The Entrepreneur: Martyn Dawes, Coffee Nation

The founder and former CEO of what became Costa Express on what makes a good entrepreneur and why he’s now a better leader than he once was…

Founder: Martyn Dawes
Company: Coffee Nation Ltd
Description in one line: I created the new market category of ‘self-serve coffee bars’ – unmanned kiosks selling gourmet coffee to take away.
Previous companies: Consulting firm Coachmatch Ltd

Describe your business model and what made your business unique:

  • Coffee Nation squeezed a coffee bar product and experience into a tiny footprint, meaning we could sell authentic gourmet coffee in locations where it was not previously available.
  • People can buy our coffee from convenience stores, petrol forecourts and motorway service areas.
  • We split the revenue with each retailer and in most locations outsold every other product.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Having built two successful businesses – both of them survived, grew and became profitable and Coffee Nation was one of the fastest growing companies in the UK for two years running. Both Coffee Nation (now Costa Express) and Coachmatch are market leaders today. Not many entrepreneurs can say that!

What numbers did you look at every day in your business?

I have now sold Coffee Nation but we used to look at sales per day per machine and how they were trending, like for like sales on an annual basis and payback time for each machine at each monthly board meeting. Gross margin was our other key number.

To what extent did your business trade internationally?

We took Coffee Nation into the Netherlands and Germany before it was then sold to Whitbread/Costa.

Describe your growth funding path:

I used my own funds to prove the concept and then a business angel and a Small Firms Loan enabled me to further develop the concept and start to build a leadership team.

We then raised £4m private equity funding to accelerate the company’s growth.  Long term senior debt followed once the company was profitable and could demonstrate sufficient trading history.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

Our ability to link each machine back to base via the internet meant we could see how many cups of coffee were sold each day and if the staff on site had cleaned and refilled the machine. Real ‘Big Brother’ stuff but it gave us enormous control over our business!

Where would you like to be in three years?

I’m concentrating on Coachmatch now as company board member and want Coachmatch to be the leading provider of the best executive coaches globally. We already work with 200 of the world’s best coaches and this is expected to double in three years. Coachmatch has an enormous impact on the performance of their client companies and new products are in development that will take their mission of bringing ‘success and happiness’ to companies and individuals even further.

Now that you have sold Coffee Nation what is your other focus?

As well as Coachmatch, I now mentor ambitious entrepreneurs and CEO’s of high growth companies. Many entrepreneurs want to build a high growth business but it is a lonely path and one with many challenges. Having successfully navigated that journey myself it puts me in a good position to help others achieve their full potential.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

To decide never to give up in the early days when everything seemed against me.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Probably too many to mention but I believe I learnt something from all of them. 

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Making too many assumptions about what their customers want and so they start to try and build a not completely proven and understood business. This usually unravels down the line.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Being an entrepreneur has become very ‘cool’ but very few make a fortune. Start a business if you absolutely have to bring some change to the world, you’ll need passion and tons of energy.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

The time to live my life to the full. 

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Education has a massive part to play – it builds confidence and self-belief. You can’t be taught how to be an entrepreneur – you’ll either do it or you won’t.

What would make you a better leader?

Who I am now – I realise it’s less about me now than I did a decade ago.

Business book:

Thing Big: Make it Happen Big in Business and Life by Donald Trump.


Martyn Dawes will be speaking at the next Fast Growth Business Club on 16th July at The Sanctum Soho Hotel. For more information please visit

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