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Entrepreneurship Learning Podcast Responsive Robins Cafe Special Needs

How to Ask Better Questions with Daniel Stillman and Robin Zander

In this episode, my friend, Daniel Stillman, interviews me for his podcast, The Conversation Factory. We discuss how to ask better questions, the value of loving, non- judgmental questions, and my story.

I hope you enjoy today’s podcast as Daniel flips the script and interviews me on the art of asking questions.

Line Notes

1:15 How Robin describes himself

5:15 Responsive Org

Mentions:

Responsive.org

DonorsChoose.org

10:00 How do you define learning?

14:30 Asking loving questions

17:45 Practice versus performance intervals

22:30 Physical and emotional pain

Mentions:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini

24:30 Asking loving questions

29:00 Robin’s interest in asking questions

32:30 Anat Baniel

37:00 The Option Institute

40:45 Categories of questions

Mentions:

Larissa Conte at Responsive Conference

45:15 Robin’s Cafe

47:00 Find Robin:

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Entrepreneurship Podcast Responsive Robins Cafe

How To Tell Your Story – Robin Zander at HR Transform

This is a talk that I gave at the HR Transform conference in Las Vegas to the Heads of HR of some of the fastest growing tech companies you have definitely heard of. The context for my talk was storytelling. I pulled on my experience at Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference to help others tell their story.

In today’s world, it’s not enough to just have a great company culture – you have to share that story with the world.

The aspects that make your organization unique create incredibly compelling narrative. It has never been easier to get your ideas out – to your company, your customers, and the broader world.

Find the reason you do the work you do, and share that out with the world.

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Entrepreneurship Learning Podcast Robins Cafe

The Biggest Regret From Selling My Cafe (Isn’t What You Think)

A few weeks ago, I sold Robin’s Cafe.

I sold my cafe after spending almost 3 years building it up from nothing. When I began Robin’s Cafe, there was a parking lot across the street. Today, that parking lot is literally a park and a playground. I was able to grow the cafe because of a ton of factors: good timing, a great neighborhood, a lenient lease, and a whole ton of effort. When I left, the cafe employed 15 people on staff, up from 1 person on our first day of operations.

Every morning since I sold my business, I’ve woken up at 7am with a thrill because I don’t have to solve food service emergencies anymore! But a few days after selling Robin’s Cafe, I had an insight and my first tinge of regret about selling my business.

But I promise: the regret isn’t what you think. I don’t regret starting the business, and I certainly don’t regret selling it. The only thing I really wish I had done differently is document every step of the journey along the way.

When we started out, I did document. Here was my first video:

I sold my cafe after spending almost 3 years building it up from nothing. When I began Robin’s Cafe there was a parking lot across the street. Today, that parking lot is literally quite literally a park and playground. I was able to grow the cafe because of a ton of factors: good timing, a great neighborhood, a lenient lease, and a whole ton of effort. When I left, the cafe employed 15 people on staff, up from 1 person on our first day of operations.

Every morning since I sold my business, I’ve woken up at 7am with a thrill because I don’t have to solve food service emergencies anymore! But a few days after selling Robin’s Cafe, I had an insight and my first tinge of regret about selling my business.

But I promise: the regret isn’t what you think. I don’t regret starting the business, and I certainly don’t regret selling it. The only thing I really wish I had done differently is document every step of the journey along the way.

When we started out, I did document. Here was my first video:

And I documented pieces of the journey on Instagram, and I wrote a series of posts about the early days (see Parts III, and III). But I really wish I had hired a full-time videographer to capture every moment.

There were ridiculous moments, like when I learned the hard way that our espresso machine drain pipe was too narrow:

One afternoon, during our first month of business, I got a frantic call from my manager, saying that the espresso machine was backed up. I quickly realized that the situation wasn’t going to be easily resolved and would take several hours of sorting and deconstruction before we could adequately address the issue.

That evening, equipped with an air compressor that my friend and investor, Krista Schnell, had acquired, we proceeded to attempt to blow out the clogged pipe. The first two attempts failed, because we had failed to adequately secure the pipes we were attempting to clean, but the 3rd time we succeeded. 50 pounds of air pressure was more than sufficient to clean the ¼ inch diameter pipe of years of built up espresso grounds and spoilt milk. Unfortunately, I’d had my head down near the drain pipe, to report on the success of our cleaning endeavors. The resulting expulsion from the stuck pipe sprayed espresso and milk goop all over the wall 10 feet away, ceiling 15 feet above, and my entire head and torso.

That makes a for a good story about what it actually takes to run a cafe, and that’s the real stuff that people don’t talk about.

There were moments that are much more difficult to talk about, like when Frank didn’t show up for work, and I found out that he had died. When I published that story, it turned out that this is something other companies have had to deal with, and there are almost no resources about process grief or how to support a company grieving for a colleague. I wish I had a video detailing my experience to share with others a resource for them. (That’s one of the reasons we are creating content about grief at my new company, Motion.)

I wish I had footage of my nephew walking into Robin’s Cafe for the first time, looking in awe at my ice cream machine, and asking, in hushed tones, “Uncle Robin, do you own that Ice Cream Machine?!”

Most of all, I always wanted to have a digital representation of our physical bricks-and-mortar coffeeshop. I had hoped to create something online that customers could point to and be proud of in the same way they were proud of our store. Of course, I communicated with 5000+ customers via newsletter, spent countless hours talking with customers onsite, and developed meaningful personal relationship with vendors, staff, and neighbors. I even conducted a few podcast interview with vendors, like Andrew Barnett, founder of our coffee roaster Linea. But I never did create the digital equivalent of our physical store.

If I had it all to do over, I would have hired a full-time videographer onsite at Robin’s Cafe every single day to record and and create a short video every day about the building of our shop. This would have had a variety of benefits:

  • Captured endless hours of content which we would have turned into dozens or even hundreds of videos. Even if 90% of those videos were never viewed, some would have landed with our customers and a broader audience.
  • Parsed those videos into platform-specific content for LinkedIn, Instagram, and others. Some of that would even have made its way as strict audio onto my podcast The Robin Zander Show.
  • Learned advertising much earlier. Throughout much of 2018, I finally learned a bit about Facebook advertising and began advertising Robin’s Cafe to folks in the 94110 zip code. If I had been investing the money and time in creating videos, I would have also explored paid advertising much earlier.
  • Creating video would have been a forcing function for a variety of on-site efforts. I got better over time at having fliers on the doors and windows, teaching our staff to up-sell customers, and even promoting relevant podcasts to the 200+ customers who came through our doors each day. With fresh cafe videos daily, I would have done that much earlier, more often, and more effectively.

When I look at the potential upside of these efforts, I would have 2x or 3x our revenue in our first two years of business. Conservatively.

I’m not displeased with our numbers. As it was, we saw 50-80% growth every year. But the cafe could have performed better, and I would have even better stories to share.

I’m not making this mistake again. I’ve begun a new company, Motion, which provides online and in-person tools in those areas many people need a bit more support. We discuss the taboo topics: things like money, grief, mental health, and behavior change. And our first full-time employee is, in fact, a videographer!

Additionally, I’ve started documenting the journey of building Motion myself via my new Zander Vlog. (Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube Channel!)

I hope this story is useful to you! If it is, please let me know by liking this post and leaving a comment below! Thanks for reading.

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Entrepreneurship Learning Robins Cafe

Have You Always Wanted To Own a Cafe? (Hint: Don’t)

It has been almost 3 years since I began Robin’s Cafe, as a service to the attendees of the conference I was running onsite. I wanted coffee and sandwiches for our conference attendees, saw an opportunity to serve the neighborhood, and on 3 weeks notice, opened a cafe.

Now, 3 year later, I have learned a ton, and I’m ready to turn my attention to new adventures. I’ve left Robin’s Cafe in the very capable hands of my (former) team and the new owners. The new owners have owned a cafe previously and had been looking for just the right cafe to operate in San Francisco for several years. Even more, though, the team I left in place are the heartbeat of the organization, and they are excited for the continued tweaks and improvements to come.

Over the next few months, I hope to share some lessons learned from opening, building, and selling my cafe. (If you missed Part 1, you might want to begin there.) I hope you enjoy!

Silicon Valley celebrates “Exits”. We shouldn’t.

The number of times I’ve heard people bragging about their successful “exists” on the streets of San Francisco… If you aren’t familiar, an “exit” means selling your business or getting bought by another business. I was a bit skeptical, but like many in the Bay Area, I was also excited by the prospect of selling a company. It sounds like fun!

It isn’t. First of all, the number of hoops that have to be jumped through are outrageous. Legal, bureaucratic, logistic, financial, and – finally – people.

Really, though, we shouldn’t celebrate exits because it puts the focus in the wrong place – building unsustainable companies. Even though I’ve sold Robin’s Cafe at a profit, doing so is a mark that I am no longer the right person to run the business I started. For me, operating a cafe longterm is unrealistic and unsustainable. I am not a good long term fit for the role of “coffee shop owner”, in no small part because I consistently have other projects that keep me from solving the day-to-day minutiae that come up when running a restaurant.

Law is a Required Skill

When I opened Robin’s Cafe, I, my manager at the time, and the then-Executive Director of our landlord company, ODC, wrote and signed a 12 page lease that has served as our operating and guiding document ever since. It didn’t occur to any of us to have an attorney proof the lease, nor, as I found out 2 years later, did ODC’s Board of Directors approve the lease.

The terms of a lease will make or break your business. We have served more than 25,000 avocado toasts in 3 years, but that by itself isn’t enough. It isn’t sufficient to provide great service or be constantly busy. If the terms of a lease aren’t service-able, the business is going to fail.

I’ve signed a lot of documents in my life without reading the fine print. You probably have, too. I can’t keep track of the number of times Facebook or Gmail have changed their terms of service. But what am I going to do? Stop using my email? And it turns out the importance of a legally binding document, that will impact the livelihood of your business for years to come, is fundamentally important.

People Matter More Than Anything

I’ve seen over 50 employees come and go through Robin’s Cafe, and the cafe generally has about 15 people on staff at any time. Through this, I’ve discovered that the people behind the counter – the staff – are the heartbeat of an organization.

There’s the obvious stuff: you can’t serve customers without someone behind the counter to serve them. But more importantly, the culture of Robin’s Cafe has become a reflection of the culture of the staff.

Conway’s Law states that the shape of an organization dictates the shape of the products that company creates. In our case, though the cafe sells coffee and avocado toast, the real product was community. The community we had behind the counter is the real asset of Robin’s Cafe, and it is reflected in the quality of our patrons. Many companies say something like “We <3 our customers.” Walking into Robin’s Cafe, any day of the week, it is clear that they really do.

But when I say “People Matter More Than Anything”, I’m not just talking about customers. Yes, you can’t run a cafe without customers. But that’s just the gravy. Serving food and coffee is the job. Forming community for your customers? That’s the bonus, for when everything else is going well. And things only go well when the employees – those people doing the day-to-day work of the restaurant – are happy and satisfied themselves. There are lots of little ways to do this, but the single biggest, is spending time with each individual person within the organization, knowing them, knowing what matters for them, and following up – day after day.

Certainly, I’ve failed at this at times. There have been months at a time when I didn’t spend enough time with my staff. But that process, the regular, day-to-day attention, is what makes a cafe successful.

The Cost of Doing Business

There is a lot of talk about entrepreneurship right now. Unlike a decade ago, starting your own company is hip. There’s going to come a time in the next few years when that isn’t true, and we don’t put starting a business on a pedestal, but meanwhile…

Speaking as the “entrepreneur” behind several companies and with a successful “exit” under my belt, running a small business isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Though we celebrate entrepreneurship at the moment, we aren’t talking about what it actually takes to maintain a successful company. Especially where a “successful” company means one that has a profit, doesn’t take on outsized debt, and remains in business!

What they don’t tell you, and I wish I’d known in starting Robin’s Cafe, is the bureaucratic hoops that have to be jumped every step of the way. To successfully operate Robin’s Cafe, I had to get and maintain the following permits:

  • California State Limited Liability Company
  • DBA (Doing Business As) Registration
  • California State Seller’s Permit
  • San Francisco Business Permit
  • San Francisco Health Department Permit
  • San Francisco Alcoholic Beverage Control Permit
  • Outdoor Tables and Chairs Permitting
  • And several more…

The logistics necessary to manage all of that permitting isn’t what most people who dream about opening up a cafe want to do. But that’s the necessary work, just in order to be in the game!

Have You Always Wanted to Own a Cafe? Don’t!

To all of those people who have approached me over the last few years and said: “I’ve always dreamed of owning a cafe” – and there have been hundreds – my response is this:

Don’t! Or at least: Know Yourself.

Here are some questions that I wish someone had asked me before I opened up Robin’s Cafe. I would still have begun the coffeeshop, but I would perhaps have done so with eyes just a bit more wide open.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are you interested in sweeping up spilled coffee grounds? Everyday? Forever?
  • Are you excited for the challenge of dealing with a dozen or more vendors, on a daily basis, each with their own schedules, pay structure, and delivery errors?
  • Are you sure you want to work in an industry that has the highest turnover of any industry in the world?
  • Does solving customer’s problems excite you, truly?

If so, then by all means! But these aren’t things most people who want to run a cafe, are eager to do. And this is the job.

The folks I’ve met are excited by the idea of running a cafe want different things. They want the philosophical elements – the beautiful space, building a community, the moments of delight for a customer. These things are the upside of a successful cafe, but not the reason to run one.

I remember the first time I learned – the hard way – that our espresso machine drain pipe is too small. One afternoon I got a frantic call from my then-manager, saying that the espresso machine was backed up, resulting in a very difficult time serving lattes, cappuccinos, and other espresso drinks. I quickly realized that the situation wasn’t going to be easily resolved, and would take several hours of sorting and deconstruction before we could adequately address the issue.

That evening, equipped with an air compressor that my friend and investor, Krista, had acquired for the purpose, we proceeded to attempt to blow out the clogged pipe. The first two attempts failed, because we had failed to adequately secure the pipes we were attempting to clean, but the 3rd time we succeeded. 50 pounds of air pressure was more than sufficient to clean the ¼ inch diameter pipe of years of built up espresso grounds and spoilt milk. Unfortunately, I’d had my head down near the drain pipe, to report on the success of our cleaning endeavors. The resulting expulsion from the stuck pipe, sprayed espresso and milk goop all over the wall 10 feet away, ceiling 15 feet above, and my entire head and torso.

Closing

When I look back at Robin’s Cafe, and especially now that a month has gone by, I’m mostly just grateful. To the 50+ employees I’ve had the pleasure of working with, the 200+ customers we’ve served each day, for the recognition of just how much work is required, and for all that I have learned along the way.

Look out for more from me over the coming months!

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Entrepreneurship Podcast Robins Cafe

Lessons Learned Building (and Selling) Robin’s Cafe

I want to say a couple of words about today’s post and a new format I’m exploring for both The Robin Zander Show podcast and this blog. Over the last 3 years, I’ve conducted over 200 hours of interviews, many of which have ended up on the podcast. I love conducting interviews, and I have been honored to spend time with so many incredible thinkers. And now… it is time to try something different.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting regular podcast and blog posts – without a guest or an interview – but instead about my own experiences over the last few years and what I’m working on next.

I’m going to share some more about my journey, and answer some questions like “How do you open up a cafe?” and “How do you sell a small business?” I’ve grown Robin’s Cafe to 15 employees in less than 3 years. How did I go from earning $40,000 a year in 2015 to more than $40,000 a month in 2017?

There’s so much, personally and professionally, that I haven’t ever shared. So, welcome to a new version of the Robin Zander Show and this blog. I look forward to talking with you and sharing stories.

To start, this post is being published the same day that I’m selling Robin’s Cafe. So, before talking about the sale of my business, I thought I’d share a bit about the opening.

I opened Robin’s Cafe on 3 weeks notice. I’ve shared that before, but the few people who really understand what that means and what it takes to do so, are usually always restaurateurs – folks who have lived and worked in the restaurant industry. And for me, even though I lived it and know it happened, it still feels almost impossible.

And I think that is one of my most important takeaways from my life to date. You really never know until you try. Success and failure both feel so daunting – so impossible – that until we get there, we can’t know. For me, the fear of failure has become almost a drive, a North Star to guide my path, and I hope over time to share how I’ve done things people say are impossible to  inspire you towards the same.

Here’s a bit about the opening of Robin’s Cafe in blog post and video form. But there are still a few pieces of the story I’ve never shared.

Origin Story

Back in 2016, I was preparing to put on my conference, Design for Dance. Five weeks before the conference date, I went to the manager of the then-market that was onsite, Melange Market, to see about providing coffee and tea for my 175 guests. I was told that Melange Market would be closing, had sold to a new owner, and would not reopen until after my 2-day event. I sent an email to the then-Executive Director of the landlord company, ODC, just to double check. I heard nothing back, so I  put the question of Melange Market out of my mind.

Then, 20 days before the start of Design for Dance, I received an email from ODC’s Executive Director. Rather than answering my questions, he introduced me to someone, with a brief note saying: “Robin is a community member and is interested in Melange Market.”

Matt, who turned out to own several, locally-famous restaurants, responded minutes later suggesting we meet the following day.

When we met up onsite at Melange Market, he presented me with a list of assets – the entire list of equipment, food stuffs, and more – and said “Let me know what you’d like to buy. I’ll keep the rest.” I was dumbfounded. I had showed up just expecting conversation and maybe to look behind the counter. Matt was prepared to sell to me, almost on the spot.

Fear as a Motivator

Over the next three weeks, I had to learn everything about running a small cafe, write a lease with the landlord ODC, raise more than $40,000, hire employees, and actually learn how to serve customers. The list of To-Dos was daunting, but I learned a valuable lesson in that crazy 3 weeks. Everyday, getting up at 5am to learn to open the cafe and staying up (with wine) until 2am to write a lease, I asked myself the question: “Do I want to do this?”. Every time, my answer was “maybe?”. Digging a bit deeper – into each “why” and “why not” – I kept coming back to “I’m afraid.”.

Fear is an incredible motivator. We use fear to keep ourselves safe in times of crisis and also challenge the edges of our capabilities. One of my fears was that I would fail to run the cafe successfully and lose all $40,000 of my investors’ money. I had to come to terms with that very real possibility – yes, that was a fear. But was that fear alone enough to not attempt opening the cafe? I realized that over 2 years of working at a minimum wage in San Francisco (I took my worst case scenario to the extreme), I would be able to pay my investors back – even if I lost everything. Tim Ferriss calls this “Fear Setting”, and I’ve found it invaluable to imagine a worst case scenario, look squarely at the fear, and not decide that just because I’m afraid to avoid something I might otherwise want to do.

There was a lot of learn about running a cafe – in those 3 weeks and in the 3 years since then. But my biggest lesson learned has been about my own fear.

Over the last 6 months, I have been in the process of selling my small business – equipment, system, and all. Selling Robin’s Cafe as been a trial-by-fire in its own right, which I may talk about at some point in the future. In the Spring of 2018, I decided that it was, in fact, time to take my leave from Robin’s Cafe. I had built something that could flourish without my direct supervision and could continue to improve even more by an owner/operator who was onsite 40 hours/week. I’m thrilled with the new owners and excited for the continued improvements that will come to the business I founded.

Here are a couple of lessons learned from three years of running a small business in San Francisco:

Showing Up with Love

We are not taught the skills necessary to run a business in school, and boy, do I wish we were. These are actually the same skills necessary for parenting, for being a good friend and – as most of us do – I’ve had to learn these skills the hard way. I’ve written elsewhere about a peak moment, when my employee called his experience at Robin’s Cafe the best job he’s ever had. This is the mark of a successful business. One that is able to stay operating – meaning that it’s profitable – while providing the best possible place to work for its employees. Because when you have happy people working for a company, you have happy customers – folks who come back again and again. Sure, Robin’s Cafe has great avocado toast. But more importantly, we’ve provided great customer service in an environment where the humans coming into the business have a positive experience with the people working there. This principle is something that I will strive to take forward – in anything that I do.

Showing up lovingly, is really the answer. Knowing that my responsibility within my organization, is to up as role model, a mentor, a teacher, and also an authority figure. Someone who holds the people within the organization to the high standards and principles that they’ve agreed to, but someone who does so without anger. I’ve had to learn to set clear consequences. If an employee did not wash a plate at Robin’s Cafe, there were consequences. But not because I’m angry or personally affronted. Rather, because they’ve agreed to the job, and this falls within that responsibility. It has been a process learning to show up for my employees in this way.

In the first 6 months of Robin’s Cafe, an employee would mess up, and I would get furious! I quickly learned that when I was angry, employees quit. What worked much better, was leading with love. And when they did mess up, asking a loving question: “How come you didn’t wash the plate, given that you’ve agreed to do so?”, “Can I do anything to support you?”, “How can we, together, do this better?”. And then, eventually, if the behavior doesn’t change, being able to comfortably let them go.

Money & Robin’s Cafe

Another big learning from Robin’s Cafe was about money. When I began the cafe, the most I had personally ever earned in a single year was about $50,000. My very first month in operation of running Robin’s Cafe, the cafe earned $20,000 and have earned as much as $50,000/month over the last three years. Of course, what goes unsaid is that monthly earning is gross – which means before expenses. Out of that $50,000 comes the costs of bread, avocados, coffee beans, payroll, and everything else required to run the business. But even so, seeing $20,000 and then eventually even $50,000 flow through the cafe bank account each month, has expanded my view and facility around money. Money isn’t something I was ever taught. If only I had been taught how to balance a checkbook in middle school, or learned about “good debt” versus “bad debt” in college! The practice of learning to balance the books, process payroll, and even just see money come into the business and leave the business – all the while knowing that I’m personally responsible – has been life changing. My advice, to my younger self or to you, would be to start practicing!

Win-Win-Win Business

The next topic I want to discuss, is of creating win-win-win businesses. Robin’s Cafe has succeeded over the last several years because it has served the needs of many different groups of people. When we opened, 3173 17th Street in San Francisco, was a cold, dark corner. There was nobody working and nobody eating there. I was offered an opportunity to serve ODC – the dance company that owns our building – and the students of ODC. There are the technology companies that rent space on our street and also a variety of industrial businesses that have existed in our area for more than the 10 years I lived in the area. Clearly, we had the opportunity to serve a diverse group of customers! But there was also serving the needs of Robin’s Cafe staff. How could I build the business so that employees could have a great place to work.Of course they needed to get paid, but more personally, what could I do to make Robin’s Cafe a great place to work? And how could the cafe also serve my investors – the people who had trusted me and invested their money into my idea? Though many of them supported me out of love, it was important that they see a return on their investment. I also had to get paid. And finally, the business, in order to survive, had to earn a profit.

I’ve come to see that the more different groups can win as a result of a business operating, the more likely it is to succeed. Why are Facebook and Amazon worth billions of dollars? Like them or not, it is because they serve the needs of billions of individual humans.

This next few months will be a very interesting period. Over the last 3 years, I have been the go-to when something goes wrong at Robin’s Cafe, 7 days a week. It is important to feel needed like that, and it has become something I’ve come to rely on. And now, it will come to an end. I’ll be sharing that journey in future episodes, and I hope you’ll join in. In the meantime, thanks for following along on this adventure!


Wait, Wait! One Small Request

If you’ve read my blog or listened to the podcast over the years, what would you like more of? I’m in the midst of a major change, and I’m excited to share more that is useful to you! Leave a comment below, and let me know!

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Entrepreneurship Podcast Robins Cafe

Andrew Barnett on Coffee, Culture and Founding Linea Caffe

My guest Andrew Barnett (@andrewbbarnett) is the founder of Linea Caffe, a coffee roastery and wholesale company, which was one of the first vendors we began working with at Robin’s Cafe in 2016.

In this interview, we discuss how Andrew first introduced himself to me in those early days of the cafe, the humanness that he brings to his work, and his deep knowledge of coffee.

We discuss how the coffee industry has changed over the last 20 years, what it takes to create a thriving business, and why Andrew loves food service. He shares how he thinks about his company and what he does to build an inclusive culture at Linea Caffe.

If you’re interested in a unique perspective on building successful businesses and cultures, I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

 

Show Notes

2:15 How Andrew and Robin met
5:15 Andrew’s interest in coffee and human service
8:30 The antithesis of Starbucks
11:30 Roasting coffee
13:45 Cup of Excellence program
17:30 The “Ah Ha” moment
20:00 Linea quality
24:45 Selling Echo Cafe to Intelligentsia
26:15 Third wave movement
28:15 Moving back to San Francisco and starting Linea
31:15 Andrew’s approach to people
35:00 Linea’s retail and roasting locations
37:30 What made this work for Andrew
40:45 Future of coffee
43:45 Find out more: Linea Website 

If you enjoyed this episode of the Robin Zander Show, you might also enjoy listening to my conversation with Steve Hopkins (@stevehopkins) on coffee, culture and the Future of Work.

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Entrepreneurship Learning Podcast Robins Cafe

Adam Pisoni and Robin Zander – Live at Robin’s Cafe

This episode was recorded in front of a live audience at Robin’s Cafe with Adam Pisoni, co-founder and former CTO at Yammer, co-founder of the Responsive Org movement, and founder and CEO at Abl Schools.

If you missed it, I recommend starting with our first podcast episode back in 2016!

In conversation from stage and then Q&A with the audience, we discussed founding Yammer, the Responsive Org movement, and his efforts at Abl Schools to revitalize the U.S.education system. Exciting possibilities emerge when we reconsider that even behemoth institutions like the U.S. education system can become Responsive!

Adam has implemented a variety of future of work principles at Abl Schools. He has been very open about the challenges of building a diverse founding team at Abl Schools.

While there is a lot of conversation about fostering an inclusive company culture, very few Silicon Valley companies have an equal gender split between male and female employees, and even fewer have women or underrepresented groups at the highest levels of leadership.

We will explore the challenges and lessons learned at Abl Schools, and tactics any founder can apply in the effort to build a Responsive organization.

Show Notes

4:00 Intentions
7:00 Yammer and Conway’s Law
10:00 Starting Responsive Org
11:45 Theory of Responsive
13:30 Challenges of these changes
16:00 Iterate in the shape of your organization
18:00 Adam mentions:

19:15 Adams transition to education
21:30 Mindsets
24:30 Dropping out of high school
26:30 Education limitations
30:00 Diverse founding teams – podcast and article
36:15 Social emotional skills
40:00 Responsive Org tensions
46:45 Balancing success and time with experimentation
51:30 Egos and fear of failure
53:30 Integrative decision making
57:30 Value of experience
1:01:00 Diversity
1:04:45 Abl’s work in public schools
1:07:30 Measuring impact
1:10:00 Playing with boundaries of leadership and structure
1:15:00 Hiring that focuses on diversity
1:20:00 Purpose of diversity
1:24:30 VC’s reporting on diversity of companies they fund
1:26:15 Robin’s Book: Responsive: What It Takes to Create A Thriving Organization

Don’t forget to give a listen to my first podcast with Adam Pisoni, as well.

If you have enjoyed The Robin Zander Show – which just passed 50 episodes! – or benefited from any of the work I’ve done over the last several years, take a look at my new book Responsive: What It Takes To Create A Thriving Organization.

It is out on Amazon. I’m extremely proud of this book, and it’d mean the world to me if you’d check it out!

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Entrepreneurship Robins Cafe

Spoiled Yogurt and Small Business Fortitude – A Robin’s Cafe Story

It was 8:00 a.m. and I had just received another urgent call. We had just sold yogurt & granola to a handful of customers, and only then did the barista preparing those breakfasts realize that all of our yogurt had spoiled.

I had been quietly drinking tea, and working my way through the morning’s email, but this urgent text threw me into action. Without bothering to shave or finish my tea, I drove to the cafe. On arriving, I found the kitchen in disarray. My manager had spent much of the opening hour sorting spoiled food, and as a result, we were already running low of coffee and other essentials.

I ran to the nearest grocery store and got yogurt, and then jumped onto the line and began preparing orders. Several hours later, I looked up to realize that I had missed several scheduled appointments, including with the City of San Francisco about permitting for our outdoor tables and chair.

This was my first month as a small business owner. In part because we opened Robin’s Café  on 3 weeks notice, I had a lot to learn about running a cafe/restaurant in those early days.

The biggest problem with running a small business (which I’ll define, as does the federal government, as any business with under 500 employees), is that the founder/owner is assumed to do the work themselves. When I walk along Mission Street in San Francisco, and day after day find the same owner/operators at their small shops at 8am and 6pm every single day, I’m amazed. I don’t have that kind of fortitude!

For some reason, there’s the assumption in most white collar jobs that the individual will eventually grow beyond their current role, but this is not held true is small business ownership. Small business owners are assumed to work within their own company, and most do.

Over the months that followed that first experience I continued to struggle relinquishing control of day-to-day operations at Robin’s Café . Obviously, I want my cafe to be a success, and simultaneously am not willing to spend 12 hours/day behind the counter. What’s the solution? It comes down the mindset necessary to love and guide employees, with the ability also to let go – of control of the outcome, and – when need be – of specific employees.

The solution that week was relatively straightforward. My manager and I concluded, together, that he wasn’t best suited for the role. Sorting spoiled goods wasn’t the reason he had signed up to help me build Robin’s Café in the first place, and we amiably parted ways.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve also grown more comfortable not treating every unknown as a crisis. If there is someone else who may be able to handle a situation – like that of our spoiled yogurt – I don’t. And I haven’t missed meetings with the City of San Francisco since.

The challenges inherent in running a small business remain. Small businesses, while a hot commodity for large companies that want to sell to us (I get regular sales calls from Yelp, Square, and many others), aren’t taken as seriously as technology companies that are trying to “scale.”

But for me, there’s nothing more meaningful that being able to brighten a customer’s day with a kind word, or help a member of my staff improve develop themselves. Robin’s Café continues to be – day to day – a more thorough learning experience than any company I’ve ever built. And we’re just getting started.

Robin’s Café is located at 3153 17th Street in San Francisco. Come by and say hello!
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Entrepreneurship Robins Cafe

No Call, No Show: Robin’s Cafe Memorial

If you’ve been reading the series about Robin’s Café, you know that the cafe got off to a rough start. It was chaotic and frantic and terrifying, but those feelings were put into perspective when we lost our early employee in a tragic accident. This post is in honor of Frank.

The first week of opening Robin’s Café was an unmitigated mess. Opening Rush, combined with enthusiastic Design for Dance attendees who all wanted to support the cafe, created a bonafide lunch rush on our first day with a full menu. In those early days we were a team of 4, and were often making up recipes on the spot to cover orders. The original employees and I often look back on those times after tough days and realize that no matter how terrible things get today, it will never be as chaotic and insane as those first days were.

I honestly don’t remember much of it, but going back and even looking at the numbers from those days is nuts. We desperately needed additional staff. Monday or Tuesday of our second week, with a hiring sign posted on the window and our usual morning rush waiting for their coffee, Frank dropped off his resume.

I didn’t even notice him at first, he quietly dropped off his resume and left while I was elbows deep in an exploding keg of cold brew. If he’d stuck around long enough, I would have hired him on the spot — we needed workers so badly. I later realized that it was just a mark of his professionalism and knowledge of the industry to realize that we were at a busy time, and not to linger. As soon as I mopped up the lake of cold brew, I gave Frank a call. I was struck by his playfulness and openness as well as his professional experience. He had been working in Lake Tahoe in real estate and catering, and recently moved back to the city, he was already a chef at a popular BBQ restaurants across town, he was just looking for a second gig so he could work mornings. I invited him into the cafe to meet in person.

Frank arrived at the same time as our weekly bread shipment and immediately started talking shop. He knew our supplier and their product well, he started talking about his favorite loaves and uses for our day-old bread. By the end of the meeting, I had discovered that he was also a B-boy, and a member of a troupe in town, and he had a working recipe for a version of bread pudding, an ideal use of our day old crusts.

As April turned into May, the cafe finally began to fall into a routine. After two weeks of practically living at the cafe, I finally felt able to take a day off, and let the cafe run without me. I made it halfway through my day of “relaxation” before I swung by and checked up on everything. Frank was working the counter, and as I confided some of my feelings that I had abandoned everyone, he simply laughed and said, “Oh, Robin! Your presence here is felt.” I asked what he meant and he said that he noticed when he came in that I had come by and made new chai, because it was on his list of things to do in the morning, he said that customers were asking and commenting as they came through and talked to each other. “You’re doing the best you can,” he said, “and people notice.” I left, excited to enjoy my day off.

On May 20th, Frank was scheduled to open the cafe. Around 9:30, I got a call that Frank hadn’t shown up. Was he sick? I had no message from him. I emailed and called him, but his phone kept going to voicemail and I got no response. On Friday I sent him an email titled, “Are you Still Alive?” We had all assumed that he was a no call, no show — a fairly common occurrence in service — and that Frank’s cut contact was probably due to job abandonment for whatever reason. Still, it didn’t seem like him, and I wanted to make sure he was okay. By Sunday, I was really worried, and turned to Facebook to see if I could find him, or find someone who knew him. I found his brother, and friended his with my question. I heard nothing for another week.

Frank’s brother called me out of the blue seven days later. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” I remember him saying, “My brother is dead. He was hit and killed by a train.” He went on: “I want you to know how happy he was to be working at the cafe.” I remember that Sunday vividly.

At the cafe, we remember Frank as someone who was always thrilled to be in contact with our guests. Checking in with him after his first week of work, Frank had said to me, “I’m great! I got to serve customers all day! Normally I don’t get to see them; everyone is so nice!” We were all touched by his delight in people, and his delight in our community. He taught me how to price out recipes, and had endless creative ideas about how we could use our leftovers to delicious advantage. One day a woman came up to me out of the blue, and exclaimed that she had never had such delightful service, and how glad she was that we were in the neighborhood. When I asked who had served her, she described Frank, primarily by his smile.

In how Frank showed up to work, in his professionalism and kindness, knowing him and losing him reminds us what we are working for at the cafe, and astounds us with the possibilities of a daily contribution. Last month, we brought back the bread pudding in his honor.

This article was originally published on Medium. It is the third installment in a series about opening of Robin’s Café, a cafe, gallery, and event space in the Mission, San Francisco and exploring what it means to create a Responsive company.

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Entrepreneurship Robins Cafe

How to Make a Holacracy* with Skim Milk

What does it mean to create a Responsive coffeeshop?

This is Part II in a series about Robin’s Café, a coffeeshop at 3153 17th Street, San Francisco. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Part I.

Espresso at 3am

Raul Torres (right) discussing community during our first #ResponsiveCoffee meet-up at Robin’s Café

I woke up in a cold sweat. Glancing at my clock it was 3am and I had been asleep for all of four hours. I tried to sift through the thoughts brought on by the nightmare, “What if the customers laugh at me?” “What if the health inspector comes in?” “What if I literally freeze with terror and can’t do anything for my customers 0r employees?” As someone who really doesn’t have nightmares, this was a foreign experience. Why had I turned down a $200/hour consulting gig to fill my spring with sleepless nights and stress dreams? I made myself a cup of Pu-erh, headed into the still-dark cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, opened the shop by myself for the first time, and waited. It was finally real, and I was totally terrified.

How we are building a Responsive coffeeshop

Building teams is a lifelong passion. That’s what I would have been doing at as a consultant, but in opening a cafe there was an incredible opportunity to be able to do so from the ground up.

I was first introduced to Responsive Org in 2015, and the principles dovetailed well with much of my own work and thinking. The Responsive Org manifesto — co-written by my friends Steve HopkinsAdam PisoniMike Arauz, and others — outlines different tensions that most organizations experience when making the transition from a self-interested industrial-style assemblage machine to an organization focused on the consistent gentle evolution of both its product and its people.

More Predictable <-> Less Predictable

Profit <-> Purpose
Hierarchies <-> Networks
Controlling <-> Empowering
Planning <-> Experimentation
Privacy <-> Transparency

Learn more at Responisve.org

All of these tensions are present at Robin’s Café, yet the balance between hierarchy and network stands out as an essential struggle. I know very few people who would rather be overlord to a team of underlings than work alongside a truly competent colleague. Certainly, I prefer collaboration. And besides, we are all ultimately responsible for our own behavior. In a hierarchical workplace, when a boss walks in and employees change their behavior, it is still the employees who choose to act differently. The real question is whether each of us does our work from a place of fear or the conscious desire to contribute.

Responding to the Team

Inspired by The Ready’s OS Canvas, I recently outlined which aspects of cafe operations are non-negotiable, and which I consider to be up for discussion. We have some clear policies (you are welcome to peruse our Employee Handbook) and some other core tenets that I believe in strongly like Community, Service, and Responsiveness. But I was surprised that there are only a few non-negotiable aspects to the business — things like taxes, health code, payroll, and safety. There are not many rules, and those that do exist are very specific and frequently required by law. I consider everything else about the running of my business up for negotiation. Pay, vendors, menu, target audience and even the contents of the Employee Handbook — all up for discussion.

Recently, by a majority vote, we changed our hours to stay open an additional 15 hours/week. That’s what the cafe staff felt was important, what would serve their desire for more hours, and what we all agreed would better serve our community and customers. The more we are able to make decisions like this, the more people feel empowered to work as a team, and work in a way the really works. We are all more invested in what we are doing, which in turn impacts how we show up for our customers. I hope to build a cohesive team that continues to thrive together for a long time. And whatever we built here, it is my hope that these people — my team — will develop confidence and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Day 4 of operations, April 30, 2016

Better Coffee?

Months ago, when I sat scared in the dark, I was questioning every move that I had made leading up to opening the cafe. Now that a season has gone by, we’re beginning to get the hang of a new way of working. We’re definitely not a perfect system, as countless mistakes have shown, but we’re not trying to be one. We are striving to become a Team of Teams, a system that is in the process of becoming more skilled at responding to our own mistakes and finding solutions that stick. I can see the difference that building a team has created, see customer’s reactions to the vibe, and hear stories about the difference it has made in the lives of my staff. I won’t be the judge of whether it actually improves the lattes, but to iterate on how we work, and watch simple decisions affect my team, our customers, and beyond? That is worth more than anything.

*We aren’t building a Holacracy (but here is more on the concept). By way of comparison, I’m very intrigued with the Team of Teams model. Founders of both of these models will be in attendance at the Responsive Conference.

This article was originally published on Medium. It is the second installment in a series about opening of Robin’s Café, a cafe, gallery, and event space in the Mission, San Francisco.

Visit the cafe at 17th and Shotwell in San Francisco or join our newsletter for weekly updates.

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Entrepreneurship Robins Cafe

Robin’s Cafe — An Origin Story

Logo thanks to SpatialK and Code Switch Labs

On April 27, 2016 I opened a cafe. And since opening Robin’s Café the most common question I receive is, “Have you always wanted to own a cafe?”

Honestly, it had never even occurred to me until 30 days before I signed the lease. For years now I’ve juggled a variety of gigs in very different industries. The closest I came to a “day job” was my work as first employee at the education tech. company Socos, and even then I was dancing ballet and performing with the San Francisco Opera. My other gigs have included a series of un-conferences, consulting on building more resilient teams, and directing the first annual Responsive Org conference.

Opening a cafe seems like a crazy decision given that I haven’t worked in food service since I bussed tables in 2004 — my first job upon moving to San Francisco. But by the end of this last April I was shocked to find myself the owner of a cafe in the Mission and the primary employer of 7 people. What’s more, I opened the cafe on 3 weeks notice.

David Leventhal presenting at Design for Dance 2016 #DanceTech

Impetuous as it may seem, the cafe was certainly no accident. I’ll be telling the unlikely story of Robin’s Café over the next several weeks, but for now, here’s how it all began:

In 2014, BJ Fogg invited me to speak at Design for Dance, a conference which BJ had founded to explore the benefits of human movement. I fell in love with the amazing collaborative spirit of the event, and offered to help however I could. Less than a year later I was offered the directorship, and then ownership of the Design for Dance conference. ODC, the largest modern dance company on the West Coast, presented at Design for Dance in 2015, and when I was looking for venue for the 2016 conference they offered their theater located in the Mission District, San Francisco. Equipped with a 175 seat theater, studios, and a conference room, I was also excited for the cafe on site which could easily provide coffee and lunch to my conference attendees.

On March 15, 2016, I sat down with the program manager at ODC to finalize details for the Design for Dance conference in April. These plans had been several months in the making, so we were just finalizing minor details, confirming the number of chairs we would need and so forth. With not a clue what was in store, I asked who to contact at the coffee shop to make sure that they would have enough coffee for my conference participants. The program manager looked at me and said, “Well, actually the coffee shop is closing, so you are out of luck with that.”

Serving cappuccino for the first time since I was first trained as a barista 15 years earlier.

I was completely floored. The cafe was one of the reasons I had originally booked Design for Dance to take place at ODC — to have my attendees get food and beverage throughout the event was an incredible perk. We spent a few minutes chatting about the cafe, but since it was independently run, I wasn’t able to get much more information.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the cafe’s closing that day. Yes, I was without a coffee for the conference, but I was also struck by what a lost opportunity it was. Who would abandon the chance to create a community hub in the center of San Francisco? More importantly, I thought, “Why would I pass up that chance?”

Obviously, there are a myriad of reasons not to open a cafe. For all the many reasons that 90% of small businesses fail. Minimum wage in San Francisco makes it hard for a small business to stay afloat, and even so those wages may not cover the increasing cost of rent in the Bay Area. With no prior experience, I’d have to learn a completely new industry with no time to prepare.

To afford the equipment being offered for sale by the old cafe, and the start-up costs associated with a new business, would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000. Not to mention that I’d also have to stop — or at least pause — most of my other projects, some of which were proving lucrative.

And all of this came just six weeks prior to the biggest conference I had organized to date!

The lively lobby of Robin’s Café during Design for Dance 2016

That afternoon, I emailed the executive director of ODC, asking about the cafe and its availability. The next day, I walked around the neighborhood to see what it was like and who was there. It was easy to see little ways to create something stable and unifying in a changing neighborhood. I ended the afternoon in the cafe talking to a longtime employee of the cafe. He stated — definitively — that the cafe was already being sold. I emailed and called my contact at ODC again to double-check this claim, with no response. Five days later, I had no new information, and moved on. There was no point in wasting energy on an impossible dream when there was already so much work to do.

Two weeks later, in the thick of preparations for the conference (now just 3 weeks away), I finally heard back from ODC by way of an email forwarding me on to the cafe’s then-owner Matt. I met with Matt the following next day, just to hear what was going on with the cafe’s new owners and was greeted by Matt and a full inventory list, with prices. The sale hadn’t gone through after all, and the cafe was mine if I wanted it (and could find a way to pay).

Our customer’s favorite food — the best-selling Avocado Toast

The next two weeks went by in a complete blur. I was working on the conference during the day, getting up at dawn to train as a barista (not to mention hiring staff and figuring out payroll and vendors in between), and then going home to refine a new lease with ODC at night. It would absolutely not have been possible without the somewhat baffled support of friends and family, the full co-operation of the former owner Matt and most especially the enthusiasm of ODC.

Somehow — bafflingly — I raised $40,000 in two weeks from family and friends for the down payment on the cafe equipment. This also meant opening bank accounts, getting a business license, health inspection, transferring a liquor license, and all of the other essentials that make a food business run. Matt generously agreed to a sales arrangement that enabled me to rent all of the equipment for the cafe for the first month, and then purchase outright the things that we really needed after the conference and re-opening were over.

Three days before Design for Dance — on April 26, 2016 — I signed a new lease with ODC to open Robin’s Café. April 27th was opening day.

The night before we opened, I woke up at 3 in the morning, unable to sleep. Eventually I got out of bed and went to the cafe. I got there around 4:00 am, set up, and cleaned until we opened for business at 8:00 am.

It was an insane experience. I was hosting speakers for the conference, people from out of town were borrowing my car, and I was running around in circles trying to be in several places at once. At one point, I actually conducted a driving staff interview, talking to an applicant in the passenger’s seat on the way to pick up supplies (He got the job when he magically talked the SFPD out of towing my car).

The day we opened, we served coffee, tea, and avocado toast and by our second day of operations we were serving a full menu to the neighborhood.

Opening a small cafe in the intersection of so many different aspects of Bay Area’s community has been — and continues to be — a powerful learning experience, full of generous and inspiring people, reflection, and unexpected growth. It’s an experience that has transported me, and left me feeling more fulfilled in my work than I ever have before, both within the cafe and beyond. I’ve had people at the startup next door come in to get coffee every day. And it’s incredible to think that they’ll remember getting coffee at their job five years later because the baristas and the experience we created for them were so great.

Opening the cafe has become an opportunity to create community in a whole new way. It is the opportunity to touch the lives of my employees and then the individual people they interact with on the ground each and every day. Being a part of someone’s daily routine is an chance to be a part of their daily habits, and to create an environment for those habits to grow. Having daily positive impact on employees and customers alike in a small, sweet, and humble way makes such a huge difference. Robin’s Café is an unexpected journey, but an incredibly empowering one.

This article was originally published on Medium. It is the first installment in a series about opening of Robin’s Café, a cafe, gallery, and event space in the Mission, San Francisco.

Visit the cafe at 17th and Shotwell in San Francisco or join our newsletter for weekly updates.