Lots of people mourned when Portland, Ore. coffee shop and brightly lit, family-friendly cafe, Sydney's, announced it was closing this Friday due to losing its lease. "Irreconcilable differences," the owner said. Why? Everyone asked. It was so popular with parents whose children attended the Montessori school across the street, reporters for the local Oregonian newspaper, and the sort of stylish folk on laptops who live in the trendy industrial-chic neighborhoods nearby. David Vanadia was sad, too, but for more complex reasons. As web contractor for the cafe, he'd not been paid.
As the last day of business approached and the cafe had failed to find a new location, Vanadia became more and more concerned. He emailed the cafe's manager, who assured him -- having spoken with the owner -- he would be paid. After the suggestion of trade, Vanadia offered to take the coffee shop's PA system in lieu of payment; its worth was a fraction of what he was owed, "but I'd have something," he said. After a few more days without reply to his offer, he changed the web site to a simple letter explaining that he was owed money by the cafe's management.
The next communication he heard was from the manager, who -- concerned about her reputation, Vanadia believes -- said she'd call the police if he emailed or came by the cafe again. It was only a day before the close of business. So he updated the web site with a detailed list of his communications with the coffee shop, and his intention to restore the original site as soon as any positive overage to him was made -- even a promise to make monthly payments or an acceptance of his trade offer.
I don't know Vanadia well, but we're distantly connected through the Portland tech community, and through this medium I know him to be a gentle and professional person. Also through the community, I've heard less than affectionate comments about the cafe's owner. A commenter on an Eater PDX post on the matter says the differences "with the landlord had to do with the fact that they hadn't paid their rent in a long, long time." The landlord didn't comment. And, after receiving some less-than-kind feedback to his letter Friday, Vanadia told me he had decided to restore the original site; the owners of the cafe did so before he had a chance, busy as he was with other work to make up the deficit.
You can't always succeed in any small business venture, and I certainly know many owners of coffee shops and other service-oriented businesses who ended up in deep debt after closing their doors. But they believed in a common value among tight entrepreneurial communities like this one: pay the smallest guy first. And pay the nicest guy first. Small, nice guys who are hurt worst through uncollectible accounts payable are the most likely to both react, like Vanadia did, with a very public distress call; and to inspire sentiment among the other small guys in town.
They say that nice guys finish last. But in business communities, step on the nice guy at your own peril. Even if you "win" in the end -- get your web site back, avoid paying your debts, escape with your credit cards un-maxed -- your reputation could suffer a hit bad enough to sewer the next sweet, bright space you find.
Note to struggling businesses: Best to pay your web designer first