Interview of Interest: Dave McKernan

By Gemma Kavanagh

Dave McKernan started his coffee career at 17 when he got his first job in Bewley’s, and he has never looked back. In September 1999 he went out on his own and created Java Republic.

Dave was 29 when he became an entrepreneur. It was three years before he finally took the leap and started the company. “When I was in San Francisco I saw Café Roma and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to have one of those someday’. The biggest issue in business is taking that first jump. Forget about the comfort zone, just go and do it,” he said.

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(Source: Gemma Kavanagh & Lily Joyce)

Dave runs one of the most ethical coffee companies in the business – he does right by his farmers and wants to tell the world by leading by example. When we met him at his roastery in Ballycoolin, he was incredibly welcoming and couldn’t be more generous with his time and effort. Knowing the business world so well, Dave has some fantastic advice for budding Irish entrepreneurs.

Taking risks 

Going out on your own means leaving the comfortable environment you’re used to, leaving your colleagues and friends. It took Dave three years to start up Java Republic and a year to raise the money. It was unusual at the time for a start up to take so long and investors and contributors lost faith and pulled out. “I put everything on the line, even my house. To me, it never felt like a risk, it’s just what I always wanted to do. The dream was so embedded in my head that to me it was never going to fail,” he explained.

The coffee industry was huge in Ireland, but despite not seeing a gap in the market for a new product, Dave wanted to change the industry itself. “I wanted to be transparent as to where we got the coffee from, to talk about the freshness, I’m very honest and direct. Java Republic created a transparent, open roastery you could visit on the Kylemore Road, I wanted to tell everybody the story of coffee.” Java Republic were the first to declare the price of coffee on the internet.

(Source: Gemma Kavanagh and Lily Joyce)

They started running out of money, and with nine people on the payroll, they were burning up a huge amount of cash every month. They expected more customers than they actually got and there came a time where they nearly couldn’t pay wages. “It was stressful but I never believed it wasn’t going to work, if you think you will fail, you will fail,” he advised.

“I never think of the glass half full or half empty – it has to be brimming, if you have that attitude, the fear will kill everything. I’m not sure when we got out of the danger zone, but there was always a sense of urgency with me I always had to work and get through it,” Dave says.  

Advice for young entrepreneurs 

“Be very careful in validating your project. An idea is nothing until it is validated in the market place. The hardest part is actually executing the plan. I came from coffee into coffee so I knew the business. I would advise you to work for someone who knows the business first,” Dave explains.

“Don’t be burnt to death by one idea that didn’t work. In Ireland we’re very unforgiving, if you have an idea in this country that doesn’t work out you’re screwed because it’s such a small community of bankers and suppliers and you’re seen as a failure. There’s no back up from the government, if you fail it travels the country and it’s very hard to set up again and to get the trust back with the bank and the suppliers,” Dave said.

When you get your big idea, what’s the next step?

Dave thinks you must validate your idea, find someone you can trust, someone who will give you some time. Every entrepreneur needs someone who will talk the project through and answer the really hard questions that you don’t want to answer, the hard questions such as where are you going to get the money, where will you get the people, how will you scale the project, how will you protect it, is it easy to copy or attacked by others in the market, what will the bigger players do if they find you in their market?

“Bord Bia in food are exceptional, they will listen to you and tell you it’s a hard market. I would advise you not to put your house on the line like I did, but if you asked me to do it all over again, I would. I take enormous risks; it’s just how I was built,” said Dave.

Dave thinks the biggest mistakes made are in packaging the product, design and legal issues. He thinks the traits of a good entrepreneur are persistence, to be aggressive in your market, to not be afraid of competition. “You need to learn to sell. Selling is communicating, it’s talking to investors, it’s talking to the market and it’s trying to raise money. You have to get your pitch absolutely perfect.”

(Source: Gemma Kavanagh and Lily Joyce)

“My main regret is not staying in education for longer, I didn’t go to college and I really enjoy education and I should have spent more time thinking about my business and scaling it differently. I don’t have many regrets. I go for everything at 100 miles an hour – if it fails, I just put my hand up and move on,” Dave said.

Managing stress

Stress is a huge killer in Ireland and Dave’s best advice on how to manage it is exercise. “I have tried yoga but I couldn’t get myself into the positions so I didn’t like it and when I did mindfulness I kept falling asleep. I keep fit, I play competitive tennis, running is great for you to think and contemplate where you’re going in your business. Being unfit and trying to run a business will just add to your stress.”

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