A Damn Fine Cup of Coffee
From its humble origins in the lush Ethiopian highlands to becoming an indispensable part of modern culture, coffee has held a central role in cultures across the globe, bringing people together, stimulating minds, and invigorating tastebuds. For some, the best part of waking up is a strong cup of freshly brewed coffee. For Christy Clement, owner of Vashon Island Coffee Dust, coffee was rarely part of her morning ritual. In fact, her entrepreneurial journey into coffee began with a distaste for traditional coffee. She was repelled by heavy sweeteners and harmful additives but dissatisfied with the bitterness of plain black coffee.
Christy’s life changed when a friend served her coffee dusted with her own delicious spice blend. It was a revelation, inspiring Christy to create her own repertoire of flavorful spice blends. With six delightful flavor combinations, Vashon Island Coffee Dust is on its way to changing the way we savor our daily brews.
Vashon Island Coffee Dust provides a delightful range of all-natural spice blends carefully crafted to be sprinkled onto freshly brewed coffee. Bursting with aromatic flavors, these enchanting blends offer a fun and flavorful alternative to traditional sugar-laden and additive-heavy coffee flavorings. Embracing the island's abundance of organic ingredients, Vashon Island Coffee Dust is free from preservatives, artificial additives, and anything that doesn't belong in a wholesome cup of joe. Christy sees her business as a healthier alternative to common coffee flavoring methods involving syrups or chemical-laden flavored beans. She’s always on the hunt for unusual flavor profiles that spark intrigue and resonate with customers seeking unique coffee experiences.
“It’s a healthier choice than pump syrups that have tons of sweeteners or just like gross stuff in them. Or, flavored beans, which are made with a chemical called propylene glycol, which is not great for you. It’s common to sprinkle a little cinnamon on coffee so it's not that crazy of an idea. It’s fun creating delicious and unusual flavors that people wouldn’t think of putting in coffee like cayenne, lavender, or ginger.”
Vashon Island Coffee Dust may have been Christy’s first venture as a food business, but she was already a seasoned entrepreneur. Christy had already co-founded two successful IT consulting businesses: Institute Agility and diVursity. Institute Agility, started alongside Christy’s husband, is centered on coaching leaders in the IT industry on how to modernize and manage their agile workflow. diVursity is dedicated to increasing the diversity of leadership within the software world. With degrees in engineering and business administration—as well as decades of experience in leadership positions— Christy was well-versed in the business landscape. Christy says she leans on what she’s learned starting her two software businesses, specifically her entrepreneurial style.
“I borrow a lot from what I teach and coach my IT clients and apply it in this world. Building in small increments and constantly validating ideas. These are very entrepreneurial concepts that originated from my experience in the software world. Now, I bring that knowledge back and apply it to Vashon Island Coffee Dust."
With the success of both businesses, both Christy and her husband were able to work from home due to the pandemic. This allowed them to lean into their hobbies: woodworking for her husband, and Christy’s newfound obsession with coffee dust. Christy realized coffee dust was more unique than she imagined and saw its potential. Christy had always been a problem-solver with sharp instincts. With no other coffee dust on the market, she saw a niche for her own products. Christy began to lay the groundwork for her new business, experimenting with flavors combinations and beta testing with community members at farmers markets. Christy says she learned a great deal of lessons, ranging from what tins not to use to flavor profiles to stay away from. The community feedback was overwhelmingly positive, reaffirming that Christy was on the right track.
Christy is deeply rooted in the Vashon Island community and with the growing success of her new venture, she was eager to include her friends and family. She believes one important trait of a leader is knowing when to delegate and recognizing the benefits of outsourcing tasks. Christy enlisted the help of a friend to manage the company's social media presence through an equity-sharing arrangement. To create her eye-catching logo, Christy held a design contest on 99designs. The winner of the contest has since become her go-to designer, assisting with various design needs like banners, business cards, and packaging. With a growing network of friends and colleagues who genuinely believe in her product's potential, their valuable feedback and camaraderie have created a thriving environment for Vashon Island Coffee Dust to flourish.
With an eye on scalability. Christy has embraced a multi-faceted approach to attract clients and extend Vashon Island Coffee Dust’s brand presence. Initially a Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) company, the business has expanded into larger holiday markets and fairs, elevating the brand's exposure. Expanding her horizons into the wholesale market, sforging partnerships with accounts across the country. Recognizing the significance of diverse clientele, she targets coffee shops as potential allies, allowing enthusiasts to savor her coffee spice beyond the Pacific Northwest.
“When I coach leaders and software teams, I emphasize the importance of having a prioritized backlog and working through tasks in order of priority. It’s how I live my life and it helps me remain calm when I can't finish everything I planned for the day. I have to remember that no one's life depends on getting coffee dust, and that helps me be a bit kinder to myself.”
One of the most significant challenges Christy faced was navigating the complex world of regulations and compliance related to food products. It was overwhelming trying to figure out which specific regulations applied to her product. She also had to familiarize herself with various agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the FDA. Each of which had its own requirements. Additionally, Christy had bootstrapped the initial stages and was able to manage without external capital and maintain the business's financial stability. However, she acknowledges that a larger production run or expansion into co-packing could pose financial challenges in the future. Luckily, Christy discovered Business Impact NW. Through their coaching, Christy was able to gain a clearer understanding of the specific rules and regulations that applied to her product. This enabled her to make informed decisions and ensure that her product was compliant with all necessary guidelines.
Christy was also able to participate in the Good Food Mercantile in Portland. Business Impact NW and the Food Business Resource Center not only offered her a scholarship to attend the event but also provided her with valuable insights, allowing her to navigate the wholesale market more effectively. At her usual markets, customers would often approach Christy to try coffee dust and learn more about it. However, at the mercantile, she noticed that buyers didn't approach her directly. Christy was introduced to Whole Foods buyers, highlighting the industry's reliance on relationship-building.
“It made me realize that this industry is more of a relationship-based business than I expected. I'm starting to see the value of brokers in establishing connections with big retailers like Whole Foods. They have these relationships that can make it easier to get your product into these places. If I had done it on my own, it would have been a lot harder.”
Christy continued to work with Business Impact NW and participated in the annual IMPACT Pitch competition. Participants receive access to an exclusive network of resources, including mentorship from a dedicated business coach. Christy says it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase Vashon Island Coffee Dust and helped Christy refine her pitching skills and expand her network. She saw the value of tailored one-one-on coaching and utilized this while mentoring a friend contemplating a new business venture. This act of knowledge exchange extended the impact of the competition beyond its bounds, fostering a community where experiences are shared to empower fellow entrepreneurs on their unique journeys.
During the competition, Christy gained a valuable insight into what she sees envisions for Vashon Island Coffee Dust. Rather than solely pursuing massive growth or a billion-dollar empire, she prioritizes striking a balance. For Christy, the journey itself holds greater importance to her than any destination. This allows her to engage with her business while enjoying the freedom to explore other interests, including supporting other small businesses, and fostering a sense of community.
“I've been in touch with a coffee roastery called Sassy Squatch, and we've collaborated on promotions. Working with another coffee-related business has been fantastic. I'm also working with the New York based Cloud Chips. The plan is to offer Coffee Dust as a fun add-on to their existing product line, creating a unique experience for their customers. These partnerships are mutually beneficial, allowing us to tap into each other's customer bases and reach new audiences."
The Daily Grind
Christy has seamlessly transitioned from her IT consulting background to the world of coffee spices thanks to her leadership and innovative skills. She encourages aspiring entrepreneurs not to rely solely on word-of-mouth marketing, even if you have a fantastic product. While organic growth and positive feedback are essential, it's crucial to have a well-thought-out marketing plan in place. Understand your target audience and the most effective channels to reach them. It can make a significant difference to a product's visibility and success. She also says to reconize your own strengths and interests within the business. Accept guidance and resources from organizations like Business Impact NW.
Christy’s pie-in-the-sky dream is to one day see Vashon Island Coffee Dust becoming a well-known and loved product. They recently introduced a new sampler pack to the market. The exciting addition to our lineup allows customers to experience all six delightful coffee spice flavors. Christy plans to promote this new offering at summer markets and holiday fairs later this year. She plans to rethink the production process depending on the success of the sampler packs. As offerings become more labor-intensive, Christy plans explore options like co-packers to handle larger production runs more efficiently.
“Do everything you can yourself when you're first starting out - it keeps you in touch with the customer but also allows you to iterate so quickly. I still print all of my own packaging in small batches and do small production batches because we're constantly tweaking things. If we ran huge batches, I wouldn't have evolved the product as quickly to get something that customers really love. My next challenge will be letting that go.”
About the author
Janelle is a storyteller through and through. She was raised in a family of entrepreneurs who owned and managed a series of small businesses, including a Hawaiian restaurant, a video store, and several real estate properties. Growing up in a low-income community but attending schools as a minority in affluent areas, she struggled with the inequities she faced each day. As a Bay Area native, Janelle has witnessed the rise and fall of countless startups and small businesses. She has worked for a number of nonprofits and has remained steadfast in her commitment to using her craft to support the missions of each organization, and uplift underserved communities throughout the Bay Area.
Janelle graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, specializing in screenwriting and playwriting. She worked as a copywriter for companies such as Coldwell Banker, Callisto Media, a publisher of nonfiction and self-help books, and Artslandia magazine, a premier publisher of performing arts playbills throughout the Portland metro area. In a leap of faith, Janelle moved her family to Seattle in 2021 and worked with Committee for Children, an educational nonprofit committed to supporting the well-being of children through social-emotional learning.