Danny O’Neill had no problem with Tuesday’s gray skies and steady rain.
“Perfect – absolutely perfect – coffee morning,” he said. “I just love this weather.”
O’Neill knows, and loves, coffee. He’s the founder and owner of the Roasterie, one of the metro area’s most successful startups of the last 20-plus years. On Tuesday, he offered insights, advice – and coffee – to business students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It’s one of dozens of events this week that are part of Global Entrepreneurship Week.
“Entrepreneurs are just totally wired differently,” he said.
Some Global Entrepreneurship Week events are in Eastern Jackson County, including some of the kickoff gatherings first thing Monday morning. Eve Brackenbury, who owns Inklings’ Books and Coffee Shoppe in downtown Blue Springs, said there was a lot of good energy at Monday’s kickoff event at the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce. She brought the coffee.
“It’s incredible doing business in Blue Springs,” she said Tuesday.
“People are really excited about community businesses working together and networking. ... That’s what Blue Springs is doing really well right now,” she said.
Brackenbury mentioned business programs such as Downtown Alive! and that the city, the chamber and groups such as the Blue Springs Economic Development Corp. are working together. Chamber President Lara Vermillion mentioned the booklet on how to start a business in Blue Springs that those groups worked together to create.
“We have all of those things going on, and this was just one more,” Vermillion said.
That abundance of resources for those wanting to start a business is one theme of Global Entrepreneurship Week. O’Neill said his company’s success, at least in part, has come from “a great, awesome support system here in Kansas City, where local means something.”
One example is the 1 Million Cups program, held weekly in Independence and elsewhere. Entrepreneurs describe their business, and the conversation often turns to how the community can help a company take the next step.
“Sometimes that’s when it gets very specific,” said Jordan Ellena, economic development projects coordinator with the city of Independence.
Resources also include business incubators such as the Ennovation Center in Independence. It has 58 tenants, many of them making artisinal foods.
“Each one is a little bit different,” said Xander Winkel of the Independence Economic Development Corp.
O’Neill had more praise for Kansas City and seemed to suggest that plays into how well businesses can go and grow.
“Nobody in Kansas City cares how much money you have,” he said. “And that’s not true in other cities.”
O’Neill stressed that those who go into business for themselves tend to be a breed apart.
“Not everybody’s built to be an entrepreneur. Not everybody should be an entrepreneur. ... We’re just different,” he said.
His advice: You might not realize a tipping point – that moment when your life changes permanently – in the moment you’re in it. Hire happy people. Hire for fit more than skills. “If they don’t fit, it just doesn’t matter,” he said. Collaborate with products that fit yours. Understand that having too few resources at hand can actually lead to creative and “infinitely better” solutions. Know your tolerance for risk. Acknowledge the stress, but don’t let it get to you and embrace that “game-day tension.”
And don’t quit.
There are times, he acknowledged, when the facts clearly say it’s time to give up.
“But an entrepreneur never quits. ... They never fold,” he said.
O’Neill walked away from a corporate job he didn’t like and took a year to study the one thing he loved – coffee. He figured he was headed toward opening a coffee shop, but friends told him – he seemed to agree – that he’s too high-energy for that. He kept studying. He ran across an air-roasting process and spent time with the man who built the machine. He sank most of his savings into that. He found a way, on the cheap, to turn his basement into a roasterie, and he got going.
In those early days in 1993, he was calling on people, trying to sell his $3.75-a-pound coffee. For weeks, no one said yes.
“Of course I wanted to quit. ... I did every single day.”
That first sale finally happened.
“Pretty soon we got an account and another account,” he said, adding that 18 of his first 20 customers are still customers. It fits with his idea of building for the long haul.
“Just growing for the sake of growing – we just don’t need it,” he said.
One student asked O’Neill when you know you’ve made it.
“Do we ever feel like we’ve made it? Absolutely not,” he said.
“You can never rest,” he said. “You just can’t.”