Sahra Nguyen remembers the moment perfectly. She had been hustling 24/7 since the launch of Nguyen Coffee Supply, while simultaneously continuing her career as a freelance filmmaker to support herself, when it became clear that she had to make a choice. She decided to raise a small amount of money and leave journalism behind – ‘I’m going 120% in. Fully committed,’ she says.
In early 2019, the future of Nguyen Coffee Supply – a Vietnamese-American-owned importer, supplier, and roaster of green coffee beans – was still unknown. Sahra was reaching new heights in her career as a freelance film-maker. She had a PBS special on air and another documentary wrapping that summer. She was getting filmmaking requests and pitch proposals for fast-tracked funding based on the depth and diversity of her storytelling. Yet, simultaneously, the small coffee brand she launched on the side was also gaining traction. The Wall Street Journal published an article on it in print and digital and organic media continued to roll in.
Sahra found herself at a crossroads. She knew her fledgling coffee company would need her full attention to realise its potential, but she also knew it would mean leaving behind the film career she had spent more than a decade nurturing. ‘I’d always been this multidimensional, multitasking millennial. For the first time, I couldn’t do both of these channels really well given their rate of growth and traction. I had to make a decision,’ she explains.
Rather than take on more film jobs to pay herself and grow Nguyen Coffee Supply as a side project at a slower rate, she decided to fundraise and go full time with her business. She raised a small friends-and-family funding round in October 2019, bid her film career goodbye, and made the jump.
Preparing to soar
‘I was building this business piece by piece without a real timeline or a sense of urgency, because I hadn’t accepted anybody’s money yet. It grew slowly,’ Sahra says.
Beginning in 2018, after two years of research, plans and brainstorming, she started to prepare for the launch of her company – and her new life. First came the logistics. Nguyen Coffee Supply imports all of its green beans from Vietnam where Sahra had forged a partnership with a local farmer. Using the skills she’d learned as a journalist and filmmaker, Sahra navigated the process of figuring out customs, importing and Food and Drug Administration regulations.
‘I had zero experience in importing, exporting, consumer packaged goods... or even coffee. I researched everything by googling, reading and asking questions,’ she says. ‘I would describe it like putting a puzzle together. If you’re working on a puzzle, you look for one piece and lay it down. Then you scan the mess and look for the next piece and lay it down. That’s what it felt like for me. I didn’t know what the entire blueprint looked like, because I didn’t have a road map. Nobody was telling me step by step what to do between then and November.’
Sahra asked herself what were the next steps to take every day on the way to making the jump. ‘I had to figure out how to import, so I would google “how to import” and there were a lot of terms I didn’t understand. Then I would google what those meant. There was nothing magical or secret about it. It was a process of asking questions, researching and finding the next puzzle piece to lay down.’
When she discovered she needed a customs broker, she started asking friends and colleagues if they knew one. She got on the phone regularly to ask, ‘How do I get from point A to point B? What do you need from me? Who do I talk to?’ She explains the questions as dummy-proofing the process for her so she could get from point A to point B.
‘I’m a very inquisitive person. It comes from my passion for storytelling, but more broadly from my commitment to understanding more about the world and other communities. I approach everything with a beginner’s mind and that’s been very helpful for me in my entrepreneurial journey,’ she says.
From reportage to roastery
Sahra continued this process of research, questions and paperwork for one year until her first pallet of coffee beans arrived in the US in November 2018. This was the moment when her business idea started to feel real and, for her, the last puzzle piece was put into place. Nguyen Coffee Supply was officially launched that month.
A critical step in leaving behind filmmaking to pursue the coffee business full time was fundraising, which Sahra describes as one of the most difficult parts of the journey. She was suddenly answering questions about projections, budget, growth and exits, and with investors came a heightened sense of accountability, discipline and focus.
In the space between launching and freelancing and then taking the leap, Sahra thought back to the first time she swayed from a traditional career path. She’d made the transition from full-time work to freelance life in 2013 after saying goodbye to a nine to five in LA for a more creative path in New York. Back then, she knew she’d never fully realise her potential within the boundaries set by an office role.
‘I decided to freelance full time so I could focus on that path where every little thing I do, every project I work on, every idea I have could be brought to life. So I could build my vision rather than someone else’s,’ she explains. Part of that path led to her first foray into the food-and-beverage community as a partner of a small fast-casual restaurant in Brooklyn. Being a part of that community helped expand her network in New York City and grew her passion for elevating Vietnamese-American food and culture through consumer products.
Taking back her time
Part of the process of going full time with the business involved gaining more control over her days. Sahra describes her previous days as a blur of work, brainstorming and personal time with few boundaries or rhythm – she hadn’t yet learned to create her own structure.
Step one, then, was setting clear boundaries about when her day kicked off and closed. That involved her stopping checking her email in bed and first thing in the morning. ‘Getting rest helps my brain work better the next day, so I feel more efficient and productive,’ she explains. Now a full-time business owner, she started to wake up earlier.
Nguyen Coffee Supply began to grow quickly – there were more people to speak to then during her days spent as a solo founder setting the puzzle pieces into place. ‘We have investors, partners, consultants, agencies and contractors. There’s more interfacing I need to do as a leader,’ she explains. With her new role, she realised there was less time for the ‘brain work’ of strategising and diving deep, so she started scheduling meetings for 2pm or later to keep the mornings for herself and better plan and prioritise business goals.
‘For anyone who’s thinking about having that entrepreneurial life, you have to be really disciplined to create a schedule for yourself,’ she says. There is, however, one exception. There’s a 12-hour time difference between her base in New York City and her partners in Vietnam. As a result, Sahra still communicates with her coffee farm producer and her filter producer in Vietnam late at night or early in the morning.
‘Corresponding with our partners in Vietnam is something that I found to be pretty unique about my business situation. It’s something that I can’t offload right now, because we still do everything in Vietnamese. It’s a part of the business that is uniquely mine and I really enjoy doing it.’
This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.