tej dhawan's random musings

Month: January 2016

Barley and coffee-magical spirits of people and place

I just finished watching Caffeinated, the story of people behind the mighty coffee bean. Originating in a thin tropical band at just the right altitude around the globe, the end-product of the bean ends up as espresso, americano, drip, pour-over, lattes, and more. As I sat listening to the stories of farmers in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, India and beyond, told through translators and purveyors of fine coffees in US, Italy and elsewhere, I couldn’t resist drawing parallels to my other favorite spirit – Whisky.
Coffee grows as a berry, and looks suspiciously like a cranberry on those plants. The bright red shell protects the sugars and bean contained within, clustered in various stages of ripeness. When separated by color, size, shape, and smell, the beans are extracted, allowed to ferment for 27-32 hours, washed, dried on concrete surfaces, and packed away for shipment. Arriving at culinary centers around the world, the coffee bean (white, in color) is roasted for a perfect aroma, sheen, and readiness for grind. What ends up in our cup is a marvelous drink – sweet on its own, intoxicating in its own way, and communal in spirit. Additions like milk and flavors address the palate in fruity, woody, and body.
Barley seeds are immersed in water to allow them to open and release their sugars. Dried on concrete floors for 48 to 72 hours, some are infused with smoke from peat for their own aroma. Yeast converts the sugar to alcohol, ready for a drink. Allowed to relax patiently in wood, the spirit adopts the flavors of the casks. Enjoyed in communal celebrations, the spirit is enjoyed globally. So much like coffee.
The thing that struck me in the movie was how the farmers are resistant to change. A coffee plant may reach production ability in about four years – an eternity of risk before rewards are available. The story no different in whisky producing regions that religiously protect everything from the malting process and the shape (including dents) of the still to maintain uniformity. Unlike coffee, whisky has an even longer patience test – often lasting seven or more years.
If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, movies about both drinks are available as Caffeinated and Whisky.
Ancient processes to produce drinks that mark the beginning and end to a perfect day.

Entrepreneurship lessons and takeaways from the movie, Joy

We saw the movie, Joy, last night. I’ve enjoyed the onscreen chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in previous movies, and this particular movie, based (loosely) on a true story offers another opportunity to enjoy these fine actors. Though (this is not a movie review) the first 30ish minutes are excruciatingly slow, once the story of entrepreneurship and inventing takes off, you will be hooked.

Industry rags have already created their listicles of “5 lessons” from Joy, and “lessons entrepreneurs can learn” from Joy. In my role as mentor and investor in startups, I notice items in current startups that Joy experienced as told through the movie. Here they are in no particular priority order.

  1. Pick your advisers carefully – we naturally turn to our parents, relatives, friends, siblings and business associates for advice. However, advice from a family practice attorney isn’t appropriate for patents, and a bookkeeper doesn’t necessarily make the COO. A parent’s natural role is to protect you from perceived and real adversaries – not exactly the person who is prepared to help through risk-assessment.  Joy’s best advisers ended up being a close friend and ex-husband – who do you trust?
  2. Read your contracts fully – you needn’t be an attorney to understand the minutiae of legal docs. Your legal counsel exists to understand the documents fully. But you as the business owner need to read each of your documents cover to cover. Yes, that includes the operating agreement (30+ pages), the patent application (100+), the tax rules (pub 515 is at least 76 pages), and any contract with a vendor, employee, partner, co-founder, and even the real estate lease for your office. When shit hits the fan – you’ll  need to revert back to these very documents. Having read them during peace, they’ll be far easier to manage at times of duress.  Though Joy managed to get through the minutiae during severe duress in the movie, this is not a common occurrence.
  3. Receive input from many, but decide from within – be the basic building block of our bodies – the cell. Receive input from all directions – positive and negative. Collect the various inputs without defending or supporting. Then, when you’re ready, find your place of solace, close your eyes, filter the inputs, and make your decision. Joy makes such decisions while shooting at a range, alone in her bedroom, scared witless at a hotel, and confident on a street. The place of solace will change, but your nucleus is constant – focus and decide.
  4. No one cares about your business EXCEPT you  – Employees, shareholders, investors, advisers, friends are all there in good times and bad, but their focus is forever on themselves – their job, their investment, their dividends, their billing and reputation, and their social standing. So, while you may be focused on growth, survival, collapse, payroll, contract, customer and security – they are not. So, survival depends on your ability to perform perfect CPR. Growth depends on your ability to spot opportunity. Collapse depends on your strength to perform euthanasia. Employee payroll may take money away from your own paycheck. Your business -> you are responsible.
  5. The littlest pieces of your entrepreneurial journey are worth cherishing – this one got me at the end of the movie. Through the early years of your journey, the tiniest elements set your direction. They may be a sketch, a photo, a piece of clothing, whatever. They were important then and will be imminently important in other parts of your journey.  Keep a time capsule through the journey and visit it occasionally. You may be surprised at the feelings that capsule unleashes.

In the end, it was a movie. Probably 50% true story of Joy Mangano and 50% artistic license derived by David O’Russell.  It was entertainment but left me with enough parallels to daily life that I felt worth sharing. Worth a matinee investment.

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