Wed, 24 April 2019
The Power of Focus
How Jake McKeon of Coconut Bowls stopped chasing new ideas, and scaled a business and community that he’s passionate about.
Jake McKeon considers himself an idea man, and that’s not always been a good thing.
For years, he lept from one idea to another, always enchanted by a shiny new business possibility. With a thumb on the pulse of social trends and a knack for testing new business ideas, McKeon always had two or three ventures going at the same time.
It’s common for new entrepreneurs to begin their journeys by following their ideas, imaginations, and curiosities. But McKeon was taking that to the extreme, and eventually found himself a little scattered. He needed to find a way to center himself, and ultimately that meant being grounded in his personal passions.
Through some tough experiences and hard lessons, McKeon learned to mute the part of himself that saw potential in every new idea. Instead, he turned up the volume on the interests he personally cared about the most, and let that guide him to his sole venture today—Coconut Bowls.
The name may sound a little funny when you put it in such a serious context. But today, Coconut Bowls is a thriving business with a charitable initiative that supports rural coconut farmers and local artisans in Vietnam and Indonesia. In the process, the company is providing people with ethical and healthy livelihoods and reducing environmental waste. Here’s how McKeon is proving that having a heart is good for business.
The Creation of Coconut Bowls
McKeon had already experienced a few failed startups by the time he finally connected with Coconut Bowls, but when this one took shape, it was an entirely different story.
“Coconut Bowls has been the most natural of all my businesses,” McKeon says. “The product fell into my lap.” McKeon was walking through a market in Bali and came across some handcrafted coconut products. He was running a health and superfood business at the time and thought that his customers would love this simple concept—bowls made from coconuts.
So, he had a bunch of bowls made, filled his suitcase, and started selling them online back home in Australia. He found that—on his shoestring budget—it was actually cheaper to fly back and forth to Bali with empty suitcases than to ship the product.
McKeon ended up making a few more trips, each time bringing more and more luggage. On one trip, he brought along a couple friends and a load of empty surfboard bags. “We didn’t have any surfboard equipment, just coconut bowls. So coming back through customs was ridiculous, but they let us through, thankfully,” McKeon says.
It wasn’t long after that trip when Coconut Bowls started to see sales and momentum build (and made the switch to sea freight).
But what originally brought McKeon to Bali, and to that fated market that brought him face-to-face with his most profitable business venture yet?
It was a thirst for travel and healthy food—and failure.
To understand McKeon’s story, let’s back up to the very first business he started, six years prior, Moodswing. Moodswing was a social networking app for sharing emotions. “I wanted to create a safe platform for peer-to-peer emotional support, for people to speak openly and honestly,” McKeon says.
With no experience in business or tech, McKeon came up with the idea for Moodswing, and simply assumed people would want it. Following that assumption, he went on to spent all $40,000 of his savings—money he’d originally intended to use to travel.
“Moodswing was my most outlandish business concept,” he recalls. “I was very naive at how hard the process was going to be.”
McKeon hooked up with a co-founder and developed the app idea. On top of his savings, he raised another $20,000 from family and friends, increasing his overall funding to $60,000. He also put significant efforts toward marketing it and growing his user base.
His growth hacking worked. In 10 weeks, Moodswing had reached a user base of 100,000 people, faster than either Instagram or Facebook had experienced early on.
Moodswing’s significant and immediate growth only fueled McKeon’s naiveté. “I thought I was the next Mark Zuckerberg.”
He flew to the States and met with a few investors, namely Snapchat investor Jeremy Liu. During McKeon’s pitch, Liu promptly asked about his app retention metrics, and McKeon was stumped. “I thought, ‘What are ?’” he says, laughing.
It turned out that only 10 percent of those who downloaded Moodswing returned, which reflected poorly on the user experience of the app. McKeon returned to Australia, humbled.
With only $20,000 left in the bank—not enough to improve on the app—he decided to pitch to an accelerator. They agreed to invest $25,000 in exchange for 10 percent of the business, but only if those friends and family who invested were no longer involved.
“So I used the remaining $20,000 to pay back our friends and family members who’d invested,” McKeon says. “I didn’t want them to lose out, and it was good, because I’d never do business like that with friends and family again. I learned that lesson and got out scot-free.”
McKeon and his team spent three intensive months creating a beautiful new app for Moodswing, then returned to the US to raise more money. “At this stage, Moodswing had a 60 percent retention rate, which was really good. Forty percent of users returned seven days later, and 30 percent returned 30 days later,” McKeon says.
Investors essentially told McKeon that if Moodswing could get to 10,000 daily users, they’d be able to raise whatever they wanted. But the app only ever got up to 8,000 weekly active users.
It was the end of the road for McKeon and Moodswing. “We just couldn't get there. We didn't have any more money,” he says. The business also started to lose McKeon’s attention. His co-founder’s, too.
With Moodswing in his rearview mirror, McKeon switched gears and started an organic superfood business called SupermixME. This time he took a more traditional route, ordering a batch of products for $5,000 on his credit card, packaging them at home, selling them, and buying another batch. But things were moving too slow for him.
So he took a step back and asked himself, “What am I good at?” He realized that, although Moodswing didn’t work out, he’d gained valuable insight into the world of social media marketing. He used that experience to start an agency, 7 Star Social, and quickly landed a few profitable clients.
At that point, McKeon was ready to take a break. “I decided I was going to travel for six months and work online,” he says. “I didn't want to focus on growing anything.”
His travels brought him to Central America, Europe, and—you guessed it—Bali. When McKeon returned, armed with a suitcase filled with coconut bowls, he started to scale his social media agency. At its peak, 7 Star Social was servicing more than 35 clients, each paying between $500 and $2,000 per month.
And in the background, Coconut Bowls was growing slowly. Eventually, McKeon decided he didn’t want to work for other people anymore, so he turned his sole focus to Coconut Bowls.
A Few Valuable Lessons
McKeon walked away from his experiences with Moodswing, SupermixME, and 7 Star Social with much more than the idea for Coconut Bowls. “I look at my journey like an apprenticeship,” he says, one that gave him a crash course in failure and success.
McKeon’s first major lesson from that time was around building a minimum viable product—a process he failed to follow when launching Moodswing. “It’s all about finding product-market fit before doing anything,” McKeon says.
That can be a hard thing to define, exactly, but when you’ve got it, people will start buying and enjoying your product organically. “It shouldn’t feel like a hard sell,” he says.
McKeon thought he had a good idea and spent all of his money without testing whether it was something people wanted. Looking back, he realized that he could've created a simple website or Facebook group and asked for feedback. “There are so many ways to test . It’s cheap to do and saves time and money in the long run,” McKeon says.
The second major lesson he learned was to avoid doing things too fast. “Take your time. Don't expect immediate success.”
With Moodswing, McKeon spent all his time getting those 100,000 users as fast as he could, but in reality, he says that businesses shouldn’t want to achieve that level of growth until they’re happy with their product.
“When our users tried , didn’t like it, and deleted it, they weren’t going to give us a second chance,” McKeon says. “Focus on product first, make sure people like it, then look to marketing.”
The Power of Focus and Community
McKeon’s biggest takeaway, though, was about focus. He had always given more attention to new ideas than the things he was most passionate about, despite the advice he’d heard countless times from others.
McKeon found that with every new business, there was always a new, more exciting idea that held more potential—hence his quick transition between Moodswing, SupermixME, and 7 Star Social. But he doesn’t recommend the same for other entrepreneurs.
In his opinion, when you focus on just one business, you learn more about the product and industry, and you invest more time into talking to your customers. Over time, McKeon has found that this only strengthens your passion, or develops a new one.
When it comes to Coconut Bowls, for example, McKeon has always been passionate about health, and has since become passionate about running a socially responsible business. “While I’ve always been mindful and conscious of sustainability, it’s never been a passion. But it’s been developed since I’ve fed off excitement and passion of our community.”
McKeon has derived valuable learnings from his community since creating Coconut Bowls three years ago, none more so than from a live strategy session with Quest Nutrition co-founder Tom Bilyeu.
The duo conducted the session on a live Foundr podcast, and McKeon walked away with some valuable lessons. “We were one year into Coconut Bowls and had some epic growth,” he recalls. “But we were chasing our tails. We didn't have a long-term strategy, a community strategy, or a brand strategy.
As an avid supporter of building community, Bilyeu helped McKeon learn the value of “supporting the people who support you.” That conversation helped shape the Coconut Bowls business and influenced a lot of McKeon’s current marketing and growth strategies.
One of his biggest marketing wins with Coconut Bowls has been building a customer base that markets for them. Through social media engagement, a thank-you card and follow-up email, McKeon and his team encourage customers to share on social media what they made in their bowl.
“We started with this strategy and are still using this call-to-action today,” McKeon says. “We’re very lucky that our customers do our marketing for us, and it’s basically been the driver for our growth.”
Another successful tactic has been creating something to do with the Coconut Bowls community. Along with his customers and other content creators, McKeon and his team came together to create a cookbook, Vegan Bowls for Vegan Souls. It’s had tens of thousands of sales to date.
“We’ve had feedback from customers saying that it’s changed their lives,” McKeon said. “It’s not just a cookbook; it’s also built around having fun in the kitchen and being mindful about where your food comes from.”
Eventually, McKeon sees the Coconut Bowls brand expanding, which will allow him to expand the product line and its “made-by-nature” concept.
But McKeon and his team don’t only see Coconut Bowls as a brand—they view their business as a community and a collective of people who are all passionate about health, nature, and sustainability. “We share recipes with each other. We share inspiration and experiences,” McKeon says. “It really brings people together. … It almost comes back to the root of Moodswing—people who support each other.”