Front-line lessons in entrepreneurship

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Editor’s note: Sassower, former owner of The Warehouse Restaurant, is opening a new restaurant called Il Postino on Pikes Peak Avenue Sunday.

Assume for a moment that you have started a few businesses over the years, and, as a result, you feel you’ve learned a thing or two. You know how to handle money; you know how to manage people; you even know how to sell an idea to a bank or a group of investors who will fund your next project. You have done it before, so it shouldn’t be that difficult.

Think again! Every project is different, and whatever experience the previous 10 may have taught you, they never teach you enough to really overcome all the potential obstacles you haven’t even realized are just around the corner. No matter how many mistakes you have made in the past, and no matter how much you have convinced yourself that you will never repeat them, you are bound to fall short of your own modest expectations.

Why? Because the future is not based on the past, and the present is a fleeting mirage that eludes the best of us. This is not to say that your past experiences are useless or should be forgotten; only to say that in the business world, the variables are so complex and varied that no roadmap will ever chart a clear path to success.

No matter how many restaurants I have opened before, and no matter how many partners I have had in the past, my current experience in opening Il Postino in downtown Colorado Springs is adding to my little bag of tricks in ways I never imagined.

Was I unprepared? Well, on some level we are never fully prepared. All you can do as a businessperson is to be mentally agile, so that you can more easily adapt to new circumstances. Your business plans are a great starting point, but may never be executed as planned, if at all. I remember opening the third-largest brewery in the Colorado in 1997 (Palmer Lake Brewing Co.) only to realize that I was selling more art than beer within a year and that my gallery would become an event center.

So, didn’t I realize that renovating the 1879 Post Office on Pikes Peak Avenue may open a can of worms? Of course I did, but I was too arrogant to figure out that each historic property is so unique that it requires a whole new set of plans.

I went into this project with a certain level of confidence that eroded quickly. Now I finally know what I should have known months ago. Kafka comes to mind.

Did I fully appreciate how much extra money and time would be required? Hardly, because one never wants to believe that a problem will require twice the money budgeted because it masks another, even deeper problem.

Rebuilding floors damaged by a leaking walk-in cooler, for example. And instead of hidden treasures, I found coal in the basement. Instead of a beautiful façade, I found broken windows.

Were the architects and engineers and contractors fully aware of what they were getting into? That’s hard to say. They couldn’t imagine, for example, that behind a false wall was a hole in a three-foot brick wall. Should we correct it? Of course we should, and the building will now be safer. But it took some work and, naturally, more money. We went back to the architect for detail drawings, back to the city planner, back to the contractor, back to the inspector, and finally back to the sub-contractor to finish that part of the job.

I know it’s more fun to talk about the menu and the wine list, the cool light fixtures and the ambience. But what about the hours and days and weeks of hard work by the Regional Building Department and the architects and the contractors? Their contribution is usually invisible when the focus is on the great-looking plate of delicious food and the fun you are having with your friends. But without the cooperation of the Fire Chief and the City Manager and the planners and inspectors, the original tin-ceiling that survived 130 years would be gone.

You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate preservation; you don’t need to be a philanthropist to enjoy the beauty of the past. But we all do need to think about the health of the city core and the important role it plays in our daily life. I urge you to keep our city healthy by encouraging a mindset that supports the renovation of our historic buildings. It won’t be cheap but I believe the long-term dividends will outweigh the costs.

Sassower is a professor of philosophy at UCCS.