Work in the business or on the business

Wifi in coffee shops
February 15, 2011
Belfry: Golf yes, Coffee no
March 27, 2011

When starting your own coffee shop you have two choices: you either work in the business as an owner manager or you bring in a manager to run it for you. As an owner manager you could expect to draw a salary out of a reasonable coffee shop of £20,000 to £25,000 per year, but expect to work 60 plus hours per week for that.

One of the challenges of working as an owner manager of the business is you rarely get a chance to step back and work on the business, that is to say, work on strategy and future plans. You are stuck head down dealing with the day to day running of the business. Lots of owner managers fail at the point of opening a 2nd store because they are so key to the first store that shifting focus to a second causes the whole lot to fall down.

When Amir and I first started talking about starting Urban Coffee we knew that neither of us could financially afford to work for the business and so we built the business with this in mind. Everything had to run without us there on a day to day basis which meant hiring a manager for the first store that could do amazing things.

This didn’t call for an x manager of a high street coffee chain because to be honest they hire average people and are not looking for the same set of skills we were. They need someone that can follow the processes already laid out by their other 100+ stores, whereas we needed someone who could create those processes, someone who was an entrepreneur in the making – someone with the right attitude.

For us attitude and drive was going to be the key ingredient, not experience, which given that we had no clue about running a coffee shop was going to make the operational side of the business challenging in the early days. But this was exactly the right thing to do because you can train and build experience; you can’t train attitude. I think other people in the same boat would have gone for an x manager of a high street chain, because they think they can bring experience and all the processes of a larger company. The problem with this is you also get the high street chain culture and those processes they bring are not always the right ones. You can very easily end up being a high street clone with that approach, which is the quickest route to a defunct business.

We went about finding our manager about 2 months before we opened the first emporium by putting an advert on Gumtree (

From the advert and personal recommendations we shortlisted and telephone interviewed 5 or 6 people and from that shortlisted 3 people for a face to face interview. We held the interviews in the bar of Hotel Du Vin in Birmingham, which is directly opposite our first Emporium so we could point out the window at our new place to show the candidates.

The three candidates came from completely different backgrounds: one had managed her own independent shop, another had been a manager at a high street chain, and the last one had been a bar/restaurant manager. The ages ranged from 22 to 35 but all were female, in fact, if memory serves me correct all applicants were female (not sure what that tells us). I did the first face to face interviews myself and the second round of interviews both Amir and I did together.

I think as a rule you should never interview on your own and this is not for any legal, employment law or best practices reasons, but for a 2nd opinion. Amir and I were able to discuss the relative strengths of each candidate after each interview and more often than not we had come to the same conclusions about strengths and weaknesses of a candidate which just gave us that important sanity check.

After this process there was something that was clear there was one candidate that stood head and shoulders above the others. She had limited experience, no coffee experience, limited life experience BUT her attitude, enthusiasm and passion just radiated through everything she did and that was why we hired a 22 year old Politics graduate to run the Urban Coffee Company for us.

The first 2 years have proved we made the right choice. We have been able to grow Hannah with the business from managing a single emporium to managing managers who manage two emporiums and an on-line emporium. It’s not all been plain sailing and our collective lack of industry experience has meant we have learnt some lessons the hard way, but the right attitude has cut through those issues.

Hire for attitude.