The difficult middle

A couple of years ago I began to think quite a lot about longevity. I was seeing my own business, and many others, reach a point of maturity where it didn’t really feel fair to call them startups any more. I looked at my industry, and similar ones too, and was inevitably drawn to businesses that had been going so long that it seemed fair to call them “institutions”, for want of a better word.

What really defined these business for me wasn’t that they had simply been going for a long time, it was more that they had transcended from the requirements of a single owner. These might be businesses so old that not a single person involved in the creation of the business was still there, though the business maintained success and its principles regardless. How does a business go from being a startup to being an institution? This is what I mean by the difficult middle.

I began to read more about business longevity, and unsurprisingly there is plenty to read. One particular idea captured me, and seemed painfully applicable to the coffee industry. It was the idea that a business should be treated like a living organism, and nurtured and taught. Coffee is an industry incredible dependent on knowledge for the delivery of quality, but our focus has all too often been the education of the individual rather than the business itself.

If you’ve done any sort of barista training for a living then the following probably rings true: Training baristas is like pouring water into a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. The typical practice of most cafes is to invest reasonably heavily in training the staff, either in-house or with the assistance of a supplier such as the coffee roaster they buy from. The problem with this is simple: People leave.

This is a problem for any industry, though the relatively high turnover in coffee makes this effect more pronounced. When the “star” barista in a cafe leaves the average quality of drinks tends to drop. This is not good at all, for the business or its customers.

In any ideal world the business itself could act like a giant bathtub underneath the buckets, collecting as much of the information as possible that is being poured into the staff.

How do you teach a business?

This is a difficult question with an answer that most people won’t like: For a cafe I believe that a large part of that is structure, systems and manuals.

Every cafe should have a dialling in procedure for espresso in the morning.  That procedure shouldn’t be whatever the person dialling in learned to do in their last job. There should be an ideal method that is taught, trained and used. Having a single staff member understand a refractometer and matching software has a certain value, but having best practices available to anyone in the company as a permanent resource has a much larger value.

This does happen, but all too rarely in coffee. The places where I do see good structure tend to be the places with better than most of their market when it comes to quality, consistency and financial health.

So, will a manual fix everything? No. It is simply a piece of the puzzle, but there should be an over-arching goal of trying to retain as much knowledge as possible outside of the transient part of the business – the humans. It is about our mindset when it comes to learning, training and teaching.

Much of this applies to roasting – as we learn and explore the roasting process there needs to be more than an oral history passed down from one roaster to another. This requirement means thinking about explaining what we’re doing and, much like the process of writing this post for this blog, it forces us to unpack an idea in order to repack it neatly, with a clear narrative.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need good people, or that automation is a key to success. We have a challenge in coffee, and while we should definitely work to improve retention of staff, that isn’t a very long term solution.

Very few businesses start out to last for 200 years. Very few startups are thinking as far as 5 years ahead in terms of planning and structure. The future is a terrifying place most of the time, but I do wish that I could give this advice to myself 5 years ago. Starting good habits early, building better systems in from the beginning, would have gotten us so much further more quickly as an operation.