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12 Life Lessons From a Former Bar Owner

I’ve said it many times; owning a bar is like getting a business school education for, well, the cost of a business school education. While sometimes I wish I had just taken the same amount of money and gone back to school, I know that the real business experience I got running a small business is invaluable. I learned about business, about myself, and got countless stories along the way, making me the most entertaining first date ever. But now I want to share these lessons with you so you don’t have to find out the same way I did; the really, really hard way.

#1 SLEEP ON IT. Whereas you shouldn’t go to bed angry, you should go to bed excited. Go to sleep excited about whatever big decision you’re about to make and sleep on it. For a week if you have to. I’ve learned the hard way that I agonize (and create detailed Excel spreadsheets) over the trivial decisions, like which color scuba fins to buy, but I make big decisions with the snap of a finger. When my partner first asked if I wanted to help him with the bar, I only hesitated briefly before saying yes. I’d always wanted to own a business and here was one just falling in my lap. Maybe I hadn’t seen myself owning a bar, but I hadn’t come up with a better idea yet. Boy should I have slept on that.

#2 IT’S OK TO SAY ‘NO.’ Which brings me to the next point; it’s ok to say ‘no.’ I’ve lived my life a people pleaser. I don’t like to disappoint people, so I have often gone out of my way to help. During the crazy months leading up to the bar opening, I was drowning in renovations, permit paperwork, strict budget limitations, and oh yeah, my full time job. But when a friend approached me to help plan a party for the day he proposed to another friend, now his beautiful wife, I didn’t hesitate to squeeze it into my schedule. I went mad coordinating with friends, checking in with the venue, capturing the moment all night, and at the end of the big day, never got so much as a ‘thank you.’ It was then I realized, people will take advantage of you as long as you let them. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help your friends, but sometimes it is ok to pass.

#3 KNOW WHO YOU’RE GETTING INTO BUSINESS WITH. I opened my bar with a guy I had been dating for a year and a half. After 18 months, it’s not irrational to think you know someone. Boy was I surprised to learn the truth about the guy I had gotten into bed with, literally. More on this later.

#4 IT’S OK TO ASK FOR HELP. You learn who your true friends are in a crisis. Once I realized the mistake I’d made by opening a bar in a location I couldn’t easily check on, with a guy who wasn’t who I thought he was, I felt stupid and embarrassed. I’m typically pretty successful in every other aspect of my life, so admitting failure was hard, and this kept me from reaching out to friends for a long time. But your true friends are the ones that will reach out and check in on you, drive the hour and a half to come watch Sunday football, and or even lend you their ear or couch when needed. And they may even know of a good accountant, lawyer, or other specialist to take a lot of the tedious, time consuming tasks off your hands.

#5 HAVE A VOICE. When we first opened, we wanted to be a craft beer bar. There was only one bar like it in the Bronx, and with a few more taps, we could totally compete. The only problem was our location wasn’t ready for craft brews. So we struggled. We bought TVs to cover sports, changed menus every time we got a new cook, and changed looks every time my partner got antsy for a new project. It was costly and confusing to patrons. I can’t stress it enough. Do your research and develop a strong brand identity. This voice is allowed, expected even, to change over time. But without a consistent, strong voice, your message will get lost in the 5,000 other messages people are exposed to every day. You want to be the one they remember, and keep coming back to.

#6 OPPORTUNITY COST IS A REAL THING. Your time is valuable. If you have to sit on three trains and a bus each way to get to work, you could be using your time better. That is six hours a day, or 12 hours in a 48-hour weekend that could be spent working, doing something you love, or absolutely nothing at all. I was hesitant to plunk down any more money for the bar, even though buying a car would give me back nearly eight hours (or a full work day) each week. But once I realized I was literally losing 416 hours each year that could be saved with a car, I happily put down the $15K. In the two years I had the car, it cost me $18/hr, far less than my time (and sanity) is worth.

#7 PRIORITIZE. Sure, you want to organize the office, change the picture frames and make way more creative ‘No Smoking’ signs than the standard ones provided by the Health Department, but these things can wait. Prioritize the things that matter. This could be the important tasks like budgeting or developing a marketing plan, important things in life like friends and family, or important things for your sanity like going for a much needed run. When we first opened, I missed a very good friend’s funeral because I was afraid to ask my business partner for the time away. I will never forgive myself. Fortunately, the friend has.

#8 WORRY ABOUT MONEY. I have often heard from other small business owners, or even my friends, that they don’t like to get into the weeds with money. I still have 35-year-old friends that do this in their personal life; they haven’t created a budget because they’re afraid to see where their paycheck is going. As a business owner, if you don’t dig in, you’ll never know where you’re losing money, and where there is opportunity to do better. Numbers can be scary, but if you don’t look, you’ll never be able to make them work for you.

#9 PEOPLE ARE SELFISH ASSHOLES. Now this is a tricky one that I was jaded by during bar ownership, but was renewed during my travels this past year. I want to see the good in people, so this one hurt. All bar owners have a realistic percentage of theft that slides by. You watch the pours, the timesheets, and the register, mark bottles, and count inventory, but it happens. Do expect the worst, but manage accordingly by fostering loyalty, offering incentive programs, and providing a place that people want to work. Theft will still happen, but if people are happy and motivated, they will be in it for the long run, and therefore less likely to take advantage of you.

#10 YOU CAN’T PLAN FOR EVERYTHING SO STOP WASTING YOUR TIME. No matter how Type A you are, situations will arise that are out of your control. Our first year in business, I agonized over every detail, from the way inventory was managed, to staffing and customer satisfaction. But then a kid smashes through your front window wielding a knife at 3am on a Tuesday night and you realize things are often out of your control.

#11 TAKE VACATIONS. Like most small business owners, I was a one-man show; our HR, Finance and Legal departments. I also had to play owner, host, bartender, waitress, party planner, social media maven and occasional cook. Oh, and I still had a full-time job. I was exhausted, I was beat up, and I still had to smile at work seven days a week. Because small business owners with full-time jobs don’t get days off. We’re the ones that work on Christmas and New Year’s so that everyone else can have a good time. Which is why it’s important to take some breathing room for yourself. Your mind and your teammates will thank you. And honestly, whatever it is… it can wait.

#12 BE PASSIONATE. When you love what you do, it shows. You may have just pulled two all-nighters in a row, but you still exude that glow of excitement that people gravitate towards. It was very obvious to both my staff and patrons when I lost interest in the bar business. Foot traffic and sales slumped almost immediately, as did staff loyalty. When you feel disgruntled, find a way to remind yourself why you started in the first place or get out. Even though personally I’m a craft beer nut, reminding myself that I only got into the business to help a friend and that if I had my choice I would do it differently was enough reason for me to get out. Love what you do (knowing it will be hard sometimes… ok a lot of the time), or don’t do it at all.


* Originally posted on Medium 8.6.16.