This is a true story about a local coffee shop in my neighborhood called Mars Cafe. Mars Cafe was a wildly successful local coffee shop and hangout for creative types in the Dog Town district of Des Moines. It was in business for 6 years and everyone loved it – it became a friendly local institution and an anchor of a part of town that used to be struggling economically.

Back in July, the owner of Mars Cafe suddenly announced that he was going to close the business. Even though the business was successful, he decided that he was too busy with other commitments and didn’t want to run the cafe anymore. Everyone was shocked to hear that Mars Cafe was going to close. This was a beloved local cafe with a devoted following. Facebook lit up with people begging the owner to reconsider, saying, “Please don’t close, we love your cafe,” and so on. People even openly pleaded on Facebook, “Can’t someone else buy Mars Cafe instead?”

Then in August, after the cafe closed, it was announced that it was coming back. The café had new owners and re-opened on September 15, 2012. The new owners are 4 former longtime customers (now owners) who love Mars Cafe and want it to continue.

Here are a few questions to consider about why the rebirth of Mars Cafe is an amazing story, with some inspiring lessons for other small business owners:

  • Would your customers buy your business? Mars Café was so beloved by its customers that a group of customers banded together to buy the business. Customers loving your business so much that they want to not just buy from you but buy the business from you: this is probably the highest praise that a business owner can receive.
  • If your business closed tomorrow, would your customers feel devastated, or indifferent? Mars Café is an ideal example of how the best small businesses succeed by creating a community that is bigger than the company and its products. Every small business has the chance to create a community – whether it’s a real-life community of people talking and enjoying coffee at your café, or an online community on a blog or social media site (or a combination of both). What are you doing to build a loyal community of people who would feel bereft if your business went away? How can you help your customers create stronger connections with your business and with other people, so that by doing businesses with you, they feel part of something larger than themselves?
  • What is your succession plan or exit strategy for your business? If you were going to sell your business this year, where would you start? Who would you want to take over your business if you decided to sell or retire or resign? Would you sell to a competitor, promote a trusted employee to be the new owner, or keep your business in the family? It’s worth thinking about. Most business owners are so busy with the day to day rush that they don’t think about “what happens next” if I want to sell this business.

Mars Cafe is a fun success story of how a business can take on a life of its own that is bigger than any individual. I look forward to working and socializing there for many years to come.

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