John N. Clark transitioned from being an engineer and executive to starting his own coffee company.
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We spent some time with John to learn more about how he transitioned from employee to entrepreneur and coffee company owner.
John, what type of firm were you working at before you started your own business? How long had you been there?
I was an Engineer and mid level executive at a chemical waste management (emissions control) equipment firm. We were bought out by a competitor and I was asked to relocate to another state (big city). I had been in the industry for 27 years and with this particular firm for 7 years. I left the corporate world in August of 2002.
You've got your own company now, right? What is it and what do you do there?
I own/operate a small "Craft Roaster" specialty coffee business, called Vienna Coffee Company. I'm the owner/manager/bookkeeper/janitor/maintenance man. I direct the roasting operation and buy all the green coffee, but have turned daily roasting and packaging duties over to others.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur instead of simply looking for another job?
I had built a passion for coffee and a serious hobby by the time my former company began to struggle. I co-owned a small coffeehouse in Miami and had bought a commercial scale roaster on eBay.
Seeing the writing on the wall at my former company, I formed the coffee roasting company in 2001 and began with a few small commercial accounts and several private retail accounts (friends, relatives and co-workers).
Did you start the business from scratch or buy an existing business? Why did you do one instead of the other? Which do you think is the best approach?
I started from scratch in my garage. I personally think it's the way to go because you can start slow and learn the ropes before you get a huge organization depending on you. Less stress involved in having to worry about a bunch of employees' futures rather than just your own.
Secondly, I've seen several customers start businesses and sell it to others. With few exceptions (and there are a few) the new owners don't have a clear enough picture of what they are getting into. They struggle to make it work for them and end up closing or selling again in a year or so.
How did you decide what kind of business to go into?
My passion for the coffee and café business just came to me naturally. My location in East Tennessee led me to conclude the opportunity was real since the big national players had not moved in here yet.
Owning a business is very different from working as an employee. What are some of the biggest differences you've noticed? What do you miss? What don't you miss?
Actually, there is very little that I miss, except perhaps the fat paycheck and expense account.
The most refreshing change is not having to deal with corporate politics and bosses with egos that battle with each other over turf rather than what's best for the business.
I like making and living with the consequences of my own decisions. If something screws up… I know who is responsible.
What advice would you give to somebody who is leaving the life of working for a company to go out on their own?
Cash is King! Manage your cash every day and don't buy anything if you don't know how it will pay for itself. Secondly, if you don't have a flair for marketing and promotion, find someone who does. If cash is King, promotion is the Queen.
Great advice! Anything else you'd care to share with us regarding the transition from being laid off to starting a business?
I've not looked back or regretted it a single day in 6 years. Of course, I've been successfully able to live on much less that I made in the corporate world. If your own personal budget can't handle skinny or no paychecks for a period of start-up, it might not work for you. You MUST have enough working capital to survive the start-up period of cash out-flow.
That's very true. It usually takes a while to figure things out. Listen, thanks so much for sharing your experience and your advice. We really appreciate it.