The American Dream

“I want to start a business.”

Oh that’s cool. Living the American Dream...

I was at Home Depot a couple days ago and a woman at the self-checkout was telling the employee, in that prideful, abasing sort of way, that she was opening a business - tomorrow. She said it in a way that struck a chord in me because I could tell that she felt she was doing something for the ages, which most people couldn’t do and that this monumental task was even at the threshold of her super-human capability. And yes, I know that getting to the start line is hard. One of the hardest. But once you’re there, the real fight begins.

I remember going to the DoubleShot (before it was the DoubleShot) on what must’ve been a Sunday, and I had to get the ceiling installed over the roaster to appease the Health Department. I needed help to hoist the massive wood-and-vinyl panel I’d built so I could strap it to the ceiling joists, but there I was, all alone. And I can tell you, I felt perturbed. But with a series of ropes and ladders, I slowly lifted the ceiling up inch-by-inch until all I had to do was brace it long enough to get the bolts fastened through the backside. That probably sounds easy. Had I gone to Home Depot in the midst of that battle, I probably wouldn’t have said anything but the look on my face would’ve told everyone that thing I recognized in the poor woman about to open a business, tomorrow. When you’re all alone with the weight of the ceiling on your shoulders, it’s easy to feel like Atlas.

I watched a group of would-be restaurant managers sit in the DoubleShot every day for months, talking about menus and operations and which glassware is right, generating social media likes and posting job openings online, stopping for a refill of coffee now and then. Sitting and talking about business is fun and exciting. I know, I’ve done it. But those guys went out of business a long time ago.

I’m guilty as charged. I ran the same naive playbook, thinking my idea was so good and so novel that, 1) it couldn’t possibly fail, and 2) people would therefore want to give me money to get started, and 3) even more people would want to give me lots of money for my superb product. I spent two years putting together what felt like at the time, one of the largest collections known to mankind of information about coffee, coffee history, coffee making, selling coffee, and the blueprint for running a successful coffee business. Knowledge is power, I thought, and once I’d accumulated enough information… the rest was gravy. What’s that saying? Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance? Bullshit. Preparation is important, but performance requires a whole other level of commitment. Mike Tyson had it right: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

It’s not necessarily what you put into it as much as what you give up for it. As a good church-going young man, our pastor began plying the congregation for funds to build some unnecessary adjunct to the church compound, likely a gym or some such entertainment complex. Not being a man of means, I thought mightily and asked a lot of questions before deciding to put in my pittance toward the capital campaign. I noticed that the pastor was inviting some of the wealthier couples over to his parsonage for dinner, and I asked him about this as it relates to the Biblical story of the widow’s mite. So he took me to Salad Alley and I had a free grilled chicken salad with honey mustard dressing. So good.

I felt like I’d already given everything I had. The dreams of operating a successful coffee business eradicated the dreams I had of living a life of luxury, living life on the hoof, of making my parents proud, of settling down with the girl of my dreams. And then began the slow decline and occasional rapid loss of the fitness, strength, and athletic abilities I’d honed in my teens and twenties. And that’s a hard thing to see happening. But so be it. If that’s what it takes, that’s what I was willing to give. Everything. I couldn’t hold anything back. Not relationships, my health, family, poverty, it was all for sale to turn DoubleShot into what I hoped it could be.

I needed a place to store our inventory and supplies, and I wasn’t exactly keen on having another landlord. So every weekend I would ride my bike all over town, checking out warehouses I found listed for sale online and just keeping my eyes peeled for anything that looked like it might be for sale. From Sand Springs to North and East Tulsa, I scoured the industrial areas trying to find just the right thing. It had to be big enough that we wouldn’t outgrow it anytime soon, and I wanted it to be cool and historic so that it was something I would be proud of, and perhaps open another cafe there one day. And eventually I found the perfect spot. Well, when I say perfect, I mean the roof was completely caved in, it was full of junk, and located on a transient path in a depressed part of town. My kind of perfect. The owner, John Cowen, agreed to sell it to me, and we began a conversation about just how much the place was worth. I presented data from my cycling excursions, and pitched him a number, and he accepted. The problem was, the bank said it was worth about twenty five percent less than what I offered. And that’s when John told me something that changed everything for me. In a nutshell, he said when he constructs a building, he has to invest twenty percent of the cost of construction (the bank loans the other eighty percent), but when it’s finished and generating revenues, he will have the property re-appraised and borrow eighty percent of the new value in order to get his money back. Wait. Who is getting whose money back and from whom? And then it hit me. The original investment was needed to get the project off the ground, but once the place is up and running, you can get your original investment back because the whole going concern is worth more than it cost to build. So i got my money back and bought the warehouse.

But what about those other things I invested? There’s certainly a difference between investments and sacrifices, as well as sheer expenditures. And some of those things are gone, forever. Some of them depreciated naturally with age. Money is one thing. It rides on the tides of inflation and foreign currency exchange and interest rates. But when I invested assets like labor and friendships and time I could’ve spent reading or writing or exercising, not to mention the quashed desire for a palatial abode, and its queen, I’m forced to come to grips with what I want out of this life. So what do I want?

What do I want? Interesting question. One I ask myself regularly. And maybe more importantly, why don’t I have it yet?

Last week, on a whim (more on a riptide of frustration), I booked a trip for the next morning to the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to climb a 14er, but I went in with an open mind because these things can’t just be summoned. And after strolling around the dirty little lakeside town of Georgetown, I sat down in a promising-looking restaurant that filled to the gills by six o’clock. The server/bartender was an adorable Native girl with a trail of tattoos flowing out of her clothes at every opening. She hustled and tended bar, serving staff and customers, but there was something crass about the way she flouted her busy-ness. Though in an industry where people would rather work at dispensaries or stay home on unemployment, in a town where there aren’t many jobs and aren’t many residents, this girl was like a diamond in the rough. Training, I thought. She just needs training.

Training, yes. I was a personal trainer for a few years, bending people’s bodies this way and that to anneal them into toughened instruments of adventure. I believe in the benefits of training so much that when I started running ultramarathons, I began saying, “Anyone can train and run a hundred miles, but show me the guy who can do it without training and I’ll show you a tough motherf***er.” That goes right along with, “It’s all mental. And physical.” Because honestly, I’ve competed a lot over the years without training but I couldn’t have done it without the first 20 years of hard work I put in. And that waning workload weakened my body over time. But in Colorado, I stepped out of my car into the crisp mountain air of morning, and lit up the trail underfoot. Up past the penstemon and mountain goats, my lungs were clear and strong, legs carrying me without pain or hesitation, and after crushing a little ice and rock, I stood on top of Gray’s Peak (14,278’). And then Torrey’s Peak (14,267’). And the next day, Mount Bierstadt (14,065’). Three 14ers in two days. Now granted, I summited three of the easiest ones there are. But I also came directly from 740 feet of elevation. The real transgression is that I cheated: I trained. I’ve spent the past few months running and cycling (a little), lifting weights, and running stadium stairs. And I came away feeling like I was as strong and fast as I was at twenty-nine, before I cashed it all in on the DoubleShot. I’ll take this ROI, and I’m clawing back at some of the other things I stopped pursuing the moment I embarked on this journey. What I thought might take five years ended up taking over eighteen (and counting), and I’ve just begun to reap a tiny bit of what I sowed.

So you want to start a business, huh? Well I don’t recommend it, but you do you. Though here’s my advice:

Plan thoroughly, train hard, chasten yourself, and pray to god you have the fortitude to keep going when you get punched in the mouth.

Borrow judiciously, invest what you think you can get back, spend enough to keep yourself going, and sacrifice everything else.

That’s how you live the American Dream.