Whilst the parallels between poultry and prepping espresso shots might not be immediately clear, chasing round after chickens taught Tobias Zimmer everything he needed to know about the world of business. In the six years since Zimmer, co-founder and CEO of Coffee-Bike, first launched the mobile coffee franchise in Germany, he has never forgotten the lessons he learned from his earliest entrepreneurial experience. “As a child, I used to take the eggs and sell them around the neighbourhood,” he says.
The experience firmly instilled in him one of enterprise’s toughest home truths: there is no such thing as a free lunch. “My parents told me that if I made money then I had to buy the chickens’ food,” recalls Zimmer. Covering the expenses of keeping poultry slashed his profits but taught him the benefits of growing a business. “On their own, two chickens weren’t profitable, so I had to double the number I kept,” he explains. “Ultimately, I ended up having over 50.”
Zimmer’s enthusiasm for keeping his feathery friends faded as he grew older. “About the time I turned 12, I realised that running a chicken business wasn’t a cool thing to do,” he laughs. But before long he was ready for another shot of entrepreneurialism. “I started my first real company when I was 16,” says Zimmer. “It was a small agency that helped people sell products on eBay. It was usually more senior people who weren’t that tech-savvy and didn’t understand the internet properly.”
Through these entrepreneurial endeavours, Zimmer managed to fund his studies at universities in Marburg, Leipzig, New York and Seoul, eventually securing an MBA and a business administration diploma. Still, Zimmer’s earlier experiences of keeping poultry and trading on eBay had given him a taste for the startup life and fortunately his childhood friend Jan Sander was of a similar mind. “We’d always talked about starting a business together,” says Zimmer.
The spark that led the two entrepreneurs to found Coffee-Bike was ignited during a holiday in Denmark. “We were in a park and saw a man selling coffee from a bike,” he says. “The coffee wasn’t very good. It was cold and of low quality but people still bought it. Watching him, I couldn’t stop thinking about what kind of margins he must’ve been making.” Zimmer realised that he and Sander could easily slash many of the overheads facing regular coffee shops – such as rent – by emulating the man from the park. “The basic idea of Coffee-Bike came from that moment,” he says.
However, turning that grain of inspiration into red hot reality wasn’t without challenges. For starters, the friends needed funding for their enterprise. Like many do in times of adversity, the two entrepreneurs turned to friends and family, asking them to help fund the venture. While some eagerly embraced their vision, others were not as easily persuaded. “Some of my friends were really sceptical,” laughs Zimmer. “They thought I was crazy for wasting my double-degree on selling coffee on a bike. They were like: ‘Are you kidding me?'”
Still, enough of their nearest and dearest believed in the idea for Zimmer and Sander to begin to lay the company’s foundations. “We started building our first coffee-bike in our parents’ garage,” he says. Doing so enabled them to focus their limited funds on the hiring of engineers to provide support and technical knowhow on the best way to make the bike work. “Before long, we had two prototypes that Jan and I took out and sold coffee with.”
However, that first excursion slinging java on the streets of Osnabrück in 2010 only marked the start of an intense 12-month testing period. “We sold coffee from Thursday to Sunday, raising some revenue and writing down adjustments we needed to make,” explains Zimmer. “From Monday to Wednesday, we implemented the improvements before hitting the road again.”