Jim and Diane Morton have a unique addition to their retirement plan: Liberty Beans Coffee Company. The two combined their skills – Jim is a chef and Diane is a chemist – to create great coffee and start their business. Jim is the roaster and obsessed with getting the perfect roast for every coffee bean crop. Don’t ask him for coffee if you don’t have much time. They are currently high school teachers and are working to build their business before retiring.
Here are some tips from both of them to start their own business:
1. Why start a business in retirement?
According to Diane, “We knew after we retired from teaching that we wanted to do something different, maybe start a small business. Having spent most of our careers talking to people, we knew our people skills would be an asset to our chosen business.”
“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” Jim said. “We want to stay active when we stop teaching. We’ve talked a lot about it and we’re very excited for the next chapter. I don’t think there is a better purpose in life than to make a positive change in a young person’s life. Diane and I have done our best as teachers for the past 20+ years, Diane as a science teacher and I as a culinary arts teacher. Now is the time to prove what we preach, your success in America is in your hands with hard work, education and dedication.”
2. Decision for a company
“We always knew our business would have something to do with food or drink, two things we enjoy immensely,” Diane said. “Two recurring thoughts over the years have been a brewery or a coffee shop. Jim came across a coffee roastery for sale at just the right time. Although we didn’t buy it, it kind of gave us the coffee idea. Whatever business you choose, of course it has to be something you love and are passionate about.”
“I definitely agree with Diane on that point!” Jim said. “With my culinary background, there were many opportunities to explore. On a Saturday during the pandemic, I googled small businesses for sale. I came across a small coffee roastery for sale. We didn’t actually want to buy a company, we just wanted to generate ideas. I tend to get things done 110 percent, so I went way down the rabbit hole with specialty coffee.
“I think when you decide to start a small business, it’s important not to wear rose-colored glasses. I researched the growth of the market and potential entry costs and possible revenue streams before figuring out if I was good at roasting coffee. I remember from a college business class the professor said, “It’s not a business until something is sold.” I then wrote a 7 year business plan using a template found on the internet which helped attract some investors. We also felt it important to hire a professional to develop our website. Sure, you can use a do-it-yourself website builder like Squarespace, but we knew we were in it for the long haul and wanted it to look professional with continued help and upgrades. Another tip would be to develop a budget and then double it!” he added.
3. Selection of a product
Why coffee? “A great cup of coffee with a good story behind it has always piqued our interest,” Diane said. “I think we have a good story and I have to say that Jim definitely roasts great coffee!”
For Jim, coffee roasting is the perfect combination of science and culinary art. “I have a culinary background as a chef and Diane is a PhD scientist. It’s like Christmas morning for me when I get a new green coffee. We have 3 roasters: a 1lb sample roaster that I practiced on to see if I was good at getting the best flavors out of the beans, a 5lb roaster that we do commercial roasting on started, and a state-of-the-art 6k roaster. I will keep roasting small batches of the new single-origin coffee with different roasting parameters to find the optimal roasting profile. We then decide whether to offer it as a single origin or use it in a mix. This is where my love for the art of cooking and taste comes into play. Let’s face it, your whole day can’t be great if it doesn’t start like this! Most of us start with coffee. So it makes sense to start the day with a great cup. You need it. You deserve it,” he said.
4. Operation of a business
There is a lot involved in owning and running a business. “Jim has the creativity and business acumen of the company, so he did all this type of research,” Diane said. “He’ll tell you he’s definitely gone down the rabbit hole roasting coffee. I love it when we’re selling coffee at a festival and someone says to Jim, ‘Tell me about your coffee.’ I want to say to them, ‘Do you have a few hours?'”
YouTube was Jim’s friend during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos about coffee roasting,” he said. “I also watched videos about marketing, business plans, etc. There really is no excuse today. If you want to learn something, there is an overwhelming amount of free information out there. Licensing and regulations are really state specific. Again, my advice would be to start on the internet. You will need to check with local municipalities and state authorities. It also depends on your company. For food and beverage startups, there are a few additional hurdles to jump through. Another tip: most small business owners are more than willing to talk about their business and help you get started in the right direction.”
5. Integrate a company into your retirement plan
A lot of people have a hard time slowing down after working their whole lives, and that’s how Diane felt. “Like I said, none of us want to retire without doing something that keeps us busy,” she said. “We also thought that the company will leave a legacy for our two children if they decide to take it on.”
Jim said, “I’ll have a small pension from teaching in the New Jersey public school system and I’m very grateful for that. I am fully aware that a pension is a rarity these days. We are in our mid 50’s and healthy. We plan to grow Liberty Beans Coffee for the foreseeable future. We believe things happen for a reason. Not coincidentally, but when you lead a good life, when you are a good person, opportunities sometimes arise. You must be ready and willing to seize the opportunity. We love, what we do. The feedback on our coffee has been incredible. I end every social media post with “We appreciate you” and we really mean that. We know that coffee drinkers have many choices. We want to continue offering the best specialty roasted coffee at a fair price for many years to come.”
6. Marketing Tips
Diane found a way to increase sales by offering her product for fundraisers. It’s a win for both the nonprofit, who raises money for their organization, and the Mortons, who grow sales and give back to their community.
“I handle the fundraising part of the deal so I can comment on that,” she said. “I send individually personalized emails to those responsible for fundraising for schools, teams, nonprofits, etc. If they express interest, I will send them coffee samples in sachets, individually labeled for their organization. Once they see the label with their group’s name on it, the deal is usually closed.”
Jim said, “My first marketing tip would be, don’t forget to budget for it. A good rule of thumb to start with is that 10-20 percent of your sales should go back into marketing to start with. It can be a struggle in the beginning. Diane and I haven’t taken a penny out of the deal yet. We have investors that we are committed to completing first, but every business plan is different. We continue to dabble in social media marketing, but admittedly it’s not in my wheelhouse. I think there is still great value. I post on Instagram and Facebook almost every day and do paid advertising. I think social media promotion comes down to your expertise and comfort.”
“One segment of our business is fundraising sales, and Diane does a great job sending direct emails to all types of organizations that need to raise funds,” Jim continues. “Sometimes you have to be creative and think outside the box. For example, we put a discount code on every fundraising bag to encourage repeat orders. It’s also important to get an idea of your ideal customer. We have a patriotic theme because we love our country. We have two wonderful children and our son is an active duty Army Combat Medic. It was important for us to show how grateful we are to live in America. America may be divided on many issues, but we can all agree on one thing, we all deserve a great cup of coffee. After 17 months we felt ready to hire a PR firm to help with our marketing efforts.”
There is so much uncertainty in the world today and retirement might look different in the future. The Mortons have a great plan for their future and their coffee is really good (I’ve tried a few).
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