Don't Build What You Don't Need

"Growth" doesn't have to mean "expansion"

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Isn’t one (or two or three) enough?

Recently, I read an excellent article by Bettina Makalintal in Vice about the proliferation of food writers on platforms like Patreon and Substack. I use both sites to promote Boss Barista, and as I was reading the article, I came across a phrase I hate. Molly Baz, a former editor at Bon Appétit, described her foray into creating an online presence as building “a little food empire.”

I’m sure Baz didn’t intend it as a cringeworthy comment, but along with the colonial vibes the phrase conveyed, it also signaled a worrying and destructive value system: One that prizes constant growth.

On the latest episode of Boss Barista, I talked to Jiyoon Han of Bean & Bean Coffee in New York City. At one point, Jiyoon brought up a topic that has also been weighing on my mind lately:

That’s something I think about all the time: What does growth look like? And how can we grow?

Again, tying this back to how I think about growth on a personal level—a very close friend of mine told me a couple of years ago, “Why are you so fixated on growth? Like not everything is about progress. And sometimes things are fine the way they are.”

I don’t know, it’s something I’m grappling with, right? Because if you’re not growing, then what are you doing if you’re not growing? To me, a lot of that growth is so tied to learning. And that’s what’s so beautiful about coffee, because I’m learning every single day, even if I’m tasting and cupping the same coffee three days in a row, it’s going to be different—my experience is going to be different, and I’m going to pick up on different things.

In the context of contemporary business norms, “growth” is almost always synonymous with “expansion.” So many of today’s business owners, entrepreneurs, and self-employed folks feel the pressure of that constant question: “What’s next?” It’s not enough, we’re told, to examine what we already have, to refine our processes so our work can be as beneficial and meaningful as possible. No: We’re taught to believe that true success means looking outward, and always hungering for more.

Bean & Bean’s first location opened in Manhattan in 2008, almost 13 years ago. That’s ancient when it comes to independent businesses—and it’s an additional feat that it managed to stay open during that year’s financial crisis. Even in normal times, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of new businesses fail within the first two years, 50% within five, and only a third of new businesses make it past a decade. I think one of the reasons Bean & Bean has persisted and thrived for so long is because, as Jiyoon articulated, growth really isn’t always about expansion (Bean & Bean has four locations), but rather about learning.

This mindset frames every decision Jiyoon makes about the way Bean & Bean works. Instead of focusing on growing into new outlets, she talks about adapting to the needs of her customers, deepening relationships with producers, and actualizing tangible goals for the company. Why are these metrics rarely classified as “growth”?

When we equate growth with expansion, we ignore a lot—including numerous factors that make for a healthy business and healthy relationship to the work we do, like employee satisfaction, accountability, and efficiency. New customers cost five times more to gain than keeping loyal ones happy, so why not maximize the potential of the space you already have, for example?

Obviously there are moments when expansion is appropriate, and it’s weird to talk about growth during a pandemic, but it’s rare that we’re encouraged to realize the potential of what we already have right in front of us. Before you consider opening a second, third, fourth location, or adding wholesale or catering or another new branch of your business—stop to remember what the point of building it was in the first place. It probably wasn’t to helm “an empire,” but to create something that hopefully will be around, will employ people meaningfully, and will make customers happy.

Before you go…

This Steven Yeun profile—which is gorgeous both in terms of its content and its photos—reminded me of a sketch he appears in on Tim Robinson’s show, I Think You Should Leave. It’s hard to explain without getting real weird, so if you have time, please watch this delightfully bizarro sketch. It’s in the very first episode (I couldn’t find a link just to the sketch!).

I’m almost done with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and it’s stunning. The book deals with what makes us human—strength and weakness, success and failure, all while turning an unflinching eye to the effects of colonialism. Additionally, someone recently asked me who I’d have dinner with if I could have dinner with anyone, and I surprised myself by saying Patti Smith. I think I’m going to re-read her book, Just Kids, after this.

I watched all of The Bodyguard over the weekend and it is so deliciously complicated, filled with red herrings, subtle clues to a mystery-but-not-really-a-mystery, and the salacious scenes are somehow the least interesting part of this show.

I made the popcorn chicken from Sue Li, and it was incredible. I’ve also been making a number of recipes written by Yewande Komolafe, including her two riffs on tofu-centered dishes. Watch her videos on YouTube.

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