Barista Magazine

AUG-SEP 2019

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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HERE ARE TWO TRUTHS: Failure is scary, and failure is inevi- table. There's so much to celebrate about the coffee industry, from startup cafés to multigenerational a producers and everywhere in between. While we need to recognize great stories and great achievements, we also ought to tell the entire story. Failure is a (pos- sibly big) part of every story. It comes in all shapes and sizes. Little failures and big failures, short and long failures, public and private. Failing on any level is upsetting, and when you're leading a group of people, or any number of people are counting on you to succeed, failing hurts. When you're on your own, full of doubt, failing is lonely. It provokes a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism, self-judgment. Meanwhile, there are people—coworkers, family, business partners, customers—who need us not to fail. It's a tricky balance. How do we appropriately learn from messing up while also not sitting in it too long? If we can lose money, damage a brand, or make some enemies (in some cases, all three) and still emerge on the other side because there's a job to do, then we can lead people with those lessons as well. As coffee professionals, we are in the business of encouraging curi- osity, of taking (calculated) risks, of daring to be great and pursuing excellence in all things. With great risk comes great reward, and also great failure. It's not whether you get kicked down that counts in busi- ness. It's how quickly you stand up, kick back, and move forward. It's not to say we should pursue failure, but rather learn how to accept it. I had an employee earlier this year tell me that the staff needed to hear, louder and more often, how their boss has failed. So here's my story, and several others, from people and businesses you may know or even admire. We're here to tell you about failing, and that we're still here. Moving Too Fast I am the owner and CEO of Summit Coffee, and here's my biggest failure. We opened a cafe in January 2018 and lost north of $60,000 in a three-month span that saw my optimism run dry in half that time. For a four-year stretch, Summit had been in a cycle of swinging for home run after home run. When presented with the opportunity to open a Summit inside a popular fi tness facility a stone's throw from our roasting operation, it made too much sense (red fl ag #1). There was predictable traffi c, no on-site competition, in a nearby-but-new market where our brand was both needed and absent. Meanwhile, I didn't spend time being my own devil's advocate, an- swering, "Why wouldn't this work?" I didn't assess if it was something we were excited about, overcome instead with the shiny bright object of new opportunity and pride at being recruited. I didn't have to con- vince myself it was going to be successful because I never considered the alternative. Tu rns out, the idea was dead before we ever brewed a cup of coffee. The build-out was twice as expensive as we had budgeted (bad plan- ning); the market assessment was wrong (probably because I didn't do one); the staffi ng model didn't jibe with how we run our business (say no to the single-barista model); and I never wanted to spend time in the space (red fl ag #2). The result was a company hemorrhaging money, and a staff that didn't like working for Summit. As I fought through countless ideas, rebrands, and staffi ng changes to make the café "work," I had an important realization that changed the course of our company: We should lean into our biggest opportunities, not our biggest weaknesses. Amid the biggest failure in my professional life, I found solace. While our Wells Fargo account looked anemic, and our day-to-day optimism followed suit, we learned the hard lesson of how to fail fast. On a Monday, during a strategy session about growing the business I determined we needed to do just the opposite, and by Wednesday, my business partner and I were loading a U-Haul. We were, for the fi rst time, out of business. Sure, we lost lots of money—and as a small-business owner, I hesitate to understate the impact that has had on our operations. But we can't let the bad decisions of yesterday breed more bad decisions tomorrow. We cut ties soon enough that one bad decision did not bring down the whole company, and we emerged through the mud somehow with a much cleaner vision for the future of our business. The Oatly Story That sentiment also rings true for Oatly, whose rapid emergence onto the U.S. specialty-coffee market has been both dynamic and turbulent. In a matter of months, everywhere you turned in cafés and at compe- titions, there were Oatly stickers and employees—just, in some cases, no actual oat milk. Mike Messersmith, the U.S. general manager of Oatly, saw fi rst- hand how quickly success can turn into failure. "The word of mouth and speed is going faster than we anticipated," he says. "Cafés that we thought would order one case started ordering three, and that three would translate to four or fi ve, and then to 'as much as you can give me.' We have a very specialized product, and we were struggling to keep up with demand. That is a failure. We built our business on providing a good product and letting cafés provide a great latte to their customers, and we couldn't provide that as we promised. Those relationships mean everything to us, and we felt like letting people down was the biggest failure for us." There's a moment in the midst of failure when you fi nd yourself in the eye of the storm, as things lose speed for a minute or an hour or a day, and you have a choice about what to do next. For Oatly, the choice came down to staying the course and standing up to reality, or fi nding a shortcut to navigate around the damage of the storm. They chose a path forward with honesty. "One way to maintain momentum is to not compromise the quality. So that wasn't an option," Mike says. "There are really no words you can give to solve it or make it right for a customer. You can say sorry, but if you're not really sure how long it will take, there aren't words that can solve it. Product solves it. We were honest where we were, and tried not to make promises we couldn't keep. "There's so much business pressure to give someone a concrete answer. And it just doesn't work like that. Rather than make those assurances, we want to talk about how we got here. We come back to two pieces: There's only so much I can control, and you have to fi nd a peace in that." Losing Focus in a New Job More often than not, failure isn't a moment but rather a collection of missteps, miscalculations, or simply misfortune. In his fi rst year at Ally Coffee, James Tooill admittedly failed to "focus on the work at hand" and lost his company's business relationship with Good Folks Coffee and owner Matt Argo, James' former boss. There were a num- ber of things that went wrong in a short period of time. "I deferred to my team as the direct contact with Good Folks," says James, who is Ally's North American sales manager. "Because they knew that I had a good relationship with the owner, I believe that we glossed over some of the potential hurdles instead of proactively addressing before the coffee was sold. In this way, we made the fi rst sale, but lost the long-term relationship. Which is a terrible failure on our end." While the Ally/Good Folks relationship may have ended, James used 86 barista magazine

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