So I just walked into this coffee shop called Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters in Delhi, in what used to be a pretty run down place on the West End Marg. There was no place to sit inside. People were standing and waiting for others to leave so they could find a seat.
I didn’t waste my time, of course. I know another damn cool cafe across the street that has opened recently. And now I am writing from there.
But I gotta tell you the Blue Tokai story. Blue Tokai is a phenomenon.
Blue Tokai is a startup coffee company. They started by selling high quality coffee about 5 years back (I think), mostly exporting because apparently India wasn’t a ripe market for premium coffee at that point.
They had an office in the middle of some warehouses. They were surrounded by carpenters, small traders and mostly some (shady) godowns. The entire alley was full of slums and a church for Africans in Delhi. Not a prestige business address at all. You wouldn’t take a date to this place.
But that was 3 years back.
Now Blue Tokai is so successful that 10 other upmarket cafes have come around the place trying to copy Blue Tokai. They modelled themselves around Blue Tokai.
But Blue Tokai is far ahead. It has expanded at an insane rate. The office has shifted next door leaving the previous premises open to handle a crowd of 50 on any given time. And Blue Tokai outlets have opened up in major prestige destinations across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. And Blue Tokai is now a leading coffee brand if you are looking to buy premium coffee blend online.
What is it that a lawyer, CA, CS or other professional can learn from the Blue Tokai phenomenon?
Start small – start with what you can
You are not supposed to open a cafe in a rundown godown area with open sewers and slums outside. But you know what, rents are next to nothing in such a place. And in every big city, there are such unheard of places hiding out just beyond the plush and rocking areas. Blue Tokai now has cafes in all the sexy places like Hauz Khas Village, Select Citywalk, Ambience Mall, BKC in Mumbai and Whitefield in Bangalore now that its huge and a brand name. But they didn’t wait to start what they could.
They turned a corner of their office into a cafe with just 4 tables.
And they served great coffee. They bothered to educate their customers about how to drink great coffee (with no sugar and no milk). They explained to people the difference between the Vienna roast and the French roast. They explained the difference between a pour over coffee and a french press coffee.
And it worked. Within a few years, there are regular customers who swear by pour overs and coffee beans from Blue Tokai. They even buy equipment and coffee roast to make at home, or in their office.
It all happened because they started where they were, from where they could. They did not wait for the perfect condition to show up. They did not say, one day, some day, we will build the coolest coffee shop. They opened a coffeeshop in their warehouse cum office with 4 tables and grew from there.
And it turned out to be one of the most sought after coffee shops in Delhi ever. Now spreading to other locations in Delhi and cities.
We also started LawSikho in a very similar fashion. A first year law student made a basic website, which was designed by me with line drawings on pen and paper. We worked from our bedroom. I made calls personally to people who seemed interested. We wrote the content. What seems most crazy now is that when we started, I and Abhyuday had just one year of experience as lawyers. Even we ourselves do not usually hire such young lawyers to contribute to our courses or take classes any more. And we had some pretty serious competition from some famous people who had amazing pedigree and big money.
We did not put too much premium on such worries and just went ahead and started what we could. And we continued to evolve from there, each day. And that led us to a win, over the next 8 years.
Big wins take time and consistency. But it first takes an unequivocal commitment and the courage to get started even when the odds are against you.
What are you not starting because stars are not aligning? What are you taking too long to start and waiting for the perfect timing and opportunity?
Go for passion – not just some calculations
You know where most coffee shops screw up? I can tell you, I did play some role in starting up a backpacker hostel along with a bar and bistro, which did really well, at least as long as I was there.
It wasn’t even much different from LawSikho.com to be honest. This principle is universal.
Most businesses try to be everything for everyone. They do not appeal to any quirk. They want to be a place where everyone will want to go.
That’s a recipe for disaster. Because too many others are doing exactly that. What makes you stand out?
How many people do you know who drink bitter, dark, insanely strong coffee and will pay 200 rupees per mug for the same? Most people I know will spit out the first sip of coffee and balk at the price.
But there are people who seek it out. They want the strongest possible coffee and pay a premium for it. That’s who Blue Tokai appeals to.
It was an alien idea to serve such things in Delhi. Nobody was doing it when Blue Tokai started. Even Starbucks has four types of coffee roasts (rarely actually available) for pour overs, whereas Blue Tokai offers some 20 (or more).
It is a coffee lovers Disneyland. Others will never want to go there. At least not in the beginning. Now that it’s a big brand, I am sure lots of people show up just to appear cool.
Imagine what would have happened if Blue Tokai tried to be everything for everyone, and offered nescafe and frappuccino as well. And then tried to sell sandwiches too. Started a coworking to boot. What would happen? Too many coffee shops tried that and bombed.
Most people get waylaid after they begin to succeed as they deviate from what brought the first wave of success.
Don’t do it. Do what you are crazily passionate about. Spread the passion. Be the symbol of that passion. Be the icon of the pure and undiluted. Be premium.
Sure it is hard to do this in the beginning when fewer people walk in. You are scared and a ball of nerves, and you feel tempted to keep adding new things to attract more people.
I do divorce law. I do contracts too. I will help startups as well, but I speak with investors in case they will give me work. You know what, I will take up litigation also.
This doesn’t work.
Adding those new things take away from your uniqueness. It takes away from the quirk and brand. You become boring. Nobody takes you seriously. Your growth of learning slows down. Nobody takes too much interest.
It’s not a bad thing to learn everything. You should keep learning and keep adding new areas of expertise. Just like Blue Tokai also sells great croissants these days. Goes well with really bitter black coffee. But they didn’t do that when they were small. And they still don’t sell biriyani.
These are not the reasons why Blue Tokai succeeded. The real reason was the coffee. Blue Tokai elevated drinking fine coffee into a passion. They talked about it, they loved it, they lived it. They spread the passion, and almost built a community of premium coffee lovers.
People who think CCD or Barista or Starbucks are insult to coffee, flocked to Blue Tokai.
A big law firm in Delhi has a tie up with Blue Tokai to keep their lawyers well caffeinated at all times. Some lawyers I know spend 10-12K per month on Blue Tokai coffees and this is just when they are working from office! Insane loyalty, insane customer base!
They were passionate about it and a lot of people in Delhi caught the infectious passion. And that’s how they built a loyal customer base. So much so that I walked in to find it packed on a weekday afternoon, and had to walk out and find another place.
We promote the idea that lawyers and law students need to keep learning practical aspects of law. They should never stop expanding their repertoire of practical knowledge and skills. We promote the idea that learning and development is the key to success as a lawyer.
It is our passion, and we share that passion with the people who buy our course.
Those people love it, benefit in their lives, and send across more people like them to us. It is a virtuous cycle. That’s why we do not have to depend on low prices, discounts, university certification or brands of some law firms to make our courses saleable. It is all about what you can do when you learn the skills we teach. We just want to teach you two skills a week no matter what course you do with us. And these skills have to be such skills for which a client will at least pay you INR 10,000. For one work done. That’s how we design, teach and deliver our courses.
And that has led us to where we are today. The passion to never stop learning and creating powerful, extraordinary lawyers.
What would be the equivalent in your career, in your practice? What are you absolutely passionate about?
Don’t be stingy, share the glory
The whole neighbourhood has now transformed thanks to the success of Blue Tokai. New cafes are coming up in the alleyway every other week. Every run down godown is now turned into an eatery or a premium boutique. Champa gali has now become a cool and hip destination. The run down-ness of the place is now seen as a part of the charm. It gives a nice relief from the usual high street high brow poshness of usual Delhi eateries. I can imagine that there was a time when Hauz Khas village or Shahpur Jat was pretty much like this.
And this place is transforming fast. It was catalysed and started off by Blue Tokai, but they will not be the only beneficiary of this transformation. However, they have soared higher and has national presence now. I assume this will only keep growing.
Keep playing bigger games. When you succeed, a lot of competitors will come and copy what you are doing. Stay ahead of the curve so you don’t have to worry about it too much.
We were not the first to start online law courses. The first one was MyLaw.net, which barely survives today. MyLaw was started by very successful, famous people and raised a lot of capital. They were the giants. Compared to that, we were a tiny company, with no investment, started by two first year lawyers. However, we were the first one which showed that success is possible. And within a year, there were 6 other competitors, including big companies like Thomson Reuters and organizations like FICCI doing online courses.
We did not lose our head. We kept upgrading our game. We kept our head down and ensured that we always delivered the best. We kept taking the challenge to the next level every 6 months.
Most competitors disappeared in a year or two. Even now new ones open up every 6 months. However, anybody is yet to bring the fight to our doorstep, because we never stopped growing, never rested and never compromised on innovation. We always played the long term game, even if it meant sacrificing short term profits.
And that makes us very hard to beat. I am still waiting for a worthy competitor, it will surely make things a lot more interesting.
I know that for an industry to really grow, there needs to be all sorts of successful players. That’s how an industry grows faster. The pie grows bigger. Nonetheless, we believe that we will lead the pack, because we never stop growing. We intend to stay miles ahead of the rest. We never stop investing, we never stop learning.
If you ask me one reason as to why we won this game at every stage, it is because we invested more than anyone else ever did, and always in long term goals.
Champa gali is famous in Delhi now. Blue Tokai is the crown jewel there. But Blue Tokai is much bigger than Champa gali. It is now a national brand.
If you did the same in your career, what would you do differently? Would you want your industry to grow, or will you be scared of competition? You should be, if you stop growing. Here are some of our courses I want you to check out:
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