On Failure

On Failure
February 12, 2019 Summit Coffee
In Blog

By Brian.

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.


Comments (13)

  1. Abbey 6 months ago

    This is fantastically written, incredibly honest, and so very powerful. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Shiloh 6 months ago

    Hello Brian,

    I love this so much. I appreciate you being vulnerable and allowing yourself to accept the failure at face value and not sugar coat it. The business I work for, we just went through something very similar back in October. I sent your piece to my partner which I hope will be a bit of a balm to his spirit. Great news is we are recovering and are about to open 2 other locations in the next year if all goes well. The establishments you do have currently have such a beautiful culture to them and it allows my spirit to be at rest when I patron there. You’ll recover from this and you’ll be a better CEO from it all in the end. Cheers!

  3. Konrad Stierli 6 months ago

    Brian – thanks for sharing, I appreciate the vulnerability. My boss and I have been having conversations recently about trying creative ideas, but not being afraid to pull the plug if those things don’t work. Learn your lessons and move on.

  4. Donna 6 months ago

    We moved to Davidson going on three years now. Our home away from home is Summitt Coffee on Main Street. We literally buy something to drink everyday because the coffee is out of this world AND because we love your staff who by now, know us by name! Success is measured by passion, vision, down right persistence and perseverance…we applaud you and your honesty. We will continually support your incredible business as it brings so much joy and happiness to so many!

  5. kathy kenny 6 months ago

    What a terrific perspective on a painful, but really good lesson. Thank you Brian

  6. Jack Beasley 6 months ago

    Love this, Brian. Sensitive , courageous. Keep on keeping on!

  7. Krissy feigbery 6 months ago

    Great post. I think every business owner can relate.

  8. Mandy Barrett 6 months ago

    Fantastic post Brian. Powerful, painful and poignant.

  9. Harris A Haase 6 months ago

    Sorry to hear that…but great write up…hopefully it helps someone… as the saying goes in coffee … the first loss is always the cheapest

  10. J 6 months ago

    This is raw and honest and vulnerable – thank you! Is everything OK? Wasn’t clear to me from the ending if you and those 60 are still in the thick of things or it and if the rest of the story is still playing out… Sounds like this is very much real-time?

    • Author
      Summit Coffee 6 months ago

      Thanks! We are on the other side. We closed last April, and have had some space to tell a story

      • J 6 months ago

        Glad to hear you’re on the other side of it! This was a really lovely reflection. I especially love the ending – get back up, keep going, don’t beat yourself up, learn from it and move forward!

  11. Christopher 6 months ago

    I would love to have a summit in huntersville – but give me somewhere I can hang out have a great cup of coffee. The Davidson store is spot on. Sorry it don’t work out at hffa.

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