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Whether or not you watch “Friends,” you likely know the scene in Season Five where Ross, Rachel, and Chandler try to move a sofa into Ross’ walk-up apartment. The three struggle when they hit a pole they can’t get around. For a good 30 seconds, Ross yells “PIVOT!” over and over.
And then there’s Chandler’s response:
I thought of that scene again when reflecting on this week’s podcast episode, which featured Jose “Pepe” Uechi, co-founder of Compadre: a Peruvian coffee brand that helps bridge the gap between farmers and consumers. When it was first founded, Compadre worked to equip farmers with solar-powered roasters. Pepe and his team had learned that farmers were paid only a fraction of the amount that roasters earned, and they thought that if farmers could roast their own coffees, they could take back some of that value.
However, they soon realized their plan, however well-intentioned, would have to change:
When we [gave a farmer] the first machine and we had a meeting with different farmers, different comparatives, different actors related to coffee, we showed it and they started asking questions. Everyone said, “Okay, so cool. That’s so creative. So innovative,” but nobody really wanted it. We started asking, “Okay, why?”
We started asking questions, we sort of realized, “How are they going to [use this when they’re] isolated?” We were in Cusco, it’s in the south of Peru, and we said, “Okay, we’re really far from the final consumer. How are they going to get there?”
We said, “We live in Lima. That’s the main market, so we’ll have to commercialize this coffee there. They will have to send the coffee, they will have to produce a coffee and they will have to send it to us in Lima and we will have to sell it.” That was the first change in our model.
Compadre quickly pivoted. The team started focusing on building infrastructure that would close the gap between farmers in remote areas and consumers in cities. They essentially had to build a completely different company—and Pepe says that staying true to their central goal made that possible:
…It got to the point where we said, “Okay, are we going to roast coffee with the sun? Or we are going to roast coffee with the regular gas roaster?”
I said, “Let’s sit together and let’s define what are our main values or our main goals. Are we Compadre because we roast coffee with the sun, or are we Compadre because we want to make a change and we want to make a positive impact for the farmer?
We said, “The farmer is first.” That’s the first thing. The first priority.
Compadre is an example of a coffee company that evolved when it realized it wasn’t meeting its goals—and was able to survive, and find success, as a result. Not all businesses, however, are so willing to change.
This week, I read a story about Grace Coffee Co., a chain of six coffee shops in Madison, Wisconsin. Grace Coffee was founded in 2019, and has expanded quickly—and not without difficulties along the way. Madison.com reported that two of its six locations have the most health code violations in the city, and the article details allegations of wage theft and misconduct. Employees reported not receiving paychecks for weeks while making just above minimum wage, and shared stories about misleading or harmful business practices—the cold brew wasn’t actually fresh, and staff were encouraged to disregard safety protocols about fruit flies and pastries.
In response to the claims in the story, owner Carlos Falcon attributed the failures of these two locations to employee turnover and difficulties in hiring experienced workers:
“It’s so hard to hire people with experience right now,” Falcon said. “That’s our main issue. We’re hiring a lot of new employees and unfortunately, for the most part, they don’t have a lot of experience in the food service industry.”
I might have been reading the article alone in my room, but when I saw that, I had to yell “bullshit!”
As I see it, Compadre and Grace Coffee represent two opposing responses to the same scenario: When things aren’t working out, what do you do? Do you change course, or do you double down and deflect responsibility?
There’s a lot we could unpack in the Grace Coffee story, like how aggressive growth (Six locations! In two years! During a pandemic!) is detrimental to the well-being of staff members, or how easily Falcon could have owned up to his mistakes instead of blaming Grace’s problems—which are very much his responsibility—on his employees. But what I really want to focus on is what people do in the face of a roadblock. If the way you’re operating your business isn’t working, how do you move forward with that knowledge?
In contrast, Pepe and Compadre are very open about their shifts and pivots—about the mistakes or miscalculations they made along the way, and about what they did to course-correct. You can even go to their website, where they lay out a timeline of how the business has changed since its founding. It helps that their aim is fixed: to make the lives of farmers better. Their model is built around that singular goal, and is fluid as a result.
Growing and changing, learning from your mistakes, is the most human thing in the world. There’s no shame in acknowledging when you’re wrong; it’s certainly better than deflection. Ultimately, businesses, like people, have to be able to pivot—or risk losing sight of what’s important.
Before you go…
I might have Friends on the mind this week as I wrote a piece for Salon about how the iconic Chemex ended up as an important background prop throughout the series run. Check it out!
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