culture

Working Yourself Out of Your Business

When we dream of beginning our own business, we envision the freedom of having creative control over our lives. We imagine working on our terms, spending days doing what we love and working for our dream rather than someone else’s. We get excited about the beginning and look forward to its success, imagining the years ahead in which we will be happily making a living doing something we love.

Thinking about retirement or selling a business at the start sounds terribly unromantic. However, when we plan for the eventual transition of ownership a business will undergo from the beginning, we create a business with a strong investment value and a structure that will live beyond its creator. This article is not about crafting an exit strategy, but implementing a framework that will allow a business to become a legacy.

Unlike most coffee house owners, it has never been my ambition to own a coffee shop. Our patrons often ask why we have built Maeva’s and I know they are looking for that beautiful story in which a life-long dream has blossomed into success. The reality is I knew nothing about coffee when we decided to undertake this venture. My passions do not lie in owning or operating food service businesses like the grand restaurateurs that dazzle me in every city I visit. We built Maeva’s because it was a sound investment; because The Milton Schoolhouse needed a business with heavy foot traffic to support our other start ups and our neighborhood needed a gathering place to grow.

As Maeva’s continues to blossom, I already look forward to new ventures beyond this beautiful shop. From the beginning, my business partner and I have had a plan to transition Maeva’s to a new owner (or to a full time operations manager) within five years- allowing us the time to dedicate to new ventures in our community. Whether you are hoping to start and sell your business quickly or wish to be involved for decades, one of the greatest things you can do to ensure the longevity of your work is to make your operation attractive to its next owner and do everything you can to enable their success.

 

 

Paperwork

This is an essential part of creating a seamless transition to an Operations Manager or new owner. When someone buys a franchise, they are given months of training and hundreds of pages of information outlining everything from sales techniques to pricing strategies to safety processes. If you’ve built your business from scratch, you know the ins and outs of how you make decisions for your company- but does anyone else? The pieces listed below are essential for not only selling your business but peace of mind if you were ever to face a crisis in which you were required to be on hiatus from its operation:

 

Employee Handbook:

This is a personal manual outlining the expectations and general rules of conduct for staff. Each staff member should be briefed on this manual and sign a written statement of their understanding. This manual should cover your company’s sexual harassment policy, dress code, any employee benefits, job expectations, and other general conduct policy. Keep signed records of any modifications you make to your manual to show that staff have been briefed on evolving policies. Don’t forget a signed release of name/voice/and likeness if you intend on using photos that include your staff for promotional purposes. If any financials, recipes, trade secrets, etc. are available to your staff, a signed statement of confidentiality should also be included.

While there is no law regulating the requirement of an employee handbook, having a clear handbook of policies can provide some legal protection in unemployment and workman’s comp cases.

Most corporate handbooks are available online. Instead of starting from scratch, find handbooks from companies in similar industries to your own and use them as a template for your business’ handbook.

 

Process Manual:

This manual should be essential information available to staff and managers. It’s exactly what the name implies; a detailed outline for every possible thing someone may have to do in the general care and maintenance of the shop. The Maeva’s Coffee Process Manual includes stated methods for sanitizing the ice bin, how often food is ordered and in what quantity, technical manuals for trouble shooting our equipment, maps for emergency water/electrical shut offs, and basic shop troubleshooting. Include MSDS sheets for any chemicals used in your operation and the appropriate response for potential accidents. Check this link if you are unsure whether or not your chemicals require MSDS sheets to be made readily available to your staff.

 

Operations Manual:

This manual is private information, reserved for an operations manager or owner. It should include account information for each of your suppliers, up to date material cost sheets, contacts for subcontractors or people you often work with in your local business network, hiring and termination guidelines, information on scheduling and payroll, as well as contracts and outstanding leases. This manual may also include trade secrets such as exclusive food and beverage recipes.

 

Brand Management Manual:

This manual may be reserved for an operations manager or released to the entire staff depending upon the openness of your business structure. It should be a brief description of your company’s history and influences, the core principles of what you represent, and guidelines for how that brand is kept fresh. Our brand management manual outlines how often and when seasonal specials are released, how often and what types of events are hosted in the shop, and information on how and what to post on our Facebook, Instagram, and Website.

 

You should also have your tax records, annual P&L and Balance Sheets, any past or current business plans, and staff files in order as well.

 

Having a Strong Internal Culture

Creating a culture of internal collaboration will keep your business from becoming stale. When you hire staff who work together and cultivate an environment that encourages communication, new ideas and better processes will become a constant in your business. Staff you are able to trust and who can facilitate projects without constant management are a valuable resource when a business undergoes a change of ownership. A strong culture can easy the rockiness of leadership change and prevent your company’s growth from stalling. Whether your business is six months or sixteen years old, vivacity, clarity, and strength in a business’ culture will make your business attractive to prospective buyers and increase the chance of its survival once you are gone.

 

Becoming Unnecessary

The start-up phase is thrilling. As an owner, you have your hands in everything. You and your first few staff wear a thousand hats, taking on responsibilities defined by necessity and circumstance, not necessarily skill. There will be a point in your company’s growth where and honest evaluation will show that you do not have the talent in your current team to grow further. It can be a difficult situation to face but at some point in your wild success you will no longer be able to wear all of the hats.

Accounting is my weakness. It’s taken me twenty months of operation to admit it, but as much as I want to be able to do everything for Maeva’s, the day to day numbers don’t come naturally to me. Accounting is stressful; it’s something I dread. I put it off and cripple my ability to calculate decisions when I can’t readily access current data. This year, I’m resolving to hire a local accountant to handle our books so that I can concentrate on strengthening our business in the ways for which I have a true talent. You can’t be an expert in everything; use your energy to be a better expert in areas in which you naturally excel and hire an expert to take care of your weaknesses.

This stage in your business’ growth may be just as difficult for staff. Bringing in outside help to evolve your business can create friction among veteran staff who may view it as intimidating or insulting to their efforts. Our first autumn of operation, Maeva’s was growing faster than our infrastructure could handle. Our lead barista was appointed as a stop-gap Operations Manager to help manage ordering, scheduling, and shop duties. The position was set out at the start as a temporary one and she disliked the responsibility overall. And yet, when it was time to hire an actual Operations Manager- her feelings were mixed. Going back to her position as lead barista sounded as much a relief as a demotion and our shop dynamic was never the same

Just as an owner should understand if not be able to perform all aspects of a business, there should be an outline, if not a staff member trained, to perform the vital processes the owner oversees. If you intend on selling your business through traditional avenues rather than coaching someone to operate it in your stead, make sure you not only have a process manual in place but have trained your staff in how to take care of each of your responsibilities.

 

Instilling a Vision Beyond Yourself

The first time a business changes hands it takes an incredible risk in failing due to loss of direction. Great companies are built by great leaders; you’ve worked to instill your passion in your work and your staff. Corporate examples abound- Apple’s struggle with the loss of Steve Jobs or Starbucks bringing back Howard Shultz after the company was on the verge of failure. Small companies face the same challenge.

Create a vision for your company and coach your staff to follow that vision- not you. The vision of your business should be a permanent, core reason for its existence, the foundational value supporting every decision made during its life. Maeva’s vision is to bring quality coffee and revolutionary community to our neighborhood. The strategy for achieving this beyond my time of leading her is highly entrepreneurial; I seek to create a culture of collaborative staff, teach them how to listen to the needs of our community, and give them the confidence and power to make decisions regarding those needs.

 

 

Like every small business, Maeva’s Coffee has been a deeply personal venture. More than just time and money, she is a product of the talents and personalities of its owners, staff, and the community she serves. It’s my responsibility and privilege to do everything possible to ensure whomever comes after me steps into a strong culture and every available resource to take her beyond my own abilities. This duty guides my current operating decisions but also insures her financial stability and success- ultimately allowing her to fund the creation of new ventures in our community.

 

Creating a Culture from Nothing

“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.” Oscar Wilde

 

In my “Business Plan Basics” course, I emphasize the importance of building an overarching plan to help you reduce your risk in starting a small business. I firmly stand by that, with enough foresight and honest assessment, you can reduce your start-up’s risk of failure to nearly nothing.

My other two businesses, and most of my clients, have been sole-proprietorship with, at most, a single employee. Opening Maeva’s Coffee, and currently leading 7 full time and 2 part time staff, has given me a LOT of perspective on where I got lucky…and what I would have done differently.

The most unanticipated challenge we faced opening Maeva’s was how to create a business culture out of nothing. “Business culture” in this case is comprised of the overall attributes and standards celebrated by your business and projected to your client base. The owner of a new business with even a handful of staff faces a huge challenge: how to cultivate a culture among your staff that strongly reinforces your brand when your business hasn’t even begun to operate.  

 

 

When Hiring a Fresh Team of Employees

The most uncertain thing about creating a new team of staff is how they will mesh. Finding the right people to help you establish your business’s culture is more complicated than just finding a reliable and competent employee. It’s about hiring an ambassador for your company.

Here's what we did right:

Define who you want to work with: As a small business owner, you’re going to be working many hours with whomever you hire. Before reviewing applicants, set out a basic framework for what matters to you and what doesn’t matter to you. Stick to it! Never hire someone out of pity- your brother-in-law or college roommate might be a nice person who just needs a little help, but if he doesn't fit your exact requirements for your dream staff, don’t open that can of worms! Don’t do it! Run!

This was my thought process in hiring our first round of staff:

Things that didn’t matter:  Race/Religion/Sexual Orientation or Identity/Outward Appearance but variety in these aspects did.  I knew the people I hire would be essential in ultimately creating the client base of the shop. Coffee shops are naturally a congregating grounds for all types of people, and I didn’t want to hire a staff that lacked diversity. As Maeva’s launched herself into an unknown market, I wanted everyone who walked through that door to feel welcome and find someone they could identify with.

Things that did matter: I purposefully pulled applicants that had a wide variety of interests and hobbies. My hope was, again, to hire a diverse staff that would be welcoming and have something in common with everyone who walked through our doors. I looked for people who seemed interesting, quirky, and lively on their applications. More than previous employment in food service or coffee, I looked for dynamic people who would be an integral part of the overall experience our customers would have when they visited the shop. Our first round of applicants listed interests like “Music”, “Table Top Games”, “Raising Bees”, “Permaculture”, “Engineering”, and “Reading Tarot”.

In general, I also looked for people who seemed slightly nervous (which I see as a sign of eagerness), who smiled easily, and who walked/gestured/spoke with humble self-confidence.

 

Time- We left ourselves plenty of time to find the right people, interviewing several weeks prior to the opening of our shop. This helped us honestly review how we thought each person would work behind our bar and with other candidates. We ended up conducting a secondary round of interviews because we didn’t find four candidates we thought would work well together and compliment each other the way we wanted in the first round. 

Time also allowed us to have plenty of training and a mock opening before we opened to the public- essential investments in representing our brand to our clients when we opened the doors.

 

Involvement- Before opening, we had two previously trained and accomplished baristas who we knew would be essential to our start. These two were invited to participate in interviews and have a say in selecting the other hired staff. I appreciated the perspective the two brought with them, having previously worked in similar coffee shops.

 

Being Upfront- All of our employees have been told upfront, “Hey, you have thirty days as a trial in the shop. You might be an awesome employee, but if for some reason you just aren’t meshing with our other staff or customers- we’re going to let you go. No hard feelings.” Has it helped? Very much! Partings are always difficult, but many of our staff who have moved on from our shop still come back to visit.

 

 

What we did wrong:

Organization/Structure- Our shop lacked clear structure in staff hierarchy from the very start- a problem that wasn’t solved until well into our second year of operation. By the time Maeva’s opened, I was exhausted from the final pushes of construction and the seemingly endless behind-the-scenes unknowns of operating my first brick-and-mortar business. My  lack of food service and management experience compounded the issue and, without clear structure, staff began to split into factions over who had the final say on everything from drink recipes to cleaning processes. Vicious fights exploded over whether basic cleaning lists violated the free-spirited nature of our brand. As baristas tried to outperform one another, making drinks by different recipes and creating a situation in which it was impossible to calculate costs, customers began to side with certain baristas over who made drinks better than whom- creating a hurtful environment when they would walk in and express their disappointment that “so-and-so wasn’t working today.” It was chaos.

This was an uncomfortable reality of our start up. From the first time I issued a written reprimand to a staff member for not attending to basic cleaning tasks to our latest tip sharing system, processes have slowly emerged.

As an entrepreneur with an enormous independent streak in my personality, I naturally resist framework and organization. But structures- like standardized drink recipes and cleaning lists- provide clear outlines for basic operating expectations. This has allowed staff to settle into a rhythm of workflow, knowing what is expected of them and what they can expect from their teammates. When the day to day becomes a well-oiled machine, staff aren’t spending time bitching about each other not taking out the trash or stocking cups. They’re spending time learning their craft, creating together, and investing in relationships with our clients.

 

Navigating The Honeymoon Period

The first three months of employment are essential to imprinting your culture on a new employee; but, in Illinois you only have 30 working days until you become responsible for unemployment insurance as an employer. That’s not much time!

This has been my biggest challenge in growing as a leader. Here’s what I’ve been learning in hindsight:


Be direct with staff: New staff need a lot of direction in your processes, which can be a challenge if you’re still trying to put it together. For example, our dress code is just about as minimal you can get and still keep in alignment with the health code. It  vaguely reads

As for clothing, for safety reasons, no shorts or short skirts (above the knee) are allowed. Hand jewelry is not allowed (Madison County Health Department).

Clothing must be:

inoffensive

clean and free of odor

tidy; not ripped, dirty, or damaged

Branded tshirts (printed or embroidered) may not be allowed during special events, holiday hours, or catered events. Open toed shoes are not allowed on shift.

Wear clothing that makes you feel good, is easy to work in, and accentuates the style of the shop.  

Facial hair, tattoos, piercings, etc. are permitted as long as they don’t interfere with the health, safety, or brand of our shop. Hair longer than shoulder length should be tied to prevent contamination of food or beverages.

I purposefully left a lot open to interpretation because I had gone out of my way to hire staff members with their own sense of style. I wanted staff who felt their appearance wasn’t regulated beyond their own self-confidence, who knew their expression was something I appreciated. Our dress code has worked well to create an individualistic, inviting atmosphere in our shop. On occasion though, someone wears something that just doesn’t flow with the shop.

You think it’d be easy as a leader to just say, “Hey, that outfit isn’t up to par with who we are here- please don’t wear it again”. I was so nervous to approach staff, especially if there wasn’t anything technically wrong with an article of clothing...it just didn’t fit our brand. Two years has taught me to take ownership of my brand. When I review the handbook with new hires, I’ve found stating to them- right off the bat- that I have the final say in what is worn at the shop makes it much easier to approach possible brand conflicts later.

If you have something to say, just say it. You are responsible for your brand and your staff will appreciate your directness.

 

Be honest with yourself: In general, I like and I’m able to work well with most people. In a less formal workplace like Maeva’s, you get to know your folks quickly. I know their aspirations, their home situations, their car troubles, their roommates, their romantic interests…and more than once, sympathy and compassion have kept me from not addressing a staff member's poor behavior even though I knew it was hurting our culture.

Be honest with yourself and remember your responsibility to the longevity of your business as well as crafting a good environment for your staff as a whole. Err on the side of being overly critical in the first thirty days of employment and let people go if you have any thoughts of finding someone better for your staff. Ultimately, trust your instincts.

 

 

Take time to cultivate new staff: New staff members are tingling with excitement in the first weeks of employment. They are sensitive to criticism, eager to do well, and on top of day-to-day processes. Evaluate their overall presence, work ethic, and maturity. Do they fill their time with movement? Can they naturally prioritize which tasks are most important?

During our first year of operation, I had my hands so full with keeping the business operating that I did not invest enough time in new hires. Our current lead barista will laughingly admit to making pretty bad drinks for a couple of weeks, having been thrown quickly onto shift with catch-as-catch-can training. Now, people hired as baristas are trained 25+ hours on the espresso machine and drink making, required to pass a base level of standards set out by our tip share system, and need the approval of two trained baristas and either Joel or myself before being put on full shifts. Even at that, they won’t be given the opportunity to work full solo shifts for several months after hiring.

Set aside funds to account for extra payroll when hiring new staff. Pay the extra hours to have them trained by your best staff and take the time to schedule yourself around in the first few weeks to observe them yourself. Invest in new staff upfront before making a long term commitment.

 

 

Allowing Culture to Evolve

Maeva’s Coffee has been operating for just under two years and I still feel like our business culture is rapidly evolving. In any given day, first time visitors can represent up to 20% of our customers. Without direct competition for the goods and atmosphere we provide to our community, our culture is very broad. Our recurring customers continually define our brand.

 

Know When to Say ‘No’: Congratulations- your business is so beloved by its community that now everyone has a suggestion on what they’d like to see it do. A common tragedy of new business owners is their desire to please everyone, which can lead to costly expenditures, over extension, and decrease of quality.

Two things I’ve said ‘no’ to in our operation at Maeva’s: We don't have sandwiches/meals and we don’t host live music.  Every week, I receive several requests for these things that people often expect in a cafe. Could I accommodate these things? Sandwiches would require equipment and kitchen storage, more staff, and would direct our attention away from our true focus: coffee. I’ve decided it isn’t a good option for us. And live music? Well, Maeva’s is a small place. As a musician myself, I know how inherently egotistical cafe musicians are, turning up the music beyond the point of comfortable conversation. I’d rather Maeva’s be a reliable environment for refuge, connection, work, and solitude. Making our shop a place of escape was central to our plan from the beginning.

It certainly isn’t easy to look at customers every day and say, “We don’t have sandwiches, but we *do* have…”. Know who you are and don’t be pressured into being something you aren’t. If your community is clamoring for a service you don’t provide that isn’t a perfect fit for your business model, save it for another start-up.

 

Know When to Say “Yes”: We opened Maeva’s Coffee in a community that hadn’t had a true quality coffee shop in a decade. The first year of operation was a balancing act of offering caramel white mocha frappes with whip cream and sauce- knowing that our end goal was to cultivate a culinary love of quality coffee in our community.

Knowing when and how to evolve your business is vital to your long term success. Find where your current market and your future ambitions intersect and watch for ways to draw those two into alignment.

It is your responsibility to continue your education in your field to anticipate trends and desires of your customer base. Subscriptions to trade magazines or frequent participation in online forums will keep your thoughts fresh. I’m fortunate to employ at least one truly fanatical coffee lover on my staff who actively reads coffee industry literature and participates often on forums, interacting with baristas and experts from around the world. He spends about an hour a week informing me on all things coffee, from scientific discoveries, menu trends, to emerging extraction methods and economics. I’ve taken on the responsibility for continuing my education in food culture via Feast Magazine, Instagram, and field trips to ethnic markets in St. Louis to merge coffee and food trends for menu advancement at Maeva’s. This constant attention to progress has made way for a phenomenal success if our privately developed and handcrafted drink specials. We’ve also seen a blossoming demand for pour overs, unique single origin special roasts, and unflavored beverages in more traditional sizes.

 

 

I’ll be writing more on how to evolve your brand and strengthen your existing culture soon. You might also find this blog on leadership vs. management or our process of collaborating with staff through open communication helpful.