Retrenched and dejected, this entrepreneur proved that a lot can happen over coffee

Richard Koh is running 1◦C, which specialises in creating signature coffee tastes using natural ingredients

In 2016, Richard Koh, a business manager (Asia Pacific) of 10 years with a US-headquartered multi-national company, was retrenched after an organisational restructuring. A despondent Koh, who was 54 then, and with a family of three, spent a considerable time and efforts looking for job opportunities, but with little success. Most employers, as it is always the case, were only interested in hiring younger people.

“Obviously, my self-confidence hit rock bottom, and I was feeling really depressed,” he rewinds the story for e27. “It was a tough time. But thankfully, my wife Yan stood by me. She assuaged me, boosted my spirits and asked me to pick myself up and do something that I was passionate about.”

That was a defining moment in his life. And the job loss eventually proved to be a blessing in disguise.

“It had always been my dream to be an entrepreneur and be my own boss,” Koh continues the story. “However, my upbringing was in such a way that my relatives always persuaded me to study hard, get a Degree, and find a good and stable job. So it was difficult to leave a well-paid job, especially when you had a family to look after. guess I was too comfortable just being a salaried employee. It was only after I lost my job that I decided to seriously pursue dreams.”

Waking up and smelling the coffee

Koh and Yan, both hailing from Singapore, were always coffee lovers and they like café-hopping — an activity that millennials and the younger crowd spend time doing. One day, their daughter told them to try cold brew coffee, which was a hit in many hipster cafes. The couple heeded her and try their luck. They would visit various cafes that offered cold brew coffee, and found them very interesting.

And that’s when they decided to turn this passion into a startup.

In November 2016, Koh and Yan kicked off their entrepreneurial journey with 1◦C (OneDegreeCelcius). It is a designer of coffee and specialises in creating signature coffee tastes. Its products consist of cold brew coffee and cold tea, and they are handcrafted locally.

1◦C’s cold brew is made by steeping the coffee grounds in room temperature water for many hours, adds Koh. As a result, the coffee is naturally sweet, less acidic and more alkaline. It uses Arabica and Robusta coffee beans from Colombia and Southeast Asia sourced from a local roaster, and creates own blend for its cold brew coffee products.

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“Our philosophy is to create a healthier choice cold brew coffee and cold tea. Most of our products do not have added sugar. The sweetness of our cold brew coffee comes mainly from the coffee beans and dairy which we add into our products. The sweetness of most of our cold tea comes from the fresh herbs/fruits that we brew together,” he claims.

1◦C was started off as an online business because cold brew coffee was available only in brick-and-mortar cafes, most of which open only after 9am and close at 9pm. This makes good coffee inaccessible to many. Now, says Koh, with 1◦C in place, coffee drinkers in Singapore can have cold brew coffee any time of the day, anywhere. Once you place an order, the cold brew coffee will be delivered to your doorsteps.

“Our  wholesale business caters to F&B establishments/cafes, schools, corporate pantries and events, event organisers, weddings, parties, etc. We also participate in pop-up events, Farmers’ Markets, coffee festival and boutique fairs,” he shares.

A small team, 1◦C is currently powered by Shopify and it also makes use of Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to grow awareness of its products.  1◦C mainly targets millennials (people aged between 18 to 38 years) and Generation X (39 to 53 years olds) with its drinks.

“When we are on-site at Farmers’ Markets and pop-up events, customers can pay for their drinks using mobile payment system (for instance, Stripe Payments). As we grow our order book, we will link our online shop orders with a third-party delivery service provider, which we hope to facilitate faster delivery,” he adds.

As of now, most of the deliveries are made by Koh and Yan themselves, as they believe in providing the customer a ‘personal touch’. This strategy also helps them meet customers face to face, so that they get instant feedback. “As we grow bigger, we may engage a third-party delivery partner,” he adds.

The initial months were tough, Koh admits. In the first six months since launch, there was little progress because of little awareness of the firm. “Many Singaporeans are not familiar with cold brew coffee and its health benefits. Many people still prefer drinking hot brew coffee. At that time, we wrote to many cafes to see if they were interested in wholesaling our products, but they preferred making their own cold brew coffee. It was disappointing, but we believed in our products and decided to let them speak for us.”

“So we focused our attention on growing our online business and word-of-mouth marketing to create awareness. We also made a lot of efforts to participate in pop-up events where customers can sample our cold brew drinks,” he notes.

The startup’s major break-through happened when it got an opportunity to attend the Singapore Coffee Festival (SCF) in August 2017. Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the organiser of the event, provided his team with a lot of media publicity. “That’s when people started noticing us, and we had an amazing event and a massive number of people came to taste and buy our drinks. We were sold out every day of the event,” Koh goes on.

Subsequently, the startup was covered by several big new publications, and this gave the company further publicity. “In the second year, we began to receive more bulk orders from companies, schools and government agencies. Our online business also gained traction as the news about our drinks began to spread via social sites. A couple of new speciality cafes started to carry out cold brew coffee and cold teas,” he smiles.

Now, into its third year, 1◦C is experimenting with new flavours and exploring collaborations with other vendors. Koh aims to make 1◦C a household name for cold brew coffee (just like Colgate is a household name for toothpaste) in Singapore. Overseas expansion is also on the cards.

The journey so far

Along their journey, the couple met many people including strangers, who extended their knowledge and expertise to them. They learned many new skills such as social media marketing, photography, and photoshopping.

“I have no regrets in starting this business at this age. Our children are grown up now. We are doing something that we enjoy and are passionate about.”

Bootstrapped to date, 1◦C is open to external investment. “Our decision to raise money from external sources would depend on our growth strategy. If we expand our production capabilities, we would need to invest in a new factory, equipment and other resources. At this juncture, we would need to raise funding. If there is an investor who can help us grow our business locally and/or overseas, we are more than happy to discuss the collaboration,” he ends the conversation.

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