183: John Pierson: Who Are You Serving Today?: Why We Should Pursue Things We Enjoy, Striking A Balance In Our Lives, Valuing People Above Tasks, Learning Patience In The Process, And Embracing The Idea Of Change
In running a business, values still trump mere money-making strategies. That’s why in any setting, entrepreneurs who give enormous regard to servant leadership will always find success in their chosen field. Athlete-turned-businessman John Pierson sits down with Thane Marcus Ringler to share how he concentrates on the mindset of serving others in running his business, Servant Coffee. He goes deep about how putting others in front of you is key in gaining meaningful relationships and even more fulfilling results. He also shares his own recipe of achieving the right balance in life as he jumps roles between a loving father and a hard-working business owner.
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John Pierson: Who Are You Serving Today?: Why We Should Pursue Things We Enjoy, Striking A Balance In Our Lives, Valuing People Above Tasks, Learning Patience In The Process, And Embracing The Idea Of Change
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This is a show all about the process of becoming. We believe it takes living with intention in the tension. Infusing a reason why into all that we do as we all try to learn how to live a good life. Thank you for being a fellow up and comer and being a part of this community. We couldn’t do it without you truly. If you wanted to help our community and further our vision for this show, there are three easy ways. The first is leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. That is a great way. It takes about one minute and it helps us be seen by more people.
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I’m excited as usual for this interview to share with you. This is an interview featuring John Pierson. Who is John? John is the Owner and Founder of Servant Coffee based here in Denver, Colorado. He has a beautiful wife and two young kids. Prior to moving to Denver and starting Servant, John worked in the oil and gas industry for fifteen years. He spent the first ten years in Houston and upon getting married, he and his wife Sarah moved to London where they would spend the next five years.
John and Sarah have a fond love of traveling and use their time in London to explore all different parts of Europe. John grew up in Houston and attended Texas A&M for his undergrad. He graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and later got his MBA from Duke University. John and his family love the outdoors and the lifestyle that Colorado affords. When he’s not busy at Servant Coffee, he can be found on the slopes teaching his young kids to ski. John and Sarah prioritize their faith as their core foundation and hope to live life according to God’s will.
This interview was a blast. John is a great dude. We talk about a lot of things including his background as an athlete, his focus during education, pursuing things that you enjoy, striking a balance in life, servant leadership, being a specialist versus a generalist. Also, experiencing different cultures lessons learned from entrepreneurship, embracing change, and much more. It’s a pretty wide-ranging and fascinating story of someone who spent fifteen years in a position and pivoted into a whole new arena.
There are great insights there. If you are a coffee fan, definitely check out Servant Coffee. They are making delicious coffees here in Denver. They do a great job and I’ve enjoyed every coffee I’ve had from them. As a coffee lover and fan, you know that I vet my recommendations quite a bit so definitely go to ServantCoffee.com and get yourself some fresh beans when you have a second. Thanks again for reading. Please sit back, relax, grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy this interview with John Pierson.
John Pierson, welcome to The Up & Comers Show.
Thanks, Thane. Thanks a lot for having me. I’m definitely excited to dive in with you.
It’s going to be fun. We’re sitting in your basement here. It’s nice and damp for the sound. I appreciate that. I wanted to start with this, ‘80s music. What is it that is so great about ‘80s music?
Ironically, I had somebody ask me this not too long ago. My wife of course always asked me this because I love to listen to it. I said that one of the things I love about ‘80s music is the majority of it is super upbeat. I’m not sure that there’s a lot of bad vibes that you get off from a lot of ‘80s music so it tends to be my go-to although, I’m pretty eclectic in my music. I listen to pretty much anything.
When did the ‘80s music first strike a chord with you? What do the critics or the haters say about it?[bctt tweet=”If we can be mindful of others around us in everything that we do, that yields greater fruit across the board for everyone.” via=”no”]
A lot of it stems from my childhood. I grew up in the ‘80s. I was born in 1980 so my parents had on different vinyls throughout that era so it stuck in my head as a kid. There you go. That stuck with me throughout my whole life. I assume the haters of ‘80s music tend to be a little bit of that. It’s a little bit more on the cheesy side. They like something maybe with a little bit more depth. We’ve all got different preferences when it comes to music.
Everyone has something cheesy that they’re into so we all have our guilty pleasures. They’re not guilty. We like it. What can we say?
The other thing I was curious to hear a little bit more about is a transition that you made. This is the transition from being what I’ve heard a great athlete as a soccer player to deciding to become a kicker for a football team. This is something I’ve thought about or other people have thought about when they see kickers out there or soccer players and seeing what would that transition would be like. I’m fascinated to hear what led to making that decision in those high school years to transition from soccer to football?
Honestly, it came out of a couple of different things. I was big into soccer growing up and all through high school, and I even considered going to a different university to potentially play soccer but I was always balancing that with what education that I was going to get. I was pretty heavily involved in engineering and I knew that’s what I wanted to major in. At the end of the day, that was going to be priority number one. It was getting the right degree and if I could play soccer at the same time and do that, then fantastic, but that’s not how it worked out. I ended up going to Texas A&M primarily for mechanical engineering and after 1 or 2 years of playing in some intramurals and playing a couple of sports, I decided, “I want to get back on the competitive landscape somehow.”
At A&M and probably most universities, they have walk-on tryouts for every sport. I lined up both football and baseball. Baseball was happening a little bit later in the year so this is my sophomore year. I was flipping through the paper in class with a couple of guys and I saw the walk-on tryouts for football and I thought, “I could probably kick a football. I kicked a soccer ball for a long time.” I went out there with about 50 or 60 other guys who were trying to walk on as a placekicker plus, you had all the other guys who were going to be walk-ons as well, which is a strong culture at A&M. I thought I could probably do this.
I kicked for about 1 or 2 hours and they slowly whittled down the group of players from 60 people, they would cut half and they would bring another half over and they would cut another half. I was still standing there at the end and it got down to about three of us. The coach brought us over, asked one of the guys to leave and he asked the other two of us, he said, “Can you guys basically change up all your schedules to be available all afternoon every day of the week for practice?” Honestly, my heart sank because I had never played football. There were a couple of times in high school where I knew the head coach and I played other sports. They wanted some of the soccer players to come in and I always said no. I like playing other sports and football didn’t have a huge appeal to me. There I was in A&M trying to get suited out and I didn’t even know how to put my pads on.
Did you play all three years? What was that experience like?
No, that was the end of my sophomore year that I made the team. I got called back so I played my junior, my senior year, I graduated, and I was gone. I walked on. I played for two years. It was a fun experience but football was not my passion at all. In soccer, you’re playing for 90 minutes. You’re involved in the game. It’s a whole different experience. Being a kicker on a football team, I almost tell people I don’t recommend it if you like action, because you sit on the sidelines for 95% of the game. When the game is on the line, they tell you to run out there and go kick something to make it. If you make it, they’re like, “That’s your job,” and if you miss it, you’re screwed. You’re in trouble.
Did you have any memorable kicks when you were playing?
I didn’t play any my first year. In the second year, I got into a number of games. Most of everything I kicked was mostly extra points. I only played in a few games so it’s nothing super memorable but I was on the field when we beat Oklahoma, which was the number one team at the time at Kyle Field, which was interesting. Unfortunately, I also had one of the great lessons. I missed an extra point in one game. That was tough. I had to go in front of the media afterward. We ended up losing but that taught me a lot of lessons in humility.
What was it going in front of the media after missing the kick? What was that experience like?
Not fun. They were overall pretty easy on you. They know that it’s a mistake you make and you’re a kid. At the end of the day, they’re not too hard on college athletes usually because everybody’s pretty young. I was in shock but at the time I knew that there were greater things in life. I had 1 or 2 of the guys come up to me on the team and normally you don’t naturally assimilate with all the guys on the team. The kicker is an outlier sometimes. They were like, “There are a lot bigger things in life.” He’s like, “You’re going to get over this quick.” You do, but it’s still tough.
It’s sweet to see people reach out like that, even in those situations. That shows a lot of intention and care. I’m curious to hear more. You mentioned that even early on as you’re going into college, your education was important to you. You were focused on engineering. When did you first get drawn to engineering? What made education important to you?
It was a big part of my upbringing. Education was always super important to my parents. They always wanted us to do well, but they never held our grades over our heads or anything like that. They rarely asked for my report card. They wanted to know that I was doing well and enjoying what I did. I had a natural affinity for mathematics and science so naturally led me to engineering more because that’s the area that I excelled at.
I was not a great student in English and some of the literary arts so I always naturally tended towards a major, which I thought at the time too. A&M was well known for engineering. I also thought it would be a great avenue for a job later on down the line. I loved mechanical engineering because it’s a broad engineering base. Lots of different industries hire from that and I wasn’t sure at the time what industry I wanted to work in.
As you went down that path, what would you say was most beneficial or most impactful for you during your educational experience? I’m so interested to hear from people’s experiences, partly because education is a mixed bag. There’s a lot good and a lot of bad and a lot of everything in between, partly because of the largeness of the system. We’ve talked about this a little bit before, but it’s a different experience for everyone. I’m curious, out of your years, and it could be any level that stands out to you, but what was most helpful for you during those years for your own development or most impactful? It could be high school, college, or even beyond.
I don’t know that I thought about education too much growing up because school was something that you are required to do. Everybody went to school and usually, everyone has their particular areas of interest and sometimes those don’t align with things that you’re good at. I was interested in math and science. I always found it fascinating and so for me, it was an easy natural path to follow. One of the most important things when I was picking a university was, they had to have a strong engineering program. A&M offered all of that because it was close by and I could see my family every once in a while without being too far away, which was nice.
All my life, as much as I can remember, I always had a level of importance around the idea of education. It was going to teach you the skills that you needed but you were going to have to put those into practice. I don’t think that necessarily having the right degree always gets you in the right one but it does afford you the opportunity for more open doors. What’s amazing about education is education comes in lots of different forms. There are lots of things I learned that didn’t happen in the classroom either.
That’s a big part of college and university. For me, it was being on my own for the first time, which I couldn’t wait to be on my own. I have an amazing, loving family and I had three younger sisters that I adore. For me, I always had this pull that I wanted to be independent. I couldn’t wait to get to the point of earning my own paycheck, living on my own, and making my own decisions. A lot of that is formed at university because you are on your own. At a school like A&M, I never had a class with less than 100 students. probably even into my senior year when I was into my major classes. There was not a lot of hand-holding at big universities. You had to be independent and driven to do your own work.
I share a lot of similarities with you in that. I always wanted responsibility and independence and that was super important to me even at a young age. Same with you, I was into math, not as much the science side, but I was much on logic, rationale, math, and some business. That was my forte. I love that approach that education is all about the skills but you have to put that into practice, which gains you the experience, which then can be a lot more useful in real life. I’m curious now that you have kids, as a father, what is your role in guiding them through that experience as they journey into the education years and as they strive to learn and become and figure out who they’re going to be? What’s like that for you as a father?
It’s a new challenge, for sure. It’s a completely different way of looking at it. We’re now getting into that phase of life. At the end of the day, my biggest pull is one it’s good to have sound solid advice. Seeking out wise advice from people who’ve gone before you, and particularly people you look up to, is always a good starting point for entering into parenthood. When it comes to education ultimately, my wife and I share a lot of the same philosophies.
We want them to do what they enjoy. There are going to be certain things that they don’t like, but school is not a choice. There’s going to be things they enjoy, and there’s going to be things that they don’t enjoy. Striking that balance of pushing them but allowing them to choose and their natural abilities to flourish and shine is what you’re always striving for and you always feel you’re coming up short, to be honest. That’s the constant battle of being a parent. Where do you find that right balance?
It’s fun hearing that because we always hear the suggestions or the wisdom but in reality, it doesn’t feel like it sounds. It doesn’t feel you’re striking a balance, even though you’re trying to. That’s important because so often what we hear and what we think it should be like is different from the experience of it because we don’t realize the feel of it is going to feel different. I love that you brought that up. I experienced that even in marriage now versus singleness.
You had these ideas that you hear about or think about, but the way it feels in real-time is always different. It doesn’t feel as good, easy, or whatever it may be as the words. I want to underscore that. To transition, we’re going to come back to family, for sure, and back to your late education years. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about what your first experience with a good cup of coffee was like. When was the first memorable experience with a cup of coffee? When did you first start drinking coffee as well? Those are two interesting questions.
I have to think about it. I never drank coffee until I was 25. I did not grow up drinking coffee, which is different from a lot of people I meet nowadays, because we have a lot of friends with kids in middle school and high school and they are going through coffee like it’s nothing. I never had any friends growing up in middle school or high school that drink coffee. I didn’t know anybody that did. I shunned away from it mainly because I didn’t like the taste of it.[bctt tweet=”We need to always be thinking about how we can serve others well.” via=”no”]
I first started when I was working for my first company coming out of college in Houston. It was the introduction of drinking more cream and sugar with a side of coffee in the office, purely because you needed a little pick me up during the day. In those long days at the office and needing a little energy and lack of options. There wasn’t much else to have. That was my first introduction to coffee. That’s one of the cool things that resonates with our company. I came from that world, and we want to introduce people who drink that type of coffee. Not all office coffees are bad, but a lot of them can be. I feel like I can resonate with a lot of people in that environment because I was there.
My first good cup of coffee would probably have to be at Catalina in Houston. There’s a café there not far from where I lived. I lived in The Heights of Houston, which is the Historic District, which was fun. There’s a little cafe not too far from us and they were the first ones where I probably had my first cup of specialty coffee so it’s almost a higher-grade type of coffee that you don’t drink with any cream and sugar or they don’t let you. It was a totally different experience and I can remember thinking that it almost gets you back to the root of what you feel the agricultural side of coffee is grown for and experiencing in its true form.
Those experiences, I’m always so curious about because I don’t remember maybe my first specialty cup. I remember my first year diving into it and going all out. I do remember still this shot of espresso I had at Blue Bottle Cafe up in Oakland. It was on an old school lever machine at a gorgeous café. I went back the next day to get it again because it was that good. It was the one that you dream about. They call it The God Shot but that’s a technical espresso term. It is such an experience and I love learning from that. Mentioning your business, Servant Coffee, I read this, and this is somewhat of a mission statement or that you had referenced as well about it. You said, “We believe business can be a force for good and that we lie at the intersection of efficiency and social responsibility.” I’d love for you to touch a little bit more on what that means to you.
When we set out on this journey and I had to think about the name that we were going to land on, Servant was always in the back of my mind because it filled so many different avenues all at the same time. I love this idea of servant leadership. For myself, I need that constant daily reminder to put other people in front of myself. For me, that was the ethos that I wanted us to live by in executing our work every day. If we can be mindful of others around us at all times in everything that we do, not only serving our clients, but serving our vendors, serving our employees, and our consistent attitude, that yields greater fruit across the board for everyone. For me, it was seeing that name, walking in the shop every day gives me that daily reminder that we’re here on this earth to serve other people first.
Speaking of servant leadership, where have you seen that or learned that most in your life? Are there people in your life or figures that you’ve looked to that have merited or exemplified it? Have you studied that concept? What taught you that concept in real-time the most?
My real understanding came from my first job at FMC. I was blessed with having a couple of different leaders that I reported to. It changed for me after I was at the company for 5 to 7 years and I moved into a role where I first had people reporting to me. I had a manager in particular who taught me the value of training up others underneath you. For me, that was transformational because when you start your career, most of us that maybe 20 to 23, coming out of college, are only focused and we only look up because that’s the only direction that exists at that time.
You’re looking to build your career, and you’re looking to see where on the ladder you can climb, and how high you want to go. You think, “The world is my oyster and I’m going to move up as the CEO,” or whatever you aspire to. I’ll never forget doing a performance review one year and I started to talk about things that I was doing during the year at the accomplishments that we made in the group. He said, “John, all that sounds great but I want to know what you’re doing to promote the people beneath you because in my opinion a real true leader and the definition of success and leadership is when the people beneath you become greater than you are.”
I honestly had never thought about that. You always looked at the people who reported to you. You give them their objectives and assignments, and they come back and report to you but it transitioned. The whole way I thought, “How do I empower the people below me? How do I relate to them and give them my skillset? How do I learn from their skillset? How do I help them flourish to be the best that they can be?” That transition for me was a big change. It’s a real turning point in my life in looking at other people.
I feel that’s got to be so counterculture, especially within large organizations. I’ve been reading Robert Greenleaf’s book, Servant Leadership, and it’s blown me away. It’s from the ‘70s or ‘80s and one of those classics. I’m like, “Where have I been? I’ve been living under what rock?” It’s amazing how simply he puts it, but also how powerful that impact is, especially within a company. There are inevitable obstacles and challenges to that.
When you first had the shift and this mindset reframe around from this performance review, what did that process of striving to become that in the years ahead look like for you, even within your career and role? That’s not an overnight light switch flip and everything is different. There’s still a process of putting it into place in our lives. Especially within a pre-existing career and company, there’s a lot of ambitions that we have but how do you marry those? I’m curious to hear what the year is after that impact was like for you.
It was a real shift in focus for me. I spent way more hours during the week focusing on my career, building my network, seeing where I wanted to go. I was thinking about my next step in my career to thinking more about the people who are reporting to me and how I would help in building their career path a lot more than my own. I wouldn’t say that I probably did a good job. I hope I did. At the end of the day, I was shifting more hours during the week and thinking about how to help other people within the organization move their careers in the right direction or find what they were good at if they weren’t good at what they were doing for me.
That idea matriculated over the years in each of the roles that I overtook. It was a couple of years after that I ended up getting married and we moved overseas. I had more of an independent sales type role in Europe but I interacted with many people throughout the organization. It was unique. The type of role that I had, had us talking to the project managers, engineers, schedulers, and upper management. You’re balancing a lot of relationships at the end of the day. People always want to know that they’re being heard and that they’re valued within the organization and I saw a lot of behaviors in the organization that were not modeling that. I had to take a step back and say, “What’s more important here?” This was during a time in the oil industry, during the downturn. We had a lot of guys being moved to early retirement and they were moving out. There’s a big time gap in the oil industry because you see that during lags. You see no hiring.
We had a lot of guys at the time who were moving out. I was close to a couple of them. They said, “John, one thing you need to keep in mind is at the end of the day, when you walk out of here, nobody’s going to remember you for what you accomplished but they’re darn sure going to remember how you treated them.” That was one unbelievable piece of advice that I remember. I remember thinking, “I need to shift my mindset and think of not what I’m accomplishing every single day but we’re treating people the right way every day, sometimes at the sacrifice of getting something done.” I learned that, particularly, in Europe where the business culture is different than it is in the US.
What a great reminder, people are more important than getting things done. America sucks at that. That’s the reality.
We had a CEO leave and he told one of our colleagues who got together with him about maybe 1 or 2 months after he left and he said, “I used to place a lot of importance on what I was getting done in the organization. I’ll tell you what, the day you walked out of the door, within about five days, no one is calling you.” It’s a stark reminder that people have loyalty to people, but companies don’t have loyalty to people because the world moves on and it naturally does. A company is not a person, it’s an entity and an organization. When one person leaves, another person fills in and it moves right up. Don’t get caught up too much in what you’re accomplishing in your day-to-day life.
If we circle back to Servant Coffee, with the title, that’s one thing. As you thought about making decisions to create this business, making decisions and hiring for the business, making decisions and strategy for the business, how is this idea of servant leadership played out with Serving Coffee?
We live that out through our ethos and attitude is a big contributor to the way that you conduct business. At the end of the day, we approach that from every single aspect that we can. Coffee is such a good model of an industry for serving people because that’s what it is. Everybody is usually in a cafe or loving their everyday coffee. You’re naturally serving people coffee. For me, it was that reminder that we need to always be thinking about how we can serve others well. I’ve tried to institute that from a couple of different aspects. With our clients, we try to serve them first and foremost. If there’s something that they’re unhappy with, we gladly replace whatever they need.
For me, it’s living that out through example but also in the partnerships that we’ve developed within the city. We want to extend this servant leadership mindhood across the entire supply chain, all the way from our origin and how we source and where we source from and who we source from and all the way to our end-user and making that connection. The charities that we are involved with, I set out from day one that we would do more than contribute financially to a couple of organizations. I picked and met with a couple of the founders or general managers of a couple of local nonprofits and hit it off with them and thought, “We’re going to support you guys more than financially but also in the mission with what you’re trying to accomplish within the city.”
It’s relationship-based too, which is even more meaningful because it’s people at the end of the day and not necessarily a cause or an impact. In forming a coffee company, it’s often way more complex than people think it would be and, at the same time, it’s simpler. It’s both. As you came into this space, when did this idea of coffee as a business first pop up in your mind? As you’ve gone the journey, what would have been the misperceptions or maybe the differences and expectations that you had from that idea to the reality?
It’s a multi-step process. That idea started in my mind when I had left my company while we were based in London. We’ve been there for over five years. I had been with the same company for almost fifteen years coming out of college. I was probably one of the more rare cases when it comes to energy because a lot of people don’t stick around and they tend to job hop a little bit more, particularly when times are good. For me, leaving was a tough thing. It was not the easiest decision. The company had made a lot of changes. We had gone through a massive merger. We were a different company than the company I had started working for out of college.
What was your thought process like? How did you come to that decision to say, “Now is the time to depart. Now is the time to end this chapter.” That’s a huge decision.
It was. There were many different things going on at the time. The company was changing its culture. It was looking for a new identity. There were always new reorganizations being announced. There were a lot of complexities going on at the company and a lot of things that I wasn’t necessarily a big fan of. We were getting pulled in different directions. We were starting to look for opportunities outside. We were coming up to be done with our time in London anyway as an ex-pat there. The other thing was there wasn’t a lot of opportunities left. I was at a fifteen-year point in my career and looking at into move into some management-type position and those were pretty hard to come by because of the downturn as well. It was a mixture of a lot of elements all at once.
My wife has got a travel company and she said that if I ever left my company, we ought to travel and take some time away like a mini-sabbatical and travel with the kids because we never know when we might have that opportunity again. I thought that idea was far-fetched. Two months later, we were booking plane tickets and figuring out what we were going to do. We shipped all of our stuff back to the US from the UK and we flew east and we traveled with the kids for about four months, exploring a lot of Southeast Asia. It was during that time that I was giving a lot of thought to what I wanted to do next.
I always loved the energy space, and oil and gas. I found the industry to be dynamic. It was going through a hard time but I wasn’t convinced I was ready to move on. It wasn’t until we started thinking about what we wanted to do next and praying a lot about it. Certain opportunities were not coming to fruition. I thought we were always potentially open to moving to Asia if there was an opportunity. After doing a lot of networking through the people that I knew in Singapore and KL, there were not many opportunities available. It wasn’t the right time to move over there and we decided we were going to come back to the States.
At that time, I started to get this idea that maybe there’s a direction we could go in finding our own company. I always loved coffee as a consumer. We learned a lot about it in Asia. Honestly, the coffee culture within Thailand and Vietnam is a lot bigger than what people think. Vietnam is the second-biggest producer of coffee in the world. Most people don’t know that but that’s primarily because they mostly grow robusta there instead of arabica. You don’t see it as single origins that often from Vietnam. The coffee culture is strong there. I learned a lot about it. When we got back to the US, my wife was like, “I’ve always wanted to go to Colombia because it’s becoming a lot more popular from a tourism perspective.” It would be a great opportunity for me to learn more about the coffee industry because I knew nothing about the agricultural side and what it was like at the origin.
We flew down to Colombia and spent two weeks there. We stayed on one of the coffee plantations outside of Bogota. We also spend a little time in the coffee triangle in the middle of the country. I learned an immense amount about what was going on. I was only breaking the surface but I knew I wanted to be a part of it and be a part of this next wave of coffee, especially when it comes to specialty coffee and sourcing more from particular origins and knowing the producers in which you’re sourcing from.[bctt tweet=”Nobody will remember you for what you accomplished, but they will for how you treated them.” via=”no”]
How much more meaningful is it to you, especially in drinking those coffees, when you’ve had a face-to-face interaction or a personal connection or relationship built with someone that grew it from the start? How does that change the experience for you?
It’s completely different. It’s a connection that a lot of people don’t get to have. For me, I found it special. That’s what I wanted to share with our clients and customer base. At the end of the day, it’s relationships. I use that word so much but that’s the core nature of who I am too. I’m an extrovert. I love talking and meeting with people and learning about their story. I was the same way at origin with the different producers. I found it incredibly valuable knowing not everything but more about what they go through. How they experiment with the different varieties, how they deal with transitions in weather, what drives their output, and how price is determined. All of that fascinated me. My second love outside of engineering was economics. I love learning about the economics that drives the markets and, more importantly, how we make a real difference in what we do and how we source, and who we buy from. All of those pieces came together to form what we’re doing.
When you ventured on this journey of entrepreneurship, starting your own business, did you feel adequately prepared from your background working within a company and seeing a lot of aspects of it during your fifteen years? Did you feel you were jumping in an ocean and trying to find a way to swim? What was that experience like?
For me, I don’t think you’ll ever feel fully prepared. There are always these uncertainties and there were a lot of things that I had no clue what we were doing. My goal was to put my skillset into play and then learn from the people around me. I employ the people in the areas with which I’m not as accustomed to and try to build the right team, based on my experiences of working in a larger organization. I had a different skillset to bring to the table and the coffee industry. I’ll be the first to admit, prior to leaving my company, I told my wife that I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I always thought, “I would love to work for a small company. I would love to head the business strategy and development side for a smaller company that needs help getting into a market or getting the right product from the right client.” Those are the things and connections that I enjoyed. I’ll be honest, I never saw myself running a company. There’s been a lot of learnings along the way.
Are there any that stand out, maybe mismatched expectations or biggest lessons or obstacles that you had to overcome even in this early stage?
The first lesson I learned more than anything was patience. When you come from a Corporate America setting where you have people in every single role necessary to execute business, things happen generally a lot quicker. If you need a contract review, you go to the legal department. If you need a business plan, you go over to the sales and business development team. If you need a schedule for a project, you go to the project manager. All of those things are laid out for you or you have assets available at your disposal most of the time.
When you’re starting your own company, you always think things are going to move a lot faster than they do or you want them to. I had this idea that we were going to move quickly and we were going to have coffee ready for sale and the website up. The digital technology landscape, to me, was learning from day one. I had never done anything in website development. I knew little so that’s why I employed teams to do this for us. They were pretty good about outlaying the expectations early and saying, “Building a website takes a lot of time, particularly when you’re building an eCommerce store.”
An info website only takes a certain amount of time, depending on what you want to do. When you’re Often, going to transact your entire business online, there are less expensive ways to do it and quick ways to do it. If you want to do it, if you have a vision for something else, you have to have the patience for that. That was the biggest learning for me. Working with a lot of the technology development side, I learned a great deal about how you host a website and how you run that side of the business because that was all brand new to me.
It is such a world. Hearing your breakdown there, it seems like traditional employment opportunities favor specialists. You’re in your role and you specialize in that role and everyone else is specialized so they can contribute to your needs when they pop up. As an entrepreneur, you’re almost specialized as a generalist. You’re wearing multiple hats as needed and do that for as long as needed until you have the size and resources to start transitioning into more leadership of other specialized units. Entrepreneurs are never specialized. That’s generally true but it’s interesting hearing that difference. It’s interesting seeing that you spent fifteen years as a specialist and have transitioned to a generalist. Something that I hear a lot or is talked about quite a bit is those two different avenues, either career tracks or paths for personal development. Do you have any thoughts on the differences between those two paths, one being more of a specialist, one being more generalist, and what have you seen as a trade-off?
Two different environments. I loved what I did for fifteen years. Even though I started in engineering, it was five years into that career that I went back and got my MBA and transitioned out of engineering and design. Although I always had that as a foundation, my interests lie more in the business development side and working in sales. I always liked learning more about the bigger picture. That’s where the economics part of me came into play. I loved learning about our overall product portfolio and how we strategically put that in front of certain clients and found the right solutions. A core element that was similar between my career in oil and gas and my career in coffee is that relationships drive business and it’s always going to be an element of importance.
One of the sales guys that I respect always told me, “John, people buy from people at the end of the day. All business out there has got a similar thread. Everybody has a product and/or service that they’re trying to find a market for. A lot of people are going to want to buy from you because they like who you are and what you stand for and what your mission is and not always necessarily what your product is.” All of those little learnings along the way have helped me along this journey.
There’s a big difference between being a specialist. I would agree with your point that a lot of entrepreneurs tend to be more generalists or have to be. I’ve listened to a lot of startups. One of the journeys that I embarked on was learning from and listening to lots of different interviews of different founders and the challenges they went through. The ideas that you can glean from that are priceless. One of the core things I set out from the beginning was that the areas that I know that I’m not good in, employ the right people and the specialists to help you.
Don’t try to take on everything yourself. I’ve never done the accounting side of my business from day one. I always had an outside accounting firm to handle everything. Although I have a general understanding of accounting, it’s not my specialty. One of the great pieces of advice that I got early on was to make sure you have a limited number of hours in a day and make sure you’re spending them on the time where you feel you’re adding the most value. Where you’re not adding the most value, when you can, employ the right people around you. It’s a different mindset. The biggest shift for me was not moving from more of a specialized role into a generalist role but was more in the guaranteed paycheck every single month into, “We’re going to have to take a little bit of risk here for the long term that we can achieve.” Vision is a big part of it and you have to believe in it.
Speaking of that, taking on risk, what was that decision-making process for you like with your family? I’ve heard how important family life is to you. I’ve seen it and it’s a priority. Often, I’ve heard that you guys function as a team and you say, “We,” a lot. That’s important. I’d love to hear you touch on that as well. Specifically, to making this decision of taking on that risk as inevitably entrepreneurship is, how did you and your family go about making that decision?
I tried to use the word we at all times because my wife is an integral part of what we do. At the end of the day, it’s our company that we founded together. She is a huge part of what we do. That decision, I never wanted to make by myself. We learned a lot about each other through that process. The hardest thing that I put on her was I surprised her with the idea that I could potentially want to go off and do my own thing and that was a bit counter to what I had always been telling her. She was more prepared probably for me going to work for a smaller company and helping them grow a smaller organization, but not starting my own thing from the ground up. We had our challenges during that time. I never do the best job of communicating. My mind runs and then I head in that direction.
One thing you learn quickly about marriage is the communication aspect is important. She was amazing. There’s no doubt we learned a lot about each other during that. It took some patience on her part to buy into an idea that was not originally hers, it was much more mine. Financially, we look at everything as ours. She was skeptical at first as she should have. At the end of the day, she’s the light behind me. Providing that support and grace was amazing. We had to venture into it together and we learned a great deal about each other. It was not the easiest time when we were launching everything. You couldn’t see anything at first. It’s a slow process to build a company. When you’re working in the background and there’s no coffee bag yet on the shelf, those times are hard for both of us. At the end of the day, to be where we are at has been an incredible journey. At the end of the day, we took it together. She is the better half of me through and through.
Speaking of where you are, what’s the snapshot of Servant Coffee? As you look ahead, what do you see in the next few years in front of you?
We learned a great lesson with COVID and the pandemic. First of all, we feel lucky and blessed to be a business that’s mainly food production. Food production was an industry in general. Other than instituting the right health parameters at the facility which we did early on, we were never facing the threat of maybe shut down to where we weren’t allowed to operate. We’ve been lucky in that regard. When we talk about the vision for the future, you have to embrace the idea of change. As a small business and growing, you have to be willing to say, “Here’s what the vision was for the business but we need to be always willing to change.” That’s what it brought out in us.
I had this idea that we would build more of the direct consumer model based on subscriptions and fostering those relationships. Delivering coffee direct to people’s doors across the US, that was going well for us. We were doing well. It does take a lot of time and effort. A lot of people look at companies like Blue Bottle and they say, “Look how easy this is. I built this direct consumer brand and now it’s sold for $700 million.” The problem with a lot of that is you only ever hear the upside and you don’t ever hear the downside. For every one business that succeeds like that, there are probably 100 that don’t. We started with that model with the idea of maybe going into a grocery or diversifying our revenue stream. What happened during COVID is that we had to quickly transition into a different mindset.
As everyone was staying home, a direct to consumer model was great but we were early. We were only in month 4 or 5 of our launch. Unless you have a massive budget to spend on marketing to reach all those people, which we were not going to do, you have to think of different ways to attract revenue. When we launched, we said, “Everybody is going to grocery stores. We need to select who we think would be a good partner and let’s kick that off.”
We transitioned into two different grocery chains and we developed those relationships through the middle part of 2020, and then we also thought about other ways that we could get into the different other avenues. One of the things we did at the start was a lot of the schools and public schools were hurting, so we worked together to do school drives, like coffee drives with them, where I would say, “If you guys want to help out our local business, we can do a coffee drive with the school. You send it out to all of the parents, where everyone needs coffee right now because everybody’s staying at home and we’ll give you a portion of the proceeds back through the PTA. You gain a little bit of revenue and you help get our name out there,” and that was fantastic.
We partnered with a few of the local schools and they couldn’t have been more supportive. You have to think a little bit differently and be open to different concepts. That’s what the pandemic teaches you. The vision for that going forward is that we definitely want to have a diversified revenue stream. I love the direct-to-consumer model in building that relationship aspect. The wholesale model started to grow for us. We got into Whole Foods and Leevers Locavore, which is a local grocery chain here in Denver. We’re also looking at more co-working spaces as everybody’s coming back to work. We’d go into churches, and then more into some of the coffee shops. The idea is that you need to be prepared for the unexpected. That’s what you learn quickly as a small business owner. Having all of your eggs in one basket usually involves a little bit more risk because if that avenue gets shut down, you’re in trouble.
Embracing the idea of change is such a practice. The benefit of 2020 is that we were forced to practice that. Most everyone was. How do you carry that open-handedness moving forward to change and iterate as opportunities present themselves? That’s sweet to know some of your experiences and decisions in that because it shows an openness to that and also a level of creativity to figure a way to get it done. That’s what being an entrepreneur I feel like is all about ultimately.
One of the things that have come up a couple of times in this conversation and were mentioned by people in some background references is how you’re balanced in everything that you do. You’ve mentioned striking a balance even as a father for your children. Balance is something that seems to pervade most of your life. I’m curious, what habits or rhythms in your life helped you maintain a balance in the midst of life pulling you in each and every direction?
Personally, I don’t know that I find a good balance. It’s great to hear that other people have that vision of you. My part is that I always feel like I’m maybe not doing enough in each area and there’s always these times that you want to put more into the business, and then there are times that you want to put more into being a better father and a better husband. Balance is different for all of us. Everybody has a different level of commitment in their life in different areas. Everyone is trying to find a healthy balance, but it’s making sure to check in with the people in your life, too.[bctt tweet=”Make sure your limited number of hours in a day is spent on things where you feel you’re adding the most value. ” via=”no”]
We can all naturally feel like we have a good balance, but if we don’t solicit feedback and input on that, then we don’t know. It wasn’t until I was 7 or 8 years into my career at FMC where I did a 360 review of not only the people reporting to me but some of my colleagues within the industry. You learn a lot about yourself when you do that. One of the hardest things and I have the toughest time doing it is soliciting feedback on your performance and who you are, and working on the areas that we’re not so great at. The hardest thing is asking others, “Am I giving you what you need?”
Particularly with your wife or your co-workers, “Am I being there enough for you?” Asking those tough questions helps that process a lot because a lot of us can have this idea that we are giving everybody in our life what they need but until you ask the question, you don’t know. In our minds, we want to think that. That’s one of the key lessons that I learned and I feel like I’m continually working at. I feel like I never do it well enough. Asking the people around me who I daily interact with, whether or not I am achieving the right balance in their eyes.
A lot of times, there are some people that struggle with internal balance but externally are fine and vice versa. I’m curious for you on the internal side within yourself, do you feel like balance is somewhat easier for you internally or externally? Are they about the same? How do you experience that for you personally?
I’m not sure. Internally, I’ve always felt that balance is one of those things that is comfortable in your daily walk. For me, one of the main reasons why I’ve generally felt a good balance in my life is because of my faith foundation, what I place importance on. I’ve struggled at different times with placing too much importance on my career or placing too much importance on things or even relationships. It could be unhealthy ones, too. One of the things that always kept me grounded is where I rest my faith at the end of the day in our Lord and Savior.
I try to keep an eternal focus in everything I do, which I always feel that I continually lack, but I want to strive for daily. I’ve always had this part of me that I’ve been able to rest back on and the daily struggles of life minimized because of that. I’ve been super blessed with that mindset and not placing too much importance on maybe what I’m achieving at work or even with our kids. The foundation of who I am has played a huge role. That was in large part to my upbringing and the way I was raised.
What is it that is helpful or fuels your faith? When do you feel most near to God in that?
I was raised in church and I got to see an example set out by my father every morning. When I would walk down to have breakfast, he’d be reading his Bible and I always found that incredibly inspirational. It just stuck with you. At the time as a kid, I don’t think I thought that much about it, but then when you’re an adult and you’re looking at your child, you realize how important those types of routines are. The times that I feel closest to God is when I’m either reading His word or I’m in a community with others. Sharing those types of life’s issues or challenges and having close friends with who you share that foundation is important.
Sarah and I spend nearly every day together, so we constantly rely on each other for that support. We both feel fed when we spend time with others and close friends who share that foundation. That’s probably the time that we feel may be closest to God. It’s also important to surround yourself with all different types of people. What grows your faith and who you are and grows your own ideals is being challenged as well. Not necessarily just surrounding yourself only with like-minded people that agree with everything you say.
I was talking to my wife one time about this because I started listening to a podcast and the person that was being interviewed, I didn’t agree with some things in their life and that made me want to turn it off. I caught myself like, “Yesterday, it was Martin Luther King Day and we were reminded of this thing that our country is experiencing racism. Yet, we think, ‘I don’t struggle with that.’” Maybe that’s true on that issue but on a myriad of other issues, how much do we pick and choose, “I don’t agree with this. I don’t like this, so I’m not going to listen and I’m not going to engage.”
Versus, “If this is an opposition to what I believe, I should listen because it challenges me and grows me.” I caught myself in that moment and I was like, “Thane, you have a long way to go.” I echo that for sure. We need to be with people of all different views and beliefs in the community because that’s how we grow. It’s a good word. One of the things I also learned was a motto that you and your wife have that says, “Experience. Not things.” I’m curious if there are other mottos or things that you guys live by as a family unit, and maybe even to know a little bit more on that one in particular.
It’s the nature of who we are, even prior to the two of us meeting. You go through different people’s love languages that they have and neither of us has gift-giving. That probably is a little bit of the starting point for it. One of the characteristics that we’ve shared and why we were drawn to each other is that we love to travel and we’d love experiences, so neither of us at our birthdays or Christmases, we have this thing almost from the start of when we were dating that we didn’t give each other gifts. We gave each other experiences.
We both found more joy. The idea of maybe surprising her to take her to a concert or we go out to dinner or we go to a park or we go for a hike, or those types of things bring us more joy. That’s when we spend more quality time together and commit to not looking at phones and conversing with each other. We’ve both valued that from the beginning of our dating life. Even before that, we’re both big experience-people. We were probably more spontaneous back in the day before we had kids. We would jump on a plane and go anywhere. That’s what we value and what we enjoy. It’s where we find each other.
Are there any other mottos or foundational principles that your family operates out of?
I don’t know that we have any real mottos that we necessarily live by. We put our faith first and foremost, and then each other second. Sharing those core principles of who you are and what you value in life is incredibly important. For anybody that you are going to spend the rest of your life with, you hopefully have those foundational principles in common because you’re always going to have differences in your personality or what you’d like to do from a day-to-day perspective. I don’t know that we have any other core models. It’s a level of importance that we place on what’s important in life is key.
I want to end with a few one-offs. These can be short or as long as you’d like. As we wrap this interview up, the first question for you is less, more, and none. What do you want to do less often, more often, and not at all?
I want for more, given what we’ve gone through in 2020, I would always say travel. That’s our common theme. Our time in London was special from that perspective. We were able to see and travel quite a bit. We do miss experiencing other cultures. What I want to do less of is I would say maybe watch TV. It might be a common thread where we found ourselves. You’re in your home so much more. For people who value experiences, we do miss going out to restaurants.
That’s slowly coming back in Colorado, which is nice because we love supporting small businesses. We love the experiences that they have for it. Now that we’re finally getting it back, that’s nice. You did always catch yourself defaulting to watch TV and there’s a reason why Netflix’s share price is so high. It’s a sign of the times, and then not at all, I’m not sure. There’s nothing in life that I would say that I don’t want to do anymore. We’ve been super lucky and blessed to be able to make the choices that we have. There are not too many things I would say not at all for.
I have to ask on traveling what the top destination that you’ve been to has been and what the top that’s on your bucket list to hit still is.
Top on my bucket list is New Zealand. I’ve always wanted to go there. We had thought about traveling there. My wife’s been there a couple of times. It’s probably been one of her absolute favorite places for a number of reasons. I’ve always wanted to go there, have a car, and drive between the North and South Island. Eventually, I know we’ll make it there but it might be a little bit of time until all this happens. Our favorite destination is always something that we’re asked quite a bit. It depends on what you’re looking for. There are so many places in Europe that we enjoyed. One of the most underrated cities that we enjoyed was Lisbon.
We love the people there and the reception. The food was amazing. The wine is great. Everything feels a lot more reasonable as well. You feel like your bang for the buck there goes a lot longer than it does in places like Spain or Italy. You can always find off the beaten path spots. We always had a soft spot for Lisbon. We spent one of our anniversaries there and we had a wonderful time. That’s one of our favorite places that we’ve been. We have a long list. We got to experience some amazing beaches and I love to dive, so Southeast Asia was fantastic for that like Indonesia. We got to go to a couple of different islands that were a little bit further off the beaten track that was wonderful. I love the diversity of the world and learning about different cultures and how people live. I could go on to travel destinations for a long time.
One more tangent here. If we talk about culture, what different culture than America do you appreciate most? Specifically, is there may be a characteristic or attribute of that culture that has impacted you or stands out to you that you appreciated?
For the amount of time, we’re living in the UK for over five years and we were lucky enough to travel quite a bit of Europe during that time. There’s not one culture that has it right or if you can even say that. Ultimately, every culture is unique and values different things. What I appreciated about Europe was a little bit more of the balance between work and life. It wasn’t because of a faith perspective. It was just the idea of spending time with family and not committing our livelihood and happiness to our job. I saw much less of that in Europe than I did in the US.
There were a lot of examples. Even growing up in Houston, which is not work super intense city like it would be in New York or maybe Silicon Valley or something like that. There were still a lot of people that were working long hours and did not have great family lives. The same can be said for a lot of the European cultures as well. I’ll never forget a great example of this. I was working with some of our clients. Our clients were the major oil companies at the time that I was living in London. We’d set our out-of-office and be gone for a week.
In the US back in Houston, if your manager or colleague sent you an email, there was still this idea that you would respond even though you were on vacation or you were away. It was more looked down upon if you never responded until you got back to the office. While I was working with one of the oil companies as a client and he had sent me an email, and I was gone and I wasn’t going to be returning for another week, I sent him a response. He emailed me back and I can still remember reading the notes saying, “John, please do not respond to emails while you’re away with your family. That’s an important time and we’ll find someone else in your organization to talk to while you’re away.”
I could not believe it. This was probably in the first six months that I was working there. That is almost never something that I thought I would hear in the US. You do get an understanding. Each culture in Europe’s a little bit different. Each country’s got its own unique aspect that there is definitely a more when you’re away from work, you need to be away spending time with your family and not worrying about work because there are other people there that can do it. The world’s not going to fall apart if you leave the office.
We definitely could use more of that here. If you could study one other person for an entire year, who would it be and why?[bctt tweet=”Growth will only happen by embracing the idea of change.” via=”no”]
At the end of the day, there are characters in the Bible that are intriguing to me. Somebody asked me a question like that in college and I remember thinking that Paul must have been such a fascinating character to study in and out. Not so much that he was responsible for a lot of the New Testament, but because of the journey that he was on and the idea that God used someone that was 100% against him to be a messenger of His word in such a transformational way. What a perspective that he must have. That would probably be the first thing that comes to mind.
What are you most proud of in your work or life thus far?
The relationships that I’ve built over the years, that’s what I treasured the most. I don’t know that I’d say I’m proud of that, but that’s definitely one main part of my life that I probably miss the most about being in a corporate setting. That volume of people, ideas, cultures, backgrounds, and the overall diversity of opinions that you would run across in the day was for me as a primary extrovert, I thrived on that and enjoyed it. You don’t get to have quite that level of interaction when you start your own company.
You get in different formats, but the relationships and the friendships that I built at the company and within the industry itself. It wasn’t just at our company. It was a larger group that we attended numerous conferences and I always took part in the conferences as a presenter. You got to meet so many dynamic people from around the world. I still stay in contact with a number of them. That’s a cool aspect of having worked at one place for so long.
What book or books have had the biggest impact on you?
I would always say the Bible has a huge impact on me. Vanishing Grace was also a good book that had an impact on me. I feel like my days of reading now are so far behind me. I got into this routine of reading books that I always wanted to read. On the days when you have young children, sleep becomes a priority and you don’t get enough of it. I’m like, “I need to get back to reading good books that people recommend.” Hopefully, we’ll get back to that point.
I’ve read a number of books over the years. They’re too numerous to even mention. I always loved a lot of the spy novels that are loosely based on unreal life. The Company by Robert Littell, I’ll never forget, too. It’s a great novel. It makes you think of the world in a different way. Aside from faith, it allows you to question and dive into people a little bit deeper and learn about who they are and where they’re from, which are all great lessons.
I’ve been getting into a little bit more fiction and it is so helpful. We all learn better through story and we relate to those stories as humans. The final question, the one that we asked every guest on the show is if you could send a morning text reminder to every up and comer out there, what would you say and why? A short message they receive every morning from you.
I would say in simple terms, “Who are you serving today?” It’s one of those phrases that stuck in my mind when I started the company and how we came up with the idea of serving coffee. It’s primarily because it’s something that I don’t even feel like I do well and I need that daily reminder. That’s the thing that I want to try to challenge myself, to do the things that I don’t naturally do. All of us always think of our own needs first and I’m a prime example of that. I feel like I need that reminder to say, “Who am I serving today? Who am I putting first in front of myself?”
John, this has been awesome. Thanks for taking the time to share your story and experiences. The reminders that I need and we all need so much to serve. What a great theme. Where’s a good place for people to learn more about Servant Coffee, connect with you, or maybe buy some fresh coffee. Where would you send them?
Another advantage that we had when we founded the company was searching for URLs and websites. Our website is easy. It’s right at ServantCoffee.com. We were fortunate to get that and that was completely available. That’s the easiest place to find us. You can buy everything you need there. If you ever have questions, you can always reach us at Info@ServantCoffee.com. We always give advice on equipment or brew methods or whatnot. We want it to be an education as well and we have resources for that. We’re always great about recommending coffees, but they can always find also more not only about the coffees, but our company, who we are, and our mission statement is all found there. As well as the nonprofit’s that we’re partnering with under our Community Impact section of the website.
John, this has been great. Thanks for coming on.
Thane, thanks a lot for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
For all you reading, we hope you have an up and coming week because we are out.
This is Thane here following up with one last thing to note. If you would like to get a curated list of all the content I’m learning from, whether that be books I’m reading, podcasts I’m listening to, quotes I’m pondering, or even some sermons I’m enjoying. In-Thane is a monthly newsletter that brings vetted content that I know you’ll enjoy. Go to ThaneMarcus.com/inthane to sign up and you’ll be sure to receive the next one. Each edition of In-Thane is released on the first Sunday of the month. This is just a once a month newsletter that I hope you enjoy and benefit from as much as I have. Here’s to learning and growing one day at a time.
- Thane Marcus Academy
- Apple Podcasts – The Up and Comers Show
- @UpAndComersShow – Twitter
- The Up & Comers Show – Patreon
- Servant Coffee
- Servant Leadership
- Vanishing Grace
- The Company
About John Pierson
John is the owner and founder of Servant Coffee based in Denver. He has a beautiful wife and 2 young kids.
Prior to moving Denver and starting Servant, John worked in the oil and gas industry for 15 years. He spent the first 10 years in Houston, and then upon getting married he and his wife Sarah moved to London where they would spend the next 5 years. John and Sarah have a fond love of traveling and used their time in London to explore all different parts of Europe.
John grew up in Houston and attended Texas A&M for undergrad. He graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and then later got his MBA from Duke University. John and his family love the outdoors and the lifestyle that Colorado affords. When he’s not busy at Servant Coffee, he can be found on the slopes teaching his young kids to ski. John and Sarah prioritize their faith as their core foundation and hope to live life according to God’s will.
Check out our YouTube!
Send us an email – email@example.com