Jake Backus, co-founder of Common Ground Café and Study Space

Photo of Jake Backus

Jake Backus is a Visiting Senior Member of Linacre College and Managing Director of Empathy Sustainability.  Jake co-founded Common Ground with Piotr Drabik, barista and coffee machine mechanic.
Common Ground is a social enterprise pop-up in an Oxford University owned building in Little Clarendon Street.  We provide a free workspace and wifi to students and local residents, as well as “the best coffee experience” in Oxford.  Common Ground has morphed into a social space and has may events, workshops and societies meeting there in the evenings.  We support student mental health, being less lonely than studying in your room and more connected with society than your college library.

What is your background?  What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I was previously Commercial Leadership Manager for Coca-Cola Europe, before changing my job to Customer Sustainability Director for Coca-Cola Europe and creating the commercial role for Sustainability within Coca-Cola.  Since then I have been working mostly on projects with social and environmental purpose, many of which are unmonetised.

Becoming an entrepreneur means that you can get things done rather than hope others might do something.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

Someone who sees profit as the reward for serving society well, not the aim in and of itself, with no care for the consequences for the environment and society.
Also, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me” and “If not now, when, and if not us, who?”
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” -Robert Swan OBE

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

How could it not be?:-) The purpose of our venture is partially to test the idea.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

Marketing and customer engagement. It’s no good having a good idea that no-one knows about and don’t connect to.
Build a complimentary team and set up the company in the right way with clear roles, which ideally don’t overlap too much.
Resilience.  There are so many challenges you have to be able to keep going through them.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

Not having to rely on other people to make a decision for whom your high priority may not be their priority.  I.e. ability to get on and do it.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

I am more inspired by the personal and particular attributes of people I know than ‘celebrities’ or companies.

If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?

OK, let’s go for Bill Gates – Can he help fund the research around my rainforest restoration project in Indonesia?

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

Setting up the company in the wrong way and having equal decision making powers. I think that it is important to be the boss or report to someone.
Having no clear final decision maker can lead to a lot of tension, even if the outcomes are good.

How have you funded your ideas?

Keep them low cost (From savings).
Bigger projects will require a different approach though (Crowdfunding, grants etc.)
I don’t like to borrow money and divert attention to paying back investors who have different goals to that of the business.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?


What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?  Bad?

Lots of visible support for entrepreneurs and an environment of entrepreneurship. It’s “normal”.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)

It depends on what they need. I would try to be specific.

Any last words of advice?

Don’t rely on other people to give you a job. Don’t be cannon fodder for a company that is only interested in shareholder value. Create the job that you would like to do.