Nick Maybe, Co-Founder Assembly Coffee

S1 Ep10: Nick Maybe, Co-Founder of Assembly Coffee Podcast Transcript

Chris: Have you ever wondered how the businesses you know, and love have evolved? What inspired the founders to create them? What chances do they take and what mistakes do they make along the way?

Hi, I’m Chris, the CEO of Uncommon, a company that creates exceptional spaces for work. In each episode of Alive with Possibilities, I get to sit down with a different business leader whom I admire and discuss the journey they’ve been on.

In this episode, I’m joined by Nick Mabey, the co-founder of Assembly Coffee. Based in Brixton, Assembly Coffee, pride themselves on brewing unique coffees from all corners of the world. And they go a step further by highlighting each coffee’s purpose and the impact your money can have upon the supply chain.

We are proud to say that Assembly Coffee supplies Uncommon and we really value the partnership as we see the coffee experience for our members as a central part of our brand.

Nick, thanks for joining us. Can you start by telling me more about Assembly Coffee? When did you get involved and tell us about the journey that you’ve been on.

Nick: I got to London in 2013. I was at that time still very much a pretty diehard jazz musician. Living a life of avoiding responsibilities and being a bit of a martyr for the art form.

The relationship between musicians and coffee is an interesting one because I think fundamentally cafes as a barista, you can express yourself creatively. You don’t have all that much responsibility and it is a highly social environment, so it attracts musicians and artists and things like this that are quite transient, I certainly was.

But when I got to London, I realised pretty quickly that being antipodean and to be a barista in London, you’re pretty hot property. It was kind of easy to get a job. And through that I ended up working for numerous roasteries and cafes as either a consultant or a barista. Had a bit of a quarter life crisis to steal from John Mayer.

Literally, I remember I went to IKEA and was shopping for bedsheets with my housemates. I mean, I hadn’t taken rent out on a property in years because I was travelling so much and touring, that I kind of was just like, “Wow, this is scary.” And I kind of thought to myself, “What do I want out of my life?” And I forced myself to be a bit more consequential.

And then I got a call from a friend that was working in an exciting coffee roastery in London called Volcano Coffee Works of which I’m now a director of. And they wanted a coffee kind of expert to drum up some training programs.

I got involved and then quite quickly I met my business partner Michael Cleland, who’s an Australian. He was over in London in a very similar kind of vein. He was more the marketing guy.

He was interested in how or why marketing theory that applies to every other sector, including booze and perfume, wasn’t being applied to coffee.

And he was writing these articles and together we were tasked with figuring out the next direction of growth for Volcano and the answer we came up with was creating another brand which turned out to be Assembly. So, we founded that in 2015 officially and the rest is kind of history.

So, today we exist as a small group of directors that operate both brands with very distinctive identities. All the coffee buying is managed in-house by me across both of them, which is a lot of fun because you’re addressing two very pretty broad spectrums of the same marketplace.

One which is more about simplifying and demystifying coffee and one which is more about challenging the status quo, which is Assembly the other’s Volcano.

So, yeah, we’ve a company of 40 people now. Had some pretty big successes this year, it’s been really good. COVID was awful, but it really forced a lot of us to grow up quite quickly.

Chris: I think coffee to me has evolved massively over say probably the last 10 years. And this kind of term, I mean I think I’ll put it in the emails or meetings now I’m like, let’s go grab a coffee.

Do you think that this is going to continue to evolve? What do you think the coffee market is going to do? What do you think the coffee market, world of coffees in London’s going to do?

Because I also read in the press like everyone’s saying that the kind of central London coffee houses, that’s where all the deals are being done. It kind of goes full circle back to its roots that the tea houses were.

Nick: I like the full circle historical perspective of what you just said about going back to its roots. Coffee consumption moves at a certain rate and it’s certainly very defined by certain cultures, countercultures, and geographies.

You mentioned London certainly has developed rapidly in the last 10 years. Well, initially it adopted a more antipodean kind of approach in terms of how cafes sprung up or cafe culture, which by my reckoning is a bunch of disgruntled Kiwis and Aussies working in the city and lamenting that they couldn’t find a flat white. That’s quite a common anecdote.

But certainly, the scene has taken a life of its own. And I think everywhere you go where you’ve got an emergence of food and beverage culture period, then coffee follows suit.

And it tends to look quite similar everywhere until the real identity of that place or that culture kind of takes hold, and then you come up with a distinctive London coffee scene, for instance, which is far more driven by consumer needs states and prices of rent, blah, blah, blah as opposed to how it might show up in somewhere else like Manchester or Birmingham or somewhere on the continent.

Chris: I always remember the fact that people explained in hard times, actually the coffee is the last thing that they end up dropping. So, like recessional times people are still turning up paying for that coffee. There’ll still be queues outside and I find that absolutely fascinating.

And how does that play into say, Assembly and all that you are doing in that sort of space? How does that actually day-to-day affect you?

Nick: We’re in a pretty, I wouldn’t say a stable market, but everyone’s kind of used to the price of coffee being driven by a lot of volatility, which is mainly a function of supply and demand based on certain things being priced into forward futures markets. We don’t need to get into the way that the coffee market works because it’s very complicated.

But generally speaking, coffee is bought and sold at a price derived by what coffee is available on the global market. And within that you’ve got differentials which signifies quality.

But with specialty, and this is the way specialty should work, I’m not saying it always does. You kind of derive coffee pricing based on different dimensions of understanding quality and that could encompass things like the human capital, social impact, environmental, all sorts of these things, plus quality.

With the canephora stuff you do certainly see once coffee prices get very high because of the inelastic consumer price function. A lot of consumers, if you raise your price in your local coffee shop by 50p, they don’t really see what’s behind the cafe serving them, therefore there’s a lot of resistance there.

So, once coffee prices get very high, which happened in COVID because of the logistical headaches that were happening around and lack of labour on farms means that there’s a bit of a supply crunch.

A lot of specialty roasters couldn’t really afford to buy the coffee they were, which means that all of the specialty and traditionally non-specialty coffee roasters were after the same coffee.

Which was a bit of an existential crisis for a lot of small brands that hadn’t worked hard enough to have a strong kind of narrative around why they should be worth more.

They just kind of fell into being a part of the specialty movement. On its own, virtues aren’t enough. Especially when coffee producers lack the incentive to invest in quality because the market prices are the same either way.

From our perspective, we were okay because we pay for a very high-priced coffee. We’re a “luxury brand.” We position ourselves exactly to be there, so we never have to have that conversation really because people are interested in what we do. You get what you see on the tin.

The brand works for us and that’s the intention because it’s very rare that coffee speaks for itself.

As it comes to the canephora robusta stuff, we and I personally, are very much interested in the future of what that can hold from both the agricultural perspective, from the genetics to its impact potential on how farming systems can be changed. Introducing biodiversity into mono crop systems for instance, of which canephora can play a major role.

And simply just to have the conversation about how we can utilise the inherent characteristics of canephora, especially in espresso, to have a much more lean cost base for coffee farming systems.

Because in many ways they can be a lot cheaper to produce and there’s no reason why we can’t celebrate the quality of robusta when it’s done right and elevate it to the same levels that Arabica has over the last 30 years or so.

So, we’re actively pushing for more and more conversations around its potential.

Chris: But most people, their relationship with coffee is early morning, get up. This is a real moment of joy for them. However, they do that, whether it’s buying it from a shop, whether it’s making it in the morning, the concept that they have is going to the local supermarket and buying an instant coffee I would say or have one of those little espresso cups that they put in and they’re the fancy ones.

Explain to me a bit about your world. When you say you are going to go and buy it, what does that actually involve? How does that work?

Nick: I mean it’s a very cool job but certainly it’s a spectrum. You’ve got a lot of people that sit on trading desks and buy and sell coffee futures. You’ve got coffee buyers that work for big roasteries that kind of buy lots and they’re more kind of quality focused in terms of landing a lot of coffee and checking the quality against what they cupped pre ship.

And then there’s the kind of coffee buyers like myself, which are also founders, which can also be quite rare. But I think a lot of people get into coffee from an ideological point of view because they believe that coffee holds a potential to prove how you can de-commoditize something, which goes back to this whole value chain thing.

From my perspective, yeah, I’m very interested in behavioural economics and stuff. I’m also very interested in coffee as a product itself, more on the human side than on the product side.

But the way it works for me is, I have attempted to establish with many failures along the way, long-term supply chains with coffee producers that are native to their own country that have an invested interest in what coffee means to their country and trying to help them find a way to build a consistent marketplace and invest in quality or social kind of mechanisms where coffee becomes a much more sustainable thing to do.

In 50% of the cases right now, our buying book, it’s about 80% what you would call direct trade, which is a function of myself and the team going out to particular farmers in particular regions and working with them year on year on year.

I kind of try to avoid using a lot of the more ubiquitous marketing speak around things like our coffee partners and blah, blah, blah. But in many senses that is what we do.

The decisions we make around why we work with the people we work with are quite complex. They are true relationships and most of the supply chains have a very particular goal in terms of producer identified goals, might identify goals and where the market needs to be.

I travel every year to the coffee origins not everywhere, every year. But I try to do as little as possible these days actually because one, it’s stressful, and two, I get a bit of climate anxiety around flying.

In the past, when we were setting up a lot of the original supply chains, I would be in Colombia every year, Brazil, I’ll be back there this year. I was recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ve done a lot of Africa, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, but nothing prepared me for this. It was next level, next level. But an amazing place, a real lesson in all the full spectrum of humanity. It was nuts.

But that’s a place that I would love to kind of do more work in because quite simply doing work out there, buying coffee and investing in supply chains is probably the one of the last places we are just participating goes a very long way.

Chris: I mean look, our two businesses align wonderfully and that’s why it works so well, is the quality focus is super high for you. Ethical elements that are in there are super high for you.

So, that just works, and we play super nicely because of that point. And I think for me and the businesses, just trying to find as many people in our supply chain that work in that same way because I know that you care about all these things that are going on. I know that you care about all these things.

I don’t have to then. It’s also that thing just ticked off and I go, “Okay, cool. That side of it is taken care of, I can go and worry about something else.”

Nick: That’s an interesting take too. One of the big challenges with marketing and coffee, which is why the greenwashing thing’s become so prominent in academic circles, is actually trying to figure out where the incentive or motivation lies or even whether it belongs in the consumer sphere.

For a long time in coffee, it was kind of naively understood that if you are a part of the specialty coffee movement, whatever that means because it’s very unstandardized.

But let’s say you’re a specialty coffee roaster, you call yourself one, you buy coffee expensively from small importers but don’t really know where the money goes. You are kind of a part of some altruistic mechanism, therefore why wouldn’t you buy my coffee?

I think that’s where specialty coffee got a lot of criticism and for good reason because it got so far up its own ass in terms of its own assumptions about the good it was doing without acknowledging its place as an emergent feature of a global trade structure. Which is one attempt to decommodify something because there are other attempts, fair trades one, certification’s one.

Specialty coffee’s the most effective one not because of its rules, because it doesn’t have any, because of its ability to actually remain quite adaptive because it quite simply is a network of businesses choosing to make certain decisions. And it’s my job to make sure that it’s understood that I’m making those decisions, so you don’t have to.

In the same way that I’ll buy from brands that I like because I don’t have to think about the things that I don’t have any expertise on. If I wanted to, I’d go make my own clothes, but I’m not going to, that’s not the way the world works.

Chris: And it’s why something like B Corp as a mark is at some level an indicator that you are abiding by a set of rules. It’s an indicator that we can then trust and then work within?

Nick: Yeah, I’m glad we finally got onto the B Corp thing. When we first decided to sign up, as a unanimous decision, at the time there weren’t many coffee roasters interested in it, although there were a couple that were registered.

And my worry was that the narrative being built around B Corp was that it was kind of become kind of bastardised or misinterpreted by industries to say that this is a claim which means that B Corp aspirations and what this B Corp certification means is that actually certifies all elements of supply chains, which it doesn’t at all.

And that hasn’t happened thankfully, although some companies attempted to do so unsuccessfully. But B Corp is really a very interesting and quite profound commitment to do things better.

And people often ask me what does it take? You have to look at all elements of your business from supply chain interaction to energy, to consumption, to governance, and it challenges you to do better and it asks more of you at every step.

And that baseline for how well or not well you perform certain elements. Like there’s no right or wrong answer, but you do have to get better. And it does make you really consider the way you behave and especially if you want to improve your score, which is a nice incentive to have because I think the game theory there is good.

You really have to incorporate decision making into your businesses, that means you have to make better decisions. Whether your intentions are good or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s going to make you a better, impactful, ethical business.

Chris: Fundamentally, demand for coffee is almost exponentially increasing yet supply is actually, probably, arguably reducing for when you start looking at it and you’re there going, okay, well, what’s going to fill in the gap?

Nick: You’re dead right. It’s going to happen anyway. And the questions you have to ask yourself as a coffee business. Me, myself as a roaster is, what do you want the world to look like in 10 years in terms of coffee diversity?

Because farmers are embracing the innovation around these farming practices whether we like it or not. And they’re under pressure to do so because they simply are being forced into it by environmental conditions.

So, if we want to stay true to our virtues of value creation as coffee roasters and baristas and cafe operators, then you have to embrace that innovation top down to build markets for what producers are inevitably going to have to do.

And if you do, you are kind of honouring those virtues in a much more sincere way than stopping the innovation because you’ve got some sort of purist ideology around Arabica.

And it doesn’t take much to kind of see how far or how immature the robusta post-harvest processing, which is where a lot of quality happens, it’s really been left behind or forgotten about or just not taken interest.

So, it’ll be exponentially improved is what I’m trying to say. Where the coffee will kind of start emerging, and it’ll be a lot more easier to access and producers will be incentivized to get involved in more high-quality production.

But like you said, it needs to happen, it’s going to happen. So, we may as well get ahead of it and really celebrate some of the great innovation that’s happening instead of kind of stifling it.

Chris: From your point of view, tie into the legacy, you want to leave behind. Have you thought about that?

Nick: We’re a pretty busy company. We’ve got a lot of aspirations. And I get very tied into the day-to-day, so I don’t really have the bandwidth to think about life after all of this.

But I think if I was to think about it a little bit, it would be something along the lines of demonstrating that you can actually prove that stakeholders within systems can coordinate effectively enough that you can really make meaningful changes to all the dimensions of things in the world that you don’t want to be harming, for instance.

I never studied economics; I’m very interested in it now. There is the triple bottom line approach to running a business, but there’s also ways that you can embrace the role of a strong brand power with strong buying power and strong supply chain interaction.

Which if you get it right, I still fundamentally believe that that model can demonstrate how to have a real positive impact on the world without just being smoke and mirrors.

There are probably quite a few examples out there, but I mean that’s what I kind of wake up in the morning to do, is to figure out how systems can be improved and adapted all the time.

And my role in that as a business owner in this instance is all about the relationship between the decisions we make as a buyer and the decisions we make as a seller and how they all kind of interlink. And then plugging in environmental modalities into that is important more and more. And then obviously the social side’s important.

So, it’s really about demonstrating how you can rework business operating models to prove that you can do all of these things without compromising profitability. Because fundamentally profitability is the driving force of businesses as it should do or else you end up being a very poorly run NGO that spends money in meaningless places.

Chris: The good times that you’ve had of late, how do you actually celebrate those? Are there any little rituals you do or anything that you do when something’s going well?

Nick: That’s a really good question. No, I’m probably quite bad at that, but I certainly have pretty high expectations of myself and of others. So, I should probably learn to say thanks, but more or well done. I personally actively take a lot of time to appreciate what I have. That’s how I do it.

Within the business, it’s more about kind of letting the team lead the culture. Obviously, from a top-down point of view. We’ve got certain expectations, but one of our kind of north stars is being the greatest business to work for, period. And to do that you really have to listen and have a strong feedback loop.

But a strong strategy and a strong leadership team, but a pretty strong sense of independence within the team. And the way we do it is to try and encourage people within the business to engage with each other socially and celebrate things, on their own terms.

Chris: It kind of does because if you’ve set up the culture in that way that they will go and do, maybe it’s not stuff directly with you, but they’re celebrating that success. It’s the way you guys do it.

Nick: COVID was so tough in so many ways for everybody and a lot of people haven’t come out of it. But we faced the challenges pretty quickly. But one thing I’m proud of, we made very few redundancies and we really stuck to our people, but things have only been good for like 18 months really.

And that first six months I was so sceptical and wired, I had PTSD I think, I’d lost the ability to think longer than a week or a day because every attempt to do so the two years prior was just crushed.

I think I’m very proud of where we’re at today in terms of that culture. And what we did do was be extremely transparent about the state of the business from a very fundamental level.

So, everyone in the business has seen P&Ls. We look at the cash position, we look at all these things and that really incentivizes people to invest over and above what they would do otherwise.

Chris: Listening to the COVID kind of discussion, has that been probably the most significant learning experience you’ve had?

Nick: Absolutely, I mean, I can’t even remember the person I was before COVID. In many ways it changed me personally and professionally.

Things were moving in a pretty different trajectory before COVID. I had a bunch of other interests in different business setups across the world that never were realised because of COVID.

I really had to reassess my perception of success as both a musician, a businessman, as a human, as one side of our relationship, all these sorts of things. And I think I changed maybe five or six times during the process.

I gained a lot from it in some ways, well, a lot in terms of where I realised I needed to spend my time more to kind of feed the soul, if you want to put it that way. But, yeah, I can’t deny that it was a profound experience for me for sure.

Chris: Reflecting back, would you have done anything in that differently that you kind of really think about?

Nick: I spent too long in that COVID period thinking about the decisions I should have made actually. And it was very harmful, because there were a lot of potential regrets there, but a lot of it was out of my control, so I never made a decision that I regret, I just didn’t make decisions.

I was comparing myself to a version of myself that was only possible in the absence of COVID, and I had to let that all go. Which was a healthy thing to do, but it was hard. I think I’d make a pretty good coach myself at the moment because I’ve got a lot of good advice to give based on some circumstances.

Chris: If you boil that down into one piece of advice. If someone was starting their career or at any different point in life, is there one thing that you can think about that you’d like to offer to someone?

Nick: Okay, if I was to give some piece of advice that’s easy to follow, it would be to get a therapist. Whether you’re happy or not, get one. Because understanding oneself it sounds so naff, is so critical to kind of enabling yourself to be open to the right decisions that you need to make.

It’s all about understanding the person you are versus the person you want to be and all this kind of quiet, esoteric new age stuff.

But it’s not really, it’s all about understanding what are the things that you can maintain, what are the things that you need to let go of in order to become like a really functional human being in the sense that decisions you make are kind of a byproduct of progress rather than fear.

And there’s a lot of people much better positioned that will say the same thing in much more beautiful terms.

But I listen to a lot of podcasts, for many different things, I would recommend someone like Peter Attia. He’s a brilliant medical practitioner. And then obviously Esther Perel is a good one. She’s phenomenal with kind of understanding the human condition.

They’re all talking about very different fields of expertise, but they’re all saying the same thing in some ways, which is about understanding yourself and the world around you to kind of really become like a productive person.

And I think if you acknowledge productivity and purpose, the by-product is always happiness, but happiness is never the goal, if you know what I mean.

Chris: And finally, I get the fun job of always asking someone to bring in a book that they can leave on the proverbial Uncommon bookshelf that I do not have behind me at present that would hopefully inspire others. And also, I get to read the same. What book would you leave for us and why?

Nick: I want to give you two. Okay, one of them is Outlive by Peter Attia and it’s the doctor I mentioned before, I’m into my second reading of it now. He’s pretty controversial in terms of what he represents.

And he is probably a bit of a cult flowing, I’m probably in danger of becoming a meme of the mid-30s white guy that’s reading Peter Attia or something in terms of how famous he’s become.

But he is brilliant, and the book is all about how to understand the true nature of living a longer life as with focusing on living a happier life as a proxy for living a longer one.

And if you can extend your life by 10 years, is there any point if you’re not miserable, and then to that end, how do you make sure that your last 10 years of life are as optimal as you want them to be in terms of your mental health and your physical health?

The other book would be, I picked it up randomly, he must be some sort of biologist too, his name’s Peter Godfrey-Smith, and he wrote this book called Other Minds and it explores the other potential pathway towards consciousness as we know it through the eyes of arthropods, particularly octopuses.

And he posits the fact that if we could conceive of a different way of it happening, other than the way we understand it as humans, the closest thing we know of is the intelligence demonstrated by octopuses. Going back to the very, very, very, very beginning of where we split off from this single cell and then one pathway was this, the other pathway was eventually mammals.

It just makes you think very hard about how simple, but also how complex things can be.

Chris: I actually haven’t read either. So, I’ll make sure I do.

Nick: Man, you’ll love it

Chris: That whole biohacking link into the science stuff that kind of links into actually what illness is, and what people can do with diets. That is definitely a whole other podcast. Do you want to explain where people can come into contact with Assembly and all of that sort of things?

Nick: Our kind of headquarters is down here in Brixton, off Ferndale Road, a big old fire station. We’ve got a cafe finally out the front now called Door where you can experience every coffee from both Assembly and Volcano, quite proud of that.

Obviously, find us online at And on the website, you can find all of our wholesale partners. All the cafes that we work with, I’ve watched, there are many, many, many all over the UK. So, I would encourage anybody to go seek us out in your local cafe and become a loyal patron to your local Assembly Coffee dealer.

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Chris: In speaking with Nick, three things really stood out to me. Firstly, it’s really interesting to me how the pandemic affected different businesses, sectors and people. To hear Nick talk so openly about the challenges faced that has not only made his NorthStar stronger, but Assembly Coffees too as a result.

Secondly, I was gripped hearing Nick share his thoughts about the future of the coffee industry. It’s really heartwarming to hear how growers are actually being fairly rewarded.

We at Uncommon, focus strongly on our ethical roots and sustainability. Having a partner like Assembly Coffee, meeting the same objectives is reassuring because I trust their drivers and ethics.

And then lastly, it’s true the social aspects of coffee brings people together and that’s why we made it a central tenet of the Uncommon brand.

I hope listening to this story has inspired you. And if you haven’t already, follow Alive with Possibilities wherever you get your podcasts, as there are different learnings in each and every episode.