Technology Like Running Water: A Note from Lucy R. Valena, CEO

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No single moment in my life could ever be misconstrued as a clue that I would become co-founder of a tech company. I grew up in the woods of coastal New Hampshire with a lot of books and outdoor adventures and very little television. We got our first family computer when I was about 12. At this point in the narrative, people in the tech world tend to talk about their fascination with their first computer, but I really didn’t take to it immediately. My entire family got excited about playing Tetris, but otherwise it really didn’t seem to change life too much.

My parents have always been extremely supportive of my artistic pursuits, and applauded my decision to go to school for studio art. Many people have to battle with their families for the opportunity to study art, but I am lucky enough to have parents who have always empowered me to follow my heart. I studied sculpture and painting at Hampshire College and the School at the Museum of Fine Arts, and it was incredible.

You might expect my story to quickly wind into the world of technology, but that’s not really what happened. After college I briefly lived in Seattle and experienced really good coffee for the first time. I became obsessed with serving equally amazing coffee in Boston, which was at the time devoid of such magic. I followed my heart, and started an espresso catering company, which developed into a coffeehouse and gallery called Voltage Coffee & Art.

Voltage was located in Kendall Square in Cambridge MA, close to MIT, and I was constantly talking to very interesting smart people about their very interesting smart technology. We had a culture of continuous improvement, and I was always excited to try out new things as they became available and user-friendly enough for ‘an artist like me’. Since our customer base was largely composed of start-ups, we piloted and beta tested quite a few different products. However, these technologies were generally limited to payment systems and customer loyalty programs. All of our back of house systems were done on clipboards and spreadsheets. These systems were a constant nuisance- they took up a lot of time and were regularly biting us back, but there didn’t seem to be a better way to do things.

Looking back at that phase of my life, one moment sticks out- a little flag on a winding road that somehow lead me to co-founding this company. We had just tried out a cutting-edge, cloud-based POS system that promised to make everything much easier. For a little while it seemed to be a very exciting game-changer, but constant bugs meant the system was always crashing, which made it a completely unsustainable choice for my very busy establishment. We tried working with the company to solve the issues, but unfortunately they were not able to fix the situation. After we switched to another provider, an account manager came by to talk to me about why we had decided to move on. After hearing my complaints, he said “I get it- you think your POS should be like a child, seen and not heard.” To which I laughed and replied, “No, my POS should be like running water- I shouldn’t have to think about it!”

That’s the thing- my brain was constantly jumbled with a thousand annoyingly small details. Did we have enough 12 ounce hot cups to make it through the weekend? Did anyone make vanilla syrup yesterday? Which distributor do I usually get sugar from? These tiny but crucial pieces of data crowded out the larger considerations that would have served me better in the long run. Why was I doing what I was doing? What were my goals for Voltage? How could I scale my business, and take it to the next level? Those tiny details kept me in the weeds for years, and ran me ragged. I hardly recognize myself in pictures from that era. I was always running around like my hair was on fire, and it seemed like every day was an emergency.

The aha moment you’ve been waiting for happened on an origin trip to coffee farms in Guatemala, arranged by Barismo coffee roasters. After talking to producers at several different farms, I realized that the problems they faced were shockingly close to my own. They were also weighed down by thousands of tiny details, and struggling to see the big picture of what they were doing. All these years later, this theme has stayed with me and proven itself to be a problem worth solving.

The phrase “It’s not personal, it’s business” has always rubbed me the wrong way- it talks a tough game, but in the world of small business it is an incredibly naïve sentiment. Small businesses just wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t personal. I counted myself among the many operators who think of business as a creative pursuit. When you are an entrepreneur there is always a puzzle to be solved, but it is never a simple equation. There is almost always something larger that is being expressed- some aspect of one’s worldview that is described in the everyday choices that are made. It is a chaotic and exciting lifestyle, and my goal today is to make it a more sustainable one for others. The trenches are intense, but maybe they don’t have to be intense forever.

I still believe that technology should be like running water. Although I now have more understanding of why it isn’t always like that, unobtrusive helpfulness continues to be my North Star as we build systems to empower specialty food businesses. As a company, we will continue to improve our platform to make things better for others who are chasing their own dreams. As CEO, I will continue to listen, learn, and do everything in my power to serve that mission. I will continue to follow my heart, and hope that it will help you to follow your own.

Lucy Valena