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How To Find Success As A Small Business Owner While Thriving As Someone Else’s Employee


In 2013, Ashley and Mike Colombo celebrated their wedding with family and friends at L’Appart Resto in San Anselmo, California. Little did they know that their reception venue would become the couples’ entrée into small business ownership just two short years later. In the land of high tech startups and world-altering innovations, the Colombos, now the parents of two active children, invested in the hospitality industry where 59% of businesses fail without the first three years of business. And they did this while not leaving their day jobs; Mike Colombo is the CMO at Cloudwords and Ashley is the Senior Director of Executive Communications at SAP SuccessFactors. Between long commutes and chauffeuring their daughter and son to sports, school, and other extra-curricular activities, the Colombos have adjusted to a life that appears to enable them to have their cake and eat it too.

Together with their business partners, General Manager Oliver Criado and Head Chef, Alexandre de Jesus, the couple is working to be part of the 41% of restaurants that succeed. Here’s how you can find success as an entrepreneur without leaving your day job:

Make money while serving a real need in the market you serve: Like so many small towns, San Anselmo, once a thriving community, fell victim to big box and e-commerce. “Before we became partners in L’Appart, a guy bought 3 other restaurants and then ran them into the ground. And rents were going up around the town. As a result, our small town was going dead. Restaurants and businesses were closing down or moving out,” says Ashley Colombo. With a median home sale price of over $1.2 million, this small but tight community of nearly 13,000 people had to leave their hometown to dine out. While this might seem like a rich person’s problem; the economic impact of businesses leaving cannot be ignored. “Investing in this business meant investing in the place where we live and are raising our kids,” says Colombo.

Build a community, not just a business. Thanks to the Colombo’s training and experience in brand and community building in high-tech, L’Appart is more than a French-inspired restaurant with a great menu and mouthwatering food. “We have a fully integrated communications and marketing plan to build a community around the restaurant”, says Ashley. They manage and execute on the plan but in concert with their partners. The plan creates the bridge between the two public faces of the restaurant: Criado and de Jesus, and the people of San Anselmo and the surrounding towns. Consistent messaging, tonality, and using social channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat help to engage the hearts and minds of current and potential patrons with a restaurant brand that is based squarely on community.

Create a plan, do your part and make sure you have buy-in. With a desire to make money from their 50% share in the restaurant while reinvesting in their community, the Colombos knew from their years in corporate environments that strategy, not just opportunity, would be crucial. But that comes with challenges in joint ownership. “From the corporate world, you work from a strategy and business plan. Our chef and manager are not used to working from a corporate-grade business plan. And Mike and I had to unlearn an unconscious belief that all businesses work like the corporate world,” says Ashley. The couple created a strategy and plan for growth and use it as a tool for the four owners to stay focused on time and money investments. “It is critical to keep everyone engaged on the plan on a regular basis, to keep our eyes on the ball because a lot of distractions and shiny new objects tend to present themselves. Everything seems like a good idea but we have to work from a budget that was put into place based on growth goals,” says Ashley.

No matter the industry, customer experience is the holy grail. For any business, only focusing on the product will result in failure. Longevity in the restaurant business is an emotional thing. “People want to feel taken care of,” says Ashley. Using their corporate communications and marketing training, Ashely and Mike could take a holistic view. Using themselves as a typical customer personas, it was clear that the customer experience as much about how people are treated, how the restaurant feels, and how the service is experienced as it is about the food. “We make sure we go into the restaurant regularly to see what the experience is,” says Ashley.

Timing and policies are everything. Before you launch your business while still working for someone else, make sure you understand your employer’s HR policies. Many companies are open to their employees having an outside venture if there is no conflict of interest and that job performance is not impacted. And, Ashely cautions that, given the energy and financial investment, to only move forward when the timing is right. “Our world is changing and investing in this restaurant has given me a way to feel more engaged in this world and in my community. I would not have felt this way five or ten years ago. It was the right opportunity at the right time,” says Ashley.


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