Gumm: Coffee from the Cornfields — Starting an e-commerce business in rural Iowa

Guest post by Brian Gumm.

A Coffee Problem

In late 2013, in the small town of Toledo, Iowa, I found myself in a “Good Coffee desert.” From 2008-’12 my family had lived in a small city in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where I’d been turned into a bit of a coffee snob. In that community, I had met a few home-roasters of coffee and there were also one or two small commercial coffee roasting businesses whose products you could get at local grocers or the farmers market. 

But after having spent nearly a year in rural Iowa, in my wife’s hometown, I was missing the Good Stuff. So I bought a $20 popcorn popper from our local department store, a few pounds of unroasted coffee from my home roaster friend back in Virginia, and I started roasting my own coffee. 

A Professional Problem

The four years we spent in Virginia was for my wife and me to go through graduate school, where we picked up 3 masters degrees between the two of us. For her (a mental health counselor), finding a job with her graduate education in rural Iowa was easy: Needs are high and supply is very low. She found a job almost right away after we’d moved back to Iowa. 

For me, it wasn’t so simple. Through my 20s I had worked in the lucrative tech industry in the Des Moines area. But my graduate work had nothing to do with tech: I had picked up a ministerial degree at a seminary and another degree in peace and conflict studies at the same school. There were no full-time jobs for pastors or peacebuilders anywhere close to where we’d moved back to. I had landed a job at the university we’d studied at in Virginia and I telecommuted for them for 5 years after moving back home, but I knew that wasn’t a long-term sustainable position.

An Invigorating Solution

The idea for a solution to the two problems I just described began to take shape in my garage as I stood above my crude repurposed coffee roasting equipment: What if I turned this hobby into a small business? 

By virtue of roasting my own coffee, the first problem had already been solved. I was drinking my own fresh-roasted coffee and it was wonderful. My friends, family, and neighbors were also benefiting from it and they were giving me intoxicating feedback: “This is the best coffee I’ve ever tasted!”

So with a knot of professional dissatisfaction still twisting in my gut, I began formulating a plan to go pro with the roasting business. 

Know Your Place

One of my graduate degrees did come in handy for this pre-startup phase. My peacebuilding education was rooted mostly in sociology, so I’d been given tools to analyze people groups and their sets of circumstances: Cultural, economic, etc. I knew starting a retail business in a community of 5,000 people was off the table. Retail business in small rural towns has become practically impossible over the last 20-30 years, and I’d seen the demise of it myself having grown up in small town Iowa. Once vibrant downtowns now stand mostly vacant all across the country in small towns like ours in rural areas with no proximity to large urban centers.

Here’s where my first career in tech came in handy. Having worked in and around tech since high school, including in web development, the internet was something I’d spent a considerable amount of time on personally and professionally. Social media and e-commerce would help me solve the locale problem with my startup idea.

From the field of nonviolent community organizing, I had learned the notion of “Roots & Routes,” which spoke of a need to be rooted in a place but also to be an effective networker, forming “routes” connecting people across geography around a common purpose. So while I loved my small town and wanted to set down those roots, I also recognized that I needed to network far beyond the local community.

Thankfully there were entrepreneurial networking groups in most of the cities surrounding us in Tama-Toledo, particularly those under the 1 Million Cups umbrella. I became connected with the 1MC group in Cedar Rapids and got plugged in with a number of great connections in that community. Those connections not only helped me make sales in the early days after our business formation, but also connected me to valuable service relationships: Accountants, digital marketers, etc.

Keep it Simple

Since our founding in 2015, our coffee roasting business—Ross Street Roasting—has grown modestly but consistently year over year. One lesson we didn’t learn until just the past year is that it wasn’t going to be feasible to pay me the kind of salary I’d become used to back in the tech industry. My wife had also been carrying our health insurance benefits for the better part of a decade and wanted to start her own private practice. Last year it slowly dawned on me: I was going to have to go back and get a “normal job” and the tech world made the most sense for me.

Having been out of the tech world for over a decade presented some challenges for me to re-enter it but I hadn’t been sitting still for all that time. I had amassed a considerable amount of additional education and experience, including a successful small business startup with a heavy emphasis in e-commerce and a fairly tech-centric back office operation.

Stripping down the coffee business to its bare essentials and doing what we do best, focusing on the customers we serve best, and hiring for as much of the day-to-day operations as we could successfully got me out of the weeds and allowed me to confidently engage in my job search. 

The global pandemic certainly hasn’t done anyone any favors and it did make my job search difficult but thankfully I was able to find an awesome position at Structurely in Ames, a small tech startup whose AI-based platform helps businesses nurture and re-engage sales leads for businesses in a growing number of industries. My role as Product Manager has felt like a perfect fit for my “weird” resume, with its blend of IT, higher education, and small business ownership. 

With my small business now quietly humming along quite efficiently without any major day-to-day involvement from me and freshly back into the tech world, I feel grateful to have been able to carve out something like that “from the cornfields.” 

Brian Gumm is a rural entrepreneur and tech professional located in Tama-Toledo, Iowa. Brian is founder and co-owner of Ross Street Roasting Co. and is Product Manager at Structurely in Ames.