Entrepreneurs are an optimistic bunch. Despite a pandemic, job losses, and a tough economy, they are starting new ventures at an impressive clip. Business filings in Colorado were up 24% last quarter over the year before according to the Quarterly Business and Economics Indicators report from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.
"I think if you can't find a job, make one," said entrepreneur Matthew Jones. "I'm thinking a lot of people are taking their passions and starting a little side hustle."
Jones’ passion is coffee, and his new business seems custom-made for a time of social distancing: a robot-run café. He brewed up the idea well before the pandemic, while running a small coffee shop in Blackhawk.
"I was making a latte and I was just thinking, it seems like this could be automated because it's just out of repetition," he told CPR News' Colorado Matters. "And then once the pandemic hit, I really felt like I had no choice but to go all-in on automation."
Jones began studying robots and programming. He’s found modern robots to be fairly user-friendly.
"I never touched a robot before. I'm a coffee guy," he explained. "You don't need to be a crazy-smart, genius engineer to be able to program them."
Robo Esso opened last month in Golden. Jones still sits with the robot all day to catch any glitches, but believes it will be only a few more weeks before the robot is ready to staff the shop unsupervised. Customers want to know how he taught a robot to make coffee.
"The first question I get is, 'Are you an engineer?'" he said. "'Is it programmed to do that? Or is it just artificially intelligent?'"
Next Jones hopes to sell his robots to other small coffee shops. Pandemic or not, he says a robot barista makes sense.
"If you're a small coffee shop and you're not selling 200 cups a day, it's really hard to be making money with labor costs and rent and everything," he said. "If you have a robot on staff, it's going to cost you on average about $5 an hour, maybe less than that. The cost savings could be pretty immediate."
Jones said starting a business during the pandemic has been challenging, but he also believes it’s a natural time for people to take a risk.
"Instead of pushing this narrative of we need more jobs, we need people to find more jobs, get a job, why aren't we asking people to create something?" he wondered. "And nowadays with the internet and everything, it's so easy to have an idea and launch it."