Grow Your Business by Putting People First

May 12, 2016 • 5 min read
Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson


Bay Area small business owners recently gathered at Townsquared’s Treat Yourself event to hear local business superstars Phil Jaber (Philz Coffee), Robyn Sue Fisher (Smitten Ice Cream), and Seth Sundberg (Prison Bars) talk about what inspired them, what keeps them going, and how they go about growing their businesses. These food-preneurs’ success is, of course, partly the result of their energy and an obsession with the quality of their product. But the real secret to their incredible achievements may lie elsewhere.

Although these San Francisco originals took very different paths to opening their businesses, something they share is a passion for keeping people and their experiences at the center of what they do, and it’s what they recommend for you in order to grow your business, too. This focus on people—on both sides of the counter—is integral to the success of their products as well as their brands. For Phil, coffee was always “social,” and when he set about creating his first shop, he brought in his own breakfast table so that customers would have a place to interact with each other. The folks who make Philz coffee are “artists, not baristas,” because they work with love and passion. Phil’s first words of advice were to “respect people—treat them like you want to be treated, and you can’t go wrong.” It’s a sentiment that resonated with the crowd, who broke into spontaneous applause.

For Fisher, creating the best possible ice cream isn’t just about her patented Brrr! Machine. “I have an amazing team that I don’t want to let down.” Smitten is “more than just a brand or company,” and that’s why Fisher meets with every new hire herself, within the employee’s first 30 days. “We sit down, and they ask me anything—anything you want to know about me, about the company. I will tell you anything,” she said. For Fisher, in order to grow your business, you need to connect with your employees. Getting to know each “Smitteneer” is fundamental for Fisher, who “went into ice cream to actually reconnect with people” after four years of a soul-less corporate gig.

Sundberg’s business, the criminally delicious Prison Bars, has always had a particular group of people at its core—ex-felons. After serving five years for tax fraud, Sundberg discovered first-hand how difficult finding employment is after serving time. Prison Bars is devoted to reducing recidivism among ex-cons by offering them gainful employment and helping them reintegrate into society. Because Sundberg’s own experience is the origin of Prison Bars and his story is so compelling, it has become a central part of the brand—Sundberg’s story is the Prison Bars’ story. And that focus on himself is something Sundberg continues to struggle with. “It’s tough every time when I have to talk about it,” he told the audience, “but it’s for a greater purpose.” To grow your business, you have to tell your story.

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Seth Sundberg goofs around in the photo booth with Aruna Lee, owner of Volcano Kimchi.

And these business owners have continued to focus on people as they think about how to grow their companies. Sundberg is a graduate of Defy Ventures’ Entrepreneur-in-Training program, which forced him to think about how his story affects the brand—and his business’ larger mission. Although Prison Bars was the original product name, he had changed it to Inside Out, hoping that he could “get away with not having to tell [his] story.” When one of his investors spontaneously suggested Prison Bars as a better name, both humorous and more indicative of the company’s mission, he came around. Sundberg realized that it’s through telling his own story, however discomfitting, that he will be able to help more of his fellow ex-cons rehabilitate themselves.

For Phil, each shop “becomes like my family.” Phil’s shops each have a different character based on the location and the people who work there—it’s an essential ingredient. Without an atmosphere of mutual respect between employer and employees and between retailer and customer, Philz Coffee just wouldn’t be Philz.

Fisher elaborated on Phil’s comment. “It’s super important to start with your people, to grow your business only at the speed that your people are ready for,” she advised. “People are everything.” Losing sight of that makes it “really easy to threaten the quality, viability, and credibility of the brand.” So, for example, being a manager at Smitten comes with a piece of ownership. Fisher explained that she tells new managers that “we expect a lot of you, and I want you to act like an owner,” encouraging each employee has an emotional, and not just an economic, stake in the company.

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Phil with some Philz fans

Townsquared’s Treat Yourself offered local business owners a unique opportunity to hear from and interact with these business phenoms directly. After the discussion, moderated by Owen Thomas of the SF Chronicle, each speaker was surrounded by enthusiastic business owners eager for more words of wisdom—or for a group picture at the event’s photo booth.

Business owners were also treated to some well-deserved pampering in form of complimentary massages, champagne, and the option of an invigorating B12 shot (the kind with a needle, not the kind you get from a stranger’s belly button at a bar in Cancun) from Townsquared member SF Natural Medicine.

We look forward to hosting many pop-up town squares like Treat Yourself, where local business owners like you will be able to learn how to grow your business while having a good time. Until then, join the conversation in the virtual town square, on Townsquared!


For more coverage of Treat Yourself and advice from our rock star small business speakers, check out A Whole Lotta #LoveLocal at Treat Yourself! and The Secret Sauce of 3 Beloved Local Businesses.

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