Avoiding the Treadmill

I hate running on a treadmill.

I consider myself a runner, having completed 6 half marathons and 1 full, and derive an immense amount of pleasure from running a 10K through the streets of Bogota, New York, or whichever place I happen to find myself in for more than a couple of days.

For me, running is a manifestation of freedom, of progress, and of exploration of the new. Running allows me to feel like I am forging my own path at my own pace, and allows me to push myself to my natural limit – choosing which direction I want to run in for however long at whatever speed.

Treadmills are the opposite. The metaphors we use to describe the worst parts of the modern day life – “keeping up with the Joneses”, “the rat race” – are how I feel about running on a treadmill. Instead of putting one foot in front of the other and feeling like I’m making progress, treadmills make me feel like I am constantly playing catchup, running just to keep up with the eternally moving belt; the side-by-side positioning of treadmills in most gyms encourages me to glance at the neighbor to see if I’m better than them; the unchanging surroundings in what is often a very sterile environment make me feel caged, imprisoned; the constant speed of the belt feels unnatural – sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow. Worst of all, there’s always the risk with treadmills that the ground can slip from underneath you and you fall flat on your face.

But this post isn’t really about running.

Rather, it’s something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of months relating to Mesa Salvaje (obviously… as this shop is pretty much front and center of my mind at all times). The question I have been asking myself is how do I avoid running Mesa Salvaje like I’m on a treadmill, and instead make it feel as exciting as running outdoors in the city streets.

The question was spurred by a conversation I had with a friend, Karl, who has been running a sustainable coffee exporting business for 5 years here after first visiting Colombia while working as a Consultant. The man is clearly brilliant and an expert in his field, and he cares as much about coffee farmers as anyone I’ve ever met. He’s worked his ass off to help farmers raise the quality of their coffee so he can sell it for them at higher prices, and has made a huge impact to the lives of many of the people he’s worked with. He’s a market-driven businessman with a social impact mission. In many ways, Karl is an example of who I’d like to be 5 years from now.

And yet… it seems to me from an outsiders perspective as though Karl himself is running on a treadmill. His operation has grown is still 100% reliant on his own energy to function day-to-day, and hasn’t achieved sufficient scale to allow for outside hires. He has seen his techniques and knowledge improve the lives of many coffee farmers, but has also seen many of his partners suffer and regress due to deteriorating market conditions and prices for specialty coffee. He spends pretty much his entire day maintaining ongoing operations and solving any of 1,000 technical, accounting, quality-assurance, customs-control, weather, personnel, or other problems that may arise in the attempt to harvest, transport, process, and export specialty-grade coffee from rural Colombia to the rest of the world. This is thankless work – nobody who consumes a delicious Colombian natural in Sydney or San Francisco is thanking the exporter – and is also work that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to compounding growth. While relationships on both the supplier and buyer side can be maintained, each year and each harvest the work starts from scratch to ensure the quality of the coffee and the desirability of said coffee for a roaster who is always looking for something new and exciting. Each new buyer or supplier is equally as hard to onboard as the previous one, and there is constant competition from alternative exporters. In Karl’s words, the moat in his industry is “whoever is willing to put up with the most shit”.

Karl has made a living doing this for the past 5 years, and from my limited outsider knowledge seems to have grown despite all the obstacles, but it still feels like his business is like running on a treadmill. It feels to me that if he fails to keep putting one foot in front of the other then his business could fall flat on its face. He recently left Bogota to move closer to the action in Pereira in the heart of the coffee axis. Before he left he reflected on his past few years, stating that though he probably could’ve made more of an impact had he stayed in consulting, earned a ton of money and just given it to farmers, he hopes that he is taking part in a structural change in how the market operates that will ultimately make a much larger impact to all farmers rather than just those he could help with a one-time cash infusion. Changes to entire market structures aren’t easy to make out on a 1, 2, or even 5 year timeline, but over decades can result in radical changes. I hope he’s right, and that rather than running on a treadmill he is instead expending all this energy upfront to put a flywheel in motion that will far outlast him.

Mesa Salvaje  will have been in business for 6 months this coming Monday, which is crazy because it simultaneously feels as though we are still getting started, but also feels like an entire lifetime has passed by. I couldn’t be prouder of what we have built, the number of incredible vegetarian plates and Colombian coffees we have served (~6,600 checks in 6 months with an average of 2 people per check), and the feedback we have received from our customers. We achieved a positive operating income in June after coming close in April and May, and July is on track to be great, too.

But while we are still just getting started, I am wary that as of today it is clear that Mesa Salvaje could not continue as a going concern without the presence of KC or I at the shop on a daily basis, and even with us there it might not be viable indefinitely if we suffer from burnout. I’m wary that if we spend each day just trying to cover the holes that appear and trying to keep our heads above water, then we will start to feel trapped and won’t be able to experience the freedom to be creative and explore new possibilities. To date we have hosted a number of incredibly special events that I will remember forever, but they take a toll to organize, promote, and execute successfully. If we aren’t able to systematize and delegate the tasks required to keep the shop ticking, we will face huge burdens of starting from scratch if and when we see staff turnover or quality of service and products suffer from a lack of attention and care.

We are 6 months into a new venture, our first ever foray into the world of small business, our first restaurant. I expected there to be a steep learning curve and a lot of hustling to tape over the cracks until we learned what we are doing. All that has come true and we have survived 6 months without any major calamities and breakdowns. If you’d told me where we’d be today 6 months ago I would have been happy as Larry.

But I love to run outdoors, and it is essential that Mesa Salvaje doesn’t turn into a dreaded treadmill. We need to build protocols and product offerings that can lead to compound growth and keep the flywheel turning even when we’re not there imbuing the space with 150% of our personal energy. We need to delegate more and focus on keeping the events, menu, and energy of the space fresh and exciting, like running in a new city for the first time. We need to look forward and not down at our feet. We need to think beyond the confines of the physical space we are in. We need to stay free.

Cheers,

Rambler-in-Chief

P.S. I hope the extended metaphor of the treadmill didn’t get too overused… but one last hurrah: whatever I think about running on a treadmill, it sure as hell beats sitting in an office chair ;)


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