How to Make a Holacracy* with Skim Milk

What does it mean to create a Responsive coffeeshop?

This is Part II in a series about Robin’s Café, a coffeeshop at 3153 17th Street, San Francisco. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Part I.

Espresso at 3am

Raul Torres (right) discussing community during our first #ResponsiveCoffee meet-up at Robin’s Café

I woke up in a cold sweat. Glancing at my clock it was 3am and I had been asleep for all of four hours. I tried to sift through the thoughts brought on by the nightmare, “What if the customers laugh at me?” “What if the health inspector comes in?” “What if I literally freeze with terror and can’t do anything for my customers 0r employees?” As someone who really doesn’t have nightmares, this was a foreign experience. Why had I turned down a $200/hour consulting gig to fill my spring with sleepless nights and stress dreams? I made myself a cup of Pu-erh, headed into the still-dark cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, opened the shop by myself for the first time, and waited. It was finally real, and I was totally terrified.

How we are building a Responsive coffeeshop

Building teams is a lifelong passion. That’s what I would have been doing at as a consultant, but in opening a cafe there was an incredible opportunity to be able to do so from the ground up.

I was first introduced to Responsive Org in 2015, and the principles dovetailed well with much of my own work and thinking. The Responsive Org manifesto — co-written by my friends Steve HopkinsAdam PisoniMike Arauz, and others — outlines different tensions that most organizations experience when making the transition from a self-interested industrial-style assemblage machine to an organization focused on the consistent gentle evolution of both its product and its people.

More Predictable <-> Less Predictable

Profit <-> Purpose
Hierarchies <-> Networks
Controlling <-> Empowering
Planning <-> Experimentation
Privacy <-> Transparency

Learn more at

All of these tensions are present at Robin’s Café, yet the balance between hierarchy and network stands out as an essential struggle. I know very few people who would rather be overlord to a team of underlings than work alongside a truly competent colleague. Certainly, I prefer collaboration. And besides, we are all ultimately responsible for our own behavior. In a hierarchical workplace, when a boss walks in and employees change their behavior, it is still the employees who choose to act differently. The real question is whether each of us does our work from a place of fear or the conscious desire to contribute.

Responding to the Team

Inspired by The Ready’s OS Canvas, I recently outlined which aspects of cafe operations are non-negotiable, and which I consider to be up for discussion. We have some clear policies (you are welcome to peruse our Employee Handbook) and some other core tenets that I believe in strongly like Community, Service, and Responsiveness. But I was surprised that there are only a few non-negotiable aspects to the business — things like taxes, health code, payroll, and safety. There are not many rules, and those that do exist are very specific and frequently required by law. I consider everything else about the running of my business up for negotiation. Pay, vendors, menu, target audience and even the contents of the Employee Handbook — all up for discussion.

Recently, by a majority vote, we changed our hours to stay open an additional 15 hours/week. That’s what the cafe staff felt was important, what would serve their desire for more hours, and what we all agreed would better serve our community and customers. The more we are able to make decisions like this, the more people feel empowered to work as a team, and work in a way the really works. We are all more invested in what we are doing, which in turn impacts how we show up for our customers. I hope to build a cohesive team that continues to thrive together for a long time. And whatever we built here, it is my hope that these people — my team — will develop confidence and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Day 4 of operations, April 30, 2016

Better Coffee?

Months ago, when I sat scared in the dark, I was questioning every move that I had made leading up to opening the cafe. Now that a season has gone by, we’re beginning to get the hang of a new way of working. We’re definitely not a perfect system, as countless mistakes have shown, but we’re not trying to be one. We are striving to become a Team of Teams, a system that is in the process of becoming more skilled at responding to our own mistakes and finding solutions that stick. I can see the difference that building a team has created, see customer’s reactions to the vibe, and hear stories about the difference it has made in the lives of my staff. I won’t be the judge of whether it actually improves the lattes, but to iterate on how we work, and watch simple decisions affect my team, our customers, and beyond? That is worth more than anything.

*We aren’t building a Holacracy (but here is more on the concept). By way of comparison, I’m very intrigued with the Team of Teams model. Founders of both of these models will be in attendance at the Responsive Conference.

This article was originally published on Medium. It is the second installment in a series about opening of Robin’s Café, a cafe, gallery, and event space in the Mission, San Francisco.

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