The Obstacle is the Way, Book Review (Kinda)
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The Obstacle Is The Way, by Ryan Holiday is written primarily for entrepreneurs and business people, but it could just as well be written for artists. Like entrepreneurs, the very act of starting a sculpture (in my case) has obstacles built into the process. Every word in this book seemed to be speaking to the process of making art. Like creating a business, artists have a vision, but when they start, unforeseen obstacles emerge that take them down unexpected paths, which leads to opportunities for growth and deepening insights. For me the question is, how can we create an obstacle, or introduce an element that forces us to think about our work differently, thus forcing us to evolve? Or to put it another way, how can we do something different to create new and interesting outcomes?
The Obstacle can be small and the evolution can be incremental, but over a lifetime, the work can change dramatically.
River Rock Roasting Company comes to mind when I think about the creative intersection between building a business and creating art. We first met Jim when he was just slightly poorer than us. I was a potter and Jim was a handyman. He stopped into our studio/gallery when his brother was in
town from LA to see what we had to offer. We had our pottery open sign out and Jim's brother insisted they stop. His brother purchased a few tiles and returned home to LA, and since we needed our moldy bathroom remodeled Jim was hired and he returned the next day to get started. After a few weeks of working into the early evening, Jim stayed for dinner.
A year or two after, he and Naomi met, and together, they decided to start a business. The first idea of the business looked nothing like what River Rock Roasting company is today. Jim was going to buy a coffee roaster, and start a wholesale coffee roasting business from his garage. Naomi was going to keep working as a server at another restaurant and keep her massage business. He didn't know anything about roasting, so he took a class. Then an opportunity to lease a space a few miles away opened up, so they moved in. This new iteration of their idea was a coffee shop that roasted beans and had baked goods and breakfast. The kitchen had a tiny oven, tiny fridge with barely enough room for 2 or three employees. The dining room had about 4 tables but the place was ours, practically built for us personally, and all the customers had the same feeling when they walked in. From the start, River Rock Roasting company was dedicated to quality, so much so that they raised the bar for all the other coffee shops in the area.
It took Naomi getting up at 4 am 6 days a week, baking until 11 am, then going to her second job as a massage therapist until 7 pm, and then bartending till 2 am in order to keep the new venture afloat. After 3 years of this crazy schedule, she was finally able to quit the other 2 jobs and focus solely on the growth of the business.
From the beginning, she was serious about quality, the menu and her choice of ingredients is a clear indication of her vision. The business is located in a high-traffic area that attracts tourists on their way to Zion National Park, Utah. In a tourist location, it would be tempting to provide a lower quality experience as is often the case, since tourists aren't too picky and are in a hurry to get to the next adventure, but River Rock Roasting Company strives to create an experience that focuses on the local, repeat customer and the tourists just happen to benefit. The building was originally built to be a Chums manufacturing plant that overlooks the Virgin River Gorge in LaVerkin, with stunning views of the distant mountains and amazing sunsets. In such locations, it's tempting to cut corners on quality, but their standards have remained high from the beginning.
Since they were leasing half of the building at the time and creating traffic and customers, the owner had renewed motivation to lease out the other half of the building, which before sat empty for years. Jim and Naomi were concerned that whatever new business came into the building would contradict their vision.
They decided to figure out a way to buy the building, in order to control the other half. For a few short years, the other half was their storage. Soon, it became clear that the quality of the offerings and the general sense of wellbeing one experienced when dining began to pay off. The tiny kitchen and four-top weren't keeping up with demand, so they expanded the kitchen and dining area to twice its size. A few months later, they opened a second drive-through location a mile away to relieve some of the pressure. That only generated more customers at both locations, which lead to another expansion.
I love seeing the creative processes from writers to painters, and I know I'm noticing the same process in building a business. I used to have an elitist attitude about creativity, that it was reserved for artists, but creativity in business or in any human endeavor is the human condition. The difference between artists and businesses is that artists can inject the obstacle in order to effect change and entrepreneurs evolve and pivot in response to feedback from the public.
River Rock Roasting Company is a booming business. Jim and Naomi are among the hardest working and most creative people I know. And even though they've been at it for a few years now, they are nimble and are able to adapt to new information in interesting ways. If you drive by today, you'll notice yet another iteration in process. Construction is underway to build an even bigger walk-in freezer, a larger office for Naomi which will make room to expand the kitchen, yet again.
Making art is a microcosm of what it is to build a business. While my process takes a few weeks or months, the process is the same. Artists make the first mark and then begin to respond to each proceeding mark they make and, in the end, the piece may look entirely different than their original idea. Jim and Naomi had the vision to create a small, quaint coffee shop, they had no idea that it would be what it is today, but they responded well to outside input and created something that benefits the local community and lessened the risk for other businesses to open on the same street. (which is another outside input that they have to respond to)
Jim and Naomi navigated the incoming obstacles with grace, beauty, and elegance. The kitchen is now half the building with a pizza oven, a walk-in fridge, and room for over a dozen employees. The dining can seat over a hundred contented patrons, and it is often difficult to find a table. Yet, River Rock Roasting company is still ours. It has the same feel as it did when it was a four-top, a few short years ago. Whether you're an artist or an entrepreneur, the creative process is the same. Whatever your idea is, be like Jim and Naomi and get to work as fast as you can so that you can start to iterate and pivot the way they continue to do. They are an inspiration.