Ottawa-based IT exec-turned-coffee roaster loving the daily grind

Jump into entrepreneurship in his 40s pays off for former tech V-P Shann Bosnell
Shann Bosnell
Shann Bosnell, co-owner of Gatineau-based businesses Brown Bag Coffee Roasters and ManSoap. Photos by Mark Holleron

Despite earning his living in the tech industry for nearly two decades, Shann Bosnell wanted to forge a new entrepreneurial path when he decided to strike out on his own a few years ago.

“I was looking at perhaps starting up another IT business on the side, but I had a bit of IT business burnout, so I was looking for a different motivator,” says the former vice-president of product management at CareWorx, a Kanata-based IT solutions firm.

If Bosnell’s job was helping customers manage technology, his passion was coffee. He’d been roasting beans in his Gatineau home for years, supplying friends and family with java. After taking a buyout from CareWorx in early 2018, he decided to jump into the coffee-roasting business with both feet.

Bosnell used some of the funds from his exit package at CareWorx to finance Brown Bag Coffee Roasters. He now runs the company with his wife Dana and daughter Kianna, 17, who is in her last year of high school and eagerly learning the trade from her father.

But coffee isn’t Bosnell’s only venture. He’s also part-owner of ManSoap, a startup he and his family launched in 2016 that makes grooming products aimed at men. ManSoap now supplies its all-natural soaps, beard balms and moustache waxes made with hemp seed and olive oil to more than a dozen stores in Eastern Ontario and Toronto.

Generally, he says, sales at ManSoap ​– which Bosnell refers to as a “Hallmark holiday business” ​– pick up in the fall as Christmas approaches, while the coffee trade slows down (he admits he expected the coffee side of the operation to be busier in the winter, but in fact it’s the opposite). But at the beginning of fall, both companies are in full boom, creating a bit of a perfect storm.

“The long and short of it is right now we’re busy on both businesses, so there are no days off right now,” he says with a smile.

Mid-career move

Bosnell, who turned 45 in July, is a classic example of a “mid-career entrepreneur.” In Bosnell’s case, he left his job at an established company for a new challenge and a chance to build his own successful enterprise with the help of his family. His wife and two children – his oldest daughter, Anika, 18, is now studying nursing at a local CEGEP – are co-owners of Brown Bag and ManSoap.

“The family part of the business is super important to me for sure,” Bosnell explains. “Everybody in my family really enjoys the business ownership aspect and learning the different aspects of it.”

Although few studies on mid-career entrepreneurs have been conducted in this country, a 2007 report from Statistics Canada said more than four in 10 owners of small and medium-sized businesses are between the ages of 30 and 49. It suggested at least five per cent of those could be considered in mid-career because they had less than five years’ experience in owning and managing their businesses.

Shann

Deal with Amazon

In Bosnell’s case, the decision to venture out on his own seems to be paying off. 

ManSoap, which already generates a significant portion of its sales online, has just signed on to offer its products through Amazon and a couple of other large e-commerce sites that serve wholesalers with an eye toward tapping into the European market.

Brown Bag, meanwhile, now roasts about 1,800 pounds of unblended, single-origin coffee a month at its Gatineau facility. It purchases its beans from wholesalers in Montreal and B.C., focusing on coffee from Brazil and Colombia, and offers its products in about 30 coffee shops and restaurants Ottawa, Gatineau and Cornwall.

Unlike most coffee suppliers, Brown Bag doesn’t use traditional metal roasting drums. Instead, Bosnell’s four roasters are made of glass, which he says is easier to clean and doesn’t retain as much residual smell and flavour from one roast to the next, making them more effective for creating his single-origin coffees. 

“At the end of the day, it all tastes like coffee, but there’s uniqueness in every bean,” says Bosnell, noting that each type of bean’s favour depends on a number of factors, including the climate in which it’s grown, the acidity of the water and minerals in the soil. 

“We’re really trying to bring out the uniqueness of each of those beans so people can kind of explore the flavours of coffee around the world.”

Clearly, plenty of coffee-lovers in the Ottawa region are jonesing for Bosnell’s java. He’s looking at purchasing a new 10-pound roaster, which has a capacity equal to that of his four current machines combined, to meet demand. He’s also searching for a new space up to twice the size of his current 1,100-square-foot facility to house his growing operation.

The next step will be deciding whether to bring on outside investors to provide additional capital to help his enterprises scale up, as well as answering the fundamental question of just how big he wants Brown Bag and ManSoap to become.

All of that takes time, which Bosnell notes might be his most precious commodity.

“There’s only 24 hours in a day,” he says.

Advice for aspiring mid-career entrepreneurs

Abandoning an established career for the uncertainty of business ownership isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, Bosnell concedes. But with commitment and planning, it can be a life-altering move. Here are his tips to help make the transition easier:

  • Accept that it won’t necessarily be easy, and don’t do it halfway. “I think if you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an entrepreneur. If you’re only ever gonna do it with one foot in the water, it’ll be very difficult to make it succeed.”  
  • Do your homework. “Is your concept one that can generate enough money for you to live on? Is your local market the target audience and do you offer something they need? Is the market saturated with the same idea? If so, have you thought about your clear differentiator and done the research to make sure others feel that is a compelling reason to purchase from you? In my experience, most of these questions are not answered (by any aspiring entrepreneurs).”
  • Don’t give up. “If you have a solid plan the other parts will fall into place. And remember, a hard day doesn’t mean (you’re running) an unsuccessful business. Push forward; look towards tomorrow.”