Working with your dad on a multi-million dollar crowdfunding campaign? It’s just part of the daily grind for Martin and James Nicholson, the father-son team behind Niche Zero, a conical burr coffee grinder that lets coffee enthusiasts get the most out of their beans.
The pair has raised over $5.5M on Indiegogo over the last three years, putting their grinder into the hands of thousands of backers and getting the word out to people within the coffee community.
Creating a grinder for coffee nerds
Martin Nicholson is no stranger to kitchen appliances. He worked as a product engineer for 30 years for some of the UK’s biggest brands. And as coffee started to grow in popularity in the UK, he knew that he could build something better than what was available to elevate the coffee experience at home. “As you start getting into grinding your coffee, you start buying better coffee with a higher price tag. You want to grind fresher, and you want to grind more accurately, and you want to get all your grinds — you don’t want to leave some behind in the machine,” says Martin.
What happened next was an exercise in perfectionism: He built 32 prototypes — roughly one a month for three years — working to create a grinder that would grind beans and leave nothing behind. Once he made a prototype that satisfied him, he started taking it to coffee shops and letting baristas test it out. They loved it — and Martin was ready to grow his business.
Using crowdfunding to test the market
But even though the Niche Zero prototype was a hit amongst the coffee shop crowd, Martin needed to be sure that there was a market for it amongst the world’s coffee enthusiasts. “I still wanted proof that people would spend this kind of money on an unknown brand from an unknown guy,” he said of the Niche Zero, which costs about 500 GBP. “I wanted to prove that there was a market for it, that people would buy this product. So we set up the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and that told me there were 500 people that would give us a large quantity of money for a coffee grinder that they would have a year later.”
But that success took a lot of work from Martin and James. They got the word out about their campaign by seeking out coffee enthusiasts around the world. “We posted in coffee forums and got involved in the coffee community,” said James. “My main passion is instagram. I repost a lot of customer photos and stay connected with the community.”
In fact, that community is one of their favorite aspects of crowdfunding. “We love that connection with our customers and how supportive they are. They feel like they’re part of your product journey. It’s such a different approach than what one normally does as a brand,” says Martin.
Becoming a father-son team
Martin’s son James was attending university when his dad was building prototypes. James decided he wanted to get some real-world experience helping his dad. “He’d been working on it the whole time I was in school and it was very different from my interests at university. And I thought to myself, why not give it a try and get some experience in the workplace? And I did it for one year, two years, then four years. It’s given me the chance to do things I haven’t done before,” says James.
The pair works well together, with Martin using his product experience to work on the grinder, and James covers social media and customer service. “James was offered the chance to do maths at a university, right around the start of our Indiegogo campaign,” says Martin. “I didn’t want to tell him not to go to university. But he said, ‘I just want to get involved in the grinder.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I love that idea.’ And he’s grown as the company and products have grown.”
They got another generation in on the action when they were building their first product run by hand. They assembled their first 1000 units themselves, getting James’ friends from university to help and benefiting from assistance from a special guest star: Martin’s father, and James’ grandfather. “My dad stepped in when we needed some extra help building the grinders. It was too much chaos for just the two of us,” explains Martin.
Using Indiegogo as their only channel
Three years later, Niche Zero has really taken off. James and Martin are still funding the Niche Zero on Indiegogo InDemand, and it remains the only place to get one. “The business plan was to build one a day. That was a comfortable business plan for us. We’re now selling at a rate of 20,000 grinders a year,” says Martin. “We don’t see a reason to leave Indiegogo. It makes it a lot easier for us. We’ve managed to scale up using Indiegogo Indemand. It’s allowed us to keep our infrastructure small here but create a product that’s mass produced,” he says, mentioning that they’re no longer building the product at home anymore. “That’s been incredibly useful.”
And the grinder is getting even more attention than Martin and James ever anticipated. “The top coffee schools around the world are asking to use our product in their training programs,” says Martin. “Our aspiration was to do a better job than the domestic coffee grinders, but we didn’t think we could compete with a professional one. But someone wanted to compare it to their 2,000 GBP and 3,000 GBP coffee grinders, and we thought that was unfair. And quite quickly they came back and told us that it’s as good as those, if not better.”
James and Martin are happy that Niche Zero is doing well, and work to keep producing a great product that coffee lovers can trust. “We’ve just been trying to keep up sales and quality right. At the moment we’ve got virtually no quality problem and the sales keep going up and up. We’re not borrowing any money, and we’re trying to keep up with sales and keep ahead of the supply chain,” says James.
This works perfectly for the father-son team, who just want to concentrate on coffee. “We’re just two guys working on a coffee grinder,” says Martin. “It’s what we do.”
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