It’s scary to fail. Little and big failures, short and long failures, public and private. Failing on any level is scary, and when you’re leading a group of people, failing hurts even more.
I’m also encouraging a culture of curiosity, of taking (calculated) risks, of daring to be great and pursuing excellence in all things. And with great risk comes great reward, and also great failure. Furthermore, if I want Summit and its people to live without fear of failure, I need to exemplify how to receive it. How to embrace the sadness, self doubt, discouragement, and general shittiness of failing. I had an employee just last week tell me that the staff needed to hear, louder and more often, how their boss has failed. So here we go.
Hello, I am the owner and CEO of Summit Coffee, and I have failed. Early and often and epically. Here’s one story of how I’ve made bad decisions, gone against instinct, chosen the path clearly marked “WRONG WAY,” and yet swept up the mess and moved onto the next day. This isn’t my only failure — far from it. But in a lot of ways, it’s my biggest.
We opened a cafe in Huntersville, North Carolina, in January 2018 and lost north of $60,000 in a three-month span that saw my optimism run dry in half that time. Since opening the Outpost, and the roastery, and our cafe in Asheville, Summit has been in a cycle of swinging for home run after home run. When I was presented the opportunity to open a Summit inside Huntersville’s HFFA, it made too much sense (red flag #1!). There was predictable traffic, no on-site competition, in a new market where our brand was both needed and vacant.
Meanwhile, I didn’t spend time being my own devils’ advocate, answering “why wouldn’t this work?” I didn’t assess if it was something we were excited about, overcome instead with the shiny bright object of new opportunity and being recruited. I didn’t have to convince myself it was going to be a successful, because I never considered the alternative.
Turns out, the idea was dead from before we ever brewed a cup of coffee. The buildout was 2x as expensive as we had budgeted (bad planning); the market assessment was wrong (probably because I didn’t do one!); the staffing model didn’t jive with how we run our business (say no to the single-barista model); and I never wanted to be there (red flag #2!).
The result was a company hemorrhaging money, a staff that didn’t like working for Summit and, ultimately, having to lay off an employee for the first time in our history. And as I fought through countless ideas, rebrands, and staffing changes to make Huntersville “work,” I had an important realization that changed the course of our company: we should lean into our biggest opportunities, not our biggest weaknesses.
So amid the biggest failure in my professional life, I found one piece of solace. While our Wells Fargo account looked anemic, and our day-to-day optimism followed suit, we learned a hard lesson: how to fail fast.
On a Monday, after meeting to developing a marketing plan for Huntersville during which I wanted to do 1,000 other things, I called my business partner, Andrew, and my wife, Tyler, and told them what we needed to do. By Wednesday, Andrew and I were loading a U-Haul and we were, for the first time, out of business.
It sucks to fail. For me, it means lots of self doubt, self criticism, self judgment. But I recognize that as I pout, and feel bad for myself, there are 60+ employees that still need Summit not to fail. It’s a tricky balance — how to appropriately learn from messing up while also not sitting in it too long. It also gave me perspective. If I can lose most of our money, and injure our brand, make some enemies and still emerge on the other side because I have a job to do and failure will be part of it, then I can lead people with that lesson as well.
It’s not whether you get kicked down that counts in business. It’s how quickly you stand up, kick back and move forward. Do it for yourself, and for the people surrounding you. Here’s to failure — not the pursuit of it, but the acceptance of it.