Jake McKeon is the founder and CEO of Coconut Bowls, a sustainable business that turns discarded coconut shells and waste wood into beautiful bowls and other natural, reusable products.
Born and raised in Melbourne, now residing in sunny Byron Bay, alumnus Jake McKeon (Bachelor of Business, 2010) was at a career crisis when a surfing trip to Bali gave him a winning business idea. One day, between waves, he came across souvenirs being handcrafted from waste coconut shells.
“I thought that if these coconut shells could be made into bowls to eat from, people would like them. So, I had 100 made, packed them into my suitcase and returned to Australia,” he says.
“I started an Instagram account and gave a few bowls to some friends, and we began posting photos online of our breakfasts in them. Pretty quickly, people started asking if they could buy them and, within a month, I’d sold all 100 – and found myself back on a plane to Bali to collect some more.”
Today, Jake is the founder and CEO of Coconut Bowls, an eco-friendly business with millions of dollars in annual turnover. But he’s quick to dismiss his journey as one of ‘overnight success’. Before succeeding as an entrepreneur, Jake endured plenty of false starts: an unconstructive gap year, a lacklustre corporate career and a suite of failed startups.
Travel, parties and a corporate detour
Jake graduated from La Trobe armed with knowledge of business management, communications, marketing, accounting and economics. He was ready to work – but without a career plan, he felt a little lost.
“The advice I was given was to ‘follow your dreams’, ‘do something that you’re passionate about’ and ‘do what you love’. At this stage of my life, my dream was to travel the world surfing, and my passions were playing footy, travelling, partying and hanging out with mates. Unfortunately, none of these were things I could get paid to do!” he laughs.
Still feeling uncertain, Jake took a gap year. He took on a few casual jobs and went travelling overseas. But rather than gaining clarity on his future, Jake found the experience unhelpful: “I spent most of that gap year drinking, partying and making poor decisions.”
Back in Australia, Jake decided ‘enough was enough’ – it was time to start his career. He got in touch with a recruitment agency took the very first job he was offered, working for a firm as a business advisor.
It was quite an odd first job. I was a 22-year-old with no business experience, earning forty odd thousand dollars a year. I was tasked with giving baby boomers advice on how to make their business more profitable. Can you imagine how that went down with 60-year-old CEOs running million-dollar businesses? Not so well.
About 12 months into the role, Jake wasn’t making any progress. He had no regular clients and hadn’t even made the business enough money to cover his wage. Locked into a two-year contract, he stuck out the job until he could give notice. Then, two years after it had begun, Jake’s corporate career was over.
Online start-ups that powered down
Despite disliking his time in the corporate world, the experience had taught Jake an important lesson: he preferred to be his own boss. So, he attended an entrepreneurial event to figure out his next step.
“It was similar to a Tony Robbins seminar, if you’ve ever seen those on YouTube: people chanting affirmations and high-fiving. Everyone at this event seemed to have big ideas. They were convinced they’d become millionaires in the near future – and I was, too. By the time I left I was inspired to be the next Mark Zuckerberg!” he says.
Following – literally – in the Facebook founder’s footsteps, Jake started a social media app. He co-founded Moodswing, a social network for peer-to-peer emotional support, in 2013.
However, to develop an app, you need to know how to code – and Jake didn’t. He spent around $40,000 to get the app made, spending a pot of money he’d saved in case he decided to go travelling again. But he wasn’t worried. The entrepreneur event had taught him that taking risks was part of every successful startup.
Jake spent six months working on the app. On launching, it quickly gained 100,000 users, along with interest from investors. Around this time, Jake was also chosen to participate in AngelCube, a tech startup accelerator program. He became a finalist in Innovation Australia’s Young Innovator of the Year awards, and featured in the 2014/2015 season of That Startup Show.By 2015, he’d even made Startup Daily’s Top 50 Male Entrepreneurs under 40 list.
Despite these early successes, however, his app eventually failed.
“I lost all my money and didn’t end up becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg. But I did meet a role model and mentor, who was making serious money online by selling tea. It seemed pretty straightforward, so I began working on a health supplement business, which, fortunately, only cost me a couple of grand to get started.”
In 2014, Jake launched SupermixME, selling raw superfood supplement blends online. This time, the business was more successful: he turned over close to $50,000 in the first year.
But, as Jake had learnt during his business degree, revenue isn’t profit. The $50,000 earnings he’d earned in the first year didn’t leave him much money to live on. After a second year, his supplement business growth slowed; and then it began going backwards.
Jake lost interest and motivation – his entrepreneurial career wasn’t panning out as he’d hoped.
It was a really challenging time for me. I could see all of my friends doing well, buying nice things, travelling, some even buying houses. I had barely a cent to my name – actually, I was probably in debt at this stage – and my business wasn’t going anywhere.
But as with Jake’s first failed startup, there was a silver lining. His supplement business had gained a few thousand Instagram followers, which had given him skills in social media management. Soon, he was approached by other business owners to manage their social media. His new business grew, fast.
“I was managing social media pages for around 30 café and restaurant owners. Before I knew it, I was making really good money – but I hated this business. I had 30-odd clients, which felt like 30 bosses, and I was working 7 days a week,” he says.
“Fortunately, the business was entirely online. As long as I had my laptop, wifi and a cell phone to make calls, I could do as good a job on a beach in Mexico as I could in an office in Melbourne. So, I packed up and went beach-hopping overseas for six months. My final stop before returning to Australia was to go surfing in Bali.”
The rest is history. Jake’s decision to be a digital nomad led him to discover the discarded coconut bowls that are now his passion and purpose. He’d finally found something that aligned with his passion for surfing and travelling. His business felt fun, it was taking him to new countries, and he was working fewer hours. And importantly, it was making a considerable profit.
Sustainable business: doing well by doing good
Since launching Coconut Bowls in 2016, Jake’s sold hundreds of thousands of products to customers in more than 150 countries. In doing so, he’s replaced single-use items in cafes with handcrafted natural, reusable products and has supported dozens of low-income farmers and artisans in Vietnam and Indonesia.
With revenue in the millions, Coconut Bowls also donates tens of thousands of dollars every year to environmental initiatives.
“It’s allowed us to do so much good in this world: donating regularly to charities, providing jobs for people in low-income areas, and helping me champion sustainability to millions of people around the world.”
The business has also connected Jake with customers who share a similar ethos, which he feels is “much more rewarding than any financial achievements we’ve made.”
And the ideas keep coming – most recently, Jake founded Plantd, a media platform curated by Coconut Bowls that provides plant-based health and sustainability content. Through it, he’s created an inclusive online community that shares common values, alongside recipes and advice.
So, what’s Jake’s own advice for those keen to make it in the startup world?
“I have three pieces of career advice to share. But, as you know, getting to where I am today has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, so I’ll leave it up to you if you want to take it!” he laughs.
Jake’s career advice for entrepreneurs
1. Identify what motivates you
“Is it profit, or is it purpose? Are you interested in a job, or working in a certain industry? Do you crave security, or is it freedom? It’s okay for these motivators to be different at certain times, or to change. And it’s really normal, like me, to start your journey hungry for money and recognition. But true fulfillment is doing something that’s truly aligned with you – it’s what I call ‘work-life integration’,” he says.
“Everyone at that entrepreneurial event I went to seemed to be motivated by money, so I thought I was, too. But, looking back, I was never motivated by making millions of dollars. I am, and always have been, motivated by freedom – and that’s why everything I’ve done has been online.”
2. Invest in yourself
“Invest in your experiences and take calculated risks. I don’t mean spending thousands of dollars on business ideas – in fact, I advise against doing that! Coconut Bowls cost me about $300 to start up, and the social media agency cost me nothing, whereas my other business ideas others cost me tens of thousands of dollars and years of time,” he says.
“But do put yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to try things and get it wrong. Don’t be afraid to fail – you learn so much more from your mistakes than from your successes. And there’s only so much you can learn from attending expensive seminars.”
3. Get comfortable with not having a plan
“Your career will be a journey made up of many jobs, many businesses and, most importantly, many experiences. Everyone’s on their own journey, so don’t be in a rush. Those first two years working as a corporate business advisor taught me how to persevere, how to handle adversity and rejection, and how to just ‘hang in there’. If I’d left after year one, I’d have missed these lessons,” he says.
“We tend to over-estimate what we can achieve in a year, but underestimate what we can achieve in ten. And ten years ago, I could never have scripted the journey I’ve been on. But everything I learned and did along the way, the knowledge gained from all my mistakes and experiences, that’s what prepared me to be right where I am now.”
Last updated: 2nd April 2020