What makes successful people tick? What advice would they offer to their younger selves? What gives them confidence? These are the questions that can get lost in the buzz of a company’s success, but ones that we want to uncover in our new LSC Gents Legends series. These interviews cut through the noise, offering insight into the lives of people at the top of their game – the entrepreneurs, CEOs, gents and leaders breaking boundaries and making an impact.
Stephen Rapoport is the founder of Pact Coffee, a company that sources high-quality, ethically-sourced coffee from farmers across the world and works with them to deliver the best coffee beans to your door. Stephen caught up with London Sock Company’s co-founder Dave Pickard to discuss his start up journey, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and his approach to office style.
Dave Pickard: What made you want to launch Pact Coffee?
Stephen Rapoport: My wife actually helped me to come up with Pact. “For God’s sake,” she said. “You launch businesses like a venture capitalist. Stop trying to think like a VC, you would be a sh** VC! Think about who you are and what you love, and go from there.” So I did. I love coffee. I love old cars. I love whisky. I started to explore business models in these three areas and coffee was the one I was most excited by.
DP: What is your business history?
SR: While I was a student at Birmingham University, I started a hugely profitable travel company called Escape Tours that took groups of students to Dublin, Amsterdam and Newquay. Somehow I still managed to get a degree but I had 30 full-time employees by graduation. Next came Seller’s Market, where we sold people’s and business’ products for them on eBay. While it was a good model, it ultimately failed because I found it really boring to run. This was a great lesson: only do something that you are going to genuinely love and care about!
Following that, I launched Crashpadder – a peer-to-peer accommodation platform. We outgrew Airbnb in three markets in Europe, but our liquidity was nowhere near as strong as their’s. I’m of the opinion that if you are not going to out-execute there is no point in executing at all. Who wants to be average? I approached them and they acquired us. In 2012, I launched Pact Coffee.
DP: What is it about entrepreneurship that you love?
SR: I have so much faith in entrepreneurship and in capitalism, as I think it is the most powerful force to have a positive – both social and economic – impact on the world. And I genuinely think that Pact Coffee is one of the best examples of a social enterprise model that we have in the UK.
DP: How did PACT evolve over the years?
SR: Pact has evolved in three very distinct phases of business. The first phase was start up and hyper-growth, which lasted about three years. It took six months figuring out what people cared about. But then we went into a period – with relative ease – of raising and spending VC and delivering high growth as a result. We went from a standing start to around four million pounds of revenue in three years. It was a chance to validate our feeling that people cared about always having mind-blowing coffee in the house. But also, crucially, that they cared about a transparent supply chain where they know it hasn’t been grown or picked by children, slaves, or prisoners.
But we reached a point where we realised that maintaining that rate of growth wouldn’t be possible without an irrational sum of money. And, ultimately, continuing that growth trajectory was not the right thing for the business. I don’t know how I would classify this second period, but it was an enormous challenge; full of heartache and pain. In the end, we became a much much stronger business, but we had to restructure the company in order to survive. Looking in from the outside, that was a phenomenal year. But the reality was that it was one of the toughest and one of the most gruelling years that myself and my team have experienced.
I think that chapters one and two of Pact were building a business that would outlast me, and chapter three has been growing the business. It’s wonderful to watch, and a privilege to serve on the board and continue to support the team where they need me.
DP: If you were to share advice with other ambitious people out there with the dream of setting out on a start up journey…
SR: I think that people need to ask themselves and define: what is their personal objective in launching a business? I would encourage people to answer that question, write it down, put it on the wall, and remind themselves of it daily. Especially when you are facing tough decisions and stakeholders who might have misaligned objectives. Truthfully, joining a start up is a great way to get the same buzz but without the peril. What we need in the UK is not more start ups — in fact, I believe we need fewer — but we need more talent to join the existing ones.
DP: What advice would you give to 21-year-old Stephen?
SR: Only ever optimise for self-respect, in every decision that you make; it’s the only realistic outcome and it’s the only one you’re in control of. And have fun! No matter how good a business model is, if you’re not enjoying it, you will execute poorly, and execution matters a lot more than an idea.
DP: It’s interesting to understand how people are dressing to work these days. What do you typically wear?
SR: I wear the same thing every single day: a lounge suit, waistcoat, and brown brogues. Every year on my birthday, I take my clothes to the charity shop and I fill the wardrobe with a new outfit, and that’s all I wear.
DP: Do you have a favourite pair of London Sock Company socks?
SR: I’m wearing them now! Earl Grey Spot of Style, with that lovely blue banner around the top. These are my favourites and they also match my waistcoat and pocket square.
To learn more about Pact Coffee, what they stand for and how to get the best beans in the business delivered to your door, visit www.pactcoffee.com.