Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Path, Direction, and Faith. Part VI

Appreciating and truly incorporating into yourself the growth of your business is as hard as appreciating and truly incorporating into yourself the growth of your own body.  Who wants to incorporate baldness?  Meh.  But now we're finally back to page one, back to religious alignment.  If you never truly incorporate your growth into your direction, your direction becomes completely unsustainable.

We birth children.  We teach our children.  We learn from our children. 

We birth businesses.  We teach our businesses.  We learn from our businesses.

And the hardest part is taking the growth in stride, is making it truly your own.  This isn't hot air.  It's easy enough to play along with change.  But playing along isn't good enough.  You must embrace growth, and you must be genuine about it.  If your business grows and you fail to adapt, you will strangle it.  If you fake adaptation, you give up leadership and find that you are merely following someone else's path.

Or you're following nobody's path at all.

We have arrived once again at the notion of faith.  It is relatively easy for many of us to deny that we have faith in religious orthodoxy.  It is easy to say "no".  But it is far more difficult to find something to which we say "yes".  To destroy takes seconds.  To build takes a lifetime.  The worthwhile challenge is to have faith in ourselves and in the business path we choose.  

Maybe after enough years of practice, after being stubborn and after compromising, after being afraid and after being a headstrong pig, after drowning in the directions of others and after squelching the direction of others with our own, after serving others and after serving ourselves and sometimes after serving nobody at all, there is symbiosis.  There is interdependence.  There is growth in the parent and growth in the child and there is nobody to say which is which.  

And so much there is for Path, Direction and Faith.

Anybody know how to fix the walk-in cooler?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Path, Direction, and Faith. Part III of VI

Nobody wants to be a money grubber or a navel gazer.  Neither a tyrant nor a doormat.  It's easy to get caught up in your own shit and build a company that exclusively serves your personal needs (yes Dennis Kozlowski, I'm talking to you...).  But what's actually even easier, even more terrible is to build a company where you take so much input from so many people, and you try so hard to please so many customers (and employees, and balance that with your family and your friends, etc ad nauseam...) that you wind up with a company that serves exclusively everybody else.

Or perhaps even worse... maybe your company doesn't really serve anybody at all. 

Maybe the only reason it keeps stumbling forward is because there are still more brains to eat.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Path, Direction, and Faith. Part II of VI

Building your own company is a fractal of  building your own life: there are a lot of wonderful people involved, and there is a comforting degree of interconnectedness required...but at its root, much of the work of defining a business and making it yours is a lonely and introspective job.

If you were perfectly happy taking someone else's direction, you'd still be working for someone else's company, right?  So the primary difference between working for someone else and working for yourself is that when your work for yourself you have to follow your OWN direction.  Defining that direction is harder than many people think.  Then try adding a business partner.  And some employees and some customers.  These people...with their big brains and their will and their sense of destiny.  Oy gevalt.  Getting all those stars to line up and buy into your direction can be damned near maddening.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Path. Direction. Faith. A Business Doctorine in Six Parts.

Part One: Path and Faith.

I've always thought it would be nice to wake up as a born again Christian or an ultra-orthodox Jew.  I mean, how cool would it be that the whole notion of "right" is defined  for you?  All you have to do is follow, put forth great effort, and your reward is certain.  I know I'm oversimplifying.  Religious life still leaves us with decisions and the gray zones of interpretation.  I've heard that said path is neither easy nor always fun, mind you.  But still.  When you subscribe to religious belief, you acknowledge that there exists an established path between you and salvation. 

When blazing your own, though,  the going is slow, and the direction you take is often entirely unknown.  As the saying goes: it's a jungle out there.  And as for growing up while you're doing it? Gaining perspective?  Calvin and Hobbes say that's a bunch of poo.  As we always suspected when we were kids, being an adult is just like being a kid except your junk doesn't work, everything hurts, and you get tired at 9:00. 

The early days of business can be a joy of masochistic sorts.  The one and only holy grail is that you make enough money to survive until the next month.  Myopia and the frenzied struggle for survival are comforting in that they keep you from noticing the peril ahead.  

Building your own company is a fractal of  building your own life: there are a lot of wonderful people involved, and there is a comforting degree of interconnectedness required...but at its root, much of the work of defining your business and making it yours is a lonely and introspective job.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Critical Mass Part II: The Trash Saddle

It was the early months of winter of 2000; Mark and I had just incorporated and we were building out our space.  I made an appointment to see a small business advisor at the SBA to see what we could do about borrowing some money to finish construction or have a bit of cash left for cushioning when we finally opened.  The advisor guy was nice enough, and heard me out as I explained how we would use twenty five grand.  And then he asked a question that was a bit off target...almost a non-sequitur: "Do you plan to deliver coffee to customers"?

I replied in the affirmative.  He questioned again: "Do you have a delivery truck"?

I told him that I had a service van, and that my business partner had a car. 

"Well the first thing you should buy, young man" he continued "is a delivery truck.  Twenty to thirty thousand dollars will get you a good one these days".

And in my mind, the meeting was over.  For some unknown reason, I wound up with a small business advisor who wanted me to go out and buy a classic Trash Saddle.

Young business is like young love: it shouldn't be burdened with responsibility.  My old POS van worked just fine.  For a time (oh...three years...) Mark's car filled in for a delivery vehicle very nicely.  The LAST thing my baby business needed was to be saddled with was a $25,000 asset that depreciated by 30% the day it left the lot.  Or worse yet, a bum asset like that with a note that had to be paid every month against the full original retail value.  Plus interest. 

I've heard it said that the most common cause for young business failure is the owner's failure to pay the IRS.  This may or may not be true.  However, what I CAN say is true is that a substantial percentage of young businesses fail because they are saddled with trash: debt service on buildout expense, monthly payments on spendy vehicles (which also come with spendy insurance tabs), salaries for employees who don't have enough work to do, fees for overblown lawyers, or rent on a flashy space.  There is a time for businesses to buy toys, to give out raises and add benefits to compensation packages, and to upgrade facilities.  But if spending is done in advance of earnings, in advance of cash flow, it is alarmingly easy to spend oneself into a hole from which there is truly no escape.

Note: this isn't advice to be a cheapskate.  If you're selling Kaladi Coffee, buy great coffee equipment and pay to train yourself and your people.  Pay for a space that has some sort of long-term promise.  As advised in The Untouchables, "don't bring a knife to a gun fight".  But really.  You don't need $35,000 of tables and chairs to open a new cafe.  You don't need twelve $300 light fixtures.  Back to Baby: spend on neonatal care and your kid's 529...not $45 a gallon on designer paint for the ceiling of your baby's nursery.

So here it is: keep your young business' burdens light.  Don't incur monthly payments that can't be made comfortably.  Hope for growth, but don't expect it.  And for God's sake, don't let yourself come to NEED growth; don't bet that your new business will make $1435 of net profit per month, wordlessly earmarked for a mortgage payment on the house where your husband and kids live.  If you ever engineer yourself into a corner where it's your family against your business...well...don't even bother throwing a punch.  Because at that point, you've already lost the fight.

A related but subtly different trash-saddle is that of expectations.  Beyond expectations that are strictly financial in nature, we all have "plans" (more like fantasies) of how we'd like our businesses to develop and grow.  Maybe we aren't betting on having a Google-like complex within five years, but still...we look to our businesses for validation of who we are and why we work.  And what's funny is that a business can wind up being a freakishly accurate mirror of ownership...but it takes a while.  No rush. So don't push.

Like parenting, growing a business requires strength, but is in truth a gentle art.  It is one thing to find and remove obstacles to your business' growth.  It is another thing altogether to try to push it along.  Push hard enough and you're cruising for the small business equivalent of American Pastoral.  Or, as Mark puts it, "don't push...'cause the Universe will push back, and the Universe is bigger".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Business Concept of Critical Mass

I had an appointment with a fellow small business owner here at Kaladi Coffee this afternoon.  She has an established grocery operation here in Colorado.  She makes healthy, organic prepared foods and sells them from the same grocery store location.  Her business has a loyal following: there aren't any big chances of nobody coming in on any given day.  While her business faces a couple of small obstacles here and there, the major reason we came to meet is that her business,  for lack of better terminology, has never really reached what I call Critical Mass.

Critical Mass is a hugely useful and flexible concept.  Originally intended, of course, to describe the mass at which fissile material can create a self-sustaining chain reaction, it has been adapted to social movements, think-tank activity, and at least in my mind, to small business.

Critical Mass is achieved when a business becomes self-supporting: when it no longer requires regular infusions of cash or superhuman inflows of energy in order to continue daily operations, and when ownership can, at long last, begin to draw a little meager income.  We're not talking about money and energy required to GROW a business, mind you (which very often requires inputs)...just that it can sustain itself and its ownership on a day to day basis.  Between birth and Critical Mass, a business is like a baby (a metaphor we will return to over and over again...dirty diaper analogies included) in that all it does is absorb. But it isn't cute.  It doesn't make cute noises.  And the bills you incur by running a baby business aren't cute by any means at all.

But wait...in addition to frustration, business owners get a big special bonus bummer: fear.  The vast majority of babies born in America hit Critical Mass sooner or later, when they get jobs, form friendships with people who manage to stay out of jail, and find their own places to live.  There are what...300 million examples in our midst at all times right here in the U S of A?  The opposite is true with small businesses.  A few die in childbirth, within a few months of startup, and then the vast majority slowly starve (or worse...starve their "parents") over a three or four year period...that excruciating time when, while working fiendishly, owners wonder if their business will ever support them, pay their mortgage, or do anything but suck them dry and waste their time.  After all,  there is only a slim chance that their baby will EVER become a viable business with a Critical Mass of its own.  And any new business owner who denies that they've ever been afraid that their baby isn't going to make it is either an egomaniac or a liar.

So one skill new business owners need is a good measure of patience.  Another is faith.  Stupidity in small measure helps, as does proclivity to obsessive behavior, deafness to criticism, and the ability to make Ramen noodles 300 different ways while waiting for the holy grail: the very first paycheck.

But perhaps in a more useful context, the notion of Critical Mass can help guide startup owners into building a business that has a greater chance of achieving Critical Mass before it strangles Momma and Daddy.  The same way different fissile materials achieve Critical Mass at different weights, differently configured businesses hit Critical Mass more or less quickly, with more or less financial and human-energy input.

Next up: CM part II, in which we look at some of the variables that dictate when a business may...or may not...reach Critical Mass.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Zombie Rules

Every business needs rules.  Rules for employees, rules for customers, rules for vendors...just rules. Rules are an infrastructure of sorts that define what is "with" and what is "against" the essence of our work.

But among the thousands of things I've messed up over the past ten years, I think I've botched rules more than anything else.  Contrary to popular belief and the measurements of dullards like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, I think the Universe is a Remarkably Small Place.  I've never been anywhere else where it's quite so easy to trip over my own damned self.

The origin of a rule is usually a Bad Experience: some dirtbag steals a travel mug, an employee arrives at the shop late, or a Kaladi Coffee wholesale customer pays slow on their terms.  Wrongdoing births Indignance; I get bent because Someone didn't do Something they were supposed to do.  My indignation causes me to structure things so that the same Wrongdoing doesn't happen again.

And so rules are conceived. 

Rules are often phrased as "Don't" statements.  "Don't give Marko coffee on terms 'cause I'll have to call him and hound him to get paid".  "Don't run payroll without examining punch times...employees are always trying to come in late and leave early".  Or, "don't give a refund without a receipt: everyone is out to screw me".

When narrowly examined, rules like that may indeed keep the (also narrow) Wrongdoing from happening again.  But like something out of Greek mythology or like Zombies, rules have a way of reflecting their origin.  There's a demonic mutation that occurs...rules born of Bad Experience have a way of turning on themselves and in turn, on their authors. 

When more broadly applied, a rule intended to keep Marko from overextending his tab makes me hound Paul, who while a day late is one of those folk who most often pay their bills in full and on time.  A well intended but badly constructed rule leads me to chastise an employee who is five minutes late today, but who is usually punctual.  The customer who is denied an exchange or refund without their receipt is one time in ten a thief...and nine times in ten a regular good customer who lost their receipt, and who, feeling disrespected, won't come back after being denied.

If rules are made to address customers who steal, employees who cheat, and wholesalers who are deadbeats, those rules will, in effect, create a business whose customers steal, whose employees cheat, and whose wholesalers are deadbeats.

It's kinda an extension of the old saying "be careful what you wish for...you just may get it".

Rules should be created to sculpt the kind of business you WANT, not the kind of business you'd like to avoid.  Rules should create a positive flow, they should direct events toward the Desirable. 

I know that sounds like a bunch of hippie poop.  Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not hippie like that.  I'm not always a peace-nik, and I'm certainly not a pacifist.  But I'm not deaf either; I can hear it when the Universe says "let up, Dude.  Let go of your indignation.  Don't make Zombie Rules.  Make rules that serve your Good clients, your Good employees, and that help define your Good company".

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happiness, If The Bar Is Low Enough

So most corporate gripes have to stew and fester for weeks before reaching some state of resolution, right? Not with UPS.

My beef with UPS was settled after a mere eleven months. Fortunately, time flies when you're having fun, right?

In early December I wrote to UPS' corporate customer care address. While I'll spare everyone the tedium (and anger, and snide comments...) of most of that letter, the following excerpt comes word for word:

I subsequently spoke with Ms. Holdren about UPS policy, and whether it was acceptable to leave such “notice of suspension” with people NOT listed as account contacts. Ms. Holdren assured me that yes, that is UPS policy. Ms. Holdren was defensive. She offered no apology.

I would like to hear from you; please let me know if Albertine and Debbie Holdren really DID execute UPS’ collection policy. In the meantime and for fair comparison, I will call Federal Express to inquire about THEIR collection policies.

If a teeny tiny business owner like myself might be so bold as to offer a piece of collections insight to a large publicly traded company like UPS: if you treat your customers like deadbeats, all of your good customers will leave you in order to be treated properly. And guess who will be left? You’ll be left with a pool of customers that are…well…deadbeats.

Eleven months later I got a call from someone (whose name has been lost to history) from UPS indicating that the letter I wrote managed to work its way around to a bunch of the muckity-mucks in training and that, in fact, UPS' collection training had been changed as a result. Which, of course, is a decent consolation prize for me, though I'd have preferred to see Albertine on the cover of the UPS Customer Monthly, attractively attired in a tightly-zippered gimp suit.

Somewhere in the distance, a chain rattles. December is upon us; the air is crisp and the promise of holidays to come fill our hearts with the great and generous spirit of forgiveness...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Collections: Don't Be An Ass, v. 1.01

I had to put the "v 1.01" up top because business is fraught with opportunities to be an Ass. I'm not even talking about good ol' "screw everyone else" self-serving ass: I mean Ass, capitalized, as in someone whose behavior is destructive to Everyone, including himself and his own organization. I find it certain that we will again come to the topic of Assness, and at that time we'll move on to Ass v. 1.02.

But for now, let's work with v. 1.01: collections.

About a year ago I arrived at work on an otherwise bright Monday morning to find a note from one of our baristas on my desk, hastily scrawled during the morning rush: "Albertine at UPS says our account is going to be suspended because we don't pay our bills. Call him at 1800-xxx...".

I called in, and spoke with Albertine's supervisor, Nancy. The bill in question was the ONLY bill that had been late in six years (billed weekly, that's 1/312th..). Still, Nancy was unrelentingly aggro with me. A real pit-bull. As we hung up, I exhaled deeply, thankful that I wasn't her boyfriend or her dad.

Collecting bills is an unpleasant job. I'm filled with awe for people who can do it for a living and still remain cheerful and adjusted. I think it's different when it's your own money, though. Like any businessman that grants NET terms, I have to do collections on a regular basis. But courtesy of UPS (and about thirty other ex-vendors), I've learned about (and partially mastered...ouch...) the art of restraining my seemingly infinite sense of self-righteousness when dressing up for collections day.

Most customers I've called on for lateness have been late for one of very few predictable reasons:

  • They didn't get the bill
  • I didn't send the bill
  • Their business is slow and their margins have suffered
  • Their payables contact has been ill, or was on vacation
  • They are good-natured slobs who just don't do paperwork often enough

And maybe one slim percent of my overdue invoices are held by that gonif who needs to wake up with Khartoum's head on his pillow.

So 99% of the time that I approach a late customer in aggressive way, I wind up being an Ass: alienating a long term client (only long term clients get terms...), and raising a ruckus when the ruckus really serves no end at all 'cept enhancing some abstract and deranged sense of Manhood.

In closing, I try to think of fluffy white clouds and playful puppies when I collect bills. I think the tasty Jameson and soda that awaits at the end of the day. I try to be a sucker. I struggle to remember that if I make one terrible mistake on collections day, it should be that I was way too kind to a bona-fide deadbeat, rather than being an Ass to someone who is truly important to me and to my company.

Next up: the UPS debacle and its remarkably pleasant resolution...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving and My Small Business

Exactly ten years ago this past week, Mark and I had a...heated discussion (we never argue about anything. Nope. Never...) about being open for Thanksgiving. I explained that it is one day of the year when most other coffee joints are closed, and thus we could both serve our own market and perhaps introduce our brand to a few lucky souls who had never been in to see us before. And yes, in those lean years, the thought of making margin on even a slim day of sales was compelling.

At first, I thought Mark's response was uncharacteristically surfacy: he didn't really feel like working on Thanksgiving Day, and didn't think our employees would feel like it either.

"WTF [de-emphasis mine]? What do you mean 'don't feel like it?'" I raged. "I bet Patton didn't really feel like fighting at the Bulge when he coulda been sunnin' his hindquarters at the beach instead, eh?".

I'm a notoriously slow learner. And as an added bonus, I'm pig-headed too: I fight with all my energy against the seductive radiance of enlightenment. But with 3650 days of business under my belt, I have come to accept a few truths:

  • Close on holidays. The few dollars we may make won't pay for the resulting ill-will of our employees. And moreover, those businesses that make money on holidays...you probably wouldn't want to own one of them anyway. We'll save that for another post.
  • On the occasions when we've all been plowed together by nothing more than fate and our personally-insensitive calendar of holidays, when for whatever irrational reason we dread the feast and yearn for solitude, well, I think of it as yet another Great Exercise: it reminds me that there's more to life than my business (like blogging about my business, for example...).
  • All joking aside, particularly on Thanksgiving, I try to be appreciative, godammit. I try to be conscious that the burden of plunging toilets at Kaladi, of fighting with Mark, of morphing mutinies and assuaging psychotic clients is a PRIVILEGE. It really is. You know why? They're MY toilets. Mark is MY business partner, the armed insurrections are among MY help, and those psychotic clients are MY peeps. I mean many of those psychotic clients know me better than my rabbi.

When I ask the Universe why I have been saddled with such an unruly business, the answer always comes back the same: "because you made it this way, silly".

And thus, today (and every other day when I can manage it) I am grateful. I'm grateful for my role in a business that makes clients happy. I'm grateful that my business has evolved into a entity that pays its bills and operates in a sound and ethical manner. And I'm grateful that I have been blessed enough to take part in an endeavor that, despite the incalculable messiness of it all, supports my employees, my partner, and myself, and enables us to live and love our lives, and make a difference in this evolving world, year after year.

Plagiarizing a catch-word from Jewish Passover liturgy, I say "Dayeinu". A bit out of context, the generally accepted translation of Dayeinu is"it is enough". Whatever It is, more if It will not make us happier people. But, if we're lucky, being thankful for It may do the trick.

Happy Thanksgiving and best wishes from my family, and from all of us at Kaladi Coffee in Denver.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Vast Soulless Corporation

Some months ago, I had the pleasure of having my morning coffee with a new customer at the shop. When I asked how she wound up in our little space, among other things, she explained that she was drawn to Kaladi because it isn't "a vast soulless corporation".

For a moment, I felt like a vampire on a day pass...because Kaladi is actually a DBA (Doing Business As) of a Colorado Corporation.

It's a common view: a corporation is a business entity that gets unfair tax breaks from the IRS, hires goons to break the knuckles of striking workers, and cheats employees out of their retirement savings. Jeff Skilling and his pals at Enron (or substitute Tyco, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, etc...) have colorfully reinforced the notion that "corporations are evil". Unfortunately, newspapers rarely report on the good things that good corporations do because...well...good stuff is boring. Nobody posts pictures of Britney Spears when she is captured being a tender and responsible mother, you know?

A decade ago, Mark and I incorporated because it made for a clear presentation of our responsibilities with respect to the business we do together, and because it made ownership (and Ownership's dark twin Taxation) a matter of boilerplate mechanics. Incorporation doesn't affect the nature of our shop, the coffee we buy, or the way we work with our customers. I like to think that soulless corporations are born of soulless people...and soulful corporations are born from soulful people.

Incorporation is kinda like getting married, or just about any other jumping-off in life: it is what you make of it. From soulless people come soulless endeavors, and likewise for benevolent people and good endeavors. Nobody would assume that their neighbor's new baby will turn out to be a disciple of Hannibal Lechter. Perhaps we shouldn't make assumptions about the vastness and soullessness of corporations either.