A “Coffee with Colm” Blog – Episode 2 of Three Things That All Successful Businesses Have In Common (or lessons learned *ahem* while drinking coffee!)

Last week I started this discussion with the analogy that a solid business can be likened to a 3-legged stool.

Three legs guarantees that a stool will always sit solidly on the floor.

In my opinion (and in my experience with Carambola.ie, €7m+ annual turnover, 100+ employees) the most effective, successful and potentially sustainable businesses MUST have three legs – any fewer and they just cannot stand, (Imagine a 2-legged stool? No? Neither can I) more and they run the risk of being wobbly for reasons outside your control explained above.

So if you can only have three, what should they be?

Ready for it?

  1. Brand
  2. Systems
  3. People

That’s it. The most effective business model is strong across all three of these legs.

And last week I spoke of the importance of Brand reputation as one of the legs needed for a successful and potentially sustainable business.

This week let us consider Systems.

What do you mean by systems Colm?

Watch the short video (5:46) or read on below for more…

Have you ever had to clean up after dinner? Most of us have.

Imagine you take your plate, knife, fork and drinking glass from the table. You wash your knife, dry it, put it away; you wash your fork, dry it, put it away, you wash your glass, dry it, put it away, you wash your plate, dry it, put it away.

Then you return to the table and take the next person’s setting, plate, knife, fork, glass and wash them individually, drying and putting away individually as you go.

And repeat for each dinner guests’ setting.

Does this sound very effective? Very efficient? No. But it IS a system.

A system is simply a way of doing things. Some are more efficient than others.

Dictionary.com says:



  1. any formulated, regular, or special method or plan of procedure: a system of marking, numbering, or measuring; a winning system atbridge.
  2. due method or orderly manner of arrangement or procedure: There is no system in his work.

Your business needs systems for EVERYTHING. A system is simply a way of doing things. Some are more efficient than others.

At its simplest level your business needs a system for

  1. Making sales
  2. Producing the product (or supplying the service)
  3. Getting paid

And the only piece you get paid for is the sale, that’s it! Everything else is excess, perhaps necessary, but excess all the same.

Make a sale, throw it over your shoulder, the production system catches it and produces it, the delivery system delivers it, the customer care system ensures customer satisfaction. Repeat.

I always say that in Carambola if you are not engaged to make a sale, make a sandwich, pack a lunch bag, drive a van or act as Customer Care Representative, you are part of the overhead, and that includes me as MD.

Back when Carambola started in 2003 I was all of those people and roles. I made the sale, I made the sandwich, packed the lunch, drove the van, and made sure the client was happy. Once that was done I had to do everything else; place orders, receive goods, raise invoices, collect cheques, bank money, pay bills…everything. Gradually, as the business grew I appointed people to take over these roles, initially part-time, with most early employees fulfilling multiple roles, until the business was strong enough for them to begin to specialise.

My friend, for your business to grow you need Great Systems.

Next week, (or see link at end if you want it now) I’ll talk about the magic leg on the stool – Even Better People.

Before you go, below is a snippet from my book, “Feeding Johnny” describing a day in the life in those early years.

“A typical day (morning)

4:30am: Beep, beep, beep, beep…alarm goes off; time to get up. Jump into my jeans and work boots, pull on a sweatshirt, fill a flask with coffee and out the door. It’s minus 5 Celsius.

Our estate is eerily quiet at this hour, not a sound until I start up the 2.5l diesel engine. One sure way of getting a bad name with the neighbours is running a diesel engine to defrost the windscreen of a second hand van so you can drive to work in the middle of the night. Thankfully I remembered to put old sheets on the windscreen under the wipers last night; it’s easier to peel them off, stiff and crystalline, than to try scraping the ice off the windscreen but the engine still has to be run to get the screen clear. Our good friends, Robert and Fiona Byrne who lived two doors up coincidentally moved house during this period. They admitted years later that they could only sleep with the windows open for air and absolutely hated that I drove past their house at that hour however the Merc was my only mode of transport at the time. It didn’t help that the van was a much used second hand relic, perfectly food safe on the inside but, until we repaired and branded it, looked awful on the outside; I’m sure people were wondering what had our little estate become.

5:00am: Arrive at Raheen and begin the process of loading up. 1700 lunches at an average of twenty lunches per tray is eighty-five trays, each weighing an average 20kg means that I have a full work out done by 5.45am. I take eight trays at a time on a hand cart and run them through the kitchen, down a ramp to the back door of the van, whereupon I would load each by hand (known in the trade as hand-balling) into the refrigerated compartment, climb in, re-stack them and shuffle the stack into an exact position for safe transport – climb down, repeat the process 10 more times. I’m fit – and sweating – despite the minus 5 air temperature. Before I leave for Cork I review orders for the following day to make sure the sandwich makers, who will be in before I get back, have proper instruction..

6:00 – 8:00am: I load up my favourite motivational cd’s and off I go on the 250km round trip watching the sun rise slowly as I travel. Two hours to myself. Bliss.

8:00 – 10:30am: Systems and rhythm are everything. I must be finished deliveries in all schools by 10.30am, i.e. before ‘sos beag’ or little break, so taking account of where the schools were located, how many trays per school, caretaker habits – some were early risers, others not – and traffic movements, I must be at my first school by 8am – any delay will cause me problems. Johnny must be fed.

Every school is different; some have steps to negotiate, at some I can reverse to the front door, at others I have to park on the street and ‘hand-ball’ the trays on my trusty hand cart, 100 metres or more. Everything also works backwards: the first school on the route has been packed last in the van so that the trays are facing me when I arrive at 8; the air temperature has warmed up to freezing by now.

As I deliver today’s lunches, I collect yesterday’s empties; these needed stacking and shuffling so as not to impede my second, third and subsequent deliveries. This is work. This is pressure. There is sweat.

10:30am: Head towards Limerick.

A typical day (afternoon)

1pm: Arrive back at the factory. I stopped for a twenty minute snooze around 11am followed by lunch at a lay-by outside Cork. Lunch or perhaps more correctly brunch consisted of, by then lukewarm, coffee accompanied by some fruit, water and Carambola Kidz sandwiches. This, by the way, with the exception of the lukewarm coffee – we have a ‘real coffee’ machine in the office – is still my lunch today.

Immediately upon my return the real work starts. I pass the van over to one of the guys to unload it, clean it and wash the trays for re-use. The Limerick route, at that stage outsourced to Noel Neville and Eddie Stewart, good people, is already completed and the empties washed before I get back.

The sandwich makers have been in since 8am and there is always something that needs my attention; a supplier hasn’t arrived yet, we got the wrong amount of something or other, one of the staff hasn’t turned up but is on her way, there is a note to say a school rang to change Johnny’s order, cheques need signing.

The tray packers are also in. At this stage in our development we have separated the various processes and so have a separate crew packing trays with everything else other than sandwiches; these will be added later. All of the trays are labelled with the teacher, class and school and filled with water, juice, fruit and snacks and then placed in our cold room until we are ready to add the sandwiches.

There are suppliers to meet, samples to taste, production schedules to review, meetings to be had, brewing inter-department rows to head off at the pass. Stuff.

4:00pm: It’s late afternoon as the kitchen finishes production for the day and begins the clean down. The packing room will continue for another few hours because they started later; to allow for the lack of cold room space available we had to split the processes by time so we could effectively manage product in and out of cold storage safely.

5:00pm As the last of the kitchen crew leave, the Sandwich packers arrive. These are two guys who dress up like Eskimos and enter the cold room with class lists, whereupon they take one stack of trays at a time and tray by tray, class by class add the correct quantity of each sandwich type before restacking it in a fashion that allows it be taken to the correct van tomorrow morning in the correct order so it is first tray in, last tray out as the van gets to its schools. They begin alone, I’ll join them later.

7:00pm Tray Packing guys go home leaving just me and the sandwich packers in the building. I don my own Eskimo gear and head in to the cold room at 5 degrees Celsius – a full ten degrees warmer than when my day started fourteen and a half hours ago.

10:30pm Finished. Home to shower and bed for a few hours – assuming nobody has made a mistake. There is nothing worse at the end of an eighteen hour day than finding you are missing three sandwiches when you get to the last tray. It’s deeply frustrating to have to go back into the kitchen, gown up and make a handful of products because somebody messed up earlier. Actually, there is something worse than being short three sandwiches at the end and that is being left with three sandwiches at the end! This means we have to back-track until we find the mistake!

But Johnny must be fed. And he always was.”


MORE? As we live in a Netflix World, rather than waiting for episode 3, (or if you missed episode 1) would you like to access them now?

STAY CONNECTED: If this is your thing, consider joining in the conversation here

FREE BOOK: If would like a complimentary copy of the book in audio, narrated by yours truly so you get all the nuances, feel free to grab one here

Thanks for thinking with me.

Yours truly,


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