Rebels with a cause: Three businesses that broke the rules to succeed

Brave new business ideas and models sometimes need brave actions to become a reality. But how can entrepreneurs rock the boat without tipping themselves overboard? Here are three case studies of inspiring companies that pioneered unconventional business models to make success happen.

1. Union Hand-roasted Coffee

When Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia launched Union in 2001, they knew from the start they wanted to do things differently. Today, the company sources its coffee direct from producers to guarantee farmers a sustainable and equitable deal.

“We wanted to have not only a direct connection to the producers we were sourcing from, but to achieve complete transparency in our coffee's supply chain,” Jeremy recalls.

In practice, that meant cutting out the brokers who traditionally negotiated the sale of coffee in producing countries to the importers in consuming countries. The flow of money in the supply chain was shrouded in mystery, and Union asked their brokers to clarify it.

“We tried to explode that model,” explains Jeremy. “It wasn't from the point of view that we wanted to save margin by going direct – it was more about making sure the money in the supply chain ended up in the right hands, and that people were valued correctly.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, some brokers refused to show Union where the money moved. However, there were one or two “exceptions to the rule” who understood what the coffee roaster wanted to achieve, and shared the information. From that point onwards, Union was able to reinvent the supply chain to foster direct trade with farmers in countries from Rwanda to Brazil to Costa Rica. A key feature of the Union approach was meeting their producers in person to understand how they work – another rule-breaker.

“It was against normal behaviour in the industry, and for some producers it was simply mind-bending that a roaster would get on a plane and go out to their community, meet them and talk with them,” says Jeremy. “But we couldn't do what we do unless we do it in the right way, and commit to the human values around the coffee that we source. From the start, we had a commitment to get out onto the ground and understand the communities where we're working.”

Fast-forward 16 years and Union is still recognised as a trailblazer in sustainable business, this year winning the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development – one of the most prestigious accolades of its kind. 

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2. Story Terrace

In the age of Instagram, Facebook and countless other social media platforms, it might feel like we're constantly documenting the story of our lives. But between the endless ebb and flow of the online world, treasured moments can still fade away if not properly captured.

It was this realisation that led Rutger Bruening to launch Story Terrace in 2014. The entrepreneur was inspired by the idea that everyone should have the chance to capture their own life stories – or those of loved ones – in gorgeous, bespoke biographical books.

“There are plenty of platforms for freelance writers, but they're all aimed squarely at business,” Rutger reflects. “What makes us unique is that we connect writers with consumers to bring their stories to life. We can do that because we not only have a network of writers to leverage, but because we focus that network on creating a specific end-product.”

Story Terrace pairs each book's subject with a talented ghost writer, who spins their story into an unforgettable narrative. Each story can then be printed out as a high-quality book – a completely unique, biographical product. Whether it's a memento of an epic international cycle trip, or a memoir that tells an amazing chapter in an elderly loved one's life story, the company has blown the personal biography market wide open, democratising it for everyone.

However, getting such a multi-dimensional business concept off the ground was no piece of cake. Rutger freely admits that, by necessity, Story Terrace had to break a cardinal business rule: Keep things simple.

“Story Terrace was quite a complicated business to start,” he explains. “We had to make a physical product; we had to build a network of freelancers; we had to launch an entirely new product category.

“I broke the rule of simplicity, firstly because I love the product: I genuinely care about capturing personal stories for future generations. Secondly, there is an upside to making something very difficult work well. It's hard to copy, and it's less likely to be a flash in the pan.”

With their unique book writing service now available in London's Harrods department store, that assertion seems to be playing out. The Story Terrace lesson is surely that a hard idea – backed up by plenty of hard work – might be an easier choice than it sounds. 

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3. Warby Parker

It's often said that life is all a matter of perspective, and Warby Parker couldn't agree more. The US online glasses company has caused a stir in recent years by offering its customers high-quality, designer eyeglasses for just $95 dollars a pair – far less than what they would pay for branded prescription glasses bought direct from a retailer.

Founders Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt and Jeff Raider realised the astronomical mark-up on glasses would evaporate if they designed and manufactured their own frames and cut out the middleman. Combined with a highly refined, appealing brand that's perfectly pitched to their target market, Warby Parker has become a customer darling in just a few short years while simultaneously raising eyebrows throughout the glasses industry.

For their $95 dollars, customers get a prescription pair of glasses with lenses, shipping costs and even a donation to an eye care-related charity.  

For budding entrepreneurs with a unique idea, the Warby Parker lesson is to understand your market and apply rigorous care and attention to your product and its brand. The glasses firm is proof that even the most iconoclastic, rule-breaking business concept needs careful polishing to reach its full potential. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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