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Waking up and smelling the entrepreneurial coffee

31 Jan 2018

Chris Wanden gave up a high-flying corporate job in his forties to start Dimbulah Coffee and found success and financial freedom

During a business trip to Cairns in Australia in the mid-1990’s, corporate high-flyer Chris Wanden ran up against a regular bugbear for frequent flyers: a four-hour wait for the next flight out at the airport. The Kiwi-born executive was visiting the city for the first time, so his guide offered to drive him out to the surrounding countryside to kill time before flying back to Singapore.

“[As we drove] I noticed a ridge and I asked him, ‘What’s up there?’ and he replied, ‘That’s The Tablelands,’” an area in rural Queensland where tobacco farming was once the dominant industry of the local town, Dimbulah. Government policy and changing views on tobacco led farmers to replace it with new crops.

Coffee was one of them.

“Something sparked in my head at that time,” he recounts to the audience at a recent SMU Wee Kim Wee Centre talk “A Reflection of the Start Up Journey”. “I thought, ‘There’s no decent coffee in Singapore,’ and I’ve always wanted to grow grapes with images of beautiful buildings with rows and rows of vines, but that just costs too much money. I thought it’d be cheaper to grow coffee instead.

“I flew back to Singapore, and I started thinking, ‘I could grow coffee on The Tablelands, and take it straight from the farm to the end consumer with no middleman in between.’ That was the fuzzy vision but it was a powerful vision.”

A focused vision

Today that vision has been realised: 12 outlets dotted across Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD) with another in the works. Adopting the town’s name where the coffee is grown as the corporate brand, Wanden has carved a distinct niche for Dimbulah Coffee since becoming a full-time entrepreneur.

But when Wanden bought his farm just six weeks after that life-transforming drive, he had little idea what was in store.

“It takes three to four years to grow a tree up to a point where it produces coffee beans,” Wanden relates, pointing out that he “ran out of money pretty quickly” and paid the farmer who harvested the first crop with the beans to save money. “If I think back, there were a few points during that journey where I should have pulled the parachute cord and said, ‘I’m outta here.’ But I persevered and kept at it and continued to spend lots of money that I did not have.”

He continues: “I then had enough quantity to ship over to Singapore. At that time I knew nothing about the Singapore market. I knew nothing about F&B, just like I had to learn about being a farmer. I had to learn about coffee and make coffee.

“I then started building up a customer base. I went through a long draining process where I learnt: The bigger and better stores I built, the more successful I was and the more money I made. I sort of went through closing the little ones, built a slightly bigger one, and went through many of them.”

As business started picking up – “I don’t know when it happened, everybody suddenly knew about Dimbulah” – Wanden opened more stores aimed at his stated target audience of “stressed investment bankers” within the CBD. He elaborates:

“There was a point in time when I believed that if I had too many stores that were too close to one another, I would impinge on my brand. Then I got to point where I went, ‘Hang on a minute, if I don’t take that space, someone else will.’ If I can make my own brand work harder, then I will have a better chance of success. So rather than have someone else competing against me, I’ll compete against myself.”

Citing Starbucks’ strategy of opening a store at the corner of every city block as an example of things he learnt and emulated as he built the business, Wanden also points out the importance of staying true to a brand’s vision instead of following popular trends.

“I built my business on quality espresso-based coffee,” he states emphatically. “If you look at Starbucks for example, they have all kinds of sweet syrups and other things in their coffee. You might start thinking, ‘Gee, I have to come up with those things to compete.’

“What you need to do is focus on the one things you do really well. I made it a point to identify my customers…and I thought, ‘If I satisfy them, and I make sure my stores are in places where I can catch them, then I’ll have a good chance of success.’”

Expansion plans

With a thirteenth store in the works, Wanden is looking at expanding beyond Singapore’s borders. The sixtysomething has staunchly refused to take the franchising route, citing the high expense needed to build an effective franchising structure and the loss of control that could have diluted, and possibly ruined the Dimbulah brand.

“When we got to about eight stores, we could fund our growth with those stores,” Wanden elaborates on Dimbulah’s growth. “I can do ten stores in any other city which has a solid CBD like Singapore does, but I need people on the ground who can execute for me and who have experience in brand management.

“We’re now looking at ‘Where else can we go?’ and ‘Who do we go with?’ to replicate our success in environments where we’ll have a high probability of success. That’s our growth.”

And would he enter a new market differently from how he started in Singapore?

“I started with a couple of coffee carts. What I would have done now is start with a bigger capital base, and I would have hired expertise within the F&B game, and I would have a huge flagship store. If I were to go to Tokyo, and we want to have 20 stores in Tokyo, that first store could be the mother of all stores. It would be the flagship of flagships. It would be an unbelievably expensive store and it would make a statement.

“It tells the market: ‘This is who we are, this is what we are’, and we would create a huge amount of noise around that store. We just need one store like that. The other stores can be much smaller and commercially sensitive. That flagship store might not make much money, or any money; it’s a marketing game. If I knew then what I know now, that’d be what I’d do on Day 1.”

An entrepreneur’s journey

For someone who sailed uncomfortably close to the winds of being flat broke, Wanden says starting Dimbulah was just something that grabbed him and never let go.

There is a right time to do these things,” he muses. “People say you have to be an entrepreneur while you’re young. I was in my 40’s when I bought my farm. When the time is right, it would be very obvious to you. If you force something that isn’t meant to happen, it’s going to be a long, hard grind to make it a success.

“Someone asked me, ‘If you knew then what you know now, would you do it all again?’ My answer is, ‘I wouldn’t want to be without the range of experiences that I had in this journey, but I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone.’

“Only through pain and suffering comes wisdom.”

 

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Last updated on 30 Jan 2018 .

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