“I’m going to start my own business.” How many times have I said that in the past year? Quite often, actually. So often that my friends stopped taking it seriously and only gave a friendly nod in response. But I meant it: I was going to start my own business.
I was tired of seeing things done the “wrong way,” in my opinion. I had had enough of paid employment: a lousy hourly wage and a boss who would mercilessly fire me if it suited him better. Most of all, I was fed up with seeing others reap the rewards of all my hard work. After all, I was on the front line: I had contact with the customers. I was the face of the company.
My coffee shop would be different. My case would be better.
I could already picture it: the pleasant bustle on a typical Saturday morning. I would retire at 32. My business would run so well that I could soon spend most of my time sitting on a terrace by the water with a cocktail in my hand.
This was the moment.
With that in mind, I will discuss eight key points from my first year as a coffee shop owner. If I had known that in advance, I would have had a lot fewer worries (and fewer gray hairs), and I would have been a bit closer to my dream.
This was the most exciting and, at the same time, most frustrating period of my life. But I was full of ideas and wanted to get started.
I knew I wanted to start a business where people could relax. Almost every new coffee shop in the region had no benches, and I couldn’t understand why. So I decided that one sofa was the minimum.
I also knew that I wanted as little branding as possible in my business. Nothing is as tasteless as countless signs blocking the sidewalk or the view through the windows. This is even worse when the signs have product advertisements on them. You know them.
But there were obstacles right away. My first choice for a location didn’t work out (a coffee shop in a brewery: the combination of heavenly and impossible).
When I finally had a property, it was in the middle of a large residential area. There was an enormous amount of work to be done: new ceilings, piping, and electricity. Everything. A boring cube in a shopping street would have been so much easier, but that’s not an adventure, is it?
This venue had character, perfect for the planned refurb: a relaxed, cozy 1950s theme.
I had underestimated how long the renovation would take. I assumed everyone would work with as much enthusiasm as I did. I got impatient when the work wasn’t done fast enough. The sewage system wasn’t yet finished, and I had already resigned. In good spirits, I announced that I would open a week later.
That was not my opening date.
2. Deploy my network
Curious about my budget? It was small, but with big plans to make the most of it. Shamelessly I took advantage of every connection I could use.
A coffee supplier was no problem. I have always had experience in the world. My bread would also come from the same supplier that the coffee shop where I was employed used (fruit and vegetables the same). Friend prices are a blessing for every starting hospitality entrepreneur.
A friend made our branding in exchange for free coffee and one breakfast per week. A client of mine worked for a newspaper, so we already had some media attention before I got the keys.
Even the furniture for the renovation came largely from my own house. An interior designer friend arranged the rest.
My point is that I used every connection I had, but I could have done a lot more in hindsight. Considering the difference this made to my first month, it would have been worth it.
3. Manage my workload
Okay, I didn’t handle my staffing well in the beginning.
The mornings were fine, but there was a lot less business after lunch. Until close, one person was more than enough. Then, I started to notice a pattern.
Weekends were, as expected, busy. This was due in large part to the positive press coverage of my case. The funny thing about press coverage is that if one newspaper or magazine writes something about you, others often follow.
And those wonderful weekend returns helped keep us going. But I was tired.
No one had told me that I would somehow still be working long after closing time. I’m not telling anyone, but I was probably told, and I was too tired to listen. At least I was ready for a day of rest.
I had decided long before opening that we would remain closed on Mondays to force myself to take a break from time to time. But those Mondays were soon swallowed up by a mountain of administrative work.
Paying invoices, keeping the accounts and payroll, and calculating what was left. This couldn’t go on like this.
The smartest thing would have been if I had immediately taken a step back and delegated part of my work.
4. Don’t do everything alone.
I did not delegate anything.
At least, not right away. But in hindsight, I should have.
I employed a barista who also worked as a professional photographer. Why didn’t I give him the passwords for our social media, for example?
5. Save costs
And why did I schedule it until closing time, six days a week? I know I always wanted to pay my staff well, but 50 hours a week was quite financially detrimental.
Speaking of hours: I could have worked a little less myself. There was no point in staying open past 1:30 pm. The turnover for the day had turned. But I insisted on not closing until 3 pm, which resulted in higher costs without real compensation.
6. An optimized menu
I should have cut my menu right away. Get rid of the dishes that disrupted the rhythm of the kitchen or that were simply never ordered.
In the end, I did, in the form of a vegetarian menu. But I wish I had done it sooner, right in the beginning. I would have had less cost for ingredients (vegetables and fruits are cheaper than meat, especially in season). In addition, it gave my menu more character. And the range could also change with the season to always be able to serve something fresh and different. If only I had, if only I had, if only I had…
7. Invest in the right people
I could have paid my bookkeepers a little more to do so much more. In the beginning, I used my accounting firm only once a quarter while doing the day-to-day administration. Then, every Monday, I entered my invoices into my accounting program. I still barely get along with that software, by the way.
When I think back, I can hardly believe how naive I was. I’m not an accountant. I can just count to ten.
8. Make my changes
I ended up doing all these things.
My barista left, and I took the opportunity to cut his successor’s hours.
I have now only scheduled staff for the weekends. It’s a bit of a run during the weekday lunch rush, but I’m still here, so it’s not that bad.
My bookkeepers finally got a raise, so my day off is mostly free now. I turned off my phone and just enjoyed life. A bizarre sensation, but one that you quickly get used to.
The changes to my menu gave us some media attention again, which kept my business attracting new audiences.
I wanted to be the kind of entrepreneur I could look up to. A cornerstone of society that also inspires others. Whenever I was struggling, I tried to think of that goal.
What did I learn from it?
What have I learned from all this?
I should have started with a clearer picture of what kind of business I wanted. In addition, I know that there is a huge amount of work to be done before you open your doors, so be patient.
I could have made even better use of my network. I had connections with almost every major hospitality player in the region. A message on their social media timeline is a small courtesy and could have reached a much larger audience. These people are my friends and would have loved to help me be successful.
I get a coffee shop business plan template from Maven business plans. It helps me a lot to start my business.
I should have trusted my team more from the start. If I had outsourced more of my duties, I would have been exhausted, and they would have been more involved in the business’s success.
I learned that scheduling a friend for 50 hours a week was probably more for fun than smart business. If you’re reading this, Josh, I miss you.
It is better to choose a clear direction for your menu. You can never make everyone happy, saving you a lot of money.
Right from the start, I should have arranged my budget and accounting better. Paying professionals to handle your finances is always a good investment.
Finally, there is always time to change. My business had been running for almost two years before I made the first major changes. And yes, some of my less flexible clients grumbled, and I regretted not doing it sooner, but I was much better off.
Hopefully, my advice will help you, and you can start your coffee shop with some knowledge that I would have liked to have had beforehand.