Durban has often been in the shadow of its big sisters. As vivid and vibrant as Johannesburg and Cape Town are. ‘The warmest place to be’ holds its own in every department. Perceptions change, and people now realise that there’s much more to Durban than beaches, bars and a bohemian frame of mind. It’s a place of beauty and opportunity in equal measure, with entrepreneurs finding inspiration in its refreshing east coast setting. Geoff Noble, co-owner of the delightful Colombo Coffee in Durban North, is one such person. We caught up with him to talk about his story in business, coffee, culture and more.
1. Small business = big challenge
The last year has been one steep learning curve.
Colombo was started about 100 years ago. Our grandparents knew about Colombo. The last members of the family that started it moved to the UK last year, and here we are.
I was in the corporate world until the beginning of 2016. In that life, you arrive in the morning, push papers until it’s time to go home and you get your salary at the end of the month. Guaranteed.
To be fair though, I was lucky. I worked at a great company and have maintained a consulting relationship with them. I get to work on cool tech stuff with some great people, as well as being able to pursue my love of coffee. If I didn’t know any better, I’d use a #blessed right about now.
Running a small business is a bit less straightforward than your typical 9 to 5. You’ve got to find the balance between making yourself easy to do business with and actually getting what’s owed to you, to keep your business going. You’re responsible and if you don’t move, nothing does. I can’t say we have nailed it yet, but we are learning every day.
Times are tough and everyone’s feeling the squeeze economically. Sometimes, you’re gonna get paid 30 days late and you have to let it slide. Trust is a big thing, so it’s important to find partners that will be transparent and stick to their word.
Structure, or the total lack of it, was another thing I needed to get on board with. Usually, we need structure to operate properly, but most of us work in pre-structured environments. It’s a different story when you have to establish those structures yourself.
But the people who work for us are drawn into the entrepreneurial space and thrive with a level of freedom. They’re a bit different. They know how to make the most of it. We’ve had to find the right balance between too much or too little structure.
In the coffee world, I’ve learnt that if you see a dude with green hair wearing his grandfather’s pants, he probably knows something you don’t!
2. Cafés are about sharing ideas
We’re determined to make Colombo a place where people are comfortable to come, sit at the table with someone and have a conversation over a cup of good coffee. That’s what people go to cafés for, right?
Whether it’s a business meeting, you’re launching a startup, or just catching up with someone, you’re here to chat and share things with one another.
Nobody must ever feel rushed to leave Colombo. I know some café owners out there are afraid of the person that comes in, orders one coffee and stays on the wifi for the whole day. For me, that’s cool. If they’re here for the whole day, they’ll probably have more than one coffee anyway!
3. Coffee should be about people
Our team is our brand. The guys and girls behind the bar making sure our customers are looked after. So we look after them.
I mean, if you look around, it’s clear that the place needs a coat of paint. We inherited the furniture from the previous owners. Point is, people aren’t here because it’s a world-class space. They’re here because of a great team of people.
The energy you feel and the vibe you get is down to Bryce, Chad, Mini, Chantelle and the rest of the team. That’s where it all comes from.
We’re all really open and honest with one another. Everyone has bad days, but we talk, we work through stuff. In the year since we took over, we’ve lost two members of staff. Both of them emigrated, and it wasn’t because they hated working here!
Jokes aside, we’ve got some measures in place to make sure everyone’s happy and feels valued. We pay a bit better than the expected salary. The more senior people are incentivised to sell our coffee, retail and wholesale, so there are commission structures in place.
A cool thing we’ve implemented recently is Hi5, an instant performance review platform from a great startup based in Cape Town. It basically lets management congratulate members of the team that go the extra mile or do great work, live and in real time. I think little things like that can make a big difference.
But to get back to the point, any positive interaction that someone has with Colombo is because of the team. Our people are everything.
4. Coffee should be unpretentious
I first learnt about coffee when Iived in Australia, where coffee culture is ingrained into daily life. People just drink it, enjoy it and get on with it. However, I really got into coffee big time after having quit alcohol four or five years ago.
Colombo is the kind of place where we ask you how you like your coffee made. We’ll probably tell you how you how we like it, but we’re not here to be prescriptive. We want you to enjoy yourself and drink good coffee.
We also want you to have good coffee at home. The equipment to make it at home is usually expensive; it’s not always easy to justify. So we try to make it as accessible as we can by making relatively low margins on those machines.
And if you buy coffee equipment from us, we’ll teach you how to use it and make sure that what you’re drinking at home is as good as what we’re making here.
I think that culture of authenticity and unpretentiousness resonates with people, especially in Durban. If we get something wrong, the customer will tell us so that we can improve. Then they’ll come back!
For me, that’s a sign we’re doing something right. If people aren’t invested in you, one mistake is enough to make sure you’ll never see them again.
5. Project-based thinking gets stuff done
When someone says something like, “cool idea, but what’s in it for you?”, I can’t help but think “Well, I just like doing cool shit!” I’ll figure out a way to make it profitable later, but the first step is getting greatness out into the world. Projects are a great way to make sure you’re putting out stuff you can be proud of.
You have to have a business model, even if it’s rough, but if you stick to it too strictly and let it hamstring you, you’ll never launch anything. Bootstrap it, spend what you can on it and get it done.
We’re working on something really cool that I can’t say too much about. It’s a concept that’s doing well overseas that we’re gonna try to bring over. Without giving too much away, it’s in the sustainability space.
It’s something different. It needs to get done. It’ll involve cafes – we won’t keep it to ourselves. We’ll do a soft launch at maybe 10 venues in Durban where we know the territory and learn the hard lessons. Then we’ll hit a place like Cape Town, where this can be really successful if done right.
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