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:


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 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.


Leaders not Managers; Staff not Employees

After a recent termination, a former member of our staff at Maeva’s Coffee took to a public facebook group to voice her displeasure. One comment in particular caught my attention because it so acutely illustrated the fundamental differences between my role as an entrepreneur who happens to own a small service business versus that of a typical business owner or corporate franchise manager.  

A member of the Facebook group had asked how to contact the manager of the shop and the following comment was made:


I’m sure the comment was meant to be derogatory in some way, but the truth is when I saw it I couldn’t help but feel very pleased. In those few words, the entire essence of my role in the owning and operating Maeva’s Coffee couldn’t have been better defined.


It’s true: we don’t have a manager. I am not a manager. I will never be one.


I don’t have any desire to manage people. I’ve never felt a rush of power or greatness in directing people to do menial tasks. A manager tells you to empty the trash. Writes little notes to remind you to make sure the restroom is clean at the end of the night. Scolds you for forgetting to clock in. Walks in and tells you to restock the bakery display case; put stock away; get this soup order to table 4.

It’s good to be clear and honest with direction and structure, especially at the very beginning of employment. I’ve no problems giving direction in the shop when it is needed. However, if a staff member is still in need of basic direction after a few weeks of employment, they are not the people I want on my team.  

Part of this comes from a fundamental difference between the way I view my staff relative to myself. When I sign paychecks, I don’t think of the money going out as payment to an inferior. Tax and technical aspects aside, the expectations I have for my staff are equivalent to any subcontractor we might hire for the shop. Much like the electrician agrees to fix an outlet, each one of my staff has made an agreement to perform certain tasks in exchange for a cut of the gross revenue of Maeva’s Coffee. Some of these are skilled tasks; such as pulling beautiful shots of espresso, akin to an electrician who has cultivated trade skills to replace fixtures and safely managing wiring. Some tasks are unskilled; like taking out the trash, keeping tables clean, and mopping the floor. All expectations are made clear on the onset of hiring.

When a staff member fails to meet these requirements, it is much like an electrician who leaves wires live and uncapped inside of your drywall. Would you be expected to be happy with a professional service performed in such a manner? Absolutely not.

There are places for people who need mothering and managing- but it was never my ambition to spend my own time and funds to create such a place.

I don’t want employees who mindlessly do the least amount of work in exchange for small hourly wage. That relationship is not one on which to build a thriving and successful independent local business. A lackluster attitude is a slow poison; nothing will sap your personal energy, cause inertia in the passion of your business’ culture, and harm your connection with clients more quickly.

I want staff who attend to the trivial tasks necessary for our shop’s well being because they want to be genuinely involved in its growth and evolution. I want collaboration; I want an ebb and flow of passion, commitment, and creation. Pride and a sense of direct contribution to our success is displayed in work ethic; the motivation behind an action is as important as the action itself. A staff member who restocks product for the following shift out a kindness and responsibility to their coworkers rather than because ‘someone told them to’ means hunting down and hiring people who have an natural sense of solidarity. Don’t be afraid to terminate a new hire who shows up to just ‘do a job’.


We all define our own roles in the minds of others by our actions, words, and by how we react to the behavior of those around us. We teach others how they are able to treat us.


I refuse to be a manager. As someone who has the privilege of choosing with whom I work, I refuse to have staff that need constant managing.

I am an entrepreneur; a leader with many irons in the fire and no time to babysit. If you are exasperated with the amount of time you spend managing your staff, here are some suggestions on how you can stop managing and start leading your team in your small business:


Be Clear in Your Expectations;

Get the basics settled. Clearly outline what your expectations are in your staff handbook and stand firmly by the disciplinary actions outlined when responsibilities are neglected. Stop giving second, third, and fourth chances. If you need to start over by hiring new staff to create a culture of respect, get to it.


Grow Experts:

Give staff a personal reason to be invested in your business. Be hyper aware of their interests and talents. Create ways for each person’s unique abilities to enrich your business. You can do this by sponsoring continuing education in your industry and creating ways to reward the pursuit of knowledge. Hire staff to use their talents for your business or create time in your schedule for them to use them. For example, if you have an amateur videographer on staff, allow them to create interesting staff profiles to use in your social media campaigns or product stills for your website.


Hand Over Essential Tasks:

You’ve hired people you can trust to do the basics, now allow them to help you run your business better. I’ve put certain staff in charge of choosing upcoming guest espresso features, training new employees, or keeping the dry storage inventory in order. Because they aren’t paying attention to a million things like me, and, in many ways have more expertise than I do, they do a better job at it than I could. I appreciate their investment and they appreciate having input on the business they work in every day.


Expect Professionalism:

Expect the best from your staff. Allow them to represent your business in trade shows, industry gatherings, competitions, etc. and they’ll bring the pride back to your day-to-day operation.


Listen As An Equal:

Creating open dialogue with your staff is essential. Recognize and move beyond your own insecurities when they trust you enough to bring an issue to you. Don’t be offended at anything; listen to them as equals.


Model Your Expectations:

Never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t or don’t do. When I’m working on shift, if a staff member asks me to grab something from the stock room or clean up a mess that’s just happened while their own hands are full, I model the same positive, quick, and helpful response that I expect when I ask them to do similar things. Again, even though many decisions are ultimately left to me, I hire people I respect and treat as equals. No one would ever be able to say I don’t clean the restrooms or do as many dishes as anyone else on shift.



If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know your business needs an overhaul but aren’t sure how to stop managing and start leading, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ll be posting more in-depth ways to specifically craft your business culture soon. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, let’s meet for a cup of coffee and talk! 



Strength through Staff Collaboration

Maeva’s culture of collaboration began out of necessity. My business partner, Joel, and myself decided to launch a coffee house knowing absolutely nothing about the coffee industry. Neither of us had experience in working in, much less running, a coffee shop.

Coffee is much like beer or wine; it’s dynamic. The more I know about the industry the more I’m convinced the knowledge to be had is infinite. Most coffee shop owners have worked as baristas for years, perhaps moved into operations management, or branched into roasting and opened a shop to showcase their product. Our start-up process included much external collaboration and guidance, but this article is going to focus on how the necessity of internal collaboration at our start has grown into an integral part of our continuing success at Maeva’s.

Maeva’s Coffee needed someone who knew first hand what made a successful coffee shop. I was fortunate to find this knowledge in my sister, Hannah. She had worked in a variety of shop styles in the coffee industry and agreed that, if we were to build a shop, she would transfer her studies to a SIUE and be full time staff through our launch. I wouldn’t have even considered investing in this business without someone like Hannah on board for our launch.

Hannah joined the team full time just a few weeks prior to its launch. The shop was in its final stages of construction and it was time to choose the essential product offerings of our business. Hannah navigated us in the selection of the exclusive Maeva’s blend now used for our beverages, brand of flavored syrups, what types of flavored syrups, placement of appliances, and workflow of the counter. She guided me in what choices were worth the expense (an in-counter pitcher rinser, homemade whip canisters, and sanitizer tablets over sanitizer fluid) and kept me from spending money on things we didn’t need or that wouldn’t have been appropriate for our specific type of shop.

I didn’t see it at the time, but this process was making regular collaboration a standard habit for me as the operator/leader of the shop. Harvard Business Review may tout internal collaboration as the vital element of success for tech and corporate cultures, but cultivating this practice in your small business will have an equally profound affect on your personal level of stress and ability to create amazing work relationships between you and your staff. Making collaboration a foundational part of your business culture will exponentially create growth and secure the longevity of the investment you have made in building your business.   


Creating Communication

Your staff may be unaccustomed to having an input on the choices being made for your business. You won’t be able to trust their feedback is honest and unbiased if an open flow of communication hasn’t already been created.

You should already be practicing individual reviews with your staff on a thirty day, ninety day, and quarterly basis. Start structuring these reviews to solicit feedback from your employees. When it is time to conduct a review, put it on the schedule a week or two in advance. Mention to your staff that there are changes you’re considering about the business- menu changes or operation hours- and you’d like them to give you their observations. This will frame the review as a dialogue beyond the individual performance of a staff member and prepares them for a discussion. During the review, first discuss all of the updates in overall practices or improvements/accolades on their performance. When you are done giving them information, change the direction of the conversation to them giving you information and don’t go back. Ask questions, listen carefully, don’t interject, and thank them for their ideas. They are, after all, giving you ground level suggestions on how to improve your business. Be thankful for the feedback!

Creating work relationships with freely flowing communication will take daily cultivation. Asking small questions (“What do you think of those new filters?”) and listening/responding to the answer will reinforce to your staff how much you value their opinion and give them the confidence to independently make decisions when you collaborate on bigger tasks. If you are starting from nothing, start small and be sincere. Your staff will feel manipulated and resentful if you pretend you desire input but never act on the information they give you.


Creating a Place Safe for Conflict

If communication is open and working well between staff and yourself, you are going to experience conflict. Feedback isn’t always positive. However, navigating negative feedback well will reinforce the openness of your relationship and allow for greater trust during collaboration.

You may get negative feedback on staff to staff relationships (link) that frustrate you with their pettiness or pile more work on your plate. You may get negative feedback on a product you try that just isn’t selling or a new process that isn’t working. Or, you may get negative feedback on yourself.

If you are doing well at creating communication, steel yourself. At times, my staff have offered up difficult criticism or use the openness of our relationship to vent. We’ve disagreed over disciplinary actions; I’ve been confronted with accusations of favoritism and the bled over of my personal problems into our work environment.  Handling these moments with compassion, grace, and humility….not becoming defensive or angry...sounds like common sense advice but is not easy in the heat of the moment. If you are a good leader, they already respect you and are coming from a place of frustration, not attack. By having the courage to talk to you, they are seeking resolution in a relationship they see as  worth the effort to improve.

Being open and creating an environment safe for criticism will keep your reputation intact. When staff know they are able to respectfully bring problems to you and you have a track record of responding by creating solutions, they are less inclined to vent their frustrations to other staff. Staff who do try to create dissonance through gossip will find themselves unable to easily sway others when your openness to receiving feedback and finding resolutions is known.


Growing Collaboration

With a solid foundation for communication, collaboration can now begin. Take time to ask yourself these questions:

What is something you do you not enjoy doing in your business? What tasks are you not good at in your business? What talents or industry interests do each of your staff have? What would you like to start doing or add to your business that you don’t have time for?

Using your answers, look for ways to use them directly for collaboration. Last summer, my answers would’ve looked something like this:  

I do not enjoy straightening and keeping track of the dry storage area. I’m terrible at remembering to order non-weekly materials, like paper cups, in time for them to arrive before we’re out. I have one staff member who loves learning about coffee and has a thoughtful tasting palate and two staff members who are excellent at photography/videography. I’d like to make progress in our drink menu and find more ways to introduce new brewing methods and more traditional beverages to our community.

In the last six months, I’ve delegated the organization of the stock room to a staff member who enjoys organizing things. I’ve been working with other staff to make a plan for creating dynamic material for our Instagram and website. We’ve invested in a new grinder with a second hopper and I’ve put our lead barista in charge of finding and ordering coffees to feature to our customer base. He also works independently with our kitchen manager to create specialty garnishes to pair with these beautiful coffees. The french press, clever dripper, gibraltar, and traditional macchiato are being ordered with more enthusiasm than I ever expected in a community that is new to the craft coffee scene. All of these things have been accomplished with minimal direction and time from myself.




At Maeva’s, I am part of a powerful team of people who are all genuinely invested in the goal of bringing quality coffee and a welcoming atmosphere to our community in the best way possible. Our staff have been solely responsible for countless ideas that have become standard practices in our shop. Our staff have discovered how to cut cheesecakes without messing up the toppings using a knife warmed in hot water, a super efficient way of stacking bar chairs for nightly cleaning, and a shorthand numbering system for tables that we all use to keep track of drinks and quiche during rushes. If they have an idea of where to put stock for more efficient workflow, they don’t ask me- they know they’re welcome to just try it and see how it goes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked in on shift and said to myself, “Holy shit. I never thought of doing this like that.” Because we have a culture of collaboration, we are able to respond faster to our community’s feedback- designing seasonal specials around the interests and palates of our customers. The events we host are unusual and original- a reflection of our staff’s own diverse interests. Even operation decisions, such as not switching to winter operation hours this year and the election of a non-profit to support through our events, have been determined solely by our staff.

This process is essential to the vitality and longevity of our business, and a prevention against the cancer of staleness. As long as I continue to hire enthusiastic and diverse staff whose talents and interests are different than my own, and I continually work to collaborate with them, Maeva’s will continue to be a fresh and dynamic presence in our community.  




Maeva's Coffee: A Chess-Inspired Tip Share System

“I’ll be on shift with (long term employee) and she’ll disappear for thirty or forty minutes. I’ll be left by myself without any back up. I just don’t think splitting tips equally is fair.”



“When I’m on shift with (new employee) she just hasn’t been here long enough to really have things down. I have to work harder to make up for it.”



“When I’m on shift with (fellow employees), they don’t even try to know what specialty coffees we have or answer the weird questions. They just refer the customer to me- and I’m in the middle of making drinks. It’s stressful.”


I’ve made it a practice to periodically sit down with our staff individually just to get a feel for how things are going. Taking time out to speak to staff and creating an open dialogue at Maeva’s has been essential to our growth- read here (link) if you would like to know more about creating a collaborative environment in our shop.

Working with people you enjoy in a positive environment is worth it's weight in gold, but being among friends is a double edged sword: small issues have a habit of festering, and none of them wanted to risk creating confrontation in a predominantly positive environment. When half of my small staff expressed unhappiness in their work relationship with other staff, it fell on me to resolve the issues my staff couldn’t with each other.

The issues presented appeared to be training or policy related.  I took the opportunity to meet with our staff on an individual basis again and remind them of the responsibilities that had been falling by the wayside. When verbal communication failed to create a real result, I issued written warnings for offenses and suspended one of our staff members for a week in accordance to our written policies.

Our best-performing staff became increasingly frustrated, as did I. I have always felt my role at Maeva's should be one of a leader and not a manager (link).


“We have to do something they pay attention to- it needs to be about money.”



As disgruntled staff increasingly took longer to complete basic care and maintenance tasks in the shop, our payroll began to climb. My business partner suggested cutting all wages down to minimum ($8.25 in Illinois) as a wake-up call and to set up some system for re-earning their current wage rates ($8.50-9.75; augmented by tips).  However, he is not the day-to-day operating of the shop and his solution put me on the front line of managing a foreseeable disaster. There had to be a better solution that didn’t involve me mitigating an all-out mutiny in the wake of this “let them eat cake” resolution.

I continued to search for a solution after exhausting the options outlined in our employee handbook. Two of our senior employees suggested tip sharing as a way to ease the stress of the knowledge and experience gap between veteran employees and new hires. I began to toy with the idea of creating a tip sharing system which would also work to refocus energy away from negative behaviors and reinforce the efforts of staff who truly invested themselves into our business.  All of our employees are paid above minimum wage, allowing us the freedom to create and experiment with a system with these goals.

I needed to create a system to distribute tips that also fit the following criteria:

  • Based on completely objective achievements

  • Valued book knowledge and actionable skills equally

  • Emphasized continued learning and allowed growth over long-term employment

  • Fairly distributed tips based on time spent on shift

  • Incentivized new employees to learn quickly, allowing them to catch up to veteran employees

One weekend, I puzzled over a game an acquaintance was playing on It occurred to me how optimistically ranks new players at a 1000 level strength out of 3000 point scale. You have to start somewhere, they’ve chosen 1000. As you play more games, your rating deviation is lowered and your resulting level more accurately describes your strength as a player. I began to write out how the Gliko chess ranking system could be adapted to tip sharing. Admittedly, the result looks far from the original, but understanding the Glicko system led to a fair and elegantly simple tip sharing method.

Nine weeks after our staff first voiced their discontent we held a full staff meeting implementing our new tip sharing system. These are my observations after three weeks.



The new system pays 50% of the tips based solely on hours worked in the shop and 50% on weighted rank. Our staff voted that tips would be distributed weekly. When they are available in the shop, the spreadsheet above is also published to ensure transparency.

The first set of numbers disperse half of the total weekly tips among staff per hour.

The second half is dispersed via weight, with total distribution the end. (Note: Justin was a new hire this week and hadn’t yet entered the ranking system- receiving only tips based for his weekly hours in shop and the nominal residual points entered in the ranking system to track seniority).

The second set of numbers show distribution of tips based on ranking weight, which is determined by the following:


Calculating weekly tips takes little effort. The spreadsheets are interlinked so the only values I need to update are the hours each staff member has worked and the total amount of tips being distributed. All of the equations have been built in.

One of the most difficult tasks in creating this system was assigning a point value to different skill levels. With the written/knowledge based exams, I have weighted what information is most important by placing it the lowest exam levels where tests have a higher point value. The first two levels of exams have very little to do with coffee and place an emphasis on directly applicable food safety practices for our business. They include questions such as:

“What temperature do you heat a quiche to before serving it to a customer?”

“How do you know when to change the sanitizer water in the dish sink?”

“At what temperature should the milk be stored?”


The higher level exams dive into the science and history of our industry, encouraging employees to cultivate a solid foundation of knowledge furthering their ability to passionately communicate to our customer base and add to the collective growth of our community’s love for coffee. However, it’s more important to me that our staff isn’t inadvertently giving someone food poisoning than their ability to locate Bali on a map- so lower level tests have a higher point value than higher level tests.

Knowledge isn’t everything. The ten yellow levels are all written exams and comprise 1,190 of available point value. The remaining points are predominantly skill based. Latte art, speed, ability to use a variety of coffee brewing equipment, and the thoughtful cultivation of palate- among other skills- are also weighted into the system. I had hoped to make a system that would be similar to the Gliko chess ranking in which 3000 would be a maximum point allowance, but I did add some categories for obtaining points that may accumulate beyond this.

Some points continually accumulate (i.e. hours spent in shop or tasting entries) while others are only available at certain intervals (i.e. speed testing occurs quarterly).

In the short time we’ve had it in place, I love these three things about this tip sharing system:


It’s completely objective. You either know something or can do something…or you don’t. There is absolute transparency in what you are getting points for and what you can do to improve your score (and therefore your share of the tip pool). There are no subjective points assigned, which takes all of the pressure off of me to evaluate which of our staff are pulling what degree of weight and how that should be rewarded.

With the exception of the speed testing, none of these skills are directly competitive. No one is being pitted against each other. Ideally, everyone would be 10th level ultra baristas, in which case all tips would be distributed equally with only hours worked per week in shop accounted for in difference.


Tracking of tips. Before this, only credit card tips were tracked and, even at that, I didn’t have an easy way of doing so unless I went into each day’s worth of reports via our POS system. Since both credit card and cash tips are pooled together and dispersed, I now know how much our employees are making per hour. This week, our least trained staff member made $11.27/hr and our highest trained staff member made $13.40/h with an average wage of $12.34/hr in shop. This information, as it is collected and averaged over time, will be useful to me as an owner when hiring new staff down the road.


Staff are in control of their wage. With this system, our staff is given a method for improving their skill level, directly affecting their pay in both the short and long term.

As our staff become more knowledgeable, efficient, and skilled they are going to be able to build deeper relationships with our community, attract a wider range of folks into the shop, and accommodate a greater volume of orders in a speedy manner. Logically, this would lead to greater appreciation for our staff’s ability to craft amazing coffee and a greater pool of tips. To put it simply- you want more money per hour? Know more and serve customers better.


Small business is all about being able to custom tailor everything. I’ve read a dozen books about listening and responding to the desires of your customer base, but the last few months have been an exciting challenge of reflecting on the needs of our staff and strengthening our business from within as we continue to grow.

The results: this system was initially met with skepticism and became the catalyst to  losing one of our long-term staff members. However, I’ve been approached independently by half of our current staff who have expressed relief at the decreased level of stress in the shop. When laying out the tip system to one of our new hires, he commented, “I’ve never worked anywhere that actually gave you a reason to learn- this is so awesome!” This overwhelmingly positive reaction was enough affirmation for me to believe that, even if it needed to be altered in small ways in the future, we’re on to something.



Stay tuned! I promise a six-month review later this year after more time has lapsed.



ARCHIVE: Competition is a Waste of Energy

This article was originally published on February 27th, 2014 and may reflect a different time in our business cycle at The Milton Schoolhouse.

Disclaimer: The views on this blog are solely my own observations written in a spirit of good natured humor and general love of this city I now call home.

Milton's newest small business- Happy Camper Grooming- is a full service pet grooming salon that opened in January. Doug and Leslie, having already established themselves in this area four years prior to relocating, brought with them a large and faithful client base. As we built out their room downstairs, we watched a red brick house on Milton road become the new home for another established grooming business.

One night as we feverishly worked to get Happy Camper's space ready for their first clients I remember asking if they were in any way concerned about the dog grooming facility down the road. Doug looked amused- "Noooo. There are plenty of dogs around here. More than we could possibly groom. The people who use us tend to fall in love with us and stick around- that's enough for us."

How lovely! I was so glad to hear the world of dog grooming wasn't as cuthroat and full of spiteful sabotage as the massage business. Our own Bobbi dealt with ridiculous backlash from her previous employer when she decided to venture out on her own- which caused an unnecessary amount of stress for a business centered around destressing. 

Silly me. As it turns out, Happy Camper's calmly confident views on competition were to be an exception to the rule. Soon after the new grooming facility opened down the road, Happy Camper had a full day of dogs belong to a "new" client cancel on them. After a few other red flags, we traced the number of the person who had booked and canceled. All signs pointed to someone suspiciously involved with said grooming company previously alluded to in this blog. Not 100% positive, but somewhere around the same odds as the sun rising on Friday. 

Doug seemed unsurprised. Shrugging, he told me it was common- and it's happened before. I suppose it's a bit of a common practice. "I look on the positive side," he said, "it's a day off."

I'm not sure what kind of a person you have to be to "book" appointments with another similar business and cancel the other business looses income for an entire day. I mean, honestly, do you think that one day will actually make or break a business? What are you trying to accomplish?

My mother always says, "Never attribute to malice what may be ignorance." With that spirit, perhaps some folks really haven't discovered what competition is in Alton at this present time. Let me lean in and whisper something to you:

If you own a local business in Alton, your competition isn't any other local business. Your competition is the lack of small business as a whole in our community. 

What the heck does that mean? That means the ratio of local business choices in our community to potential clients is so low that it doesn't matter (at this point) what type of small business you are in- you aren't competing against another business for clients. You're competing against your own branding to attract clients from a non-client base.


Let's look at the General Cycle of Business and Gentrification*:

Step One: Low property values/taxes inspire artists and hip small businesses to start up

Step Two: Small businesses create an area attractive to tourism, property values rise, the most trendy businesses leave as more "upper class" businesses are established (young edgy artists can't really afford to pay high rent- so they move to another low value area)

Step Three: Corporate Moves In (Starbucks, Chipotle, etc), property values max

Step Four: Area becomes less trendy. Tourism declines. Property values plateau

Step Five: Decline. People and Corporate move to the new trendy areas. Buildings left empty. Property value declines

Repeat to Step One.

*There's got to be a real name for this...I've mentioned this before in this blog here.



Okay. So we're at Step One. I love Step One. Step One is the most exciting step...and the most profitable if you're looking to begin a small business. 

Alton is a glorious untapped market. As a business, your energies should be put toward converting clients from non-users (they aren't accustomed to having your service/business around) to faithful users (wondering how they ever lived with a stinky dog before you existed). It doesn't matter if your business is dog grooming, massage, comic books, or knitted topiaries- if you have a product/service and awesome branding, this town is your oyster! You have the hard task of educating, creating, and growing your market.... but after that your location should be busting with clients. The competition for anything here is far from saturated- you shouldn't be wasting your minutes calling to another business to play silly games. You should be calling your mother about those manners she forgot to mention to you in your early years. 

Let's focus on a positive example of a type of business who has this figured out around here: The local CSAs and independent farmers. You don't see these folks flinging dirty looks and cucumbers at each other on Saturdays at 9th and Piasa. These independent farm owners- who grow very similar product and use similar outlets to sell these products- are working together to educate and grow the Alton market for local food as a whole. They've gotten together to talk about how to grow Alton Farmer's Market, promote residential chicken keeping, throw around ideas for beginning a small grocery to sell local food, partner with restaurants, etc. etc. etc. Because of this, they've been able to get people who never considered local food genuinely excited about this new concept and these businesses in their hometown. The Alton Farmer's Market just announced it was moving to a larger venue this year- indicating their collective work to grow a market for local food in Alton is succeeding. 

How could this apply to another business? Well, no one is safe here so let's talk about Maeva's- the coffee shop we will be opening in June. How would I feel if someone else opened up a coffee shop in Godfrey, or East Alton, or even downtown Alton? Wouldn't I feel a little like I didn't want them in my sandbox? Get off my swing set! That's my slide!

No. I promise you I would not and absolutely will not when this happens. 

And I hope whoever opens up another coffee shop around this area would feel the same way. Should we be throwing out advertisements poo-pooing the other businness' prices? Or write snarky comments about each other's scones on Facebook? 

Or... just possibly...just maybe...we should get together and seek to promote our community's love of coffee as a whole? Maybe we could co-sponsor a coffee fest, or co-host classes, or just get together as coffee shop owners and talk about what we see in business as a whole. 

Why the heck would anyone be so nice in business? Because there are only so many things you can control to make a business successful. If another coffee shop opened up, our locations would be wildly different (out of our control), our pricing would likely be comparable, our products (if they chose to be a true quality coffee shop) would likely be on the same level. It's much like the farmers in our region- there are only so many ways to grow so many vegetables in this climate and be profitable. 

The only thing left in our control to distinguish the two shops would be atmosphere (which is naturally going to be different shop to shop), branding, and service. Honestly,  Maeva's isn't going to have any business-to-business competition in Alton unless this town turns into Portland OR- where there's an independent coffee shop on every corner. This isn't because Maeva's is necessarily going to be "so much more fabulous" than any hypothetical future shop- but because:

- there are enough components to naturally make us and any other shop different (and thus attract different types of people)


- there are plenty of customers to go around

Here are two big things you can do to improve your business if you feel it's on uneasy ground in this area. 

1) Plan a way to work with your competition (...if they are nice folks. If not, send them this blog so they might realize you aren't in competition with them). This could be dog groomers planning to co-sponsor an adoption event. Screen printing companies putting together a coalition celebrating their art and hosting holiday pop-up shops like Cherokee Street Print League. Or restaurants getting together for things like the Taste of Alton event.

2) Focus on making your business the best it can be. Whether you have competition or not, you should want your business to be awesome anyway. Don't look at similar businesses as a threat- look at them as motivation to improve your own. If you aren't really creative or you're afraid you can't quite see how to make your business shine, you can hire me or another marketing/design company to consult with you on how to strengthen your brand and reach this untapped market we've been talking about. 

3) And, if you simply feel you must call another business to carry out nefarious plans, heck, use someone else's phone. And maybe a nom de "Black Cobra" or "Nannette D'Avingnon" or "Steven Seagull". 

ACRHIVE: Shooting Yourself in the Foot- Reflections on the Banking Industry

his article was originally published on January 28th 2014 and may reflect a different time in our business cycle at The Milton Schoolhouse.

In April 2013, Joel and I made the decision to move our business banking from Chase to Carrollton. In hindsight I’m sheepish to admit the most influential reason for choosing Carrollton was how strongly it has promoted itself as a hometown, small business oriented establishment. “Enjoy a long term relationship with a seasoned banker”, their website proclaims, “You don’t have to repeatedly start from scratch with new bankers….We follow through on our promises, do what’s right.”

We were tired of being lead around from banker to banker by Chase, and decided it was time to support a local business with our business. Last spring we met with one of their bankers in Springfield, IL seeking a business line of credit. Unfortunately in the banking realm, most of our work here has been completed with cash and without debt- so our business had no credit of which to speak. I was told if I locked $15,000 of our funds into a CD at their bank, they would give us a very low interest line of credit of the same amount to build credit for our business. That way, when we looked to expand, we’d have something to show as a basis of lending.

Then came Maeva’s Coffee. After a year of research, planning, and market analysis (as well as an incredibly strong showing of support from our community- bravo!) it was time to put the plan into action. While we had the means to self-fund the coffee shop, we realized that in a service business- with vendors and planned future expansions- it was time to acquired credit for Maeva’s as well. On January 16th, Joel and I went into Carrollton with an extensive cost and market analysis of Maeva’s, looking to borrow in part or in whole our start up funds.

Our first problem was…well…our banker was no longer there. After purposefully establishing a relationship with a banker for our business, our banker had left the bank the week prior. The relationship we built with updates on our expansions last summer, the borrowing and paying back of funds, and the efforts to familiarize someone with the huge scope of our project and potential were lost. We met instead with the bank’s regional president and branch manager. They were cool to our plan, but I realized we had given them quite a bit of information. A decent sized business plan is difficult to review in the course of a single one-hour meeting. We left on “let’s look over it a little more and talk later” terms.

I left a message the next week- which was returned promptly by the regional president. I’m highly doubtful he read our research as he spent much of the call talking about how coffee shops were high risk as a whole, how he has a friend who was a “good seasoned” business man who failed in a coffee shop venture in Jacksonville, and how he felt obligated to inform me of the risk. All gleaning aside of whether his rather paternal poo-pooing would have happened had I been an older man, I was left shocked when he said that Carrollton would not loan us a single dollar unsecured. The great news was that, if I wanted to, I could take $60,000 of our own money and put it into a .4% CD- and then they could lend it back to me at 4-5%. Now, I may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but taking $60,000 out of a fund that is earning 9%, putting it into a .4% CD to borrow it back at 4% sounds like a pretty silly move.

I hung up the phone feeling irritated. Slightly betrayed I had so blindly believed this small bank was going to be different, somehow, than the larger bank we had worked with for three years. After relating our story to my close business friends, I had the terrifying realization that our experience was not an outlier- but a common secretive sign of a virulent problem in the traditional lending industry.

As heavy into the field of marketing as I am, I am keen to the signs of a business’ health reflected in their branding. I stress often to my clients that your marketing choices are meant to put your best face forward. While your advertising never shows the areas in which you are lacking, what it does show must be honest to be successful. If good marketing is essentially a reflection of the best part of yourself- Carrollton Bank has made a grave mistake in emphasizing their role in providing capital to small businesses. As we left their branch in Springfield, two well-printed posters of happy business customers endorsing Carrollton’s helpfulness were perched on displays near the door. The whole meeting felt much like showing up to a first date- only to realize the person you were meeting had used someone else’s photos for their profile. It is only a matter of time before other entrepreneurs who leave similar meetings, perplexed by the dual nature of the bank, discover they are not alone. Marketing that is not representative of your business operation is the first step to the gallows- and it’s a step traditional lenders appear to be making across the industry.

Unfortunately, the choice of traditional lenders to cut small business lending from their market is not a quick and painless death to choose. I predict a slow decline that takes its toll by putting a halt to start ups, inhibiting the expansion of current small businesses, and negatively affecting the job market for communities like Alton. Banks still maintain the advantage over crowd funding in their swiftness- and an advantage over alternative lending sources in their ability to borrow money at 0% from their depositors to lend out at attractively lower interest rates.

While banks have been tightening requirements for lending since 2008, small business owners still suffer in a lack of education to this change. Misinformation is to blame for part of this. When home town banks insist on making “small business friendly” the core of their brand and the reality of their practices do not align with their message, entrepreneurs faced with the already massive hurdles of beginning or maintaining a business walk away confused and discouraged. Meanwhile, institutions of higher education have turned a blind eye to this problem of capital. Like teaching dark room techniques in a world gone digital, universities continue to teach traditional funding as the primary form of financing a new venture. The truth is crippling to young and eager entrepreneurs- a good idea, a boot straps spirit, and a well-prepared business plan are no longer enough to acquire a loan in today’s America.  

I fully agree it is a bank’s choice to lend or not to lend, to make decisions best for their own business and clients. However, when a bank chooses to take no risk by lending only to “A-credit” small businesses- they are not only endangering the economic growth of a community, they are endangering the longevity of their own model. Offering to lend money only to those enterprises who do not need it inhibits growth on all fronts. Fortunately, the entrepreneurial spirit is a difficult one to kill. Inventors, business owners, and artists are seeking alternative forms of funding at a rapid rate- the industry of peer-to-peer lending is growing. It hasn’t yet reached the height to be a sole viable option for a typical brick and mortar start up, but the truth is that people are finding ways to profit from their talents and passions while cutting the bank out.

If smaller players in the banking industry wish to survive- or even become the new standard- in this environment change, they need to take advantage of their “home town” status. This means not broadly categorizing ventures into levels of risk and deciding whether or not to provide financing from the comfort of an office. They will need to hire bankers who behave more like investors or adventure capitalists, who can take a portion of the banks funds and discover how to grow these funds for their company. Small banks can no longer afford the “old boys”- they need people who will take the time to analyze each individual request, to consider all of the information presented, to visit the location and make an independent calculation. By hiring bankers at the ground level who are able to evaluate risk in a micro environment, banks like Carrollton can continue to grow.

It is disappointing to see them instead choose to wade in the wake of larger competitors over following the spirit of their marketing to make a real impact in the economic growth of their community. But, as Andrew Papageorge said, “Innovation is not absolutely necessary….but then neither is survival.”

This experience has been a very compelling one- so I don’t count it as a bad overall. Maeva’s Coffee has started construction on schedule and we are fortunate this has in no way affected our progress. However, it has reinforced to me the importance of taking small business into our own hands- together, as a community. Inspired by these events, I have begun to put together a class on crowd funding (using sources such as Kickstarter and Indigogo) to take place in Maeva’s this coming July. If you are an entrepreneur, small business owner, or artist, I want to give you the biggest round of applause. You aren’t alone. Our support comes from our neighbors, from our friends, and from our families- not from an industry that has become too blind to see how essential you are to their survival.

ARCHIVE: Artists- An Alton Landlord's Secret Weapon

This article was originally published on October 17th, 2013 and may reflect a different time in our business cycle at The Milton Schoolhouse.

This morning it hit me: this is the singularly most exciting time to live in a city like Alton. While I might bemoan the lack of a decent bookstore or choice of cultural weekend activities, I am thrilled to own this mammoth schoolhouse in an economically depressed town.

Alton is not unique in the difficulties it has faced in the last few decades. After the peak of American manufacturing in the 1960s, our professional structure in this country began to change. As a country, we began to emphasize higher education and place more value on emerging white-collar professions. Alton thrived on manufacturing for generations, but when established companies began to succumb to this change- like the Owens-Illinois Bottle Works and the Alton Board Box Company- employees were forced to find work elsewhere. Those who could afford to leave did, and neighborhoods began to slowly fill with lower income groups as property values declined. Depreciation has continued. We are at the point in Alton where property owners are now faced with the decision to lower selling prices and rental rates or to abandon buildings completely. Unfortunately, many of Alton’s most gorgeous and stately historic properties are owned by people who would rather cling to the mirage of what their buildings were worth in another era rather than take advantage of a changing situation. 

Here’s why it’s so awesome: this is normal. It has happened to hundreds of thousands of communities across America. It’s a cycle that repeats itself over and over in history throughout the world. But what makes Alton exciting is that in the last four years I have seen signs of Alton transitioning into the best part of the cycle- the ride up. 

Alton is perfectly poised to undergo this thing called “gentrification”- if you want to get bookish. It’s a process that occurs when lower income areas are bought and renovated into housing or commercial areas catering to middle or upper class demographics. Commercial property owners in Alton- especially in the downtown area- have a choice: to slow the process by charging ridiculous rental rates for our particular market, or to speed it up by realizing the importance individual artists and shop owners play in this inevitable cycle.  

Artists (and “off beat” business owners) have an extremely interesting role in the process of gentrification. They are generally the least affluent group to settle within a neighborhood, and yet they are the most significant catalyst for its change. 

Artists are attracted into an area by low rent or neglected properties they can use for pennies. A bohemian artist class will immigrate into the neighborhood- resulting in a hodgepodge community of previously existing low-income groups and the artists, revolutionaries, activists, dreamers, and such who would rather spend their hours finding expression in the universe than finding a way to pay rent for a decent place. It’s bad news for property owners who intend to get top dollar for their space- but watch what happens. While the buildings and areas may deteriorate and become an eyesore to the outside, something inside the neighborhood develops. A rhythm unique to the patchwork of people in the neighborhood begins to set a new mood for the area. Bars, coffee shops, bookstores catering questionable materials and hip atmospheres spring up to serve the local flavor. The area gains a sense of popularity due to its unique "back alley" way, bringing in more business from the outside. 

Once such a neighborhood has been discovered, it is only a matter of time before the upper and middle class moves itself back into this now, new, "hip" area of the city. Gentrification has been hailed as the savior of the inner slums in large cities; turning dangerous, crime riddled streets into places thriving with successful business and clean cut condominiums for the affluent.  

Let me say this again: The bohemian class is solely responsible for the influx of unique businesses- clubs, clothing stores, cafes, bookshops- that cater to and attract a more edgy consumer base. They are providing an attraction by creating an area of trendy interest. This reels in an upper class who begin to visit and spend money for the chance to mingle with those who lead a romanticized free spirited lifestyle.

Artists not only provide the draw to an area, they provide a buffer between the lower income groups and the wealthy. As Rosalyn Deutsche noted in her article The Fine Art of Gentrification, 

“For all the manifest political and social liberalism of the gentrifying classes, its members display the same anxieties with respect to living among or near racial minorities as everyone else…it was not until artists, and the middle class’s own avant-garde had established secure enclaves that the rear guard made its first forays into the ‘wilderness’.”

The upper classes, even the less conservative who claim to be followers of social justice and who generally are the first to visit an area and begin to move back, would not feel “safe” simply moving into a questionable neighborhood with predominantly lower income families. Despite the attractiveness of trends or location, the upper business class needs a cushion between them and their prejudices. The artist is this barrier, especially when the area undergoing gentrification becomes affluent enough to support artists who either come from the middle class or cater to their tastes.

You can probably think of a neighborhood in St. Louis (or any city you are familiar with) where you have seen this happen: A place with gorgeous historical buildings or a once wealthy area becomes a slum. Lower income classes move in, creating a darker atmosphere riddled with danger and poor standards of living. Artists move in. You begin to see graffiti…and then someplace begins hosting hardcore music or “offensive” art shows. As wealthier people begin to seek out the area as a form of entertainment or escape, the graffiti begins to disappear, giving way to safer hipster shops who are displaced by bonafide art galleries later on. The entire cycle- slum to high rent district to slum- can take generations. The speed of each particular segment can vary, but typically the fastest transition is that between derelict properties and artistic/independent business mecca. 

Alton certainly hasn’t seen the extremes of change as, say, Delmar or Cherokee in St. Louis. Because of our smaller population, our extremes tend to be less dynamic as a whole. This is good- it means Alton may have a chance of seeing economic growth before we deteriorate to the point where violent crimes and destructive vandalism become common. Still, there is the unspoken potential for the city to continue along the path of decline if the local political environment becomes once again unfavorable to economic growth and if property owners do not embrace the process of change. 

Property owners, here is the take home lesson: Artists are not a nuisance. Nor are the people who hang around them who may have a less than polished look. In a town like Alton- where our own residents are blithely content to drive to Edwardsville, Florrisant, St. Louis, or Belleville for shopping or entertainment- a smart property owner would begin to look for ways to collaborate with unconventional people to bring an active feel to their locations.

Here are some suggestions:

-If your property is vacant- why not agree to allowing a music group, a bawdy art show, or a temporary haunted attraction to temporarily use your space?

Of course, be smart and make sure someone covers liability insurance. Consider not asking for payment over than the actual utility cost associated with the temporary event just to start. Think about the non-monetary payment of having people brought into your space who might give you money to lease it full time. It only takes one person drawn in by and event, who may have never considered walking into your space, to be inspired to rent it.

-If your property is vacant- do you know why? Are people able to afford your rates?

If they can’t, then you're pricing yourself out of tenants. If you can't lower your rates and/or you truly think your rate is reasonable for our economic situation, compromise by dividing space and taking some loss on rental income to have activity on your property. Artists attract artists- businesses attract businesses. People want to be in an area where things are already happening. Once the space is attracting outside traffic, your property value will increase. You might think of dividing that 3,000 sq ft storefront into four or five 400 sq ft studios- and leave a larger space that will be attractive to a bigger retail opportunity once you already have something interesting going on. Walls can always be torn back down later.

-If your property is being vandalized and you’re sick of scrubbing it off, hire a graffiti artist to create art on your building.

Seriously- business owners in the Netherlands do it all of the time. They found out that graffiti artists very rarely marked over already painted areas- especially when the artwork was good or created by someone prominent in their network. Depending upon the artist or situation, you might not have total control of what it looks like but you can certainly make sure there aren’t any phallic references emblazoned above your shop sign. Bonus: Weird looking buildings turn pass-through traffic into gawkers, tourists, and clients who stop long enough to give you the chance to sell them something. Take a look at this crazy art outside of a restaurant we visited in Phoenix and tell me it isn’t more attractive than tagging:


Most importantly: Evolve your business structure, property layout, and presentation to fit the market you’re in. 

That’s just good advice all around- but specifically, stop waiting for some box store to save your property. It isn’t going to happen, we don’t have what it takes to attract them here right now. Stop waiting for grant money to save your property. Our government is broke. And stop holding out for some safe, bland old lady tea room or some mishmash craft mall to fill your space. Sure, these businesses aren’t going to paint your walls florescent hues and have people with *gasp * tattoos and piercings hanging around on the sidewalk…but that’s because they don’t attract people period. 

Stop moaning about how Alton isn’t what it once was- be glad the old lady tearoom market is dead. That means Alton is on its way to rebirth in the economic lifecycle. Alton is ready for a renaissance, ready to make art, ready to make money, and ready to evolve. 

Now is the time! Let’s do this. 

ARCHIVE: For Profit, For Good.

 This article was posted on July 24th, 2013 and may reflect a different time in our business cycle at The Milton Schoolhouse. 

There isn’t anything wrong with being for-profit.

Many visitors at Milton have been shocked to discover we are not a government sanctioned non-profit organization- and we don’t have any intentions on becoming one. Have Joel and I invested every penny and ounce of energy we’ve come across in the last four years to save the school? Yes. Is making Milton beautiful and turning it into a bad-ass business incubator our goal for this building? Yes. Then, since our main purpose is doing good stuff, the standard reasoning goes, doesn’t it make sense for us to become a non-profit? Well, no. 

I’ve defended this position to those who believe that a corporation created to do good things is a complete contradiction. I have received email and messages from people who insist that because we are an LLC we are really living a big lie about our true intentions. We make money from selling things on eBay and Etsy. We make money renting space. How on earth could we possibly be doing the good things we claim when making money is so….so…greedy. 

Back in 2009 when we bought the schoolhouse, we considered filing for non-profit status. I believe the whole “non profit” way of business was formed with the best intentions. For some forms of entities- like religious organizations- it works. But we don’t feel the Milton spirit of self-sufficiency, financial responsibility, and personal freedom to support yourself doing what you love fits well into an IRS approved non-profit model. There are many noble non-profits who walk the fine line of being financially responsible and they truly do meet non-financially motivated goals in an efficient way.  Far more are met with intrinsic problems in the way non-profits are set up that prevent them from doing what they set out to originally do. 

Setting up a business is a lot like preparing for a new child. To some extent, you can choose the environment in which to raise that child. We wanted Milton to have the best possible chance of growing into exactly what Alton needed. The nonprofit model ultimately seemed counterproductive to the foundational social goal for which we purchased the building. 

One of the biggest challenges non-profits face is answering to too many “bosses”; the first of which is the government itself. You get the perks of federal, state, and local grants- and yes, money is good. But grants come with strings attached, and it is tempting to adjust your original intentions to bring in a source of revenue. The trade offs of “free” government money are confinements on how it is used- and the immense amount of time it often takes to qualify for such funds.

The same goes in business when you rely on donor funds- that also often come with implied, if not explicitly stated, ways that money can be used. How is this a problem? Well, let’s say Mr. Jackson has donated $200,000 towards building out a new floor in your building for artist studios. He has always envisioned that sunny second floor bursting with creatively, and now has decided to give money to your organization because he loves your building so much. Other than using the space for artists, his only other requirement is to see it completed within the next five years. While his donation is generous, you find it will actually take $300,000 to build out the studios. In your research you also discover most artists typically don’t make a lot of money. To fill the studios with traditional artists alone, as Mr. Jackson wishes, you find the rental rate you’ll have to charge is significantly less than if you opened the studios for general commercial purposes- where artists and other folks could work side by side. Not only will you end up needing to raise or borrow an extra $100,000 to not loose Mr. Jackson’s donation, but also his donation ties you into a situation in which you don’t see a timely return on investment. The donation has also required you to designate the space in your building to something the community might not need 100%. By letting Mr. Jackson be the boss, you haven’t used your space to the best of its capabilities. 

Mr. Jackson isn’t the end of it. Management in non-profits also includes the dreaded subspecies: the committee. If you’ve ever tried to order a pizza among friends, you can imagine the difficulty of succeeding in making good decisions on more important, long term commitments in a larger, less amiable group. Mr. Jackson may feel very happy having given his money to a non-profit- an organization that by its very namesake implies that it isn’t out for greed, but for good things. He might even feel financially smug himself because he was able to take advantage of a significant tax write off. But is Mr. Jackson’s money really being used wisely? Now that the funds are acquired for building out the artist’s studios, a committee could be in charge of the details; how many studios to build, who to hire for the drywall, what type of coffee machine should be bought for the artist’s shared lounge. I have a hard time imagining in such a situation- when a group of people decide how to spend someone else’s money- there isn’t room for nepotism or convenient overspending. Will a strong voice on the committee push to hire a higher priced contractor because they are a friend of a friend? Will a committee member make a decision on lighting without research because it’s easier, even if the thing takes expensive specialty bulbs and will cost more money in the end? This last situation happened to a local non-profit in Alton not many years back. Committee decisions are often compromises and are seldom what is best, because of the differing tastes of the members involved.

Opportunities for disagreement make for rough sailing for non-profits when it comes to reconciling the motives of government, donors, and committees. That rough sailing often costs a non-profit the most critical thing of all: time. 

In a community-oriented business, such as the Milton School, time is crucial. Being for-profit streamlines the entire business process- each dollar that comes in must be invested in a way that directly makes more dollars to help us renovate Milton. A non-profit might be side tracked by Mr. Jackson’s donation- or a committees’ idea that tiny artist studios are the only thing Alton needs. The months spent discussing, deciding, and taking votes are circumvented by setting up Milton as a for-profit business. The only question we have to ask is, “Will this action (money spent) be the best way to make more money so that we can continue to renovate Milton and help others?” We ultimately answer only to our renters, our customers, and ourselves. Without multiple “bosses” with differing goals, we have the flexibility to adapt quickly to any economic changes or local needs.  

By owning a for-profit business, we have a greater control over our financial efficiency and the cost of renovating Milton. Joel and I have ideas, for sure. We have ideas to fill every inch of this 85,000 sq ft building. But if there isn’t a demand for our ideas- they don’t happen. We don’t start building something until someone who fits into the whole of Milton approaches us with a need for space. That’s why Milton is filled with so many different types of people- because we build Milton in response to Alton’s needs. To succeed, we are forced to listen to the community directly or the money we have personally sweated for will be wasted. 

Our rental income from Milton covers the basic utilities the businesses here use and the property taxes we pay to the city, meaning our endeavors are debt free and self-sustaining. We are usually left with between $300-700 a month over that to reinvest. That’s not very much. But we make sure every dollar of it makes a return of triple its investment by reusing and recycling materials, being wise with our purchases, and building out what is in demand at this very moment. We are in a constant state of reaction to trends and needs in Alton, jumping from project to project to accommodate artists and entrepreneurs who are ready to see their dream grow in a dedicated space. 

I recently received an outraged comment on Facebook regarding our Etsy and eBay sales:

You aren’t even a nonprofit. How can you claim this is fundraising? You bought that building for practically nothing and you make bank off of renting it out and selling this stuff.

It’s true. We bought the building for “practically nothing”. Then we invested four times the purchase price in start-up capital, on top of the enormous amount of sweat Joel and I have put in the last few years. $20,000 in dumpster removal fees alone in the first year? This building took quite a bit to get on its feet! I’ve already discussed the rental income of the building- enough to sustain Milton’s current state but not enough to significantly move progress forward. The sales from Etsy and eBay have brought in, on average, about $1,500 per month for the last three years. It is a blessing that has allowed us to build so much so fast. 

Have you ever done any improvements in your home? Maybe remodeled your bathroom- or refinished a basement? How far does $2,000 go in the remodeling process? Not very far, I’ve noticed. Not when you’re paying for labor. That is where the miracle of Milton comes in. Joel, myself, and Milton’s core of skilled volunteers generously give labor to the schoolhouse so that $2,000 per month can be invested completely in materials. That means we take the $2,000 we earn from sales, and that extra rental income I mentioned, and turn it into about $8,000 worth of progress every month. Month after month. Four years in a row. The $150,000 worth of actual dollar bills that have been independently invested- or made and reinvested from Milton- have turned into approximately $625,000 worth of improvements. There’s quite a bit you can’t even see: roofing, electrical work, mowers and gas, hundreds of rolls of insulation, and a work truck named Dorothy that has always threatened to die at the least convenient moment. 

Any “bank” we have comes from wise investing, good decision-making, and a whole lot of nights working late eating leftover Chinese take out. If we were a non-profit, we wouldn’t be able to work as fast, spend money as efficiently, or help as many people.

That’s right- “help as many people” is our reason for making money, but people don’t see that because we aren’t handing out money, we are giving a hand up to people who want to work hard to earn a chance at their dreams. If Milton is 100% for-profit but does good things- what are we? We are part of a new breed of entrepreneurs, a new breed of businesses- who believe that the more money you make, the more people you can help. We are a true “teach a man to fish” business, and the money we make goes directly towards the creation of new space for other artists and entrepreneurs to start their own self-sustaining venture. 

The best part is, our desire to help others support themselves through their talents not only has a circular affect in growing the schoolhouse as a building- but has a huge multiplying affect on the community. Our small business owners have a way to support themselves and their families. People in the area have access to a business that fulfills a need- and then spend their money in our city instead of online or in St. Louis. The city of Alton receives more revenue to make Alton a desirable place, which will in time attract more business to Alton citywide. Businesses grow- creating jobs, reducing unemployment, and reducing crime. Alton becomes a more attractive place to raise children and- ultimately, our entrepreneurs and artists model to their children a lifestyle of independence, self reliance, and a broader view of “what you can be when you grow up”.  

We truly do believe that creating small businesses now will impact the generation after us. That by setting an example of how, through hard work, you can be successful at most any crazy idea, we’ll be giving the next generation a world of possibility. 

Such high-minded and pretentious sounding goals aren’t meant to be weighed down in committee meetings, slow internal processes, and old-fashioned business models. Those goals take money and heart. Those changes are for us, and every other unashamedly for-profit entrepreneur, to bring to Alton.