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Cultivating a palate for business

Valentine Coffee Co. is the perfect blend for founder Robb Kashevarof: it fulfills a personal passion and addresses a market need. During a recent chat, Robb expressed the company’s mission as “finding balance in a cup of coffee. One that isn’t over-roasted or under-roasted, and is friendly to the environment, farmers, your belly and your palate.”

But even while pursuing his passion, Robb, as with most startup business owners, learned that finding personal balance is nearly impossible. When he started Valentine Coffee back in 2009, Robb was the founder, commodities trader, roaster, salesperson, banker, plumber and electrician. The surprises and lessons learned when Robb founded his company seven years ago are still fresh in his mind.

1) Check your ego at the door

“I had to play so many different roles,” Robb recalls. “I set my ego aside and realized I had more questions than answers.” Online research was a good start for Robb, but it took many late nights and early mornings to understand all aspects of the business, from purchasing to roasting to packaging, and from financing to regulatory requirements. Going online wasn’t enough to deal with the problem-solving required to run the business, and Robb reached out to someone who had experience as a startup business owner. “I have a great mentor in Joe Bartolotta. He introduced me to my banker and believed enough in me to put Valentine Coffee in all his restaurants.”

2) Nurture a strong network of experts so you can focus on what you do best

Tap into the knowledge of your resources. “We’re not accountants or attorneys. My business partner [Joe Gilsdorf] and I needed to find advisors who were bullish on us and who could interpret our needs, so we could run our company,” Robb explains. Once, Valentine’s banker snapped a photo of their white board after a pipeline planning session. “[Our banker] used the photo to approve our request for money to lease equipment needed to meet those demands.”

3) It’s not a choice: re-invest in the company before you pay yourself

7-18-2016PB_imageA startup has an insatiable appetite for cash. “Everything was going back into the company. In the beginning, I couldn’t pay myself. I remember my wife’s reaction the time I bartered coffee for string beans as a form of payment,” Robb laughs. With business partner Joe Gilsdorf, who joined him in 2011, and a more formalized business structure, times have changed. Constant conversations between banker and owners help them stay on top of cash flow in their fast-growing operation. “We talk with our banker on a frequent basis. When we’re ready for the next jump, the bank continues to support us at each stage,” adds Robb. After making those smart initial investments back into Valentine, Robb can pay cash for his string beans while funding business growth. The next jump for Robb and Joe is a new retail café in the Drexel Town Square development.

4) Know when it’s time to relieve yourself from certain responsibilities

Startups are faced with limited time and resources. In the beginning, owners must fill all roles. While beneficial for learning all aspects of the business, it limits how much an owner can accomplish. Joe recalls, “There was a time when both of us couldn’t be in the same meeting because that would cut our capacity in half – production would cease.” To maximize capacity, Robb and Joe divided their time and responsibilities. Now every hire, whether purchasing, production or logistics, allows them to have more time to work on their business rather than in it.

Have the two found balance?  With their coffee, certainly!  But their daily workload? Well, during my 39-minute conversation with Joe and Robb, there was a break for a cold-brew taste test and a steady stream of phone calls, texts and emails. I don’t think they would want it any other way.

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Valentine Coffee Co. respects the art, science, passion and sustainability of coffee by ensuring their product is farmed, sourced and roasted responsibly. Their headquarters and first retail café are located at 5918 W. Vliet Street, with a second location coming to Drexel Town Square. You will find their coffee available for purchase at fine grocers, farmers markets and restaurants throughout metro Milwaukee 

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