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The Sweet Smell of Success

Editor’s note: We kept hearing how good Adam Lehman’s hand-roasted coffee was, so we decided to do a story. When we showed up at his Wonder Jam studios, he was so jacked up, he asked if he could write about the side project himself. Take it away, Adam…

“I started a coffee company.”

still feel like a fraud when I say that out loud.

Coffee used to hold this absolutely necessary role in my life. I felt like I couldn’t function without it, but I didn’t stop to get to know it. Instead, I ground, scooped, and poured because I needed it. That was the beginning and the end of my relationship with coffee. Since then, it’s transformed from a ritual to a passion.

I got to know coffee in a way I hadn’t before. Shops around the city introduced me to specialty coffees, talks about flavor notes and brewing methods; sharing their knowledge expanded my elementary understanding. When I experimented with different brew methods and coffee qualities, I got to know the tangible aspects of coffee; its aroma, texture, and sound came together to transform and remold my interaction with coffee.

As I visited specialty shops across the country, I learned that everyone has a unique perspective on the drink. Why couldn’t I have mine?

So, I started Ardor Coffee.

I mean, I didn’t mean to start a coffee company. It began by just ordering un-roasted coffee beans online and figuring out how to roast them (you can do this in almost every way you can make popcorn).

My early efforts in a Whirley Pop nded up burning the beans to ash. Nice start, right?

I kept experimenting. I roasted about 60 different types of coffee beans in a host of home roasting methods.

Trial, error, ashes.

Trial, success, “Try this.”

Trial, “Oh no”, success.

I finally settled on using an air popper and chose an Ethiopian Co-Op to supply my beans.

And that was it. I roasted for myself and I made my coffee for anyone who came through The Wonder Jam’s studio. We added a quirky line to our website: “Come visit, we’d love to make you coffee!”

Simple. Easy. There was no master plan to start a company; there was nothing beyond sharing a thing I loved with people who would listen.

Then more people started coming through the studio, saying things like “I don’t normally drink coffee, but I heard yours is so good!” and “I normally add sugar and cream, but I don’t want to ruin your coffee.”

No pressure.

People asking for coffee turned into people asking if they could take some home to share. As bags of coffee traveled home with our friends and clients, so did word about Ardor Coffee.

Roast. Bag. Pass it on.

Fast forward to this November. The Wonder Jam was sponsoring an event and—as a sponsor—we were offered a “sponsor’s booth.” We could set up a table and sling business cards to talk about our brand. Allie and I thought that was mightily boring so we decided to sell her artwork and my coffee.

I spent the two days before the event roasting in an air popper in one-eighth-cup batches. Twenty pounds of coffee in one-eighth-cup batches takes a while. Large roasters can pump out 20-40 pounds in 20 minutes. Twenty pounds takes me a whole day.

At the event, I sold out of my coffee in two hours.

I left a little bit emotional. For years, Allie and I had built a business around folks showing up, saying “I need this,” and then we would deliver that to them. This time, I showed up saying “I love this,” and people responded by buying it.

Right now I’m doing a lot of planning and learning. I’m planning out financial investments to ramp up production and I’m continuing to educate myself about coffee. Recently, I roasted 30 pounds, sold in seven-ounce bags. I was sold out in a day.

Over time, I’ve learned not to ask people what they do for work, but ask them what they do on the side. Everyone seems to have a side hustle these days. Whatever they do from nine-to-five is rarely as interesting as what they do on nights, weekends, and early mornings.

After working with 200-plus brands at The Wonder Jam, I have seen many folks struggle with “the imposter syndrome.” They work their butt off, but they still feel like a fraud.

And right now, I’m feeling those same thoughts. I gave a bag of my coffee to the folks at One Line Coffee. I meant it as a gift, but as soon as I handed the bag to Mick and walked out the door, a few thoughts raced through my mind:

“They’re going to taste this and know it’s garbage” and ‘No WAY is this good enough’ and ‘I just became the competitor of my heroes!’” I have heard hundreds of entrepreneurs encourage other startups to know this:

1. Those thoughts are normal. They run through the heads of everyone who is wandering into the unknown.

2. Those thoughts aren’t useful (or true). Keep moving forward, learning, and sharing what you’re passionate about with people.

I’ve also watched entrepreneurs respond to those thoughts in another way: puffing their chest. I get invited into enough small businesses to know that just because someone is getting a lot of press, or is claiming they’re doing a lot of sales, doesn’t mean that they actually are.

So I’m not going to puff up my chest, boast about sales numbers, or lie in my marketing.

This whole thing started with me sharing a passion with my friends and there is no reason for that to change.

Roast. Bag. Pass it on.

I started a coffee company.

Adam Lehman co-owns the creative agency The Wonder Jam (thewonderjam.com) with his wife Allie. You can learn more about Ardor Coffee at ardorcoffee.com.

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