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.

Published by Robin Zander

Robin is the author of this blog. He is a dancer, producer, and entrepreneur, and passionate about learning and behavior change.

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