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 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.