I pinch myself a lot these days, expecting to wake up any second.
Let’s rewind four weeks.
I’m cruising the CBD, speaking to cafes. One guy takes an interest in me. ‘I have a proposition for you. I’ll train you up from scratch and then you can run the coffee machine while I go out and tout for business’. That sounds epic. It’s a deal! We pencil a start date for three weeks’ time.
A day later I receive an email: ‘Thank you for offering to volunteer at the Australian Barista Championships! PS, we’re still looking for a volunteer Stage Manager. Raise your hand if you’re interested’.
I’m interested. I fire off a CV, have a phone chat and boom! I’ve landed it.
I rock up early on Friday at the beginning of a three day stage managing marathon. I run around figuring out what the hell I’m supposed to do while keeping ego-filled baristas in check.
And that’s no easy task when this is what you’re up against:
'I want a man to time my performance, not a woman’ demands one barista.
The female time keeper looks at me, hurt and intimidated by what she just heard.
‘Listen, Sally will be your time keeper. And she'll do an excellent job'. End of.
While I’m running around like a headless chicken I get winged an invite to a networking event. Hours later I'm mingling with coffee importers, machine manufacturers and journalists.
I'm cracking jokes with one guy and eventually ask him how he fits into the grand scheme of things.
'I'm the CEO of Caffe Fiume (not it’s actual name), one of Australia’s largest coffee roasters. We put on this networking event'.
I applied for a high-powered sales job with these guys weeks ago. Never heard back.
My heart races. Keep it cool.
We continue chatting and I mention the job application I made.
'Oh, that's a role advertised by the Head of Victoria. He's around here somewhere - I'll find him for you'.
Half an hour later, I'm introduced to him. It's a little awkward. But I give him my pitch (ex-banker, travelled the world, looking for a new career blah blah) and we get chit-chatting. He promises to follow up with HR.
I crash to bed by 10:30 and I’m up again at the crack of dawn for Day 2.
The coffee competition gets more intense. And I desperately need caffeine. Any cup of over-extracted rubbish will do. I soon realise a bizarre fact: coffee trade shows are one of the hardest places to get a cup of coffee. The best espressos in the world are brewed for judges literally metres from where I'm standing and I can't get hold of a damn drop.
Come 5pm, I’m done. I crash out that night and miss two networking events. I just can't do it.
Roll on Sunday. The big final. It goes off smoothly (just) and before I know I’m at at the afterparty, hob-knobbling with the head of this coffee company and the barista for that. The Managing Director of a highly respected specialty roaster - Dark Force (not it’s actual name) - drops his card into my hands with a quick ‘let’s meet Friday afternoon and talk synergies'.
Come 3am, I collapse home and do nothing but sleep for two days.
The phone rings on Tuesday evening. 'Hi, I'm the HR consultant for the Senior Sales Manager position at Caffe Fiume. Are you okay to have a phone interview now?'
OMG. They actually followed up for me!
…but you want to do an interview right now?? I haven’t prepared for it.
I can’t say no, this is my only chance. I fumble my way through. It's not the best phone interview I've ever given. Oh well, no hard feelings. I’m just happy they considered me for the role.
A day passes. It's now Wednesday. I sit down for dinner when the phone rings.
'Hi, you've been accepted into the next stage of the selection process'.
Wow. Really? When's the next interview? 'Friday morning'.
One single day to prepare??
I pace up and down my house on Thursday, rehearsing my answers to imaginary questions out loud. The neighbours must think I’ve popped a loose screw.
I walk into Caffe Fiume's offices on Friday and am confronted with a barrage of questions I cannot for the life of me answer.
‘Can you give an example of a time you drove a difficult sales negotiation and elaborate on what you learnt from the experience?’
Not a chance in hell.
‘…um…how about I tell you about the time I managed a hedge fund survey and needed access to a global data set to assist us fulfil our regulatory objectives…?'
It’s not my best interview ever. And then comes the mock negotiation. I’ve half an hour to digest a bunch of random information and then convince a cafe owner not to leave to a competitor roaster.
‘This other roaster has offered me $7,000 in cash and lower wholesale coffee prices. I want you to offer me $100,000 and cheaper beans.’
Um…okay…well, let’s work on optimising your menu pricing and I can get you $50,000 in increased profits over three years.
‘I don’t believe you’. Here, look, I’ll show you the maths.
Before long he’s given in. Phew.
I meet more senior people but I've really got to dash at this point. This interview has lasted two and a half hours and I’ve got a second potential employer to talk to today!
An hour later I’m standing outside the doors of the Melbourne specialty coffee powerhouse: Dark Force.
I walk in and meet the Managing Director who handed me his card at the afterparty.
‘Tell me about yourself’.
I give him my pitch (ex-banker blah blah).
He interrupts me. ‘Hold on one minute, I want you to meet the CFO’. Five minutes later, I’m now chatting to the General Manager and the CFO.
I give my pitch again. ‘We’re excited. I want you to meet the Group CEO who runs this ship next Friday. James, this business is valued at eight figures and we’re pushing for nine. There’s equity potential for you. Have a think about what you can offer us and tell it to the Group CEO next Friday’.
Wow. I sent resumes to these characters weeks before for barista positions and didn’t hear a peep. Now we’re talking strategy and equity. What the hell is happening?
Caffe Fiume call me soon after. ‘James, your interview was strong. We want to have a second one with you. You’re one of two candidates left in the running’.
I can’t believe this. And then I remember that I’d already verbally agreed to be trained as a barista by the new cafe in the CBD!
He needs to be updated ASAP. I cycle over and fill him in.
I always thought having a mouth hang open in shock was a cartoon exaggeration. It never actually happens in real life.
But there was the CBD cafe owner, mouth hung open wide enough to swallow a tennis ball, as I tell him what’s happened since we last spoke. I feel bad for him but he understands that hospo is gruelling and agrees I should avoid it if I can.
A few days later I’m back at the offices of Caffe Fiume. It’s not an interview - it’s clear they want me. But they’ve got reservations about me. We need to come to an understanding.
The biggest of which is the job description itself.
‘James, you do realise this is a sales job? You’ve got to pull in $500,000 in new business this year. That’s equates to a new cafe a week’.
Yes. That’s going to be a lot of work. I’m ready for it.
We explore issues of tenure and personality and before I know it I’m offered the job.
But I can’t accept! I still have the interview with Dark Force to hammer out a potential role for me.
This is nuts. How did I become such a hot commodity? Two months ago I would have grabbed this opportunity without hesitation. And which of these companies do I choose if Dark Force offers me a role?
I turn up early on Friday evening at an uber-posh restaurant just off Melbourne's Botanical Gardens.
I meet both the General Manager and the Group CEO behind Dark Force’s success.
‘Champagne?’. Don’t mind if I do. (If only all interviews were like this).
‘James, where do you see yourself in five years?’. Well…ideally, running my own business in the coffee sector.
‘Okay. I’m going to be blunt: why should we hire you if you’re just going to steal our ideas and then run off and compete with us?'
…um…(can I take back what I just said!?)…yes, that’s a fair point…because I will help grow your business, deliver a successful exit and then be free to run my own show.
We talk about other things (with motorcycling and women as recurring motifs). But they don’t offer a role. It’s too soon. This chat was more exploratory than concrete. But we like each other and who knows what the future will bring.
I call Caffe Fiume and take the sales job.
We set a start date and, with that, my sails are rigged and ready for the wind to pick up. The billowing sails will wrench ropes taught and lug my boat across the waves.
I can now focus forward and watch for storms and distant shores.
Three months in and my coffee career has finally begun. And I couldn’t be happier!