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Thinking About Starting a Side Business? Read This.

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Jul 25 2017

Last winter, while walking down a busy shop-lined street a block from our home in Oakland, my husband and I noticed a handwritten FOR LEASE sign posted in the window of a dirty dry cleaners. “This is such a great location, someone should put a coffee shop here!” we joked. But it was no joke—four months later, on April 20, 2016, we opened the doors to Snow White Coffee Bar.

As the person in charge of the overall employee experience for IDEO San Francisco, I should have known better. Neither my husband nor I have any experience running a coffee business. Had we known how hard it would be, we would have surely taken one look at the space and balked. Instead, we tore down walls, stood in line at the city building department, had our eyes opened wide, cried out in frustration, and in the process, learned a hell of a lot.

Thinking about starting a side business after hours? Here are 5 lessons we learned the hard way:

1. The laws won’t bend around your business

Turns out it’s staggeringly difficult to open a city-approved and permitted food establishment in a space where there hadn’t previously been one. The ADA laws (The Americans with Disabilities Act) are incredibly intricate. When IDEO opened a new office to house our growing business, I already understood the language the architect used to describe ADA issues we might face, and how bureaucratic and difficult the permit process might be.

2. Designing a great experience = problem solving

If you're starting a side biz, think hard about which learnings from your day job are transferable. Working in experience design, I already knew what it was like to be in a constant state of problem solving, failing quickly, and learning from it all. My relationship with the IDEO community and my commitment to giving them what they want—and to saying no when necessary—was paramount. I use my skills in thinking about space, how best to use it, and how to realize potential problems before they surface every day at Snow White.

3. Everything will go wrong

We installed an ice cream machine that failed almost immediately. (Who knew your ice cream machine won’t stay cold enough if your shop isn't air conditioned?) We’ve also dealt with the lack of a freezer or a proper ice machine, too little dry storage, and leaking sinks. When you're starting a new business, expect to be prototyping and problem solving around obstacles constantly.

4. Take breaks and rely on your community

We’ve learned when to say no and when to take a break. That has been essential to avoiding burnout. Expect to call in lots of favors and make sure you return those favors over time. We’ve made strong relationships with our community by asking them for favors when we need to, and giving back to them when we can.

5. Blind faith is your friend

Some lessons are less tactile, like how being fearless pays off in the end. It allows me to make quick changes without feeling paralyzed. We all let barriers get in the way. We come up with reasons why something won’t work. The blind faith we had when we decided to open the shop is in itself a lesson—and the most important one we learned. I've taken that lesson back to IDEO (and we certainly have better coffee in the office now too!).

A year later, the learning continues. We’re constantly trying new things to evolve our business. Stop by Snow White Coffee Bar for a latté some time and let our defiance inspire you to jump into something you think you can’t.

  • Kim Powers

    Director of Experience, IDEO San Francisco
    Kim Powers is the Director of Experience for IDEO in San Francisco, CA. She focuses on designing extraordinary physical, emotional and thoughtful experiences for every aspect of employee and guest interaction.
  • Devin Peek

    Senior Visual Designer, IDEO San Francisco
    Devin is a designer and visual storyteller who recharges by sleeping under the stars. She's fascinated by people and their stories. She is at her happiest with a camera in one hand and chopsticks in the other.
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