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It seemed like a good idea at the time

So, I have written a book. An actual, 55,000 word, drafted, rewritten, revised and now finished book that I’ve even had edited properly. I feel like celebrating!

It seemed like a good idea at the time

But what is it actually about? I hear you cry.

It’s about coffee and about life, but most of all it’s about the often grim realities of entrepreneurship. There are many, many less-than-glamorous aspects of starting your own business that few people ever tell you about.

Business biographies are written about successful companies and by inspirational leaders. But have you ever wondered what becomes of those that don’t make it? This memoir is about what happens when you take the leap, seize the day and follow your dreams, and then discover it really isn’t as easy as all that, you haven’t got any money, your landlord is an idiot, you haven’t slept in several years and you still have to clean toilets.

Right now, I am undecided whether to continue hunting for a traditional publisher, or whether to take another leap into the unknown and self-publish it. If this piques your interest and you’d like to be a ‘beta-reader’ for me, please get in touch!

(And for any publishers reading this, nudge-nudge, wink wink…)

More details are on my website.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Ch-ch-ch-chaaaanges….

This was very nearly an extremely sad post. But it isn’t!

I was genuinely a few days away from having to close up Dr. Coffee’s Cafe for good, which was heartbreaking. As always, it came down to money, and I hate that. Money always spoils everything!!! In simple terms, the cafe wasn’t making enough of it. It was deathly quiet over the winter (but probably would have been fatal then if we’d had a “normal” Saskatchewan winter actually), but I tried to stay confident, and it did eventually start to pick up again. But not fast enough for me.

Baby Theia turned one year old last week. That in itself is incredible, but most significantly for the cafe, it spells the end of my very generous maternity leave. Right now, my fellow Mums are all facing the horrible prospect of having to go back to work, and all scrabbling around frantically trying to find childcare for one-year-old infants. This is no easy feat. It is also incredibly expensive. If I “went back to work” properly in the cafe, I would not only have to pay myself a living wage, my salary would have to be enough to cover childcare costs as well – and the business just couldn’t afford it. It only just covered the low wage I pay the part-time baristas (though I prided myself on paying above minimum wage, it wasn’t much above!). Without affordable daycare, I couldn’t work any more. Theia is now walking and it wouldn’t be fair or practical for anyone if I took her to work with me. Her coming with me was fine when she was a newborn because she just slept through most of it, but nowadays she’d be climbing the walls quite literally. So, me returning to full time cafe work was not an option. Neither did I seriously consider the idea of finding another high-paying job elsewhere to support the cafe – even if I found one (unlikely), it would mean I had no time to run the business which is entirely self-defeating. All was looking very, very gloomy indeed and it feels SO UNFAIR.

I tried to sell the business, but that was nearly impossible with so little profits. I did have several meetings with a guy who initially sounded really positive. He put in a reasonable offer thhat I would have accepted, and it got to the point where he was 3 days away from taking the keys and opening up by himself – but then he just stopped talking to me. No response to emails or phone calls,didn’t show up for a meeting, nothing. Then I got a random message from him, asking about my dog…? Obviously sent to the wrong person, but interestingly, it said “Sent from my iphone, Brandon MB” on the bottom of the email. So he wasn’t even in the province any more. Terry Gillespie, you are a timewasting arsehole.

I think I was fairly close to a nervous breakdown by that point, but mercifully my parents were here to look after me and we had a mini holiday in Calgary and I got to ignore it all for a few days. And when I got back…
Don’t you just love those random late night conversations with strangers? A while back we hosted a wedding reception in the cafe for one of our regulars, and afterwards while rather tipsy she declared that she and new husband wanted to get into business and *obviously* I should be their business mentor…. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but when I sent out the sad little “We’re closing” email, she jumped on it and said she could help. They aren’t in a position to buy the business unfortunately, but we managed to figure out an arrangement whereby they are taking over running the place for 6 months with the option to buy in the new year. So I am still the owner and I’m effectively training the others, but it’s way less demanding time-wise and emotionally! She’s renamed it Noni’s after her daughter (and really, Dr. Coffee’s doesn’t make much sense without me!), and the place has a bit of a new look – that I love because if anything, it is even MORE colourful now. There’s also an expanded menu, and even a bike rack in there! I think we share a vision for the place which (so far) we’ve been able to communicate to each other very well indeed, and that is incredibly reassuring given how crushing the idea of closing was to me. I really am incredibly lucky sometimes.

So, thanks to an amazing saviour at the final hour, all is wonderful again. Go visit Noni’s!!

We're evolving

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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One year in…

Howard Schultz called his second biography of Starbucks, “Onward”. I wanted to borrow that, except mine would be Onwards and Upwards!

We have reached a significant but fairly arbitrary milestone – the cafe has been open for a whole year now. (although of course, I could have celebrated the ‘year since I quit my job’ in February, or the anniversary of incorporating the company in December, or a year since signing the lease in November, etc etc.)

BIRTHDAY CAKE

What a helluva year it’s been! Six baristas have been and gone already and number 7 still appears enthusiastic despite the 6.30am starts. BabyCoffee joined us and brings a whole new element of chaos to the place. We’ve had reviews in the paper, random interviews on the radio, a spot on early morning TV, paid advertising with Coffee Party competitions, a very strange podcast session in which I was pronounced an ‘Improvement Vector’ and even a TV crew appearing on our doorstep unannounced and getting our customers to recite poems. Novels have been written in here, books and other businesses launched, crafts have been sold, art has been auctioned and charity funds have been raised.  And this weekend we even hosted a wedding reception!

Coffee has been bought, sold, won, given out for free, exchanged, spilled, burnt, roasted, ground, brewed, poured over, filtered, tamped, pressed, decaffeinated, bagged, instagrammed, stepped on, sworn at, written about, accidentally consumed by BabyCoffee, studied academically, posted, supped, slurped, swigged, enjoyed, cupped, sampled, iced, flavoured, baked into cake, composted, scrubbed into bath salts, and cycled around the city.

My sleep-deprivation levels are at an all-time high, mainly due to BabyCoffee but also because my brain is in permanent business-mode and seemingly goes out of its way to find me things to worry about at 3am, even when they aren’t immediately obvious. It has not been easy. I was extremely relieved to find that the world/business didn’t totally implode while I took some time off as “maternity leave” – but I was answering my work email after 3 days of being home from hospital, and I showed off BabyCoffee at the cafe when she was just 6 days old. I couldn’t stay away.

entrepreneur-advantage-disadvantage

Of course, the major worry is Money, or at least, lack of it. I am sad to report I am not a millionaire yet.  The real reason we celebrate being one year in is because statistically, over 2/3rds of businesses fail in the first year. The first year is the hardest in terms of establishing cashflow and dealing with humungous start up costs, while still developing the business and the customer base. Well, we have been down, but we are not out. So obviously year 2 is going to be a breeze! Onwards and upwards, my friends!

P.S., We were nominated in 4 categories in the Prairie Dog Best of Food Awards. Pleeeeeease go vote for us. It would be a nice birthday present. Thanks!!

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Cafe (owners) Culture

No doubt the most fun part of my Phd to me was the ethnography. I may have graduated from the Geography department, but I was, and still am an anthropologist at heart. People fascinate me, and investigating my imagined/constructed “coffee cultures” around the little brown beans was amazingly interesting. Much has been written about ‘cafe culture’, particularly European cafe culture, and also the atmosphere and environments which coffee shops attempt to create for their customers. There are also the stereotypes: the hipster barista in various guises, the underemployed arts graduates in green aprons or the old men on ‘coffee row’ in Saskatchewan for instance. I concentrated on producer ethnographies and the cultures that grew up around the less visible parts of the coffee production process – the farmers, cuppers and roasters.

What I neglected during my fieldwork was Cafe Owners Culture – what sort of people open coffee shops? What motivates them? Now I have joined the ranks of Coffee Shop Owners properly, I hope I am more qualified to answer that. In my experience so far, coffee shop owners seem to fall into four rough categories:

  1. Corporate investors who acquire coffee shops as little piggy banks and let someone else do the hard graft in the actual cafes,
  2. Passionate coffee connoisseurs and geeks who want a place to showcase their knowledge and skills and maybe educate the consumers,
  3. Fired up entrepreneurs who think that coffee shops represent a low risk, easy start up opportunity, or
  4. Lifestylers who want an idyllic, fun little business that gives them freedom and a more healthy work-life balance

For the record, since this post is now getting rather judgemental, I think I fall somewhere between the second and fourth types. I am rapidly learning the hard way that none of these types seem to really succeed. Just because I know a lot about coffee and how to make it, doesn’t mean I necessarily know how to make it make money. Conversely, in such a crowded market, passion, personality and knowledge are essential to make your coffee shop stand out. Coffee shops are not ‘easy money’ for the investors either because although profit margins on lattes are eye-wateringly high, so too are the overheads on the perfect location and the wage bill for passionate, talented staff.

As for the Lifestylers… well, if I am honest, the yearning for something that’s *mine*, that I am free to try out my own ideas in, being my own boss, and wanting a business that I can fit around my family are my main motivations. Since the PhD I have swapped tedious Theories of Human Geography journals for insipid entrepreneurial books and How To guides about setting up coffee shops. A worrying number of them are written by people who haven’t actually done it themselves. Of those who have – and there are some great, inspirational examples out there amongst the tripe – all warn against doing it for ‘the lifestyle’. I wholeheartedly agree. I am my own boss, and I wouldn’t want it any other way but it comes at a huge price. I have been able to engineer my business around my family to some extent, but that just involves bringing my kids to work, not lessening my work load to spend time with my kids. The old and now internet-famous quote about entrepreneurship is very true; that entrepreneurs work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours for someone else. Making a living from a start-up coffee shop business is a hugely difficult, exhausting and stressful challenge, mistakes are inevitable and incredibly easy to make, and the failure rate is frighteningly high. Far from giving you a comfortable life, it takes over your life entirely!

Every single coffee entrepreneur book that I’ve come across so far has been written by someone who has succeeded. My cafe owning journey is not over yet, and I may still succeed, but I am writing my own entrepreneurs’ book already. It’s called “It seemed a good idea at the time” and it is “inspirational” only in that I am still standing and for the most part, still sane and smiling. It is what *not* to do when starting a coffee business, and those stories need to be told, from every part of the cafe owners culture.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Slinging the shots – babies, beans and business

I am officially on maternity leave from the cafe. So far, this hasn’t really made much of a difference!

I ‘gracefully’ retired from actually being a barista a few weeks before New Daughter was born, mainly because I physically couldn’t stand behind the bar for long any more, and suddenly realised that everything useful was on the bottom shelf in there! I have a renewed appreciation for how physically demanding the workload of a barista is.

This is how I expected my perfect, peaceful, instagrammable maternity leave to look:

matleave

NB: That is not my child, and those are not my legs.

This is the reality:
matleave2Aah… the joys of entrepreneurship. Even if I am not actually pulling espresso shots, there are always at least a dozen emails waiting for me, or the website needs updating, or Facebook needs to take its daily slice of my soul, or its time for pay roll…Daughterling will gradually learn to fall asleep to the sound of me typing over her head, I’m sure.

I am not really complaining; I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. We opened Doctor Coffee’s Cafe #1 when our first daughter was just 5 months old; she grew up in a coffee shop, and if anything, it has only served to make her exceedingly sociable and confident. No one can ever accuse her of being the shy, clingy type of child and I do think being in a cafe environment with lots of strangers admiring her when she was tiny may have had a lot to do with it. Being self-employed like this and having the freedom to take my baby to work with me allows me all sorts of benefits which few parents with conventional jobs can afford.

Recently, Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) announced that she would be taking just two weeks off to give birth to her twin girls. (see the article, here) Of course this caused uproar – that’s a terrible role-model for other women etc, it gives out the message that work is more important than her family.. yada yada yada. Mayer is a multimillionaire, so of course she can afford to pay someone to look after newborns for her. And the very fact that she is, and remains a millionaire CEO is because presumably she works her arse off and probably can’t engineer a way to take any longer away from work anyway. Going back to work in an office – sitting behind a desk in fact, is not too strenuous on a post-partum body either. She is in a position to make that work, but she is NOT in the same position most women find themselves in and therefore shouldn’t be treated as a role model.

In some ways, I consider myself luckier than Marissa Mayer.  In my own way, I am a COO of a company too – chief operations officer rather than chief executive officer, (though I’d never use that title at the moment and expect to be taken seriously!) and I’m a proud Mum to an adorable newborn baby girl. Whereas I am envious of Mayer’s success and certainly of her millions, I NEVER have to sit in an office any more, never have to wear a power suit, I have caffeine on tap to cope with 4am feeds, and most importantly I get to run my business AND take care of my wonderful girls at the same time, and really, I can’t ask for any more than that.

theia

BabyCoffee comes to work with me in her sling (which I actually bought while at the coffee conference in Guatemala). Slings are so useful – I can carry her hands free and make lattes at the same time!

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Back in the business of Beans

Recently I have been hugely busy, as we finally have the Wheelie Good Coffee cart off the ground! Erm, not literally. Well, OK there was one incident… anyway, in case you missed my recent post, dear reader, Wheelie Good Coffee is my latest venture: a little cart from which I serve pour over coffees, hooked up to the back of my bike. Originally it was supposed to be attached to the trike, but the trike hitch is still a work-in-progress so for now I am wobbling along on just two wheels with Carl’s help. The aforementioned “off the ground” incident occurred when I overloaded the cart and hit a bump, and then managed to ping the back of wheel of the bike, and myself up in the air and into the curb. Oww.

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But these minor teething issues aside, all is going phenomenally well. After a wild and windy launch at the Cathedral Village Arts Festival, I am now serving coffee on the Regina Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and as many Wednesdays as the day job will allow. Sadly the market is only on twice a week, and only during the summer, otherwise I’d be out there every day and would quit the day job, but sadly 8 hours a week cannot pay the bills. Fun, busy, successful, confidence boosting Saturdays make coming in to the office on Mondays even worse than usual though. I am not a corporate person. I felt this to be true even before I started this job, but 8 months there has proved it beyond all shadow of a doubt. I loved my university departments, but that is about as close to an office job as I ever want to get.

At risk of jinxing things though, the cart is going so well, it inspires me to believe that I am really on to something and could really turn it in to a full time business – given time and hard work. The hard work is not the issue – I am doing this because I enjoy it. Having done something similar before, I know my limits and I’ve learned from my mistakes and experiences with the coffee Ape van and Doctor Coffees Cafe. I am not perhaps approaching this so blindly. The time is an issue though, because I am so impatient!

The response to the coffee cart has been such a massive contrast to everything I experienced in Darlington – in the best possible way. Given the circumstances, I still believe I did bloody well in Darlington – but as I said at the time, the little I managed to achieve there, was done despite Darlington council, despite the unhelpfulness and disinterest of the local market officers, and despite the horrible location itself. This time round, the wonders of a new home on a new continent have provided me with amazing amount of support and encouragement and ideas and constructive feedback even before my lovely Carl had built the cart!

I cannot thank the Farmers Market crew enough – their support has been invaluable and the market is exceptionally well run and successful. It is also very well attended, and I am rushed off my feet every week, to the point where I don’t even get time to drink my own coffee!! Every week more people visit saying “hey, I follow you on Twitter” or “ooo yay! Coffee on the market!” Or compliment me on the set up (which I redirect to Carl) or the quality of the coffee. On top of that, I am even getting a lot of help from friends at other local businesses – from recommendations for events that could use coffee, to me borrowing a licensed kitchen area with big sinks to sterilize my water tanks in properly from a neighbouring business, to Roca Jacks roasting the coffee and Cuppa T’s selling me tea wholesale. It’s just wonderful, and encouraging enough to make the whole entrepreneurial start-up journey that much less precarious!

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But this is not just a business blog! What of the coffee, I hear ye cry?
Well, most of it looks like this:
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I make pourover coffee, that is, pouring hot water very slowly over a coffee dripper lined with filter paper and filled with the best freshly ground coffee, until it drips through a fills the cup underneath. It is far more elaborate and time consuming than making normal drip or percolated coffee, but it makes a much fresher, cleaner cup. Its single serve (though I have four drippers to do four drinks at a time), and because I make it in front of the customers, there’s no issue of keeping it stewing on a hot plate for ages. It’s about as fresh as you can get outside! Also, i get to wave a large, long spouted coffee pot around and make the coffee grounds ‘bloom’ and create steam so it all looks a bit like a mad chemistry experiment. For what is coffee without a bit of magic and theatre?

The beans themselves come from Roca Jacks. This makes me very happy indeed. I tried, but I couldn’t manage to rescue the Roca Jacks coffee shop. However, Bill now appears on our doorstep bearing coffee every few weeks, and our house smells deliciously of freshly roasted gooodness all the time. Better yet, I’m going to start retailing the beans in my online store as well, along with all the paraphenalia you need (drippers, coffee socks, mugs etc) to make Wheelie Good Coffee at home!

A lot of work awaits me yet, but my coffee-flavoured future looks like a bright happy one from here. Cheers!
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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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