The Story of How We Took Our Passion and Changed the World
We opened Overflow Coffee Bar over 5 years ago but the dream and the passion goes back a lot farther. Here’s the longest version of the story we’ve ever put in 1 place!
Brandon: As a teenager in New Orleans, I hung out at my local neighborhood coffee shop. I knew the owner and dreamed of one day being like that guy. After high school, I went on a journey to change the world. That’s what I wanted to do – to make a difference, to feel like my life mattered.
This journey to make a difference took me into the Marine Corps, to the music industry, and finally to IT work. The military proved to be less than an ideal fit since I’m not much of a conformist rule-follower (hence why I’m now an entrepreneur). The music industry showed itself to have some shady characters (non-disclosure agreements keep me from sharing the details on this blog but I can say I worked for R. Kelly for a while. ‘nuff said.). Then, IT turned out just to help make more money for rich people (think helping bankers figure out how to use their blackberries and counting customers going in major chains).
I never found my way to the difference I wanted to make but that coffee shop idea was still in the back of my head.
Amanda: I am a Millennial and proud of it. I grew up watching save the whales and save the rainforest documentaries. I’m also a perpetual optimist so I’ve never doubted that I could help make the world a better place.
All the jobs I’ve ever had, except for the very first one the summer before college, were with nonprofits. I tutored kids. I did medical research surveys. I was a resident assistant in my dorm. I worked for a church. I eventually landed a great position with a national health-related organization. It was great. I was making a difference and changing people’s lives through the work I did. Yet, I wasn’t satisfied.
I couldn’t stop thinking, “There had to be a better way to make a difference than taking rich people’s money to help the less fortunate” (what charity and nonprofit work was created for in the first place). The wheels in my brain were turning. I am a UChicago graduate. I was taught how to think. I couldn’t stop myself.
Spoiler Alert: When I was in Jr. High, I wrote this quotation everywhere: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
How This Whole “Overflow” Thing Started
We remember the EXACT moment we decided that we were going to go on this journey to open a social enterprise coffee shop… although we didn’t know the words “social enterprise” then (more on that later in this post).
It sounds a little naïve now but we wouldn’t go back to change it. Compared to alternate timelines, we’d choose this one every time. We decided to finally go on the adventure of a lifetime to figure out how to use our passions to make this world a better place and never turn back. That moment we made one of the best decisions ever.
The Moment When It All Began
It was March 2008. We had been married for almost 2 years. The newness of the marriage journey had worn off and we started asking God and ourselves the question, “What are we really meant to do as a couple? What’s our destiny together?” We had a general idea but we wanted a specific answer.
So we decided to fast for 40 days and to eat only fruits and vegetables and to drink only water. After 20 days we knew that we knew that we knew that we couldn’t live average lives with the white picket fence and 2.5 kids. We knew we didn’t care about getting rich or having the “perfect” family or “easy” lifestyle. We knew we had a rebellious streak to us and needed to carve our own path. We knew we were about to go on a crazy journey to figure out the specifics. So we celebrated and broke our fast with a meal at Joy Yee on Halsted St in the University Village neighborhood, one of our all-time favorite places and a place we remember fondly.
From that moment we started dreaming. We read books. We talked with mentors and friends who knew us well. We prayed. The idea of starting a coffee shop started as one of many possibilities and became the #1 thing we must do… first for Brandon and then for Amanda.
Amanda: It was that same Spring and early Summer that I would walk through a neighborhood called “South Loop” and find myself crying. My heart was drawn to the people.
A year after that decision moment, in March 2009, we went to Seattle for a week and wrote the first draft of our business plan. We visited a couple coffee places there. We came back with even greater certainty that we were on the right track.
On July 15, 2009, we moved to the South Loop and started scoping out a location.
Amanda: I left my job first. I did a 3-month apprenticeship with Ruth Hoekwater at the Common Cup in Rogers Park. I worked for her for free in exchange for being able to learn the coffee industry. I continued to refine the business plan and get the foundations in order. We even started selling coffee beans and delivering them to people’s homes. I would travel the El with a suitcase of 1-pound bags of coffee… I looked a little like a drug dealer and a little like a lost teenager.
Then we got to the points when we almost gave up . . . Really!
Amanda (cont): There were a few times in 2009 and 2010 when Brandon would come home from his cubicle job and I would be in tears ready to give up and go back to a “safe” life. One of those times, instead of having dinner at home, we walked to Potbelly on Roosevelt between Wabash and Michigan. We sat there and talked for a long time. We remembered why we were doing this and that no alternate possibility would be as fulfilling in the long term.
Those times were nothing compared to 2012. Here’s what happened the first 6 months of 2012 (1 year into Overflow being open):
- January – Our cat Mercedes passed away at 3 years old due to cancer.
- February – Amanda’s mom (Mary) had a terrible stroke and was in the hospital for a long time.
- March –We celebrated Overflow Coffee Bar being open for 1 year.
- April – Brandon’s grandmother (Grams) passed away.
- May – Amanda visited the ER with a miscarriage at 12 weeks.
- June – Brandon visited the ER with appendicitis and had his appendix removed.
We could keep going… In 2013, we almost destroyed our marriage (we’ll leave that long, scandalous story for our memoir).
We got to the edge of quitting so many times but instead of throwing in the towel we decided to learn what we needed to learn from each experience and keep moving forward.
The hard times are the times when we’d go back to the best advice we ever received… to that thought we carry in our back pockets.
And that advice is: “You have to know that you know that you know.”
And, boy, do we know. We can look back to our childhood, to the alternates we tried early in our careers, and, most importantly, we can look to that fasting time in 2009. We can look to those times and say, “Yes, we know that we know that we know we’re on the right track.” The bridges and boats are burned. Life might get tough sometimes but we’re learning how to better fulfill our destiny each step along the way. There’s a great purpose behind us and before us that keeps us moving forward.
At that moment in 2009 when we decided to do this thing, we didn’t know many of the ramifications of what we were doing . . .
. . . we didn’t even have the language for it.
We had never heard those words “social enterprise” before. We wrote the mission, vision, and values sections of our business plan from our hearts. Our business model and goals came from our imaginations coupled with what we’d learned from the apprenticeship and from work and life experience in general.
Here’s an example: When Illinois passed the L3C law in August 2009 we were clueless. It wasn’t until 5 months later, when we realized our business model wasn’t going to pass muster with the IRS as a tax-exempt organization, that we found out about L3C and then only because 2 acquaintances sent us an article about it. When we read about L3C, we had a huge “Aha!” moment. This structure was Overflow! It’s what we’d been trying to do all along. When we decided to pursue becoming an L3C, we didn’t know we’d become the 17th in the state of Illinois. We didn’t know we’d meet the author of the law. We didn’t know that author would call us “thought leaders.”
And it’s not just L3C. There are so many things we’ve learned along the way that we were clueless about in the beginning. This is one of the HUGE lessons: You have to start with what you know and keep learning along the way. You won’t learn what you need until you start. Plus, if you don’t keep learning along the way, you’ll never have all the knowledge you need.
We couldn’t find anyone who was on the exact same journey as us.
We’ve known several other entrepreneurs. We even know some people who started coffee shops. There are other coffee shops trying to change the world. Yet, our journey is unique.
We started as 20-somethings still paying off student loans. We started in the heights of an economic recession. The odds were heavily stacked against us. We hope the odds are more in your favor.
On the one hand, we wouldn’t wish the hardships we’ve encountered on anyone. On the other hand, we wish everyone could go on an entrepreneurial journey because of the personal growth that comes throughout the process. We are much better people than we were 8-9 years ago. Not that we were bad then. Just that we had a lot of room for growth.
In The End, And After A Lot of Work . . . All Our Passion and Drive Has Worked . . And in a BIG Way.
Back when we began doing all of this we never would have dreamed that after 5 years, we’d be ready to go way farther than we initially dreamed. You see, our original dream included a single coffee shop impacting a single neighborhood.
What we’ve come to realize is that we can help people all over the world act locally to make a global impact in a similar way to what we’ve done. It might be through coffee since coffee is still a great way to change the world. But it also could be through many other vehicles – farming, visual art, performance arts, job trainings, policy and advocacy, and so many more things. We’re ready to see this thing become a movement. We’re ready to see a record number of people doing their passion and making a positive difference through entrepreneurship.
But In Addition To Being Humbled By The Impact We’ve had, We’ve Also Been Blessed to Have A Very Gratifying Lifestyle
We don’t make a lot of money. We still work long hours. But we get to make our own schedule. We get to do more and more of what gives us life.
And we’ve avoided many of the pitfalls that others encounter. At the risk of bragging and with a big shout out to our financial advisor and the best budgeting tool ever…
- We’ve come to realize that almost every business owner we know has sunk their life-savings (and some of their friends and families’ life-savings) into their business… Overflow has already paid us back the initial capital we put in.
- We’ve come to realize that almost every social enterprise that gets a loan doesn’t end up paying it back… Overflow hasn’t missed a single payment and is months from paying a loan back in full.
All this hasn’t come without sacrifice. We live a very simple life. Yet we wouldn’t have it any other way. We said to TimeOut Chicago back in 2011 that not everyone wants to be rich like Donald Trump. We are okay with enough. Enough is exactly what we have. More so, we KNOW we’re not making other people poor by making money for ourselves. That is the most gratifying part of what we do!
So Here’s What We’re Coming To . . . Here’s What’s Being Demanded Of Us . . . And Here’s What We Feel Compelled To Do . . .
Here’s the deal.
We feel that we are being compelled to step up to the plate. It would be a disservice for us NOT to share what we’ve learned. It would be very selfish if we kept it to ourselves instead of sharing the HOPE we have with as many as possible.
The time has come for a sharing of our mission AND the formation of a world-wide community.
We’ve wanted this for a long, long time. And this is way overdue. Back in 2012 was the first time we played around with a larger idea. At that time is was “The Overflow Institute for Positive World Change.” We’re glad we didn’t do that then. We’ve learned WAY more since.
The time seems way riper now… and not just because of the past election. The time is ripe because leadership and power is beginning a tremendous shift into the hands of Millennials. As a whole, Millennials are primed to fundamentally alter things on this planet and for the better. We believe we can help this happen faster and with less of the adverse costs and sacrifices than we’ve had personally. We believe we’ve gone on our journey to learn some things that will help others do more of the same – use their passion and entrepreneurship to make this world better.
But the huge task of fundamentally altering this planet for the better CANNOT be done alone.
This huge task can’t be done by Millennials only. It can’t be done only through protesting. The task needs as many people as possible doing their passions to their utmost ability and making the world a better place. And more, we need to be able to make money while we do it. No more starving artists. No more underemployment. No more less than living wages. For everyone on the planet. Full stop.
Along these lines, we have down-‐in-‐the-‐trenches proven (over an over again) techniques that actually work. They have worked for us. They have worked for people we know. Now, we’re ready to share them with whoever is ready to learn.
To get started… We’re offering 30-minute strategy sessions.
IF you’re serious about using your passion to make a difference through entrepreneurship… we want to talk with you on the phone. It won’t cost you a dime but it just might change your life.