isabelle thye

A Millennial’s Truth #3: When a business partnership fell apart

I had 3 partners when we set up a café consultancy company in in 2015.

After a celebration lunch, I felt sick. I was drowned in emptiness and anxiety – what have I done with my life?

I remembered walking up a hill and gazing down at the city, feeling the warmth of sunshine and soft breeze on my skin. My surrounding was peaceful, but my inner being stirred with fear.

I was scared of not having a regular pay check, not knowing what will happen next, and not seeing a business in front of me.

I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in this venture. Seeing my partners’ enthusiasm and excitement, it quickly pulled me out of doubt and fired me up to take action.

Piece by piece, we built a company from ground up
The first thing we did was spending five figures to purchase coffee equipment. Amidst the exhilarating feeling of unboxing a giant piece of coffee machine, the reality of being in business sank in. I felt like an adult obliged with a heavy responsibility to nurture our new baby.

Soon, we signed a 2 years contract for an empty office lot. Four of us took a trip to Ikea and Harvey Norman, loading a truck full of furniture and electric appliances back. We assembled everything on our own and set up the office within a couple of days. As an all-girls team, I guessed we found strength when the circumstance required us to stand up for ourselves.

It was a fond memory of us enduring the non-sexy part of starting a business, sharing sweat and hope for a bright future.

Despite our glamorous status as founders, we were all CEO of our new company – ‘chief of everything’. We did everything by ourselves, from packing beans, brewing and bottling cold brew coffee, testing and developing new recipes, conducting barista training, delivery, to moving heavy boxes around the office.

Whatever it took to get going, we did it without a qualm.

Misaligned visions

After a few months, we felt the pressure of acquiring new customers. All of us had to do cold calling, drop coffee samples at cafes, and think of new ways to get new customers.

Even though I didn’t enjoy selling, I had to brace myself up to make those calls. The pain of not having business was bigger than my ego.

Despite high profit margin from services, it was ingredient supplies that paid our bill consistently. We realized that cold brew coffee was a product that involved a high volume of manual work with a low profit margin.

When two of my partners came up with the idea to apply for a loan to scale up cold brew coffee production, we had our major differences in where to steer the company towards.

From four of us striving towards the same goal, we now had two of us on each side of the boat after half a year. Soon, we came to a painful decision that we couldn’t stay together as a team. Being majority shareholders, H and I would buy the other two partners out of the company.

The split
I remembered the cold and merciless negotiation in a space we created together, where we spent countless hours striving for the same dream.

From what we used to be, the numbers were everything that was left to talk about. The whole conversation surrounded numbers and what we ‘deserve’. I was taken aback by the coldness in our tone, our hostility, and disappointment in each other.

I felt hurt by the way it was, the way it ended. I saw all my partners not only as business partners but friends whom I shared life with.

When I wavered the beginning, they pulled me up and gave me strength.

Many people told me that falling out was normal in a business partnership. In fact, there was a lot of information on the internet advising people on how to protect oneself from a partnership that goes bust.

The loss was personal
When my mum told me that it was okay to invest in all relationship including business, I almost cried.

I guessed hearing what I wanted to hear helped me get out of it.

It’s okay to choose trust and love by default.

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