Nov 7, 2018
I want to say a couple of words about today’s post and a new format I’m exploring for both The Robin Zander Show podcast, and this blog. Over the last 3 years, I’ve conducted over 200 hours of interviews, many of which have ended up on the podcast. I love conducting interviews, and have been honored to spend time with so many incredible thinkers. And… it is time to try something different.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting regular podcast and blog posts - without a guest or an interview, but instead about my own experiences over the last few years, what I’m working on next.
I’m going to share some more about my journey, and answer some questions like “how do you open up a cafe” and “how do you sell a small business.” I’ve grown Robin’s Cafe to 15 employees in less than 3 years. How did I go from earning $40,000 a year in 2015, to more than $40,000 a month in 2017.
There's so much, personally and professionally, that I haven’t ever shared. So, welcome to a new version of the Robin Zander Show and this blog. I look forward to talking with you, and sharing stories. To start, this post is being published the same day that I’m selling Robin’s Cafe. So, before talking about the sale of my business, I thought I’d share a bit about the opening.
I opened Robin’s Cafe on 3 weeks notice. I’ve written that line before, but the few people who really understand what that means and what it takes to do so are usually always restaurateurs - folks who have lived and worked in the restaurant industry. And for me - even though I lived it, and know it happened, it still feels almost impossible.
And I think that’s one of my takeaways from my life to date. You really never know until you try. Success and failure both feel so daunting - so impossible - that until we get there we can’t know. For me, the fear of failure has become almost a drive, a North Star to guide my path, and I hope over time to share how I’ve done things people say are impossible, and inspire you towards the same.
Back in 2016, I was preparing to put on my conference Design for Dance. 5 weeks before the conference date, I went to the manager of the then-market that was onsite “Melange Market” to see about providing coffee and tea for my 175 guests. I was told that Melange Market would be closing, had sold to a new owner, and would not reopen until after my 2-day event. Fortunately, I sent an email to the then-Executive Director of the landlord company ODC, just to double check. I heard nothing back, and put the question of Melange Market out of my mind.
Then, 20 days before the start of Design for Dance, I received an email from ODC’s Executive Director. Rather than answering my questions, he introduced me to someone, with a brief note saying: “Robin is a community member, and is interested in Melange Market.” Matt, who turned out to own several, locally-famous restaurants, responded minutes later suggesting we meet the following day.
When we met up onsite at Melange Market, he presented me with a list of assets - the entire list of equipment, food stuffs, and more - onsite, and said “let me know what you’d like to buy. I’ll keep the rest.” I was dumbfounded. I had showed up just expecting conversation, and maybe to look behind the counter. Matt was prepared to sell to me, almost on the spot.
Fear as a Motivator
Over the next three weeks, I had to learn everything about running a small cafe, write a lease with the landlord ODC, raise more than $40,000, hire employees and actually learn how to serve customers. The list of To-Dos was daunting, but I learned a valuable lesson in that crazy 3 weeks. Every day, getting up at 5am to learn to open the cafe, and staying up (with wine) until 2am to write a lease, I asked myself the question: “Do I want to do this?” Every time, my answer was “maybe?” Digging a bit deeper - into each “Why” and “Why not” - I kept coming back to “I’m afraid.”
Fear is an incredible motivator. We use fear to keep ourselves safe in times of crisis, and also challenge the edges of our capabilities. One of my fears was that I would fail to run the cafe successfully, and lose all $40,000 of my investor’s money. I had to come to terms with that very real possibility - yes, that was a fear. But was that fear alone enough to not attempt opening the cafe? I realized that over 2 years of working at minimum wage in San Francisco (I took my worst case scenario to the extreme) I would be able to pay my investors back - even if I lost everything. Tim Ferriss calls this “Fear Setting,” and I’ve found it invaluable to imagine a worst case scenario, look squarely at the fear, and not decide that just because I’m afraid to avoid something I might otherwise want to do.
There was a lot of learn about running a cafe - in those 3 weeks, and in the 3 years since then. But my biggest learning has been about my own fear.
Over the last 6 months, I have been in the process of selling my small business - equipment, system, and all. Selling Robin’s Cafe as been a trial-by-fire in its own right, which I may talk about at some point in the future. In the Spring of 2018, I decided that it was, in fact, time to take my leave from Robin’s Cafe. I had built something that could flourish without my direct supervision, but that could continue to improve even more by an owner/operator who was onsite 40 hours/week. I’m thrilled with the new owners, and excited for the continued improvements that will come to the business I founded.
Here are a couple of lessons learned from three years of running a small business in San Francisco:
Showing Up with Love
We are not taught the skills necessary to run a business, and boy do I wish we were. These are actually the same skills necessary for parenting, for being a good friend, and - as most of us do - I’ve had to learn these skills the hard way. I’ve written elsewhere about a peak moment, when my employee called his experience at Robin’s Cafe the best job he’s ever had. This is the mark of a successful business. One that is able to stay operating - which means that it is profitable - while providing the best possible place to work for its employees. Because when you have happy people working for a company, you have happy customers - folks who come back again and again. Sure, Robin’s Cafe has great avocado toast. But more importantly, we’ve provided great customer service - an environment where the humans coming into the business have a positive experience with the people working there. This principle is something that I will strive to take forward - in anything that I do.
Showing up lovingly, is really the answer. Knowing that my responsibility within my organization, is to up as role model, a mentor, a teacher, and also an authority figure. Someone who holds the people within the organization to standards, to principles that they’ve agreed to, but does so without anger. I’ve had to learn to set clear consequences. If an employee did not wash a plate at Robin’s Cafe, there are consequences. But not because I’m angry or personally affronted. Rather, because they’ve agreed to the job, and this falls within this responsibility. It has been a process learning to show up for my employees in this way.
In the first 6 months of Robin’s Cafe, an employee would mess up and I would get furious! I quickly learned that when I was angry, employees quit. What did work, was love. And when they did mess up, asking a loving question: “How come you didn’t wash the plate, give that you’ve agreed to do so?” “Can I do anything to support you?” “How can we, together, do this better?” And then, eventually, if the behavior doesn’t change, being able to comfortably let them go.
Money & Robin’s Cafe
Another big learning from Robin’s Cafe was about money. When I began the cafe, the most I had ever earned in a month was about $10,000, and that was an exceptional month - working full-time for a technology company, and performing full-time with the San Francisco Opera. The most I had ever earned in a year way about $50,000. My very first month in operation of running Robin’s Cafe, I earned $20,000, and have earned as much as $50,000/month over the last years. Of course, what goes unsaid is that monthly earning is gross - which means before expenses. Out of that $50,000 comes the costs of bread, avocados, coffee beans, payroll, and everything else required to run the business. But even so, seeing $20,000 and then eventually even $50,000 flow through the cafe bank account each month, has expanded my view and facility around money. Money isn’t something I was ever taught. If only I had been taught how to balance a checkbook in middle school, or learned about “good debt” versus “bad debt” in college! The practice of learning to balance the books, process payroll, and even just see money come into the business and leave the business - all the while knowing that I’m personally responsible - has been life changing. My advice, to my younger self or to you, would be to start practicing!
Creating a Win-Win Business
A next topic that I want to convey, is that of creating win-win-win businesses. Robin’s Cafe has succeeded over the last several years because it has served the needs of many different groups of people. When we opened, 3173 17th Street in San Francisco, was a cold, dark corner. There was nobody working and nobody eating there. I was an opportunity to serve ODC - the dance company that owns our building, and the students of ODC. There are the technology companies that rent space on our street, and also the variety of industrial businesses that have existed in our area for more than the 10 years I lived in the area. Clearly, we had the opportunity to serve a diverse group of customers! But there was also serving the needs of Robin’s Cafe staff. How could I build the business so that employees could have a great place to work - of course they needed to get paid, but more personally, what could I do to make Robin’s Cafe a great place to work? And then my investors - the people who had trusted me and invested their money into my idea. Though many of them supported me out of love, it was important also that they see a return on their investment. Finally, I had to get paid, and the business, in order to survive, had to earn a profit.
I’ve come to see that the more different groups can win as a result of a business operating, the more likely it is to succeed. Why are Facebook and Amazon worth billions of dollars? Like them or not, it is because they serve the needs of billions of individual humans.
This next few months will be a very interesting period. Over the last 3 years, I have been the go-to when something goes wrong at Robin’s Cafe, 7 days a week. It is important to feel needed like that, and it has come to be something I’ve come to rely on. And, it has come to an end. I’ll be share that journey in future episodes, and I hope you’ll join in. In the meantime, thanks for following along on this journey!
Wait, Wait! One Last Request
If you’ve read my blog or listened to the podcast over the years, what would you like more of? I’m in the midst of a major change, and excited to share more that is useful to you! Leave a comment below, and let me know!