Roasters Rock

You are passionate about coffee. You studied everything you could study. You called your first couple of jobs in coffee your ‘apprenticeship’ for starting your own business. You found some seed money. You found a location. You opened your doors and created a little slice of specialty coffee heaven in your neighborhood.

If this describes you, congratulations! You made it to stage 1 of your business. If you are not here yet, you probably will be, so read on to look into the future. But be warned; this article might tick you off.

This is probably not news to those already committed to a lease, but to everyone else: News Flash! Passionate coffee people are not by default good business people! Passion has on many occasions flown in the face of good business practices. The artisanal coffee guy / gal does not care about the mundane and icky practice of looking at the bottom line and making a profit because they have works of art to roast and brew. The business will just take care of itself! Right?

Unfortunately that is what a lot of small business people think, and how they treat their business. But with a proper amount of ‘evil capitalism’ the company could be set to do some wonderful things. But there is something you must do first:

Decide on what you want to be when you grow up.

From humble beginnings, little companies like Starbucks (SBUX) and Green Mountain (GMCR) had a goal of being big players in business. It may not have started that way though. There were battles among the inner circles to ‘stay true to the art’ or find a willing market and go big. Either choice is a good one. You need to start thinking about your choice, because you should make it and be ready to do everything possible to get where you want to go.

Why not do both? Examples of this working out well are few and far between. Most do not succeed because the business models are at odds with each other. ‘Big’ wants industrial space and manufacturing lines. ‘Artisanal’ wants a great retail location and a small batch roaster. They are just two separate business models. There are a few examples of successful ‘small’ scaling up: Intelligencia, Stumptown, and Blue Bottle come to mind but none of them are ‘huge’ and yet the Artisanal world egotistically and jealously call them ‘sell outs.’ Some big guys invest in specialty: Farmer Brothers buys Coffee Bean International, and the same people whisper that they are trying to be something they are not.

To all those that look at these companies and see something other than beautiful success stories: Get over yourselves! What do YOU want to be when you grow up? Financially you had better AT LEAST say that it will fund your retirement by 65 or you are just creating a job for yourself for the rest of your life. You really should be wearing a business hat from time to time and plan for your exit at the top that sets you and your kids up for life. This requires an artisanal skill all its own in the art called business planning.

So if you made it to stage 1 mentioned earlier, there is a good chance you are now stuck. It is time to get to stage 2: Planned prosperity. This will require you to think differently or get someone who can do that for you. If you do not already have a partner that is the ‘business mind’ of the company you should get one. A common way to do this is to organize an advisory board made up of friends, family, customers, and outsiders that care about you and your success. The only requirement to be on your board is to give honest input and be willing to help you achieve the goals once they are set. If they are just there to be ‘yes-men’ then you have the wrong people.

Steps to Stage 2:

1) Get your business mind to work. You can hire a partner, seat a board, retain a consultant or use some other method to get an outside viewpoint.

2) Make task one of your panel to help you decide what your company wants to be when it grows up.

a. Pros and cons of going big or staying small.

b. Figure out what success looks like to you and become comfortable with it.

c. Set a financial ‘done’ number so you know when you made it.

3) Use the expertise of the advisors to design a plan that will get you to ‘done’.

a. Then plan will be specific, accountable and obtainable.

b. The plan will have benchmarks, milestones and reviews.

4) Choose to make it happen.

a. Just like you got to stage 1, your tenacity, drive and passion should get you to stage 2.

b. If you are not a good project manager, people manager, or lack the skills to get any part of the plan done, hire the right people to do it. (This should be part of planning as well.)

Business is NOT a choice between ‘being true to the art’ and ‘selling out.’ It is a decision to make your company work for you instead of you working for your company. If you believe in the end goal then you are being true to yourself.

Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at

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