at all. It’s hard work. “The money will come” is definitely our sort of mantra right now. But at least we enjoy doing it.