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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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