So you’ve got a great job in IT, you’re earning six figures, working for one of the world’s best recognised brands and you’re growing everyday. But you start to notice that what really lights you up is getting up close to people and their stories… and serving with heart. So you throw in the mega bucks and make a leap to start a pizza shop. And then to leap with some buddies to start a digital signage business. And then, you leap to move to Melbourne and start your own coffee cart business. A really bloody great coffee cart business. With real baristas who give a damn about the weight of your grind, and the pull of your espresso.
I met Ryan Spaccavento while working on an event I was project managing. We hired his Coffee On Cue coffee cart business to provide Melbourne’s world class coffee standard at an event (which is pretty much UNHEARD of). I’m the first to admit I love a chat (hence, I love coaching and teaching!), but in Ryan I found my match. While skilfully overseeing his team deploy three custom-made coffee stations across our venue from the back from a nifty van, he managed to make me feel like I was a friend, that he was part of the management team and that he cared about the success of the event as much as I did. And his staff were charming, quirky and proactive. And he didn’t even give me a hard time when I told him I only drank decaf!
I’m not sure if it’s his regular high quality caffeine intake, but Ryan is a serial doer. I love his self awareness about what makes him happy, his commitment to follow unknown paths, his courage to do things different and his grit to make things work. I could do with a strong dose of that every day!
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
When I was a kid I always wanted to be a pilot. I loved the idea of jet setting around the world and wearing a cool hat. Even as a kid I was always the one to ask questions about people and never really stop. I was interested in who they were, what they did, how they got there. Growing up, I was inquisitive about success and was always hungry to hear other people’s stories. When my parents had real estate agents, people from the banks, pool builders or whoever come to the house I always wanted to see what they drove. Coming back to that, I thought being a pilot was a sure fire way to get whatever car I wanted to be out the front. As the years progressed I learnt that I was far more right brain and determining a creative path for a plane was nowhere near as important as determining its true mathematical path.
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
Probably quitting my well paid job in IT. I threw the towel in and poured my savings and borrowed money into a pizza shop – having had no experience in hospitality since I was 17. My business partner and I poured ourselves into a space with four walls. We bought a shell of a cafe that had gone broke with seafood blue walls. We quickly put newspaper on the wall and set to work borrowing, negotiating and creating. We’d never done anything like this on our own – the future was most uncertain.
What were you doing before you made your leap?
Walking, wandering and talking to people in hospitality – falling in love with their stories and wanting more from my life. I wanted to have open conversations with strangers like they could in a place they’d created.
I also worked in IT as a Business Development Manager for a Sydney-based tech startup. I was, for the most part, working from home, looking to reconnect with people.
Who have been the biggest 3 –5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
Rodney Jones- Founder of Revolver Cafe (among many). This guy took me under his wing before and during the opening of my pizza shop. His real test was when he invited me to the Sydney Markets to do a fresh produce shop. The look of shock on his face when I rocked up at 3:30am was priceless.
Craig Bunting- Craig was my manager at Apple. I started with him when I was 22 and he was just 28. Craig gave me a chance at Apple and taught me a lot: how to operate and be noticed in a large organisation and when to be the grey man. A lot of how I work today stems from the approach to customers and business that he taught me. I have a lot of respect for his honesty, intelligence, and perseverance.
My Time in Retail
Throughout my studies in high school, TAFE and Uni, I always worked retail jobs. I had a knack for connecting with people I’d never met and helping them with a product or service. I was, in fact, damn good at it, winning a stack of sales awards. The flip side was a grounding in public-facing roles that taught me how to be humble, and appreciate the bottom-up perspective. I think that anyone who’s spent enough time in retail has their skin thickened for the better and can optionally take more shit with a smile.
My Current Business Partners at Proxima – Sebastian Pedavoli & Dan Nolan
Sometimes when you work with people things just click. I have so much respect for these guys. Their powers combined make the biggest bullshit filter I’ve ever come across. Together we have a perfect balance of left and right brain. I love kicking goals with these guys and helping build ‘cool shit’.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
When it came to my initial leap in moving into hospitality and starting NOM, not a whole lot. I really believed in my idea, concept, and myself. I had a rough business plan and a semi-decent SWOT.
When I started Coffee On Cue I had a lot more experience in running a company and what to expect (notably how not to pretend it’s Christmas when you cash every cheque). In my experience and research, I saw that there was a clear gap in the events-based coffee market to offer a service that focused on the customer, their event, a high quality product, and amazing coffee with great service.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?
In my old world, I remember spending time in cafes on purpose and speaking to my customers more about the coffee, machinery and the story of the cafe, than my product itself. That was pretty good evidence that I wasn’t
doing myself any justice by peddling someone else’s story.
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
I’ve made a habit in my career to plainly say ‘fuck it’, I call it a case of the ‘fuck its’. I reached a point where planning, visualising, and talking about my ideas simply weren’t enough. I had to do something. I didn’t want to be the guy who could have, or would have said he would. That’s not me. I think that there are far too many people that allow fear of failure to get in the way of their potential.
The big moment for me was when I visited the owner of the cafe (that we then transformed into NOM) and handed them the cheque for their business. We exchanged contracts and I signed myself onto a lease for a commercial property.
At that point, my blind ambition needed courage to back it and I needed to verbally believe in myself to make the business work. I needed to rally designers, builders, marketers, friends, family, tradespeople and a community behind me and the cause of awesome wood-fired pizza.
What other leaps have you made in the past?
More recently I packed up everything I had and moved to Melbourne in February of 2014. I moved here with one van, one coffee cart, a sort-of-website, and a mission to close a gap in the coffee cart market—in Melbourne: the coffee capital of Australia. This was somewhat of another gamble having no contacts here in Melbourne prior to the leap. I was just following a dream.
What leaps didn’t workout? What did you do about it?
I’ve been significantly lucky. In the pizza shop we didn’t make money for a long time. We hired in Neapolitan pizza chefs who worked when they wanted and would only communicate in Italian. This prompted me to hire in an expert and learn from his skills. We hired a hybrid chef to teach us the ways of an Italian pizzaiolo who was Italian but spoke good English. He was a bit of an outsider in his own industry, so showing some fresh blood the ropes was right up his alley – he instantly had credibility. This helped us find our style, our flavour and develop systems so as not to rely on the whims of unreliable staff.
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap? 1 being sad, 10 being rad.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
I finally worked for myself and was proud of what I’d created. It was my idea, name and concept design on the front door. I loved that people loved to come in and say hi and, of course, have a pizza. I was able to be open and proud about what I had created both in terms of the food and the space.
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
I feared for what people might say or ask about opening NOM. People would say ‘good luck’ or ‘didn’t that used to be a pizza shop?’ or ‘so what else do you do?’ Their doubt somewhat bred doubt.
Initially I’d take on every single person’s advice with a huge dose of humble pie. I didn’t want to go bankrupt to start with. So when I didn’t, and consequently kicked some goals, I became more open and confident.
What might be your next leap?
I’ve always got a few things in the brew. My parents now say ‘oh yeah, oh yeah’.
What are your favourite words to live by?
Back yourself, believe and push on.
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
Recently I’ve been mentoring a guy named Dan who has a really cool (and niche) coffee machine customisation business. He started on Instagram sharing photos of coffee machine group handles he had made by hand out of wood. Just last week he quit his six figure salary job to pursue it full time. That dude is kicking some serious goals and making things that he’s proud of every day.
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
I always hear people saying that they’re not satisfied with their corporate job. They’re upset with something or other in their life or they’re forced to be where they are. Some of those people then say to me: ‘what you do looks fun, much easier than having to go to work every day…maybe I’ll open a cafe’.
To them I say two things:
1) Having job security comes at a cost, you weigh that up for yourself.
2) If you want to get into hospitality or open a cafe, go and work in your most admired cafe/restaurant/food truck and see what it’s like. If you can go a month working from the bottom and you still love it, then push on.
Right now I’m:
Hearing: CARIBOU – Can’t Do Without You
Eating: 1850 calories per day. I’m doing a 12 week weight-lifting program.
Drinking: Long Black Single Origin Koko Yirgacheffe Ethiopia made on my La Marzocco GS3
Reading: Family Village Tribe by Mandy Johnson
Loving: Feeling good about feeling fit. I get up at 6am everyday and actually like it – wowza.
Thanks for reading and I’d love to know what you loved most about Ryan’s story. Happy leaps this week beautiful kin.