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Lessons in entrepreneurship from the baristas of NYC

Posted by Ian Brookes on 15/02/17 08:30

The first time I visited New York, I was warned about three things: to be constantly aware of personal safety, to forget about tea as they only serve coffee, and, in the interests of political correctness (and, potentially, personal safety), never offer criticism of the President.

It was 1986 and for a week I walked around hyper vigilant for muggers, making no eye contact with strangers I passed on the street. When I needed a caffeine fix, I deliberately asked for a coffee with milk. And as for politics, the most political minded I got was that I wondered at times what The Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through Congress.

More than 30 years on, the change in a few decades is pronounced; time has made the city safer and seemingly better caffeinated. No comment on the President. From Manhattan to Brooklyn, there are hundreds of independent coffee shops. I am sitting in one, Five Leaves, a bistro-café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on a crisp winter's morning. In the cool light it is bursting with vibrancy: brightly coloured eggs, salmon and, everywhere, the unmistakable green of smashed avocado.

So many features of this airy cafe are familiar to others in the city - the distressed faded, almost run-down decor, the subtle scent of vinegar-laced boiling water for poaching eggs, and its packed with customers. Then the heavily tattooed barista, who has Death before decaf etched into one of his arms. I overhead the chat: I had to learn how to make 400 coffees in a morning.

The decor is pared back, with tiny stools at tiny tables piled into a tiny space. A small kitchen sends out freshly made artisan breakfast meals that are just fascinating in design and flavours, matching the artistry on the menu boards on the wall, and in reality judging by the gusto with which they are consumed, tasty. The cafe's vibe is warm and welcoming, with around ten staff overseeing a customer base that comes and goes with amazing frequency.

What you see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech behemoths that have emerged from NYC, the wave of independent coffee shops are the playgrounds of barista entrepreneurs. The barista-entrepreneur is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea a startup reality. They need to do their research, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it.

In small independent coffee shops, the man or woman serving your flat white is often the proprietor, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media to managing suppliers. They are operating in a highly competitive market, against other independents and the global chains. They will stand or fall on the quality of their product, customer service and ambiance of their venue.

My week in New York, visiting my son was a great experience. I managed to get some work done too, commuting in with him on the L train, enjoying the hustle and bustle, sight and sounds, but most of all I got into the habit of seeking out the artisan independent coffee shops mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

I watched baristas operate as true entrepreneurs. From beans to roast to brew, offering signature blends of coffee with smooth taste, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy.

The extent of personalisation provided by the baristas surprised me, earning accolades from customers in their sincere greetings and genuine thanks. There was sincere recognition and rapport between barista and customer. So much so, that in most cafes I visited, the baristas recognised the customer and what coffee they wanted before they asked – despite them having thousands of customers each day.

New York does coffee. Coffee served quickly, exactly like the customer asks for it. Coffee places like Five Leaves do it right. They know what people want. The baristas are prepared. Baristas serve two functions in this equation. Baristas make the coffee the way the customer likes the coffee, but before they do that, they listen and recognise what they customer wants. They serve the very important function of listening. This made me stop in my tracks, because I didn’t realise just how much practice it takes to listen. It’s a vital piece in the customer relationship, over and above the coffee itself.

The espresso they serve is exactingly made, very tasty, and perfectly portioned with milk that’s just hot and foamy enough. For those looking to try something new, there’s a rotating selection of boutique, in-season beans at a higher price tag. Along with cortados and lattes, you’ll find the slightly more obscure shakerato, espresso shaken over ice and served with simple syrup and an orange twist.

But, back to the practice of listening. It’s a lot like the practice of delivering great coffee. Listen to what baristas say: I have that grande decaf mocha for you, when you’re ready; Tall skim cappucinno on the bar, just for you.  A little extra touch. No matter how crowded and busy the queue, they talk to their customers, and in talking with the customers, they learn about them.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and baristas, what are their common attributes, behaviours and qualities?

Discipline Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, to focus and not deviate. For a barista, maybe the game plan is simply consistency, prepare a great cup of coffee time and time again for every customer on every visit.

All entrepreneurs have a North Star, a barista is no different. Indeed scaling a business means being consistent and delivering to every customer, time and again.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic queues in the coffee shop, baristas have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from their training, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Resilience Boxers get punched in the face, some get knocked down. The difference between a good boxer and a great boxer is the ability to get back up. It’s the same for an entrepreneur, they have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Baristas may not get punched in the face, but sometimes when things don’t go your way, it feels like it. But if you are confident enough in yourself and your business, and you want it bad enough, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you will find the courage and heart to keep getting back up.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so, despite the loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers.

For Baristas, resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the coffee.

Patience As an entrepreneur patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and spread the word about what you’re doing or talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision.

For the artful barista, it’s the combination of the quality of the product and the experience, they don’t cut corners despite the customer perhaps being in a hurry, creating the product takes time, care and attention, whilst finding a few moments engaging with the customer personally is a vital ingredient too.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills, weightlifting, jump-roping and sprinting in a five-minute intense workout. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they've accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

I’ve seen the baristas do this too, spending a quiet moment to themselves to reflect on the success of their business that morning, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again.

Put accuracy before power Business is more about rhythm, technique and accuracy than simply raw power. Power is useless if it misses its target, it wastes energy. That's a great analogy for any entrepreneur who's chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn't solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle in the world won't matter.

This is how the independent coffee shops win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that.

Keep moving forward Although entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill.

Many of the greatest successes are of those people who just kept working – James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. We never hear about the guy who quit, but the guy who persists and perseveres and keeps moving forward to their goal.

People's desire for that perfect cup of coffee or shot of espresso creates a queue of people in a hurry, but where baristas showcased the art form of artisan beverage making, everyone was happy to wait. Much like the subway artists in NYC, the barista craft is an art form to behold, performed with purpose.

I saw tonnes of guile, grit, creativity and determination – and smiling faces – from the hard working baristas who were putting a long shift in, they knew that today was a step forward to success and may not feel like it in the moment, but a focus on their horizon and holding their vision was vital to success.

It’s tough out there and the pace is fast, but like any entrepreneur they had discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and doing towards their goals.

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