Speciality coffee at your doorstep

Cafebond.com consolidates individual customer orders on a weekly basis and places bulk orders with partner roasters, to save on costs for both parties.

WE'VE all been there - you want to buy something online, but the shipping costs nearly as much as or more than the product itself. To make the purchase worthwhile, you have to round up a few friends to share an order and split the shipping among yourselves.

The co-founders of Cafebond.com encountered this same problem when they tasted "one of the best cups of coffee in our lives" in a Melbourne cafe serving speciality coffee, and wanted to recreate the experience at home. To their shock, the shipping cost was as much as triple the price of a bag of beans.

"Paying S$40 to S$50 in shipping for something that costs only S$20 doesn't make any sense, no matter how rich I am," said co-founder and CEO Keyis Ng.

One might struggle to find fellow speciality coffee lovers to share an order with, and buying in bulk to last a few months is not an option because unlike regular coffee beans, speciality coffee beans are meant to be consumed within one month.

To solve these issues, Mr Ng and his friend Eugene Chen founded Cafebond.com in June 2016. The e-commerce platform consolidates individual customer orders on a weekly basis and places bulk orders with partner roasters, to save on costs for both parties.

Cafebond.com currently sells beans from 17 roasters in Melbourne, Canberra, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei and Bath. The e-commerce platform serves about 5,000 customers in Singapore and Malaysia, including platform users, wholesale customers and walk-in customers at Cafebond.com's outlet in Millenia Walk. It supplies freshly roasted beans to office pantries as well, counting DBS Bank, Spotify and Xero among its corporate customers.

While he declined to reveal figures, Mr Ng said revenue has roughly doubled each year of Cafebond.com's operations.

Although the platform is doing well, Mr Ng's team is not content to preach to the choir. Most customers who stroll into the Millenia Walk outlet know what type or brand of beans they're looking for, but only about 20 per cent are newcomers venturing to try speciality coffee for the first time.

Part of the problem could lie with the amount of information crammed onto package labels - everything from tasting notes to the altitude at which the beans were grown, and the region where they come from.

"People who might not be familiar with specialty coffee might feel very intimidated. It's like wine - if you do not have a bit of knowledge, you would feel that way," Mr Ng said. He believes that more people would try speciality coffee if they had a more manageable range of options to choose from.

To reach such customers, the startup has launched Cafebond Basic, an entry-level speciality coffee brand with just two products: one for espresso and the other for hand-brew coffee methods. The packaging is also simplified, leaving out the numerous technical details usually found on speciality coffee packages.

"We really simplify everything to make it easy to understand, so even people like my parents who are not into specialty coffee can understand it," he said. Cafebond Basic is currently sold at Cafebond.com's retail shelf in Tangs, Unpackt, and all outlets of Naiise.

To continue improving offline sales, Mr Ng hopes to figure out a way that customers can get a better idea of a coffee bean's taste before purchasing it. At the moment, the only way to judge a bean without brewing a cup is by smelling it, which does not give a good representation of the taste.

Managing challenges

Mr Ng counts prioritising tasks as one of his biggest challenges in running Cafebond.com, especially when he has to manage online and offline sales in two markets. A self-described perfectionist, he has had to learn to stop double- and triple-checking his staff's work, and instead trust them to do their jobs well.

"I try to delegate and give them more power to make decisions, because at the end of the day I want them to improve as well, so that we can build a really good team to complement each other," he said.

Meanwhile, he prioritises bigger issues, like building up a good company culture and ensuring staff welfare. He recently purchased employee insurance for the team from NTUC Income Start.Sure, an insurance programme catered to startups and small businesses with two to 15 full-time staff.

The insurance plans are purchased online, and cover pre- and post-hospitalisation and surgical expenses as well as three months of free coverage for employees, should their company cease operations. No paperwork, underwriting or meetings with insurance agents are required, although customers can request to speak to an agent if they need help.

Mr Ng said the convenience of accessing all the information and application processes online helped him to get it done early on, rather than pushing it down the list of priorities as he might have, if he had to look up insurance plans himself and meet with agents before making the purchase.

"The people on my team, we work so closely together and work hard to chase our dreams. It feels good to know that I'm taking care of them," said Mr Ng.

And work hard he does. Mr Ng shuttles across the Causeway daily, spending time with his mother in Johor Baru and handling Cafebond.com's Malaysia operations in the morning, then travelling to Singapore in the afternoon to continue working until night.

"It's very tiring, but I'm willing to sacrifice for my dreams," he said.

Expansion plans

Cafebond.com plans to add to its current portfolio of roasters soon, and introduce local roasters onto the platform by end-2018.

"Now we have great local roasters who roast coffee that is on par with international roasters, and it makes absolute sense for us to include Singapore roasters," said Mr Ng.

The startup also plans to start shipping to the rest of Asia, as it sees demand in the numerous messages it receives from customers in places like the Philippines, Dubai, Indonesia, Taiwan and China, requesting for shipping to their countries. Staff from a cafe in Medan, Indonesia, even fly to Singapore every two months to collect beans from his team and hand-carry them back, Mr Ng said.

All these signs point to unmet demand in the young but rapidly growing speciality coffee industry. "We don't view ourselves as competing with cafes or coffee roasters," he explained. "We want to be the marketplace where the roasters can retail their beans, and we want to supply their coffee to cafes that don't roast their own.

"The more people there are doing what we are doing, the better, because it helps to educate customers. I believe for now, there is enough space for more players to come in and grow the market."