Between Courage & Carelessness

By Peter Giuliano

Perhaps the best-known coffee town in Rwanda is Butare, located in Rwanda’s hilly southwest. Butare is a bustling central African town, with mostly unpaved roads and inconsistent electrical service coming from a diesel generator just outside of the town’s center. In Butare there is a Chinese restaurant, run by an immigrant Chinese family. They sell sweet and sour lake fish and goat chow mien to rural Rwandan diners and visitors passing through town. Every time I think about the restaurant, I am amazed and inspired. How on earth did a family get the gumption to emigrate from China to central Africa and start a business in the alien, rural environment of a Rwandan town?

The courage of the entrepreneur is simply breathtaking. It takes a certain combination of strength and confidence to see a market opportunity, craft a product that addresses the need, and invest in a business to deliver that product to that market. Every business owner knows the sleepless nights that accompany a new business venture, and that the only way to get through those frightening times is with raw courage.

The challenges don’t end after the business starts, either. There are limitless opportunities for success and failure, and the entrepreneur is tasked with navigating these rocky waters throughout the life of the business. It takes temerity to face each challenge, committing to brave decisions and following through with them.

I am in awe of the courage it took to establish the specialty coffee industry. The time was the late 1960s, when coffee consumption was waning, and coffee seemed irrelevant to the rapidly changing world. Coffee was ubiquitous and cheap. The women and men who founded what we now recognize as a flourishing market segment couldn’t have known whether Americans would actually willingly pay more for unique coffee experiences, would be interested in something called an espresso, or be open to the idea of grinding their own coffee at home. It took immense vision to see the possibility of a coffee trade based on quality and flavor; and it took nerves of steel to start businesses based on the bet that people would shell out good money for better coffee with more integrity. We owe the very existence of our industry to those whose collective courage helped us take the risks to establish it.

But courage without caution is recklessness. It takes discipline to run a business and to build a sustainable foundation on which an industry can be built. Speculation and impulsiveness are the enemies of stability, and it takes a good stable business to thrive.

So where is the balance between courage in innovation, and good, cautious business practice? Knowing this balance is called acumen, and it’s the foundation of all strong businesses. Acumen is understanding the difference between courage and carelessness, and finding the sweet spot between overspending and conservatism.

How do we do this? How do we develop the acumen we need in our daily work? How do we operate our businesses responsibly, without stifling the courageous innovation that is a hallmark of our industry?

The answer is practice. Courage is like a muscle that must be exercised lest it wither. The discipline of making courageous decisions should be a part of every entrepreneur’s practice, and based on a strong fundamental set of principles. The best businesses have a set of values that they will not compromise, paired with a sense of experimentation and innovation about every other aspect of their business.

In these trying times, it’s easy to become conservative, and forget about the risk-taking that makes a specialty coffee business thrive. It is this conservative approach, however, that led to the stagnancy of the 1960s coffee market, which nearly wiped out great coffee altogether. Courage is intrinsic to the very idea of the specialty coffee revolution. We must resist the temptation for conservative business practice, and develop the habit of courageous risk-taking that leads to innovation and vitality in our industry.

What does this courage look like? The best businesses push their own limits and the limits of their customers, challenging their patrons to take a leap of faith. A new, unfamiliar product offering is an opportunity for differentiation and individuation for a business—which can lead to either failure or success. A vibrant business constantly challenges its customers’ expectations, giving customers what they want without giving them what they expect. When Apple introduced the iPod, nobody yet realized they wanted a portable MP3 player. It was a product without a ready market. What is the coffee equivalent of the iPod and who will have the courage to introduce it?

It also takes courage to make a business live up to the values of its founding. While a prosperous coffee company can be an agent of equity, quality, sustainability and progress, there are limitless temptations to compromise those initial values in the name of competitiveness or caution. Brazen courage to live up to one’s values every single day is the mark of the hero. Great companies can be heroic, too, but not without the rigorous practice of demonstrating a commitment to values, and braving the dark nights when it seems that this very commitment might be what shuts the lights off.

None of our companies were founded without a leap of faith, without the nearly insane courage of the entrepreneur. The mark of a great company, however, is one that preserves and nurtures that courage throughout its life, never giving up the spark of daring innovation and commitment to principle. Our companies can be no less courageous than the heroic Chinese family that, against all odds, builds a prosperous family business in the unlikeliest of places.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the immediate past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.