I am the greatest barista in the history of the world.
Yes, this is something of a moniker I have bandied around from time to time for its shock value. When I say it, most everyone in my organization rolls their eyes and shrugs their shoulders as they walk away.
So, what is my point?
I want to get people’s attention, highlight my story and have it become a source of inspiration and motivation for others to believe in themselves.
My Origin Story
I did start as a minimum wage barista in BIGGBY’s first store, broke as broke can get. How broke, you ask? If I was going to rub two nickels together, I would have had to borrow one. I didn’t have health insurance, was rolling mortgage payments over and my credit card was maxed with a $2.5K limit.
I remember my first day of work as a barista no longer in training and eligible to receive tips. I finished my shift, stuffed the money in my pocket without counting and set about walking to my office at nearby Michigan State University. En route, I stopped at the student union, walked to the bathroom and, when safely locked in a stall, pulled the money out and counted it—$17.60.
I had disposable cash, which I hadn’t had in a few months. I left the bathroom and, five minutes later, reached in my pocket and realized I had left the money on the top of the toilet paper dispenser. I ran back to the student union and the money was gone. I felt broken, but I knew tomorrow I’d be back to work at my second barista shift with the opportunity to make a few more dollars cash.
I am making my situation sound desperate, it really wasn’t—I was living with my parents and preparing to go back to graduate school. My job at BIGGBY was to earn a little extra cash as I worked on a very specific research project at Michigan State University. When my BIGGBY partner, Bob, approached me wondering if I would be interested in taking more responsibility within the business, I wasn’t inclined.
Bob and I ended up going for a long walk in the spring of 1997 talking business, life, dreams and our fancy fairy tales of the future. By the end of our 4-hour adventure, we shook hands and settled on working together to grow a company in the coffee business. That was the total amount of definition we prescribed. I was to become the assistant manager of our first store immediately, and then general manager of the second store when it opened.
There was nothing in writing, it was a handshake and a commitment to figure it out as we went. Bob and I barely knew each other—we worked different shifts and subsequently rarely crossed paths. Neither of us were interested in quickly running to the alter. We signed the paperwork to make our relationship formal 15 months later, in June of 1998. Even at that point, the company was worthless and wouldn’t have any value for many years.
The Power of Process
The point I want to make is this: process took a long time—15 months to put some ink on paper. But we weren’t partners in any meaningful way for 5-7 years, because the company had little to no value. I find that so many people are in a hurry to get to the formal part of binding a relationship, that they skip over the dating phase where they figure out if they are compatible.
I am a huge advocate of taking time when pursuing an opportunity. If you are like me and starting a business with no capital, it is really important to know the beast you are marrying when it comes to partners and investors. I have heard the story over and over—that if “they” had known who the investor/partner truly was, they wouldn’t have ever signed on the dotted line.
One of the reasons my and Bob’s partnership has worked so well is we took years to get to know each other. Take your time, don’t rush and maintain your independence for as long as possible. Make your partner love you and cherish the work you bring to the table, and by the time you are in a position where it may be difficult to exit, you will have a solid foundation built for a successful partnership and relationship.
The Long Road to Due Diligence
If you have the opportunity to become a business owner, I am a huge proponent of doing so. The dividends are powerful—and I’m not just talking about the money. I have always preached that I’d rather be broke knowing I went all in and flamed out trying to build the life of my dreams than live a life of mediocrity sitting around waiting for the end to happen. This is the magical stuff of the entrepreneurial mindset—jump up on the back of life and ride it as hard as you can.
The key to taking the long road—which I absolutely advocate—is staying positive and grateful for what the business and your partnership is, providing you always stay focused on and in touch with the bigger/biggest goals you have for the organization.
I love handshake arrangements that turn into something formal when it matters—and by the way, that might be never. Consider the handshake moment your opportunity to do your due diligence on potential partners. The right kind of due diligence. The only way to know people is to take the time. Use that time to work in the business and understand the business—the longer, the better.
My favorite fact is that I have worked in every position in my business. Because of this, I can be supportive of anyone at BIGGBY—from new barista in training to VP. To this day, I often recognize the benefit of knowing every nook and cranny of my business inside, out and in between.
No Straight Lines
I am a huge advocate of starting a business and finding and nurturing your inner entrepreneurial superpower. From barista/line worker to owner/co-CEO. It has been a long road, but I don’t regret one day of the past 20+ years. My journey certainly hasn’t been a straight line—the joy has been in the many curves, some sharper than others.
First, and to me the most powerful, motivational force to become an entrepreneur, is the fact that there is no limit to the upside. Other highly regarded professions have limitation to what one can do financially. All I have to do is wake up and figure out how to sell more cups of coffee. As long as I keep doing it, there is no cap on what I can earn.
My guiding light on this is Fred DeLuca from Subway. Nobody could have predicted that, when he was 17 starting the first Subway sandwich store, he would build over 40,000 units in his lifetime. It is hard to do the math and figure out how much money he was making. I have tried and, no matter how I approach it, the numbers are staggering.
Second, as a business owner you get to create your own culture—the one that suits you best. When you show up to work on Monday morning, the environment is literally a dream of your own creation. Your people and your organization are a reflection of you, spend time and make your environment one that you absolutely love.
Third, your company can be your own petri dish for self-improvement. I have had the benefit of building a culture that provides the feedback needed in order to become a continually better leader. Many leaders choose not to go this route, and I think it certainly limits their growth. Entrepreneurs that choose the path to grow and learn as a leader are the people that build enormous, impactful organizations.
Fourth, entrepreneurs are building an asset which will pay in perpetuity. You can choose to sell as one option to secure your retirement, or you can choose the lifetime member approach—which is my personal choice. I could sell at some point and become some moderately rich guy doing the same things all the other moderately rich guys are doing—trying to prove to each other how rich they are.
If I keep the business, I get to be involved in the things I love about running a company and let others do the stuff I don’t. I get to be challenged by individual projects the management team assigns me. I get to stay in touch with all of the young people in the organization, learning from them and teaching them what I have learned. This asset should be able to pay for me well into the grave and beyond. I love that!
What’s Your Story?
I would love to hear your Greatest Barista in the History of the World story. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me how you intend to push all of your chips in the middle to create your own fairy tale.
Write the script as you sit here today, be patient as you start to live it out and then stay firm and consistent on the path. I am living breathing proof that it can happen, and that it does happen.