3FE founder, podcaster, and Ireland Barista Champion Colin Harmon debuted his book “What I Know About Running Coffee Shops” at the London Coffee Festival last weekend. The book will be available worldwide on the official website on April 20th. We had a chance to sit down with Colin in London to pick his brain about the project.
Hey Colin, thanks so much for speaking with us. You wrote a book!
It started about six years ago, I would say. I decided, “Oh yeah, I'm going to write a book about running a coffee shop,” as I was growing a coffee shop. I thought it might help crystallize my thoughts a bit as well as the fact that as we were growing wholesale, people always asked for advice about different aspects of it. I thought if I had one place where I could compile all this, it would be useful for people.
And then it kind of just dropped off because it's never important when you're your own boss with a project like this, the deadlines keep drifting. Sometimes I'd forget it for nine months. I'd go, “Oh yeah, I'm writing a book”.
I started a master's course in enterprise innovation and design in ECD in Dublin. As part of that course you have to launch a business. So I said, “It's a perfect opportunity to do this with a book because then I'm forced to do it and I'd have deadlines.” That was eighteen months ago. It moved pretty fast.
A lot of the information I found quite easy to write because they're very familiar questions that people have asked me over the years. Not that I have the answers rehearsed, but they're very familiar to me. I gave the editor forty thousand words and said I wanted to hit fifty-five thousand. He read through it, arranged them, and said, “Okay, this doesn't make sense. You haven't done a chapter on this.” And I'd go, “Okay,” and then I just knock out six thousand words on that subject. And he'd go, “Yeah. That's great.” It came really easily that way.
The amount of time I spent on it wasn't really huge because it was just so familiar to me. But I hope what I achieved with that was something that was easy to read and that was the goal. That you'd enjoy and that people that worked in my shop would enjoy it, but also civilians would enjoy it, like my friends or my family or people that just have a passing interest in other people's jobs and careers.
I read a lot of books on architects or cyclists or coal miners or just random stuff just because I'm interested in things. I'm hopeful it has a broad appeal.
So it's a kind of a hybrid of memoir and how-to?
Completely. I think anyone that runs a coffee shop knows that there's no absolute way to do it. A lot of it's kind of painful because there's a lot of stuff in there that I'm kind of embarrassed about, things that I really fucked up and mistakes that I made. That was probably the most painful part of it was just getting that on the paper. It's pretty personal, a lot of the things in there. To me at least, it seems so.
I think a lot of people that are interested in opening coffees shops read it and maybe reconsider because it really isn't for everybody. So I think there's a bit of that in it. It's not about absolutes, it's not about telling anybody how to do it, it's more about, “This is what I did.” I've been asked a lot over the years for advice so I'm hopeful that there's an audience out there that will be receptive to it.
What was your process of writing the book?
One of the things I found really helpful was I tend to be stuck in traffic when I'm going home from work and it's kind of dead time. So I'd take my iPad or iPod or iPhone, even, and I'd put my earphones in, plug it in, press record, microphone, and I'd think of a topic during the day, so if it was steaming milk or something, and then I'd just talk about everything I knew about that. Then when I'd go home, I'd listen back to what I'd said and then just transcribe that. And then I'd do the same thing the next day.
Then I'd also do this thing where I'd … If I was talking to somebody and they asked me for advice or something, I'd go, “One second,” and I'd take out my phone and I'd write the topic of what they'd just ask me about in the text of the email and in the title I'd write, “Book with three O's,” and I'd send it to myself. So every time I'd sit down to write, I'd search ‘book' with three O's and all these topics would come up and I'd go, “Oh, I'll do that one.”
Because if you try to sit down and think of ideas. If I go, “Think of five ideas now,” you're under pressure and you can't do it. You always think of ideas when you're watching football or out for a run or something. You're subconscious is working, you come up with these things. That's how I come up with ideas. Then the execution was easy because I just talk by myself in a car for an hour. So yeah, it works for me.
When you started your café, who did you turn to for advice?
I was lucky that Trevor O'Shea, who ran The Twisted Pepper [now Wigwam Bar], gave really great advice, but I didn't really realize it at the time. I just thought he was being an asshole. So he just kept pointing out things I was doing wrong and I just thought, “This guy's a prick.” Now looking back it was great.
My dad works in construction and he was really good with advice. Steve Leighton has been great. And James Hoffmann, too. James has given really great advice over the years. I don't really see him that often, just on some projects and events and stuff, but I always find that the time that we spend talking about business I find really useful. It was good that he actually proofread the book a bit for me as well. That was kind of handy.
I think the thing about any business really is it's kind of a lonely place when you run the business. It's really hard to ask for advice. I think, looking back, there are lots of times when I should've asked for advice and I didn't. So if some people out there were in that same position maybe they can read the book and get some advice without having to ask, in a weird sort of way. I'm hoping it will help people.
This debuted this weekend at the London Coffee Festival. How many books did you bring?
I brought a hundred books.
Did you sell out?
I think it took maybe six hours to get through.
I wasn't a hundred percent sure I was going to get them here because I self-published it. I was approached by a few publishers to do coffee books and anytime I told them about my idea they were just like, “No, that wouldn't work. The market doesn't want this. You should do this.” I think there's an inner streak of petulance that's always been hurting me, “Oh, I'm just gonna do it myself.”
So I paid for the design, I paid for the print run, I paid for everything up front, just so I could do it on my own terms. It might be the only book I ever do and I want to be able to look back and, even if nobody likes it, I can go, “At least I liked it and this is how I wanted it.”
With that, it was a drawn out process. I'm doing everything myself, really. I've got work group in Dublin where designers did a lot of great work, they helped me get it up and running. But there's a lot of monkey work in there. Getting it to London Coffee Festival was quite difficult.
I think the pallet landed in Square Mile on Wednesday. I did go there on Thursday morning and pick up five boxes, bring a hundred books there. It was nice to do that with Victoria Arduino and Nuova Simonelli because they've been such great supporters of me and my career as it's gone along. It's nice to just get up here and just sell a few books and have a soft lunch here.
It'll go on wide release on the 20th of April, so we've got distributors lined up around the world. None yet in the States, actually, in case anyone's reading. But we'll be able to ship individual books worldwide by the 20th of April. I'm looking forward to that.
Is it going to be on the website?
Yeah. So the website is whatiknowaboutrunningcoffeeshops.com and lots will be available on April 20th. Square Mile and Has Been are going to sell it in the UK. And then Bernie Chu is going to sell it in Asia as well, so he's got a list of countries he's going to take. Then I'm talking to people in Australia and in New Zealand as well. So I'm hopeful of getting it out there. It will be all over Twitter. You won't be able to not see it.
You said this might be the only book you write but you could write What I Know About Writing a Coffee Book.
Well actually, it's gotta go in a different direction. The plan next is I'm talking to, I don't want to say who it is, but there's a musician who's world famous, and I know him from coming to the shop. I've kind of pitched the idea and talking to him about doing “What I Know About Releasing an Album”. And that will be everything from how to get a band together to what you do when your jamming to how you record an album to how you go on tour and all that kind of stuff as well.
And then I'm talking to a couple of the athletes about “What I Know About Being a Professional Athlete” or “What I Know About Being an Olympian”. So I see the book will scale outside of coffee. I'm interested in finding different people, definitely some famous people who have a route to market, can just directly sell off a website because they have a quarter of a million followers on Twitter.
But also, I'd love to do “What I Know About Being a Carpenter”, just find someone who's a really great carpenter. Build a podium for people who just do really great work and what's seen as very simple things. I think that could become a real thing by itself.
I love that idea. I can help you write “What I Know About Writing a Coffee Blog” if you'd like.
Will you be coming out with an audio book?
Will I? World Barista Championship has taught me that nobody understands what I say, so maybe not. Maybe Gwilym [Davies] could read it.
That would be amazing.
If we get Gwilym to narrate it then maybe. But yeah, at the moment, I wanted a hardback book that was beautiful and I think I've achieved that so we'll see how it goes.
I agree. I think you've achieved it as well. Congratulations on this wonderful book. Thank you for talking with me.
Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge.
Book photos courtesy David Wall.