While we’re gone, I’ve asked some people who I think are really interesting to write up some stuff to share here. Today, we’re hearing from Christina who I met a year and a half ago with a bunch of other ladies around a bunch more margaritas. And I remember her saying that she owned her own business. This lady! Who reminded me so much of me! Owning her own business! And I was, what? Temping? Struggling? Trying to figure out what to do with my life? She was impressive, to say the least. And fascinating if I’m being totally honest. So I’m delighted that she agreed to write about buying up a coffee shop and staffing it, all before she’s thirty, and with little business experience except how she thought a business should be. (Hint: Awesome.)
I’ve fantasized about running a shop of some kind since high school. First it was an ice cream shop, then I wanted to run a smoothie shop in a backpacker’s paradise, then I wanted to own an urban coffee shop. I met my husband when I was 22 and he had always had similar fantasies. I never thought I would actually do it, but after being unemployed for nine months during the recession and I being unable to get a job to save my life, I randomly (or maybe desperately) decided to look on craigslist to see if any coffee shops were for sale. I found an itty bity coffee shop in San Francisco selling for next to nothing, and my husband and I decided to just go for it. We bought it together, but since my husband had a full time job, we decided I would run it. That was two years ago, and it was probably the best adult decision I’ve made to date.
I’ve realized over the last two years that being a boss is the part of owning a business that I do best. I think I’m a really good judge of character when it comes to interviewing, so I pretty much have the most awesome staff ever. When I was a manager of a restaurant in college, I developed a theory that if your staff feels like…
- they have ownership over their jobs, and
- they’re good at what they do,
… your establishment will run smoothly and the customers will sense that pride in the staff and will have a good experience because of it. As the business owner, I have to check my ego at the door. None of this, “well I’m the boss, so do what I say!” stuff. And I have to try to instill in my employees that this is just as much their café as it is mine. For my establishment specifically, that means paying all my staff more than minimum wage, giving them creative freedoms and enacting their ideas (nutella hot chocolate anyone?), reminding them what they’re doing well, and passing along compliments to them that we get from customers.
Christina’s staff, summer 2010
Instilling that sense of ownership in the staff makes it so that I never really have to “manage” them. Everyone at the cafe takes such pride in the cafe, that they do a really good job because they want to. I’ve had bosses that micromanaged me, and it made me feel so stressed out that the quality of my work really suffered. Even if I see one of my staff doing something in a way I wouldn’t do it, I don’t say anything. I let them do their jobs in the way that works for them because, honestly, that’s how the work is going to get done best. I’m a bit of a control freak, so not micromanaging was a really deliberate decision I made. But as long as things are getting done well, it doesn’t matter how it’s getting done.
Another value I try to hold in very high regard is the importance of life outside work. When one of the staff wants to go drive across the country with their new fling, or decides to be in a play, or their best friend is in town and they don’t want to work, or whatever, I do my absolute best to help make that happen. I will even work double shifts for them when needed. I know it’s a bit idealistic, but I really believe that life is more important than work and I try to help that idea out as much as I can. In return, my employees know they have a boss who’s totally got their back and they work even harder for the cafe. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
The reality is this: owning a business is kinda scary. If something goes horribly wrong there’s no one to fix it but me. I don’t have a regular paycheck, or help with medical insurance or retirement funds. Basically, I don’t have guaranteed income. I have no idea if one day my customers will all unanimously decide to patronize our competition around the corner and I’ll not make rent (that’s a bit far-fetched but you never know!). There are times when the cafe is so slow, and I think we’re done for. But the truth is, it always picks up again. There are peaks and valleys, and when you’re in the valley you have to have enough faith in your product and your business skills to know that the peaks will come again. Having that faith in myself and my business only came with time.
The very first dollar the cafe ever made!!
The perks are awesome: I get to create a work environment based on my values, and a business model that I wholeheartedly believe in. It’s utterly satisfying. Another perk that seems small, but for me is huge, is: no one tells me how to do my job. My friends know that this fits quite well with my personality. I make my own schedule, I get to be creative, and I am constantly being challenged… by me. This is probably my favorite part of the job.
When I tell people I own my own (very tiny) business, most people react with shock or are really, really impressed. It seems weird to me because this job is kinda easy. But I understand why they react that way. I think we don’t really tell people at a young age that they can be small business owners. We teach people to get jobs for other, bigger companies*. Owning a business seems like something other people do. It’s a mystery and seems out of reach. But as long as you can get the capital to start it (and there are lots of companies that want to loan money to female small business owners) and you have enough faith in yourself to fake-it-til-you-make-it, owning your own business is totally within reach.**
My husband and I often remark that the biggest lesson we’ve learned in adulthood is that most adults don’t know what the hell they’re doing. As a younger-adult it seemed like the world was full of wiser 20- and 30-something folk who knew how to handle life. But guess what? No one knows what the eff is going on. No one is born knowing what a mortgage is, or how to do their taxes, or how to run a business. When I realized that, the world seemed so much more accessible. Just ask a lot of questions, do your research, and you can dive in to anything.
I’d also like to say that I’m not above asking google questions. I found tons of services on the internet that make my job super easy (and they’re free!) via the google machine. Payroll, taxes, basic legal paperwork — just google it and I bet you can find it.
And last but not least, for the love of god, take time off. Owning your own business means there’s always something to do. In the beginning I couldn’t watch a movie or take a hike without feeling guilty and like I should be working. This caused me to work all.the.time. This is not healthy or sustainable. (Did I mention I was planning my wedding during this time too? Oy vey.) My work and sanity seriously began to suffer. Finally, after a few months of ownership, one of my customers asked me if I had taken any time off since I had opened. I hadn’t. I promptly decided I needed to schedule free time into my days/weeks and to get over the guilt of not working. It will help you in the long run.
*This is a whole ‘nother blog post about how our current economy and culture doesn’t encourage small businesses (even though we think we do).
** Soapbox moment: I would like to put this out there too: Owning your own business isn’t the end-all be-all of work life either. I think owning your own business is suited for some and not others, and one isn’t better than the other. I happen to be really bad at working for other people. There’s nothing inherently better about working for yourself. Just doing what works for your personality and needs is what one needs to do! (Ok, off soapbox.)
If you would like to read more about Christina’s cafe please go here. And if you’d like to be a patron you can check it out in San Francisco on the corner of 18th and Treat.