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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.

1 Comment

  • TejDhawan
    Posted September 23, 2020 at 11:30 am

    Great article and beautiful story. However, the saddest part of the article for me was “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.”

    Two entrepreneurs couldn’t commit 100% to their dreams because we still couple health insurance to one’s employability by someone else

Comments are closed.

Gumm: Coffee from the Cornfields — Starting an e-commerce business in rural Iowa | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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