The Next Big Idea
"Just because you’re Shane and this is Z Beans doesn't mean they are going to give you the loan."
For the past few years, Mercer University has held a Next Big Idea competition. The competition awards $7500 to the team that has the the best idea, substantiated with feasible financial projections and logistics.
In 2017, I entered Z Beans into the contest. I created a video pitch, promoting the idea of creating economic growth for the region of Ecuador, and I pitched the idea in front of the panel of investors.
There were multiple steps before the pitch. I had to think out the logistics behind the business - the marketing plan - the scalability model - the importing. I spent hours thinking all of this out. On paper, it seemed feasible. It seemed like a good plan.
In the second week of April, I was set to pitch the idea to the investors. I tried my best to get coffee from Ecuador, but I had no idea what I was doing. Arturo didn't either, so it wasn't a good mix. Arturo had actually sent 65 pounds of coffee through Correos del Ecuador (The USPS of Ecuador) a week before the competition was set to begin. Unfortunately, I received it three weeks later because the original documentation was not sufficient.
Pitch day comes. I perfectly execute the 10 minute pitch I prepared on stage at the Mercer Innovation Center. I move into the questioning period:
"Have you been able to import any coffee from Ecuador?"
"No, sir. I have some on the way."
"What makes your coffee different?"
The question struck me. As soon as it left the potential investors' mouth, I knew I wasn't going to win the competition. I immediately realized that for everyone else - it will always be 'just coffee.' I give the investor the unique selling points - its Ecuadorian - its direct trade - its really good coffee.
He looks at me - unimpressed, unchanged: "Do you have any for us to try?"
Dean Gilbert, the dean of the business school, announces the winners on stage:
First Place: WorkUp
Second Place: LandLink
I shake the hands of the winners - both teams very deserving.
I walk out of the Mercer Innovation Center for the first time, thinking it'd be my last. But, when the door shut behind me, fate had something different in store.
It was at that moment I refused to believe Z Beans was ever 'just coffee' - it was at that moment Z Beans became apart of me.
Since losing the Next Big Idea, I've been denied loans from 4 different banks - two of them citing 'It's just coffee' and all of them citing a lack of personal collateral. But, we've been able to find alternative routes. The original Angel Investor, my Uncle, Phil Buerster, and the Central Piedmont Investment Group have believed in Z Beans enough to provide startup funding.
However, like the lessons learned from my experience with The Next Big Idea, the investors have provided far more than just capital - they've provided honesty and needed doses of reality. Bob Easter, a mentor, friend, and a man I look up to once said to me: "Just because you’re Shane and this is Z Beans doesn't mean they are going to give you the loan."
The words hurt to hear, but they are true. There is nothing personal - it's just business. Like the Next Big Idea, I wasn't the best participant. Like baseball, I wasn't good enough to be on the team.
My father always told me - "Play the game because it's fun." I never knew how, and eventually, the game was taken from me. But, I've finally realized what he meant. He wasn't talking about my baseball career - rather he was talking about the game of life. The opportunities to travel to Ecuador - the opportunities to hangout with Arturo - the opportunities to imagine grandiose ideas and turn them into a reality - the opportunities to build a business predicated upon the second most common beverage in the world - coffee.
It hurt losing The Next Big Idea. I thought about it for many days and nights. Could I have done something differently? Now, thinking back on it, if I'd have won the competition, Z Beans would not be where it is today. Momentary satisfaction may have prevented me from taking a leap of faith - from giving me the fire to prove Z Beans is more than 'just coffee.'
This is the story of the Next Big Idea and the very first time I ever entered the Mercer Innovation Center for Z Beans. Next week, I will tell you about the last.