Sunday, August 23, 2015

On Building Your Barn

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Maybe a month ago, I was talking with my dad about—what else?—small business, and we were sort-of going over how he got to where he is (he owns two small businesses), where I am in my journey, and where I want to go. My dad is very supportive of self-employment and small business, so he’s always eager to discuss anything related to those two topics. I must have been unconsciously justifying myself for not yet being where I want to go—I tend to be my own worst critic—when he shrugged and said:

“You’re building your barn.”

I didn’t know what this was in reference to, so I sort-of nodded blankly and then said, “What?”

And he said, “You’re building your barn. It’s the Amish principle. You can’t do anything else until you build your barn.”

I probably said something like, “Oh, right,” and then we carried on with our conversation. That comment stayed with me, though, so when I got home, I looked it up. I was expecting a book on the subject to pop right up, but no book did; I had to dig deeper, and in doing so I found an interesting article covering an actual Amish barn-raising and all it stood for.

It turns out, the Amish, apart from banning things like television and hairdryers (and electricity overall) from their living, have a rich culture in community. Whenever a family in an Amish village is in need of a barn—a necessity for a farmers’ lifestyle, and a big part of the Amish way of life—members of the community come together to help build the structure, without any expectation of pay. This ceremonial barn-raising is a project that anyone in the Amish community can request, and all able members are expected to help. This phenomenon is a byproduct of the Amish understanding that building a barn is not an undertaking that a burgeoning family could expect to take on alone, and also that before anything else can happen on a farm, a barn to protect animals and store grains and make possible the many functions of a farm must be built

To tie all that back around to business, “building a barn” is the equivalent of establishing a foundation, generating a client base, or developing a mastery of craft. It’s the thing that has to happen before productivity is possible. It’s the investment before the return.

And for me, I suppose I am sort-of building my barn. I’ve wavered between two goals for a long time—full-time writing, and owning a third-wave, gourmet coffee shop. Therefore I’ve read much and written much; I’ve worked in coffee shops that could expand my coffee knowledge and I’ve studied coffee on my own time. I’ve done research and I’ve found ways to gain experience in both areas.

This year in particular, I’ve been studying the business side to the avenues my life could take. In scouring many books on this broad topic, taking online courses, talking with business owners, and attending seminars, I’ve begun to see through the eyes of a business person, where before, I saw through the eyes of a person with passion—passion for written story, and passion for coffee. I’m beginning to understand consumer need, why product development requires thorough research and time, what effective marketing looks like, and, unexpectedly, why working for oneself could be not only more enjoyable than working for someone else, but easier to do than perhaps I ever thought.

This has been a necessary step in building my barn. Not only have I picked up useful skills, but I’ve also started to see the plausibility of my striking out on my own. I’ve assimilated some useful contacts. I’ve explored product ideas. My official business plan has begun to take shape. And above all, I’m gaining confidence that I can actually do it.

What a valuable asset it is to the Amish culture to have a community available to help build a barn. A single community can build an enormous, ready-functioning barn in a just one day—a project that can take contractors weeks to months to complete. And then once it’s there, a family can get started running their farm. They can be productive. They can sustain themselves. They can have an independent life!

One day—a day I eagerly await—I will step back and see that my barn is complete. I’ve had so many different goals along the way, and I’m still struggling to narrow them down, so I know it’s going to take awhile. But I’m seeing the marks of progress. I’m learning a lot. One day—maybe sooner than even I expect—I, too, will sustain myself on my skill sets, and live an independent life. That’s a goal I consider well worth the wait, and well worth the effort.

To learn more about Amish barn-raising, read this fascinating article. To see a barn built in a day (through a series of images taken at rapid intervals and pieced together), watch this video.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Where I Went Today: Palace Diner

After a friend shared an article on Facebook raving about the Palace Diner in Biddeford, Maine, I had to visit. 

My interest in this restaurant was that its rebirth in a town populated with empty historical buildings and vacated mills was intended, much like Sap House Meadery and Lil’s Cafe, to breathe life back into a once-booming business community. The young owners, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, looked at the obstacles, and went for the risk, anyway.

I only read the one article on the Palace Diner, which made two impressive proclamations—one, that the Palace Diner had been named by Bon Appetit magazine one of the 50 best new restaurants in America in 2014, and two, that on a regular day, patrons lined up outside, waiting for seats  to open up so that they could get a scrumptious Palace Diner breakfast. I’d only ever seen one other restaurant like this, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (also a breakfast place), and the line there had been so long when I showed up (I made a special trip on my host’s recommendation) that I hadn’t had time to wait. I made sure that when I planned this adventure, I would get to my destination shortly after 8:00, the opening hour of the Palace Diner seven days a week.

The Palace Diner has many fascinating attributes, not the least of which I discovered before I’d even parked my car—that the restaurant actually resides in a bright-red, Depression-era Pollard car. It is a diner in the truest sense of the word; located by old mills once flooded daily with a ready-made customer base, the structure itself—long and narrow, with seating enough for only a dozen guests at a time—was built two states away in Lowell, Massachusetts. This is characteristic of many of the true American diners of the first half of the 20th century. The domed diner was always intended to be small, efficient, and reasonably portable, in the event that the mills ever closed down (which, in the 1920s, was a real possibility). Most of its life, however, this diner has remained right here by the mills. A little research revealed its first home was only a mile up the road, before it settled at its current spot on Franklin Street in Biddeford.

Another few curious quirks? An old-timey “Ladies Invited” slogan is painted both across the side of the car and on the front of the menu. When I asked our server about this (I invited my good friend Deborah to join me for this trip), she informed me that there was once a time in our country’s history when it was not acceptable for a woman to go out without an escort. What a progressive little joint!

Also, the menu. At first glance, it’s no more exciting than the average diner menu—eggs, toast, sausage. Upon closer inspection, there are a few salutes to 1950s dietary habits (customers can order caramelized grapefruit to start their meal) and also to the modern foodie elite (challah French toast and Tandem coffee). My choice, the omelette du jour, came with “potatoes,” which I interpreted as morning fries. In fact, my plate came with a whole potato on it—one that looked like it had been struck swiftly with a rubber mallet and thrown into the fryer as a crushed mass. This gave it a pull-apart effect which was, I promise, much more appetizing than it sounds. It was golden and salty and delicious.

Our server could have given Mel a run for his money, but that only added to the complete diner experience. Throughout our meal we were shuffled to and fro to make space for larger groups, and sure enough, after about a half hour, folks were waiting for stools to open up, and no one seemed annoyed to have to wait. By the end of our scoot-dance breakfast, we had charmed our server over to our side—we chatted about her hometown, Philly, and the history and future of Palace—and we left with bellies that were full and grins on our faces.

I would definitely revisit this quaint little restaurant. I was tempted to order one of everything on my first trip—but the fact that I didn’t means I could return with three or four other friends on different occasions and experience something new every time. I might just do that! It’s definitely worth the drive.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Read Like Crazy: How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie was on my must-read list for ages. I knew it as a book that all people with ambition are supposed to read early in life. As a person of high ambition, I told myself time and time again I needed to get my hands on a copy. Part of me is sad I put it off as long as I did. Another part believes that this past month was the fated time for me to finally get around to reading it.

One of the profoundest realities of humanity is reiterated in every one of Carnegie’s principles—that the best things we can do for ourselves are usually the simplest; they often cost us nothing, though they seem to cost us much. To do them requires conscious effort, and in the moment many of these common-sense actions seem to fly in the face of our impulse. But what relief is found when we give them a try! Learning to smile genuinely; remembering people’s names, regardless of their status or education or direct relevance to our lives; biting our tongues in the face of argument. We hear these concepts purported by people of prominence, but do we make a point to apply them? 

The answer is my case was: Rarely. Many of the ideas outlined in this compilation were not foreign to me, and had in fact been used to my advantage at different phases in my life. Lately, however, I had developed the need to have the last word in any debate. I had heard myself interrupting people and yet not stopped myself… I had thought kind appreciations of the people around me but kept quiet, even when I had no restraint when it came to criticism. This book brought those ugly realities to the surface, and with story after true story, proved that the higher road would have yielded better results for me and everyone involved. If I wanted to be the “most progressive man,” as C. S. Lewis might have put it, I needed to turn off the path I was on and head back to the place where I lost sight of what was good and right.

I read this book because I thought it would be good for me as a woman who strives to work for herself, but I’ve come out of it better all around. It takes a great book to change me without my having to commit strategies and acronyms and pneumonic devices to memory. The first day I returned to my workweek after starting this book, I found myself tempted to use the principles I’d read thus far and discovered them acutely changing my most peevish relationships and work scenarios. The true test will be whether the habits I formed almost overnight are long-lasting.

What I liked about this book: This book is filled with real-life accounts of the outlined principles in action. As a writer, I appreciate stories. As a debater, I appreciate proof. This book, somewhere between an inspirational read and a self-help book, is both a page-turner and practical. 

Additionally, the book re-awoke in me the things I know to be the best path to success and reminded me why they matter.

What I didn’t like about this book: Occasionally, I feel that Carnegie makes insinuations about sects of people, particularly political and religious affiliations, and I believe he does this consciously. This practice is counterintuitive to Carnegie's preached self-awareness. On the flip side, the fact that it comes off as abrasive lends proof to some of his theories about causing dissension by making others feel wrong or foolish. He just might have wanted to take a page out of his own book. This said, 98% of the book is diplomatic and easy to read.

Would I buy this book: Yes. Consider this a glowing recommendation: How to Win Friends and Influence People started to change my life on the very first day. If you can’t afford it now, at least look for it at your local library.

Normally I would include a selection of “quotes for the fridge,” but this book is not particularly quotable, as most of the lessons are taught through stories. There are some proverbial truths, but most of them are not Carnegie’s; they’re from philosophers or ancient Chinese culture or religious and political leaders, used to enhance a greater point. But more of this book is memorable than 90% of other inspirational reads I’ve taken on combined. If you read it through—twice, as recommended by the author—you will carry it with you. I promise.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Success: A Matter of Focus

If I was asked to pick one photography tip that meant more to me than any other, it would be this: Pick one subject. I don’t even remember the first time I heard it, but when it clicked—when I stopped trying to cram too much in a frame and instead find the best way to portray a single person or thing—suddenly all my photos were keepers.

The same advice affected the way I started writing my best pieces. For years in school I knew I was the most proficient writer in all my classes technically, but for all that technical understanding, in the classes with teachers and professors I respected most I still tended to get B’s on my papers because my thesis or topic wasn’t clear.

“Clever observation,” I’d see written in the margin; “Love this!” I’d read next to brackets specifying a quippy paragraph. And then at the end I would get this: 

“Thesis statement?? Conclusion? This would have made for two excellent, separate papers…”

When I had a professor who found a way to make me understand the whole “kill your darlings” phenomenon—the true need to cut out all the gunk that clogged the flow of things—I started winning at writing competitions and actually getting published. All along I’d needed to pick one subject, and stick to it. I’d needed to narrow my focus.

Right now I am reading Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill.* The book’s claim is that over 500 successful people in the time of one Andrew Carnegie and then Napoleon Hill demonstrated application of the same 13 principles to obtain wealth. An interesting observation Hill makes is this one:

“Henry Ford is a success because he understands and applies the principles of success. One of these is desire: knowing what one wants.”

He later writes it this way:

“Every person who wins in any undertaking must be willing to burn his ships and cut all sources of retreat. Only by so doing can one be sure of maintaining that state of mind known as a burning desire to win, essential to success.”

Basically, Hill says that people who succeed fix their eyes on the prize, and then go after it with singular vision—with focus

When I look at the (financially) successful people of my generation, I see evidence for this theory. My friend Alex Vandermark, owner of Maine Squeeze and its sister chain, the Juicery, moved home to New England from college in Florida and was pained that there weren’t juice bars on every corner like there were in Florida beach towns. There was one—in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—but it was run down, in the red, and for sale. 

Alex looked at the place and thought, “I could make this place profitable.” His father was uneasy about the idea and warned him against taking out a personal loan to obtain it, but Alex could not be swayed. With a degree in marketing under his belt, he saw half a dozen ways just looking at the building from the outside to make the outfit more accessible to the people of Portsmouth—and that’s just what he did. Now he owns juice bars in multiple states, as well as a restaurant specializing in super-healthy soups.

Another example: Gus & Ruby Letterpress. A decade ago, when letterpress shops weren’t yet all the rage, the ladies who own this fine establishment likely heard from more than one friend the skepticism that wedding invitations made on a century-old letterpress would be profitable. Yet five years after renting a space on the single most tourist-traveled stretch of their historical city (not a cheap undertaking, especially for a risky start-up), the partners at the letterpress shop continue to thrive and grow and get extraordinary press. The women knew what they wanted, and they found a way to make it happen.

Sap House Meadery is another instance. First Scout Productions. TOMS shoes. For all the examples before me, I did not for a long time realize the positive power of focus. Actually, I did, but I saw it from a warped angle: I thought, How nice it must be to be [insert successful person’s name here]. He/she knew exactly what he/she wanted from the beginning. It’s got to be much easier to succeed when you only want one thing. I didn’t actually know if there was validation for my assumptions of singular desire and ease. I was basing my attribution on the limited knowledge I had of the people and their operations, and the fact that I wanted to do about one million different things.

Now having read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something that Matters, I know that TOMS was founded only after Mycoskie started four other businesses of varying success. He’d actually been offered a profitable job at a company he respected when he became consumed with the idea for TOMS and went after it with singular focus, turning down the job offer and thus burning his ships. It couldn’t have been easy, turning down a job with a dependable paycheck after not succeeding long-term with four other startups. 

The girls at A Beautiful Mess have a similar story. The sisters tried and failed at creating clothing lines, acting, running a vintage-shop-slash-bakery, and several other careers before becoming multi-million dollar bloggers, of all things. This didn’t happen overnight; it happened after sister Elsie became diligent with her editorial schedule and showed up day after day for years to write and photograph lifestyle ideas. It happened after she found a way to focus.

A few years ago I started keeping my New Year’s resolutions, believing that by attempting the same thing every day over a long period of time I would yield positive results. This was true; I developed several skills and healthy habits this way. But at some point, I started taking on too much. I lost my focus. I ceased making one or two resolutions, and began making five or six. It became difficult to maintain a consistent schedule in which I followed all my routines. None of my resolutions were fruitful because I could not dedicate enough time to any single one of them; if I worked on one, I felt guilty or pressured over the others I was leaving behind. My anxiety went up as my productivity went down. And I began to feel like a failure.

I still feel like a failure over those resolutions. I will think to myself, I’m not fluent in Italian because I stopped showing up every day at my computer to learn. Or, I can’t run three miles because I gave up when I let myself get too run down at work. But I wasn’t just run down from work; I was run down from trying to do too many things.

When I look at the achievements I’ve had in my life—ones I’m truly proud of—I see an opposite theme behind the scenes. In elementary school, I ran a fundraiser to help a family whose tragic story was on the cover of every local paper. I was consumed with the project; I thought about it my every waking hour. I rehearsed speeches to recite in the morning announcements over the school’s PA; I wrote notices to go home in students’ empty lunch boxes for their parents to find; I had brainstorming sessions with my classmates for added avenues to raise money. On the eve of the bake-slash-craft-slash-rummage sale, I was so nervous that no one would turn out or that no one would bring donations or baked goods that my mother baked five different kinds of desserts to ease my mind. I needn’t have worried—all the hard work and focus paid off, with parents and students crowding the school gym for hours the next day, until every last item we had to sell was gone. 

A couple years ago, I went on a mini music tour with one of my friends. It was a tumultuous trip—I learned a lot about myself and stretching my comfort zone and dealing with people of very different backgrounds and world views from mine. When I came home, I had this intense urge to write a screenplay about the experience. I could not be convinced that writing my own E! True Hollywood Story was a bad idea, likely to land my script in the slush pile of some agent whose time would not be wasted on trivial personal epiphanies, as most based-on-real-experience movie scripts do. I simply had to write it down. It helped that I had a deadline; three months after the tour concluded, an international screenwriting competition would be accepting its last submissions. I wrote and re-wrote, cut scenes and pasted them back in, finishing the script only just in the nick of time. I actually had to overnight it from Maine to the west coast for close to $50 in order to get it in on time. In the coming months I forgot about it… until I received a call one day, congratulating me for my place among eight international finalists, winners to be announced at a conference later that month. I didn’t win first place, but for a first draft, “finalist” was pretty good!

In both these examples, I had a clear goal. In the first case, I wanted to help a specific family in need by raising money. I couldn’t do much on my own, so I did everything in my power to rally everyone in my network (which, when I was ten, was anyone I went to school with). With a clear objective in sight, it became easy to cut the best path to success. So it was with my screenplay; I wanted to tell the story of all I had learned on a trip that had brought about a change in me. The best medium for the story, I thought, was a film script. Much of the trip had been spent listening to music, either in the car or at my friend’s performances each night; also, the journey had taken place in the fall, when leaves were changing and tumbling down, and festivals were going on and pumpkins were on every stoop. There was so much to hear and see and smell and taste and touch on the trip—to have confined those experiences to a novel would not have done them justice. I wanted others to see for themselves. So the story became a screenplay.

“Focus” means two things. I’m realizing this more and more from my own life story and the evidence I’ve collected. Its first definition is a noun: a goal. For it to succeed, it must be a clear one. The second definition is a verb—to be determined, to have one’s eyes set on, to be driven toward. Both of these definitions are integral to success. One might have both of them and not succeed, or take a long, long time to succeed, but without them, one is unlikely ever to succeed.

I have a lot left to learn in this area. I know I’m not the only one; we as a culture would not celebrate success if it were ordinary. I would like to see my name among the names of those who succeeded at their dreams and life goals, so I am attempting to put these theories into practice. I invite others to join with me. If you have a goal, what can you do to obtain it? Are you doing everything you can right now? If not, do you expect to succeed? Food for thought.

The definitions of success may vary, but whatever its definition, it requires focus.



* If I’d known a bit more about Think and Grow Rich, I might not have selected it. While it claims to purport the same strategy to wealth as used by Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and hundreds more, the book is fruitier than Froot Loops. Hill’s advice starts with telling the reader to envision being rich, and then become so obsessed with the idea that failure ceases to be an option. He recommends sitting in a quiet room at the beginning and end of each day, picturing riches. It’s quite scary.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Last DSLR class of the summer!


The last DSLR class of the summer is just a week away! If you're going to be in Kittery on Monday, August 3, and you have a DSLR you don't quite fully know how to use, invest in your photographic future and spend the morning with me.

You might think you're the exception, but I promise, anyone can take decent photographs. All he or she needs is a basic understanding of what a camera can do, how light affects a photo, and a few ways to compose clear, clutter-free images. The rest is practice, practice, practice. But those three bits of knowledge will take a photographer far.

I wasted two years using my DSLR with all my settings set to "auto" before I took a course that changed everything for me. I want to share the best, foundational principles with you, so that you can go and take great photos.

Here is all the info on the class. If you have any questions at all, contact me or check out my FAQ section.

I hope to see you there!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Sweet Score: Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford

Before YCIYWT, I wrote an online series called Spotlight. I found interesting artists who had started making part or all of their living doing something creative that they loved—writing poetry, painting murals, crafting surfboards, designing custom tattoos—and then I interviewed them, hired a photographer to snap them hard at work, and published everything on my freelancing site. I did one article every month. It was the best part of my job.

Years later, committed to an entire website on young entrepreneurs, I decided artists would not be my focus. I wanted to write mostly about businesspeople who had actual storefronts—places consumers could go and experience. If not places, products that were accessible to everyone were key, and it would really benefit those products to have some sort of cause behind them.

I’m breaking my own rule today. I am so excited about the sweet score I made this afternoon that I have to include it on the blog. I think, though, that it still totally fits the theme of YCIYWT.

Enchanted Forest, by Johanna Basford, is what Amelia Davis (the owner of Folk Gallery, where I found my score) calls an “advanced coloring book.” The book is part “quest,” part pen-and-ink illustration. Intricate illustration.

“Apparently,” Amelia said, giving the book a flip-through, admiring the pages, “they’re all the rage.” She found Enchanted Forest at a trade show, and coloring books were all the vendors could talk about.

Having seen one, I know why. The illustrations in this unusual coloring book are imagination-invoking, in the most fantastic way. In a world where fantasy is for children, Basford has figured out how to break down grown-up brain barriers and tap into the part of the mind that once believed in magical things like talking woodland creatures, fairy homes in enchanted trees, fire-breathing dragons, and castles full of mystical secrets. Basford invites her audience to “tumble down the rabbit hole,” as she says on her website, and get lost in her rendition of a wonderland. 

I confess, I did a bit of cyber-stalking to get a better scope of Basford’s talents. In my mind’s eye, she was an artist waiting to be discovered, perhaps by this very book. In reality, she is a highly successful illustrator, who has landed gigs illustrating for all products ranging from rum bottles to boats, and accounts working with companies ranging from Chipotle to BrewDog. Videography of her hard at work, in a series called “Fringe” (by someone else), demonstrates how her designs resonate with thousands of people.

Basford’s autobiographical account on her website describes her inspiration as coming from the “flora and fauna” of her native Scotland. Her blog is mesmerizing. This woman is intensely creative and beautifully authentic. An entire section of her site is dedicated to the coloring accomplishments her admirers send her after interacting with her drawings. What an incredible tribute!

I myself have been trying to figure out how I’ll gather the courage to commit colors to Basford’s drawings. The pages just call out to be colored—but how should I do it? Colored pencils? Colored pens? Gel pens? Water color pencils? All of the above? And with so many colors to choose from, how will I choose just one for any given part of a picture?

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t share the book, as well. Maybe color one page, then open the next page to another person to color? It would be an interesting way to collect pieces of my friendships with others. I could have each friend sign his or her page, passing the book to and fro until the whole book is filled! 

In any case, I feel like I’m bound for an adventure. The $15 was easy to spend—and it will result in hours of creativity and entertainment. What would you call that if not a sweet score?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Where I Went Today: Profile Coffee Bar

Because I love coffee and because I run a coffee shop, when new coffee places pop up anywhere within a two-hour radius of my workplace, the rumblings reach me quick. The rumblings for Profile Coffee Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire hit long before opening day. Having heard that the coffee place would be third-wave, I bypassed competitive jealousy and eagerly awaited the grand opening... and then somehow I missed it. Profile has been open a week already, but I was able to visit today, with coffee cohort Rachel Stahura, who stuck her head in a few days ago but didn't try anything.

For the record, Rachel's latte-crafting abilities are approximately how I currently rate anyone else's espresso technique. Yes, you have to start with great coffee; yes, it helps to use quality milk. But there's a definite finesse in making that velvety-smooth consistency over a thick, syrupy coffee, and Rachel has it down. If ever there was someone to visit a new third-wave coffee bar with me and give insight into the barista performance there, Rachel is definitely the one.

The coffee stocked at Profile is that of twenty-year-old Counter Culture. Counter Culture has grown exponentially in recent months, rapidly gaining positive press even in the wake of Blue Bottle's consumption of Handsome Coffee last year and takeover of esteemed coffee districts in England and Japan. It has won the respect of Tandem trainer Dustin Graham, whose bosses (and my colleagues) are some of the earliest Blue Bottle baristas from San Francisco. Having Counter Culture stocked is only one of the many telling details that Profile founder Andrew Levinson took every measure to do things right at his first restaurant-esque business.*

Some of the other details include milk from High Lawn Farm (third-wavers in the area, including D Squared Java of Exeter, use Hatchland Farms out of Londonderry; opting for another farm demonstrates that Levinson did not choose blindly based on his competitors), beautiful White Apron pastries baked on-site, and a wonderfully cohesive brand. Rachel and I both got tremendous delight out of the bowl-like blue mugs, which undoubtedly were sourced for their many sizes, a necessity to make proper macchiatos, cortados, cappuccinos, and lattes.

Rachel ordered a chocolate cortado and a rooibos tea. I ordered a cappuccino and a white velvet tea. While we do share a bias toward Tandem coffee (whose current Chelchele, a naturally-processed Yirgacheffe, has basically taken first place in my heart over all other coffees), the Profile choice of espresso did offer a certain something. There was nothing fruity or floral about it. Nor was it bitter or ashy. It was like what one might expect coffee to taste like having never tasted coffee brewed but only sniffed it out of the bag. The milk flavor was so-so, but it was perfectly steamed, both in consistency and temperature. 

The overall vibe of the room was very much that of swanky Portsmouth nightlife--an unusual choice for a coffee bar. Situated on the wide, one-way Portwalk Place (off of Hanover), Profile doesn't embody the cramped, busy, don't-change-it-it's-historical nature of much of the rest of Portsmouth. With windows on two sides, wide wooden tables, and a minimalist setup behind the counter, the layout allows its patrons breathing room. And yet, with the most expansive wall a charcoal black, the lighting ornately diffused from globes suspended from the ceiling, polished wooden decor and clean lines, the space could easily convert to a semi-formal meeting place for cocktails. According to the two baristas on duty, that was an integral part of the vision to set Profile apart from the dozens of other cafes deeper in the heart of Portsmouth: a coffee shop with a happening night life. A coffee shop that offered space for functions. A coffee shop with a twist.

Rachel and I enjoyed our visit. With any luck, I'll be back sometime soon for official quotes. It will be interesting to see where this place goes. 

* Because I wanted to have the full customer experience on my first visit, I chose not to reach out to Levinson for comment. That Profile is the coffee shop he always wanted to have, in spite of limited or no coffee experience, I gleaned from a barista I spoke with for a few minutes while taking photos of Profile's LaMarzocco Strada.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Read Like Crazy: Start Something that Matters

I wanted to read and review Blake Mycoskie's Start Something that Matters almost from the day I launched YCIYWT. The story fascinated me. How did one man make one style of shoe so popular in such a short span of time? TOMS has only been around since 2006, and yet for the number of folks walking around out there in TOMS footwear, you'd think the TOMS shoe had been around longer than the sandalwhich Jesus wore. 

It's not as though the shoes are a clever or convenient twist on one of the classics. Actually, they're somewhat odd-looking, given the looks other twenty-first century, first-world casuals tend toward. The alpargatas are uniquely their own, which ought to have narrowed their demographic. And yet: rich, poor, liberal, conservative, off to the gym or off to a wedding, everyone seems to wear them. How did that happen?

Well, first of all, it turns out Blake Mycoskie may have had resources at his disposal he never realized he had. He was the son of a successful author and he had competed with his sister on The Amazing Race prior to starting TOMS. He had a face to recognize and he had a network. 

Then again, he also had a few things that seem less exotic and impossible to acquire, but which were nonetheless integral in getting his idea off the ground: discipline, determination, courage, and humility. He wrote down on paper the pros and cons of his ideas, working out every detail he could think of before moving forward. He had little education in the area he wanted to break into, shoes, and for that matter not a whole lot in his checking account, but he moved forward with what he had. He approached those in his network (everyone from a polo instructor in Argentina to a wealthy multi-company owner) for advice and help along the way. He graciously learned to accept the word "no." And he did not give up.

More than anything, Mycoskie had a business concept that rocked the boat. When he decided to start a for-profit company dedicated to helping others, retailers could easily get on board with his product. Everyone could bring home a little bacon to fry up in the pan, and yet at the same time, everyone also got to be part of something bigger. Many thought it would not work, but many more were compelled to be a part of it.

Mycoskie's book goes far beyond the story of TOMS. It is a book of many stories, and an excellent resource to anyone starting any sort of business or movement.

What I liked about it: Start Something that Matters is a quick read packed with information. There is no fat in this book. I was able to read most of it in a day, partly because it was short but mostly because the narrative voice is genuine, helpful, hopeful, and down-to-earth. The stories were both human and incredible. It was the first book I read on the topic of business that never left me feeling daunted; I felt that if Blake Mycoskie could climb this mountain, I could, too. 

What I didn't like about it: Some of Mycoskie's advice sounds like luck to me; while tips like, "Feed your employees" and, "Win, lose, or draw, never forget that life goes on" seem perfectly sound, a tip like, "Take advantage of the fact you don't have business cards," rationalizing that this sends the message that you won't spend money needlessly, doesn't match up.

Would I buy this book? I did buy this book! Barnes & Noble now price-matches Amazon, and since I want to support the bookseller, I went through Barnes and I got a bargain. But I was prepared to pay full-price, and it would have been worth it. I can see this being the kind of book I return to again and again when I need the reminder that every startup goes through hard timesit's what I do with those times that will make a difference.

Some quotes for the fridge:

"A few mistakes will seldom sink the entire ship. You may get a hole in the boat and start taking on water, but you aren't going to drown. In general, there is virtually no mistake you can make early on that you can't recover from." - Courtney Reum, VeeV, p. 56

"... if you are starting a new organization by yourself, calling yourself founder and/or CEO makes your company look small, clearly identifying you as the only person within the organization. At another of my earlier companies, one that I founded and led, my card read, 'Vice President of Sales.' If you call yourself a vice president, it implies that there's also a CEO and/or president out there, and you're just one part of a larger staff." - p. 87

Since Mycoskie invented the TOMS model, other companies, like Sackcloth & Ashes, have been able to replicate the concept and continue the movement toward change. You can purchase your own copy of Start Something that Matters at Barnes & Noble or at your local bookstore.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Working for Myself: Matt Trahan and Sap House Meadery, Part I


I’d been told by friends who had visited Sap House, and my brothers as well, that the meadery was in an unmarked building in the middle of nothing commercial. I wondered how I would recognize it. When I hit the road, it was with flashbacks of my first trip to Tandem Coffee (back when they were only on Anderson Street, hidden in a tiny building behind stacks of warehouses), and a little anxiety in my belly. 

Once I hit Route 16, though, and saw my first “Brake for Moose: It Could Save Your Life” sign, I felt the anxiety melt off my body. Most of my travels these days take me to the city; Cambridge, Portland, Manchester. I spend the drive hunched over the steering wheel, my glasses angled up at road signs, locals who are wondering what the hell's taking me so long on my back bumper. When I found myself on the one road that could take me from Maine to Ossipee, there was no counting the miles to my next turn. I actually got to enjoy the sights. It reminded me of why I love New England—campgrounds every few miles, old diners, hand-painted signs over all the businesses, farm stands and sugar shacks with their best products pushed right up against the road. Everything is named for trees or wild animals out here: Black Bear Cafe. Knotty Pine Grill. Beaver Hollow Campground. Deer Cap Ski.

By the time I reached Ossipee, I think I was grinning ear to ear. If I’d never found the meadery, I might have just stopped at every business on the way back to Maine, sampling maple syrup and taking photographs. As it happened I found the meadery with ease. I turned down a road I was sure must be wrong, and then suddenly, there it was.

There was no sign that read “Sap House Meadery” perpendicular to the road, but there was a sandwich board that read “Free Tastings, Sat & Sun, 1-5.” With nowhere to park, I left the meadery, found a diner (in my city mindset looking for a “Restaurant Parking Only” sign but finding none), and walked back to my destination.

I had originally intended a reconnaissance trip. I was pretty sure I wanted to cover the story of the owners, Matt Trahan and Ash Fischbein, whom I estimated from the website to be my age or slightly older and whose product has been satisfactory enough to find its way into my family Christmases three or four years running, but protocol dictates that I have as complete an experience as possible before I write about a company. Plans be dashed—when I walked into Sap House and saw two customers chatting familiarly with Matt Trahan at the bar, I had a feeling I’d get all the information I needed in one day.

As it turns out, I timed my visit both opportunely and awkwardly. Had I made the trip two weeks ago, as I had intended, I would have arrived two weeks shy of a new renovation. Trahan greeted me with a swift sample of Hopped Blueberry Maple, and between chatting with his guests at the bar, informed me that a wall had just been knocked down in the middle of the room where I now stood, and that all the barrels containing the aging mead had been moved to a larger, side building to make room for a Sap House restaurant. 

The restaurant wasn’t open yet, he added. Everything was up to code and in place, but the licensing guy was on vacation. Come back in August, he told me. Everything is sure to be up and running smoothly then.

I fully intend to do so.

Eventually his other patrons left, and Trahan asked where I was from and what had brought me in. I debated about glossing over the matter that I write a blog, keeping the option to come back later for a more formal interview, but then I figured: When in Ossipee, do as the Ossipee people do. I threw formality to the wind, and the interview began.

Sap House Meadery: Then, Now, and to Come

Matt Trahan and Ash Fischbein have been in the mead business for four years, but they’ve been in mead longer. They were both home-brewers before they decided to attempt every home brewer’s secret dream of opening a brewery—specializing in mead, a honey wine that is gaining traction in the U.S. but still has a lot of opportunity to grow. Offering mead would allow the duo to source their ingredients locally, something they would not be able to do if they were to make beer, or wine from grapes. Trahan wasn’t a fan of mead until he had his cousin’s home-brewed version, which was not sticky sweet, but dry. This was the place where the two entered the market: offering a quality experience for a type of wine no one else was selling.

The idea was a good one. It only took two years for Trahan to know he could leave his day job and work fully committed at Sap House. All the mead is made right on the premises, as well as bottled, corked, labeled, and sealed with wax—one at a time, all by hand. Like much of what you see in Ossipee, the process is informal and not at all secret; tours of the meadery are offered every Saturday and Sunday, and include a full viewing of all the equipment used to make the mead from start to finish. 

Not that these young entrepreneurs need worry about anyone stealing their ideas. They’ve made a mark in the wine industry already with a product that is distinctly their own. One of the shelves behind the bar is heavy with medals, including two placements in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition from the first two years Sap House was open, and placements at the Mazer Cup, the only international mead-only competition. On a shelf to the right is a granite trophy in the shape of NH, acknowledging Trahan and Fischbein as Young Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2014 by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

And business is good. While currently the meadery is only open for tours and tasting on weekend afternoons, the owners spend the rest of the week making deliveries and doing the other labor-intensive parts of running their successful business. They sell to 120 locations just in NH, and ship to seven states. The two men run the operation almost exclusively by themselves, but never want for work to do, and have confidence to plan months in advance for their products. As the honey and water need to ferment before they age, and aging requires a minimum of six months, flavors for seasonal beverages—say, blackberry in the fall—need to be planned up to a year before sale, so that the mead is perfectly aged for the time customers expect to see special flavors on the shelves. While some younger ventures might be afraid to bet on success so far in advance, Sap House has gained the reputation and following to be able to make that bet.

Trahan takes pride in the fact that he and his cousin are able to offer such a well-received product from such a far corner of the U.S. As he says, when other business people hear of two “young people doing something successful in Ossipee, it kind-of breaks their heads.” He looks at the pictures on old postcards of Ossipee and sees a town that used to have a thriving business community, and envisions revitalizing the town by sparking the match with Sap House. By his estimation, many of the small towns of the U.S. that fell into disrepair were reborn when a "swanky, hipster bar” moved in, and other businesses followed. 

With the restaurant so close to open, Trahan sees more employees and a bigger future than ever for Sap House Meadery. The menu, which has launched with mead cocktails (Trahan mixed me a Bluebonic Tonic to sample—Hopped Blueberry Maple mead, real blueberries, tonic water, simple syrup, and citrus bitters), will place an emphasis on cheese and charcuterie, the types of foods typically associated with wine pairing. Although Trahan has developed some sense on his own for how cheeses pair with Sap House meads, he says he’s also relying on the expertise of others (citing the specialty shops on the Sap House delivery roster “where they have someone who really knows their cheese”) to help with the initial product stock. He does not seem to shy from the live-and-learn method of doing; with his twenty-eighth birthday on the horizon, he says he’s young enough that it won’t matter to him if it takes ten years to get the business exactly right. 

I doubt he has to worry about that, though. Sap House's primary regular weekend traffic comes from people passing through. In addition to those driving by who see the sign and, consumed with the air of Ossipeean freedom, pull right over to find out more, Sap House gains attention from such events as the Barrel Tasting Weekend, when small wineries offer wines (and meads) right from the barrel in a tour to get wine-lovers acquainted with their local brewers. “We’re usually the least-attended because we’re the farthest away,” Trahan says, “but we get good word-of-mouth. ‘We ran into these people who came here and they just would not shut up about it!’ Then they have a taste, and they love it.”

It seems that Sap House has only a brilliant future in its sights. It's hard not to catch Trahan's enthusiasm and passion for his product. I can only assume I would experience a mirrored effect from Fischbein, the original brewer. Perhaps this will be confirmed when I make another visit in August to see the restaurant.

To learn more about Sap House, visit Trahan and Fischbein's website at For a special history of mead, visit Matt Trahan's blog post on the honeymoon. And stay tuned for Working for Myself: Matt Trahan and Sap House Meadery, Part II, after I visit the (what I'm sure will be absolutely successful) restaurant!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Where I Went Today: Maine Squeeze

Work has been crazy. We’re two managers down, 30% up in sales every day from the week before, packed to the brink with high school summer staffers and fighting the heat. It’s amazing I have any time to visit small businesses, let alone write about them.

Luckily for me, as noted in my post on being a boss, I work in a concentrated area of small business. Within a mile are a whole foods market, an Italian-style sandwich shop, an art gallery/gift shop, several bakeries, an Indian restaurant, a couple of pubs, and, my saving grace this hot, hot week, a smoothie stand.

We’ve hit that part of the summer when no one in New England wants to eat anything but salad or drink anything but water. Eating and drinking feel like nothing more than necessary evils when you’re five miles from the beach and obligated to work, especially when the AC does nothing for the humidity. At the cafe we’re pumping out gazpacho and cold brew coffee like it’s a generations-long family trade, and nearly everyone on staff has increased their grocery budgets to include regular visits to the Maine Squeeze, the juice-and-smoothie-stand cousin of the Juicery, which is not even a stone’s throw from our front door.

I’ve been trying to hold onto my pennies (paying off a surgery and a car loan have me more frugal than I’ve ever been), but this week I finally caved and hit the Maine Squeeze… three times… in five days. Not that I mind spending money there—the owner, Alex Vandermark, is a jovial, down-to-earth fellow with a lot of good business sense and a terrific product. And my former roommate and close friend Deborah works a few shifts a week there, so it’s an excuse to stop by and say hello. I’ve put off visiting because the excuse to spend the cash just didn’t seem honest enough—until my day off came and my apartment, a top-floor space with no insulation, no AC, and a huge skylight (a delightful characteristic nine months of the year), became about as inhabitable as an oven, so cooking fell right off the options list. Suddenly a smoothie seemed like a very reasonable investment.

I will not lie. That raspberry-mango-flax smoothie refreshed my whole being. I had errands to run and it was an easy eat on the go. Plus, the smoothies I make at home just don’t come out the same, because I don’t have a high-speed blender. I can’t puree frozen fruit; it always has to be room temperature. Frozen fruit may be frozen, but there’s something about it that makes it more like… dessert. That smoothie? Was delicious.

Which is probably how I’ve wound up back at the order window again and again this week. I expect until this humid spell breaks, I’ll be there at least once a week. My next challenge, by the way, is to try a wheat grass shot. I’m put off by the inside-information that it’s unexpectedly sweet—but the idea that it packs a nutritional punch like eating four pounds of green vegetables is enticing. I am, actually, starting to get just a twinge tired of salads.

With a couple days off coming up I’m looking forward to hitting Sap House Meadery—a favorite of my brothers’ up in Ossipee, New Hampshire. It will be a whole different kind of refreshing to get into a recently tuned-up car and hit the road. I look forward to reporting out on it (I hope) this Monday.

Until then!