blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Crux of the Matter

After a year of not posting anything here, I am actually feeling a new theme emerging for this blog. This past year has been the most difficult one of all of my 18 years in the coffee industry due to record-setting high coffee prices and a record-setting slow economy. As a result of the financial pressure, I have had to struggle with my own mental outlook regarding my business and the coffee industry here in Cleveland. In May of 2010, I fell in love with rock climbing. As it turns out, many of the lessons I have learned from working on increasingly difficult rock climbing "problems" also apply to solving problems in my business.

There's actually a lot of correlations between successfully sending a route (which means climbing the whole route without falling) and being successful in business. The first thing I studied when I began to hang around the rock gym ( was the attitude that the stronger climbers had about their climbing. I immediately noticed that the stronger climbers never made excuses for their performance on the rock. If they fell, they fell. If they got the route, they got it. There was no whining about that they were too short or that they were too tired. They also did not tend to reference their previous performances, whereas weaker climbers often would make excuses for why they fell, and would describe themselves as being weak, or unable to climb a certain route. I would hear them say things like "Oh that route? I'd never be able to get that," or "That route is way too hard for me." Stronger climbers don't think this way, nor do they talk this way. The stronger climbers would be more likely to say "I'm not ready for that route yet," or "That might take me a while to work out that sequence." The first six months I spent hanging around the gym, I noticed how people described themselves and their climbing and how it related to the quality of their climbing. I tried to imitate the attitude that I observed in the stronger climbers, even though I was still climbing the easiest routes at the gym.

One Saturday, I ended up climbing at the gym with Oliver, one of the stronger climbers at the gym. I think Oliver had placed second in the recent boulder league competition. Oliver is tall and lanky, built like a marathon runner, and climbs the hardest routes the gym has to offer. At that point, I usually climbed with my 13 year old daughter Veronica, and I had certainly never climbed with anyone as advanced as Oliver. When it was my turn to climb, I could have chosen a route that I knew I could climb successfully. But instead, I chose a route on the most overhung wall that really challenged me, with Oliver belaying for me (so that if I fell off the climb, he would be holding on to the rope that would allow me to be caught by my climbing harness). I started up the climb and made the first couple of moves, and then fell off as I got to the most physically demanding part of the climb. Without much hesitation, I proceeded to get back on the wall, trying a different foot position. I made a concerted effort to not say anything about how I had been able to get that move previously. I just tried again. And fell again. And again. I struggled my way up the route. By the time Oliver lowered me back down to the ground, sweat had soaked its way through my shirt. Oliver couldn't congratulate me on a solid climbing performance, because I certainly hadn't climbed very well. But he did say "Methinks you have the right attitude for hard sport climbing." I loved hearing this; at least I knew I had the attitude right even if I didn't have the skill or the strength yet.

This particular lesson doesn't need explanation as far as how it translates to business. Everyone knows that no business problem can be solved if no one wants to solve it. And we all know how excuses can poison the water of even a well-functioning team. So the climbing world just gives us a very concrete, visible and measurable manifestation of the results of a success-oriented attitude.

One of my favorite things about climbing is the problem solving process that occurs when trying to get a difficult move on a route, as I described on the route I was climbing with Oliver. Climbing is really like a big puzzle that you complete with your body. Sure, it takes strength and flexibility, but more than anything, climbing takes a physical intelligence and creativity that could never be described, it just has to be experienced. The more I climb, the more I realize that the solution to any "climbing problem" will fall in one of the following categories: feet aren't in the right position (not high enough up the wall, usually), don't have the strength to do the move (this is rarely the case, actually), don't have the sequence or technique to do the move (quite common), or aren't seeing a hold that can be helpful.

Over the past year, I have related many business problems to these four categories of solutions. For example, last year when I realized we had to raise prices, I explained to our management staff that if we were going to have to raise prices as a way to "stay on the wall", the high prices were going to be akin to grasping at a higher hand hold. What I've learned from climbing is that if you're going for a higher hand hold, the best way to do that is by first getting your feet up on the highest foot hold you can find, even if it's a small one. That way, your weight is actually primarily on your feet & legs, rather than your hands. In business, I think customer service is the thing that we "stand up on". You can only reach that next level of hand hold if your feet are not placed on the highest level of customer service. And then, once your feet are placed as well as they can be, you have to trust their solidity on the rock, and just stand up and reach as high as you can. So that's what we did for our price increase. It was scary to trust our customer service, and just raise those prices, but that is what we did, and it worked. Here we are, a year later, still serving happy customers great coffee.

Today, I had a two hour conversation with one of my business mentors, a wise, gentle and kind man who is also a long time Phoenix Coffee customer, who happens to have a wealth of experience in business, about a sticky business problem that I am in the midst of solving. After I got off the phone with Eric, I felt a renewed sense of hope and optimism about solving this particular issue. Thinking back on the conversation, I had another realization about how the lessons of solving climbing problems can apply to business. Often, someone watching the climber, often the belayer, often an experienced climber, can offer what is called "beta", or advice, and that advice alone is what gets the climber through the move. Sometimes the belayer just has to point out a missed foot hold or a novel way to use a hand hold, and that is all that it takes to solve the problem. Well, that's exactly what Eric was able to do for me today. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to solve the problem ourselves that we forget to ask for outside assistance. In climbing, that just leads to wasted effort, and so it is in business as well.

Thank you, Eric!


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Your parallel description of climbing technique and business is interesting. The analogy emphasizes the "holds" very well.

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