I don’t need to tell you that navigating the pandemic hasn’t been easy. The challenges you face in business can be difficult at the best of times, and that’s when you can see the obstacles that are in front of you. The pandemic hasn’t been like that. Just as the virus is invisible to the eye, some of the biggest obstacles it’s presented have been as well, or at least until the very last minute. A lot of the time we haven’t known what’s coming, nor the effects and consequences it will have on our business (and/or ourselves) when it arrives. This has manifested in everything from last-minute changes by governments across the world that have forced businesses to make snap judgements to rapidly changing consumer behaviour fuelled by fear and changing routines. From a business perspective alone, this has made the pandemic incredibly difficult to navigate. Regardless of the industry or size of your team and operations, uncertainty has been the only certainty.
Despite all this, I, like so many others, decided that it was as good a time as any to start a new business. With five years’ experience working various roles within the coffee industry, I set out to tackle one of the biggest issues I’d seen: our disconnection from the supply chain. Now more than ever, consumers want to know about what they’re buying and the people that made it possible. Most of us have no idea where the coffee we drink has come from beyond a region, or what it’s been through to get to us. And despite being the real heroes of coffee, without whom the industry wouldn’t exist, the farmers who produce it are often kept out of the limelight.
Frustrated by this oversight, I set up Cupboard, a digital coffee company where farmers are celebrated, and a space where we can all come together for a deeper and more meaningful connection with coffee. Leveraging the incredible (and still surprisingly untapped) power of the internet, I’ve been able to connect with coffee farmers all around the world, and I’m bringing that same connection to consumers. Alongside sourcing and roasting delicious coffee from some of the most passionate people I’ve had the pleasure of befriending, consumers can watch real-time updates of our coffee unfold, provided directly by the farmers, and even have the opportunity to ask questions or simply express their excitement.
The challenges Cupboard has faced throughout the pandemic have varied greatly. There’s been smaller issues, like when stockists have changed to obscure opening hours at the last minute before a delivery and orders have ended up delayed or sent back. Then there have been the much bigger issues. When countries went into lockdown, the farmers I work with were unable to tend to their crops, not knowing if their plants would survive for this unknown period of time without care and attention. When borders closed with no indication of when they would re-open, I feared I wouldn’t be able to import any coffee at all— a concern I fear could still happen. At one point, rioting broke out in and around Cali, Colombia, where one of the farmers I’ve become friends with lives with his family. Being so far away made it difficult to fully understand the situation, but there were seemingly endless scenes of violence appearing on social media and multiple deaths being reported over the news. In that moment, the challenges I was facing seemed rather small in comparison; I was just grateful my friends made it through to the other side.
Being entirely digital has definitely been a blessing at times. At the beginning of lockdown, when many businesses were scrambling to set up online sales, I was ready from day one. There’s also the more obvious reasons, like not having to pay rent on brick and mortar stores that we couldn’t open. In some ways, I’d go as far as to say that this was the company’s greatest strength through the pandemic. Not specifically the fact that Cupboard is entirely digital, but the flexibility that comes with that. Those that have stayed strong through the pandemic seem to be the ones that have been able to adapt quickly to changes and to get in front of customers regardless of location. Being digital definitely lends itself to these skills. Many big companies have had the resources to adapt but not the flexibility, whilst many smaller companies have had the flexibility but not the resources. These are the businesses we’ve seen struggle.
Personally, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt from running a business through the pandemic is the importance of flexibility. Both in terms of adapting to the climate— because it doesn’t just take a pandemic to cause disruption— but also in the terms of adapting to the individual needs of the consumer. It’d be easy to miss, but there’s a lot of people who’ve benefited from the adaptations that companies have made due to COVID, whether that be the companies who’ve taken their services online, or something more unsuspecting, like the additional space provided in physical stores. The ways companies have made changes to be accessible during the pandemic are actually options that a lot of people could benefit from under regular circumstances.
As a thoughtful business leader, I believe “does this keep me flexible?” is a question we all should be asking ourselves frequently going forward, not just for the sake of our businesses’ stability, but for those around us, those we’re here to serve. We can’t be certain where the impacts of this pandemic will take us, and I believe we’ll be feeling its lasting effects for a while, but if we stay flexible, that’s probably the most prepared we can be.