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Brewing Passion: Talking Entrepreneurship with Danny O’Neill

Posted by Sarah Mote on Nov 16, 2011

You know how much I love talking about entrepreneurship in Kansas City. And this week—Global Entrepreneurship Week—lets me really fly my flag. More than any other week, Global E-Week gives a heightened and concentrated view of all the best entrepreneurial resources, advice and support that Kansas City has to offer.

I know we’re just a few days into this week-long celebration of all things entrepreneurial, but with the talent, commitment, and passion of our entrepreneurs and those who support them, especially during Startup Weekend, our own kickoff celebration, the Hispanic Economic Development Corp. awards, and the Under30CEO--well, you can really sense why Kansas City is poised to become the most entrepreneurial city in the United States. We’re just that good.

Yesterday morning at the Plaza Library, we basked in the aroma of awesome that is Danny O’Neill, founder of the Roasterie, and got our passions about entrepreneurship brewing yet again as he discussed the hard-earned lessons he learned on the way from startup to success. And while I know this isn’t our usual modus operandi, I just wanted to share just a few of our notes with you.

The Story behind the Bean

A little background first.

Danny O’Neill grew up in the middle of a pack of 10 kids. He describes himself as Iowa stubborn and independent. His dad inspired the kids to never quit. The first adage he learned from: “Whatever you start, finish it. Bring back the bird. Good dogs never come back without the bird.”

He signed up as a foreign exchange student his senior year in high school. Destination: Costa Rica. (You can see where this might be going.) He didn’t speak any Spanish. His trek to school took him through coffee fields, but he didn’t really pay attention. Then he joined his friends picking coffee during one school break. He didn’t even drink coffee at the time, but he remembers “feeling it.”

He started drinking coffee during finals at Iowa State—and after a stint in corporate America,  began the long, lean years of true connoisseurship. He was fixated on coffee and consumed by quality. That was his market.

When Danny started The Roasterie, he looked for customers he thought would be easy, but they weren’t interested in his coffee. For three month, he couldn’t find a customer or a local market.

“People didn’t understand,” O’Neill said.  “I had a horrible fear of failure. That can motivate you or immobilize you.”

He got motivated. He made a sale to an espresso cart at the University of Kansas Hospital. Then came eight or nine other customers. He’d sell the coffee during the day then roast and package at night.

Growing a Community through Coffee

“We started with a notion of quality: simply the best coffee we could find in the world. There was no possible way to compete on volume. Quality was the only thing we could compete on, the only thing we wanted to compete on,” he said. “Air roasted, it was the best thing I had ever tasted. Bean to bean, it’s  consistent, batch to batch, it’s perfect.”

He grew his company by growing relationships. He got involved in communities, sustainability projects, and preschools.

In Brazil, he found world-class coffee—and refused to pay the price. O’Neill thought it was too low.  They argued and he agreed to pay 15 cents a pound extra and put that back into the community.

“The community needed a preschool, so we built it. The kids came to school dirty, so we built some showers. And kids came to school hungry so we built a kitchen,” he said. He completed a similar project in Costa Rica.

“It’s not about trying to get cheapest price. It’s about trying to maintain loyalty,” he said. “What's good for everybody involved is good for us. That's our compass.”

“You have to have people who feel the same way you do. And we've got a team who does.”

More Stories of Entrepreneurship

Hear from KC’s great entrepreneurs during the Cradle of Entrepreneurs Series this week:

Ollie Gates
November 16, 6 p.m.
Central Library

Clara Reyes
November 18, 12 p.m.
Central Library

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