The Secret to Not Sucking

My friend Jess Gartner was a teacher with a problem.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a problem she could fix herself. This problem revolved around school budget data, which is one of those “behind the scenes” problems that teachers aren’t supposed to concern themselves with. Their job is to teach students, not to fix systems, even when those systems are so broken that it makes doing their actual jobs harder.

So Jessica quit teaching and founded a startup to solve her data problem.

This is because Jess realized that her real problem wasn’t the data; it’s that no one else was ever going to solve her data problem because “this is the way it’s always been done.” And everyone else was content to put up with a broken system.

Had Jess not insisted there was a better way to do things, this problem may have persisted. Instead, Jess refused to accept that “broken” was something that we — and specifically, that she — should accept.

Jess is not a programmer, and she wasn’t a classically-trained businesswoman. What she is is a problem-solver.

And to solve problems, you have to refuse to accept mediocrity.

But What Exactly Is Mediocrity?

Everyone knows what “exceptional” means. You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. It’s why you cancel your plans when you find out you can see Kanye West perform live for free; because even if you don’t like him, you know he’s likely to do something memorable in a way that “safe” musicians won’t.

So if “exceptional” implies rarity, does that mean mediocrity is just “everything else”?

No; mediocrity is worse.

Mediocrity is the unremarkable, committee-created, toothless bare minimum required.

Mediocrity’s entire goal is “to just get by.”

Mediocrity is trying to fit in. It’s making sure you don’t rock the boat. It’s pursuing external approval rather than internal validation. It’s maintaining and managing rather than innovating and leading. It’s finding excuses instead of solutions. It’s hoping to be rewarded rather than demanding more.

Mediocrity means you’re waiting to be given something by the people you defer to.

Mediocrity is asking for permission instead of forgiveness.

Mediocrity is not politeness; it’s supplication.

Mediocrity is believing that change can be achieved without pain and uncomfortability.

Perhaps worst of all, mediocrity is the implication that wanting to be better is wrong; that aspiring to do something new, original, innovative, pioneering, disruptive, or that otherwise has the potential to effect change of any scale would hurt the system, and that the system’s well-being is always preferable to your own.

Mediocrity is, in short, the condemnation of trying.

A Momentary Defense of Mediocrity, Since It’s Actually Quite Popular

Let’s be honest here: some people just are mediocre.

You know what? That’s fine.

That’s who they are. That’s what they’ve decided to be. The happiness they’ve chosen for themselves is not to change, not to upset others, and not to do anything exceptional, or be associated with anything that could be construed as them being somehow dissatisfied with the lot they’ve been given.

This is because they seek the approval, validation, and trickle-down rewards granted to them by others — namely, by the people they believe to have justly earned a higher station, which they themselves also aspire to and hope to be given someday. Not that they’d ever seize it themselves, mind you; they just hope their loyalty is eventually rewarded in the end.

And, if not… well, at least they can say they played the game fairly and didn’t hurt anyone.

So yes, in the sense that “mediocre” means, literally, “average,” then yes, the average person is mediocre at most things — and that’s actually fine.

Because someone has to maintain. Someone has to sustain. Someone has to manage.

If no one did those things, we’d have anarchy. Everyone would constantly be innovating and disrupting and there’d be no system to innovate or disrupt. You’d never know if you were having an impact because there’d be no baseline to gauge against.

In terms of functional truth, the world needs mediocrity more than it needs the exceptional, the innovators, the pioneers and the leaders. This is why I don’t want to imply that mediocrity is the opposite of good; obviously, bad is the opposite of good.

The danger of mediocrity is that it’s the enemy of better.

And in a world where we need to be mostly average in order to function as human beings, a problem really only arises when you’ve decided you want to be exceptional at something.

Because that’s when you’re told you can’t be.

The person telling you this could mean “you can’t,” or they could mean “you can’t.”

This person could love you and not want to see you get hurt, or they might fear you and not want to see you succeed.

This person could be your family, your friend, a complete stranger, or even yourself. (And if your idea is truly revolutionary, you’ll probably be told “no” by all of the above.)

And they’re all wrong.

If you’ve decided that you demand more from yourself than the minimum, but you’re told that the minimum is all you need to get by — that aspiring to anything beyond the minimum, the safe, the expected, “the way it’s always been done” — is inadvisable, dangerous, or wrong, then you have a choice:

Who are you going to believe: them, or your gut?

Often, they’ll win.

Often, you’ll choose to play it safe.

After all, if you have a job, a title, a reputation, a status… why risk it?

If you have a home, a car, a family, friends… why can’t you just be happy?

The truth is, you probably have expectations to meet, and people who would be gravely disappointed in you — and in what your actions say about them — if you step out of line, and behave in a manner that indicates their estimation of you (or your estimation of them) is not the defining force in your life.

Meanwhile, if you follow your gut, you might not win.

In fact, you might even get hurt. You might lose money, time, assets, relationships, self-respect and self-esteem, to say nothing of the withering opinions of others.

Not only are you a boat-rocker, but now you’re bad at it.

Luckily, the mediocre will usually welcome you back [at a slightly lower status than which you left] as long as you’re willing to admit you’re wrong, and announce that they were right: you shouldn’t have tried after all.

Hopefully you’ll remember that the next time you think you know better than the system.

And the next time…

And the next…

So, Are They Right? Should You Even Bother? Or Should You Sit Back Down and Fit In?

Since she founded her startup, Jess has been told that her idea would never work. She’s battled the presumptions of a male-dominated tech industry. She’s had to prove, over and over, that she knows what she’s talking about and that the team she’s assembled can indeed solve the problem she’s set out to fix.

And she’s still doing it.

In fact, she’ll probably be doing it her entire career.

That’s because deciding you’re tired of mediocrity doesn’t make you magically successful. If anything, it’s the exact opposite: deciding you can’t put up with mediocrity any longer now makes you a target to be silenced by everyone else who does prefer to not be inconvenienced, and who is content to put up with broken systems and bad ideas rather than do the work required to be better.

Mediocrity is easy. And sometimes easy is fine.

When it isn’t — when you’re not happy with the status quo — you’ll know. And then you’ll be torn between staying with the herd or forging your own path.

That’s when you’ll have to decide: Who am I, really?

A good litmus test for whether or not you’re happy being mediocre is this:

What do the people you’re seeking approval from respect?

If they reward compliance, would you be happy if they thought of you as compliant?

If they reward big risks and big wins, can your ego and self-image survive a big miss?

And if you’re asking yourself “wait; why do I even need to seek approval from others,” then congratulations: you’re already a step ahead.

The lesson here isn’t that you need to be exceptional in order to do great things.

It’s that you can’t do great things if you’re willing to be mediocre.

Why We’re All Afraid to Speak Our Minds at Thanksgiving

Here’s what’s going to happen in most American homes this Thanksgiving:

Most of us will travel — maybe across town, maybe across the country — to share a dinner or two with our family and friends. We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll sit around and watch football. On Friday, we’ll jockey for position in the good-natured tradition of Black Friday, as we hope to score a feel-good deal on some early gifts for Christmas. And then on Monday we’ll go back to work (where we’ll scour the web for some Cyber Monday deals, amirite?).

And we’ll do our best to not say a single word about Ferguson, or Bill Cosby, or GamerGate, or any other contentious topic that’s been in the news for months but which wouldn’t make for polite holiday dinner table conversation.

Or, to rephrase:

We’ll spend large amounts of time and money to travel uncomfortably long distances to see our family (whom we’re obligated to keep in touch with due to the sociological vagaries of lineage) and friends (many of whom we’re really only acquaintances with because they never left our hometown but we’re still friends on Facebook, which means their voluntary exposure to POVs other than the ones they grew up with is already pretty limited).

Once there, we’ll eat more food in a day than some Americans will see in a month, and we’ll drink beer from one of a handful of global beverage conglomerates who offer us the appearance of “choice” in such a way that it flatters our individual sensibilities, even though the money all flows back to the same few pockets.

We’ll do this while we watch dozens of athletes with known histories of domestic violence, drug abuse, and other criminal records, all competing to win a game in a multi-billion-dollar league that is also a tax-exempt nonprofit. These games will be played in stadiums mostly paid for by municipal tax dollars, and their televised contests will be funded by the advertising dollars of other corporations who’d like you to buy their products which were probably produced overseas so as to avoid needlessly contributing to the American tax base.

Then we’ll give these same corporations even more of our money on Black Friday and Cyber Monday as we race to play a game we know is rigged, all in the hopes of proving our love to our family and friends on a religious holiday that’s been stapled atop a pagan ritual. And the family and friends we’re striving to impress with our shrewd gift purchases are basically the same people we’re avoiding having any real conversations with.

Why do we do this?

The irony, I think, is that most of us who find ourselves biting our tongue on Thanksgiving (or on Facebook) for fear of inciting a lecture from our “racist uncles or hippy cousins,” as the stereotypes go, is that we’ve been trained not to rock the boat, because that boat is what got us here.

Problems Are for Other People

I come from a family where the number one tenet when my mom was growing up was “keep your nose clean” — as in, “don’t get in trouble, don’t talk about trouble, don’t tell anyone else about any trouble the family is having, and don’t talk about anyone else’s troubles.” I’m not sure if this was only a by-product of Polish Catholic households or of general America in the ’50s, but the instruction there is very clear: don’t show weakness. Don’t rock the boat. You’re here in the land of plenty; what could you possibly be upset about? And why would you ever give anyone else the opportunity to find a fault with you?

Not that there weren’t problems, of course. But they were someone else’s problems; someone else would have to fix them. You just take care of yourself; take care of your own.

60 years later, we have social media and split-second judgments of people and actions, right or wrong. But those knee-jerk reactions are usually the by-product of our ingrained perceptions of right and wrong, of how we’ve been raised to believe the system (be it political, economic, or theological) is supposed to work. If it works for you, you’re doing it right. If not? Well, that’s their business; they need to get themselves right.

We’re also sitting in our family homes, invited there (or obligated to be there) by the very people who, in some way, sacrificed and paid for us to be where we are right now, both in life and at their table. How dare we inconvenience their worldview by mentioning our own? How dare we insinuate that we — much less they — might be part of a systemic problem that’s so large and historic that we’re all incapable of even realizing we’re in it?

This isn’t why they invited us over to celebrate the pilgrims.

Besides, it’ll all blow over eventually. It always does.

And even if you have a point, well… what can you do, right?

Better to just compliment the stuffing and say a prayer and hope that someone else figures out a way to solve the world’s problems. After all, who are we to presume we could change the world?

And we have so much to do already.

And Christmas is coming.

And it’s so cold.

Why I Quit My Day Job


I decided to change my life again.

Once, back in 2005, I quit my job in order to freelance full-time. I learned a lot during the next seven years — including a lot about what not to do as a freelancer — and then in 2012 I decided that the security of a steady paycheck was worth giving up the feast-or-famine gamble of seeking out freelance work (and hunting down freelance paychecks).

For two and a half years, that was mostly true. But lately I’ve felt the opposite.

Granted, my day job wasn’t bad.

I learned a lot, I met some great people, and I contributed to the company’s success… but I also felt like the pace of a salaried office job may not be the best match for how I think and work.

So, on November 1st, I left the 9-to-5 scene to return to the world of freelance.


Mostly, it comes down to time, desire, and fulfillment.

On a professional level, I get motivated when I see that I’m having a visible impact for a client. And while I know I was having an impact at my day job, I also came to realize that a large company is naturally going to evolve more slowly than I’d become accustomed to as a freelancer. When the turnaround time from “we need this” to “this is complete; what’s next?” is weeks or months instead of years, that’s a pace I can embrace.

On a personal level, my motives are a little more complex.

As wonderful as a regular paycheck is, I feel more productive when my work fits my schedule, rather than trying to be productive on cue within the constraints of a 40-hour week. If trading in my job security gives me the freedom to work on what I’m interested in at the times when it suits me, that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

My desires have also changed over the past 2+ years. I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with social media, and with digital marketing in particular, throughout my whole career. Lately, I’ve felt like redirecting my efforts and pursuing a different kind of career. (As such, you may notice that all of my old blog posts have been hidden. Some of them may return, but my overall focus is starting to shift, so the purpose of my site may change as well.)

And perhaps the most arbitrary, indefensible, and selfish reason of all for me leaving my day job is this:

Since I started working 9-to-5 again, I haven’t created anything.

Yes, I was “creative” at work, within the constraints of a corporate marketing role. But I wasn’t personally creative at all in that time. No matter how inspired I would be to create something of my own after work, by the time I came home every day I was physically, mentally, and emotionally spent — even on the “easy” days, when I had no deadlines and no conflicts. So much of my time and energy was allocated to building something for others that I had no resources left for myself.

You might think a creative rut is a small price to pay for the safety of a salary and benefits. I thought that too, for the first year.

And maybe the second.

But by the third year, I was getting worried.

Would I ever create anything again?

Had I lost it?

Even worse: I was starting to be okay with the idea of not creating anything again.

“Maybe being creative was something I did when I was young,” I thought.

And the day I thought that, I realized I had to make a decision:

Safety, or singularity?

If I only get one life, is this how I want to spend it?

What would I regret more: never making anything again, or…

No, that’s the thing. That’s what I’d regret more than anything else I can think of.

I’d regret playing it safe.

As someone who considers himself more of a maker than a marketer, I made up my mind that the only way I was going to make the life I want for myself is to make bolder decisions.

So I jumped.

Now let’s see where it leads.

10 Tips for Funding a Successful Kickstarter Project

UPDATE: Due to the high volume of traffic that this post always receives, I’ve launched a new blog called CrowdFunding Help, which provides tips, news, interviews and how-tos for Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and more. Check it out!

Last month, I created a Kickstarter project to help raise the initial funding for my new creative project, The Baristas, a web sitcom that’s a spin-off from my previous show, Something to Be Desired.  On Saturday, Sept 18, I was happy, proud, humbled and relieved to announce that we’d reached our funding goal of $3000 with four days to go before our project ended.

In fact, we wound up receiving $3660 in total donations, or 122% of our goal.

Here’s how we did it.

First, Some General Observations

These tips are based on my own experience and are specific to my project.  Feel free to adapt them to the parameters of your own vision.

My project was web video based.  If you’d like to use Kickstarter to crowdfund a book, album, stage play or other creative endeavor, not all of the following tips may apply.  (But, actually, they probably will.)

And, obviously, this is my first Kickstarter experience.  Others have used the service repeatedly and may have a better understanding of which tactics are more broadly useful.

That said, here are…

10 Tips for Successfully Funding a Kickstarter Project

1. Give your core audience something to get excited about.

In our case, we had the built-in advantage of a pre-established audience.  Something to Be Desired has been online since 2003, and while not everyone knows about it, two very important groups of people do: the show’s longtime fans, and the social media community in Pittsburgh (where the show was filmed).

Thus, we knew the fans of STBD would be excited that the show was being spun off, and we counted on that initial attention to boost our project out the door in its first days.  (More on that later.)

However, if your project is a brand new concept with no pre-existing audience or demand, ask yourself: Who is the core audience for this project?  If you’re making a zombie movie, find a way to appeal to horror enthusiasts.  If you’re writing a bilingual children’s book, what aspects of your project would get parents and educators from both cultures talking?

Find a way to excite the people who should care about your project, and you’ll have to rely a lot less on the kindness of complete strangers.

2. Give complete strangers a reason to care, too.

STBD’s core audience isn’t large (or lucrative) enough to fund a new show completely out of its own collective pocket.  Therefore, we knew we’d need to find a way to give people who’d never heard of STBD, and who couldn’t care less about an arbitrary web comedy, a reason to still want the project to succeed.

So we made them producers.

Anyone who backed The Baristas on Kickstarter for $25 would receive a single vote in casting for one role on the show — that of “the newest barista,” whose first day on the job will be the crux of the show’s first episode.  For $50, backers received two votes, and so on, up to 20 votes for $500 (which was the highest single amount any one person pledged to the show).

Pretty cool, right?

Admittedly, we might have received even more interest (and funding) if we’d set the cost of a casting vote at $5 instead of $25.  But I didn’t want people who’d never watch the show otherwise to pay $5 simply for the privilege of voting, which might result in a bizarre or problematic casting result.  So I settled on $25, which seemed like just enough of a financial commitment that a donor would be likely to take the voting experience — and, thus, the eventual quality of the show — seriously.

3. Offer an amazing perk at $5 or $10.

I did not do this and, in hindsight, I believe it was my biggest mistake.

Sure, at $25 a backer had a vote in the eventual look and feel of the show through casting.  That made sense.  But what about the people with only a passing interest in the show, or for whom $25 seems like a steep investment?  We offered obligatory promotional swag (postcards, buttons, pens), but nothing that a casual supporter could really sink her teeth into.

In retrospect, if I’d offered something more substantial at $5 or $10 — like access to filming outtakes, or a “making-of” e-book — I believe we’d have met our goal earlier and potentially exceeded our (still very gracious) final sum.

4.  Strategically stagger your swag levels.

Yes, for $25, backers earned a casting vote.  But for $35 — a mere $10 bump — they also got a t-shirt.  So why not upgrade?

That was a conscious choice on my part, because I (correctly) suspected t-shirts would be one of our most desirable tangible perks.  And judging by the number of backers who initially pledged $25 but later changed it to $35 — or $50, which got them a t-shirt and a DVD of the show’s first 13 episodes — it was the right approach for our project.  (In fact, the $35 pledge level was our most-often selected.)

5. Promote your backers on Twitter (and anywhere else that’s appropriate).

I knew the majority of our backers personally, which means I also know their Twitter handles.  (And if I didn’t, I was usually able to divine them by Googling.)

For me, thanking our backers publicly served two purposes: it conveyed an immediate appreciation of their faith in my project, and it was a public signal to others on Twitter that my project was being considered worthy of investment.  Those thank-you tweets always included a link back to the project itself, so anyone who was curious (or who retweeted me) could drive more attention to the project.

This is important because…

6. The middle of your project’s timeline is a promotional dead zone.

When your project is new, it has the benefit of being new, and people like talking about new ideas.

When your project is ending, it has the benefit of good faith and momentum.  People want you to succeed, and if you’re within striking distance of your goal, they will find creative ways to spread the word (or dredge up some loose change) on your behalf.  Everybody wants to be part of a project that succeeds.

But between kickoff and wrap-up, your project has no inherent hook.  It’s a lonely ship, bobbing in the ocean between reasons to care.  Finding any reason to get a new audience interested in your project during this stretch is critical to its success, because the people who already know about it are already tired of hearing you endlessly self-promote it.

7. Stagger your outreach & promotions.

Fortunately, your idea is always new to someone.  The trick is to continually find new excuses to bring it to people’s attention.

In our case, I circulated the idea among its core audience (STBD fans and Pittsburgh social media creators) first.  Then, I directly brought the project to the attention of various individuals who might be interested, like my Facebook and LinkedIn colleagues, fellow web video pros, Pittsburgh-based journalists, etc.  I staggered this outreach over the course of the project’s 33 day timeframe, so as to not light all my fires at the beginning of the project and then run out of fuel after the first few days.

8. Offer regular meaty updates, especially near the project’s end.

Kickstarter allows project organizers to post updates that can be seen by anyone, or just by a project’s backers.  I chose to use the updates as a way of pointing out cool or intriguing aspects of the show’s creative genesis while also reminding readers that funding was still ongoing.  That way, if an update seemed interesting to a backer or a casual visitor, it could be shared with others, and the suggestion to support the show would automatically be included.

Our updates included a post-audition preview of three actors who’ll be joining the cast, a public debate over our possible logos, and a chance to immerse yourself in the show’s story by following the characters on Twitter.  In addition to reminding our backers that the project was moving forward, it also provided a glimpse of our creative process and detailed the choices we were making in bringing our ideas to fruition.

9. In the end, plan as much promotion across as many channels as possible.

Our project ran 33 days, and ended on a Wednesday.  The weekend before the end date was the weekend of PodCamp Pittsburgh 5, an annual social media “un-conference” which I co-founded in 2006 and where I expected to have several opportunities to discuss the project (if appropriate and / or necessary).

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had also planned a story on The Baristas, and they printed it the Sunday during PodCamp, just three days before the project’s deadline.  I had initially believed that article would give us the necessary promotional push to achieve our $3000 goal, but I’ll never know if that would have been the case or not.

That’s because my friends, supporters and attendees at PodCamp had pushed us past $3000 by 4 PM the day before.  However, our largest individual donor did see the Sunday article and was inspired to pledge an additional (and greatly appreciated) $500, even though we’d already made our goal.

Which brings me to my final point:

10. Give people a reason to back your project even after you reach your goal.

My biggest concern about the project, other than the possibility that we might not reach our $3000 goal, was that we’d somehow reach our $3000 goal so early in the project’s timeline that no one else would feel compelled to donate.  In that case, we would have had an embarrassment of riches, but we also would have had days or weeks in which the project sat idly and failed to generate additional momentum.

Thus, my idea to reward backers with casting votes at the $25 level.  That way, even if we raised our $3000 goal by day two of the project, there would still have been a meaningful, one-of-a-kind opportunity to support the series and have a say in its final chemistry.

And, for only $10 more, there’s this t-shirt…

After the Rain: Bonus Advice on What to Do Immediately After You’re Funded

Once you’ve safely met your Kickstarter goal, you might start celebrating, rejoicing or simply pass out from emotional exhaustion.  But when you come to, be sure to:

  • Announce your success
  • Thank your backers
  • Mail out any swag-related perks you have on-hand
  • Inform backers when they can expect to receive your other, not-yet-created swag (DVDs, etc.)
  • Update your project website (like we did)
  • Update your Kickstarter project description with off-site URLs, because your project will still be discovered by web surfers long after funding has ended, and they should be able to find the project’s current home

If you’ve successfully shepherded a Kickstarter project to fruition and you have tips that I haven’t listed above, feel free to add them to the comments below.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a web sitcom to launch… in 2011.

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Tips for Running a Profitable Coffee Shop

NOTE: This is a sequel to my post 10 Tips for Running a Successful Coffee Shop.

ALSO: To learn how NOT to run a cafe, watch my web series, The Baristas.

Last year, I blogged my own 2 cents about How to Run a Successful Coffee Shop, based on my experiences as a regular patron thereof.  (As a freelancer, I spend most days working via laptop at one of many local cafes.)

That post continues to drive traffic to my blog even today — presumably from aspiring coffee shop owners who are trying to boost business and increase sales.  Realizing this, I thought I’d follow up by getting some extra advice from people who actually run cafes for a living.

Thanks to some folks on Twitter (who suggested their own favorite cafes), plus the advice of the owners and baristas at several cafes I personally frequent, here are some business tips from actual cafe owners.  (Note: Each respondent was asked the same 3 questions, for the sake of simplicity.)

What do you wish someone had told you before you opened your current cafe?

“Have more cash in the beginning.  It takes time to build your customer base.”
— Bob Fish, CEO and co-founder of BIGGBY Coffee / @biggbybob / Biggby on Facebook

“I knew this, but thought I could ‘beat’ it: don’t get in bed with your contractor.  Or, like I did, let my lover lead the project.  What a disaster.”
— Bee, owner of Beezy’s Cafe (Ypsilanti, MI) / Beezy’s on Facebook

“We wish we’d known that to succeed in providing top quality coffee, we would need to locate in an area with an open mind towards food in general (e.g. The Strip District).  In our location, we need to serve the stupid drinks and have a lot of options for kids.  We spend a ton on training in coffee, but all that knowledge is useful to maybe only 10-15% of our customers.  The other 85% want dessert drinks.”
— Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo Coffee (Pittsburgh, PA) / @aldocoffee / Aldo on Facebook

“We have gotten to the point where we have more structure within the cafe by implementing policies and making sure everyone adheres to them.  However, I wish someone had told us that is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for smooth transition during growth.”
— Sunni Gilliam, owner of Teavolve (Baltimore, MD) / @teavolve / Teavolve on Facebook

“I wish someone had warned me that the business would consume my life because I care about it so much.  I need to remember to make more time for family / friends.”
— Jessica Obst, owner, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“In a small, independent coffee shop, the regulars feel a sense of ownership — maybe more so than the staff.  It’s important to respect that this place was ‘theirs’ before you got there and it will still be theirs when you leave.”
— Ashlene, barista, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“I wish someone had encouraged me to make sure absolutely everything was organized before I got started. Shopping lists, a system to pay bills and record other expenses, where/how to file past reports, etc. Now that I’ve been half-assing it for the last 4 years, trying to tackle the problem of organization is extremely overwhelming.”
— Victoria Dilliott, owner of Affogato (Pittsburgh, PA) / @affogato / Affogato on Facebook

Marketing, service or quality: which do you feel is the key to a profitable cafe?

“You cannot separate these into “the key”; small business means that you will wear many hats.  In my old restaurant days we used to say I am the chief, cook, and bottle washer.  This is why many turn to a franchise (which typically has templated marketing and quality, so that you can work on execution of service).”
— Bob Fish, CEO and co-founder of BIGGBY Coffee / @biggbybob / Biggby on Facebook

“They’re not mutually exclusive by any means.  They have to work synergistically.   My staff giving great service is part of marketing, which is part of quality, which is all service.  The key for us is being able to define parts that matter most and really broadcasting it.”
— Bee, owner of Beezy’s Cafe (Ypsilanti, MI) / Beezy’s on Facebook

“Coffee is pretty much a three block business.  People won’t walk farther than that.  So you’re either part of that neighborhood scene or you’re a destination people will drive to because of something unique that has little to do with ambience. Usually it’s coffee, but could be pastries or food.  It’s not couches or wireless.

As far as marketing goes, word of mouth is still king. This is a business where you’re lucky to have an average sale as high as $4.00.  To buy a $250 ad means you’d need to sell $750-$1000 in goods for it to be worthwhile.  That’s 175-250 cups of coffee.  And that doesn’t happen from an ad. If we were to buy ads, they’d absolutely be for catering.  That’s where the highest profit margins are.  And we’re the best at it in the city.

Other than some laptop warriors and a handful of certified coffee geeks, nobody really pays attention to Twitter or Facebook sites for coffeeshops.  Of the 1180 Twitter followers we have, maybe 25 are regular customers.  Half are from other coffeeshops around the world.”
— Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo Coffee (Pittsburgh, PA) / @aldocoffee / Aldo on Facebook

“Each element is essential to a profitable cafe.  However, if I must choose just one, it would be service.  The marketing will come through positive word of mouth.  This isn’t to say that the quality of the product can be poor, but it doesn’t have to be ‘mind blowing.’  With the economy right now, customers want to know that they are being appreciated for choosing your cafe to spend their time and especially their money.”
— Sunni Gilliam, co-owner of Teavolve (Baltimore, MD) / @teavolve / Teavolve on Facebook

“I don’t think I can separate quality product and excellent customer service.  My business depends on word of mouth and the cafe’s reputation in the neighborhood.  To maintain that reputation, I need to make sure I’m consistently making a quality product, and that the coffee shop staff are friendly to my customers.”
— Jessica Obst, owner, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“As a barista, I like to think that I deliver the kind of service that keeps people coming back to the store, and that I make a pretty good cappuccino; but I know that without Jessica’s awesome homemade treats we would not be so highly regarded.”
— Ashlene, barista, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“I think service is the most important, but seconded VERY closely by quality. Without a good product, people won’t come back, but the first impressions from customer service employees have an even more immediate effect.”
— Victoria Dilliott, owner of Affogato (Pittsburgh, PA) / @affogato / Affogato on Facebook

What’s one recent mistake you made that you’d like to help others avoid?

“A mistake that I think many café owners make is to try and follow or emulate the market leader.  I don’t think it is wise to try to chase them; rather it’s more important to develop your own identity.”
— Bob Fish, CEO and co-founder of BIGGBY Coffee / @biggbybob / Biggby on Facebook

“Keeping underperformers.  Just don’t do it.”
— Bee, owner of Beezy’s Cafe (Ypsilanti, MI) / Beezy’s on Facebook

“The biggest mistake we’ve made in the past year was taking on some staff who were solid employees (good cleaners, showed up on time, etc.) but lousy baristas.  We lost customers due to poor drink quality. And we lost them to a café up the street that totally sucks, but the perception is that we’re “the expensive guys”, so a bad drink here is unforgivable.”
— Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo Coffee (Pittsburgh, PA) / @aldocoffee / Aldo on Facebook

“Always have reserve funds for the ‘rainy days.’  When we had 2 major snowstorms this past season, it affected the entire service industry.  Many restaurants were forced to shut their doors or cut the staff.  We were not prepared to lose thousands of dollars in sales during Christmas weekend, nor were we prepared to lose thousands of dollars in food.  (We had several holiday parties booked and ordered accordingly.)  We were fortunate to be able to weather the storm; however, we still are not where we need to be financially. ”
— Sunni Gilliam, co-owner of Teavolve (Baltimore, MD) / @teavolve / Teavolve on Facebook

“I am there to meet the needs of the neighborhood and I need to take criticism without feeling hurt.  It’s hard not to take criticism personally when the business is my ‘baby,’ but I am trying to listen to all suggestions now with an open mind.”
— Jessica Obst, owner, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“Same as Jess: trying to not take things personally if someone doesn’t like the way I make something.  The beauty of working here instead of Starbucks is, there is no manual saying that every product is made the exact same way.  As long as we have the ingredients and I’m confident I can make it the way the customer wants, I’ll try my best to make it happen.”
— Ashlene, barista, Cafe Latte’da (Baltimore, MD) / @lattedafells / Latte’da on Facebook

“Do NOT keep employees on just because they’ve been there for a long time.  If there’s any lack of respect to the manager or establishment, it only fosters bad blood and shows itself in the quality of service, too.”
— Victoria Dilliott, owner of Affogato (Pittsburgh, PA) / @affogato / Affogato on Facebook

Agree?  Disagree?  Have another tip to share?  Leave your own stories in the comments.

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