Lessons learned from an entrepreneur lost too soon

Lessons learned from an entrepreneur lost too soon – Paper + Oats

This has been a rough week for my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. We lost a good one over the weekend. A guy who moved to town about ten years ago, opened a coffee shop, and changed the entire community. His name was Tom, and everyone loved Tom. Literally, everyone. In the days since his sudden and tragic death, friends have described him as unbelievably generous, impartially kind, and an undeniable connector of people.

While I was only an acquaintance to Tom and a customer to his famous coffee, my brother was a very close friend. I remember one particular occasion when we were at The Coffee Ethic and Tom came over and sat with us for a bit to ask me about my Etsy shop. One of his three daughters was wanting to sell some handmade items on Etsy, and he was going to help her set it up. I’ve seen stories like this flood social media this week, sharing about times when Tom would stop what he was doing to sit down and have a cup of coffee with a customer and just talk. When The Coffee Ethic opened in 2007, Tom had three little words that would describe the purpose of the shop, and he would live it out to a T — Cup. People. Earth.


So much can be learned from this visionary entrepreneur’s simple mission for his small town coffee shop.


Lessons learned from an entrepreneur lost too soon – Paper + Oats



Tom knew good coffee. Like, reeeaaally good coffee. My brother is a self-proclaimed coffee nerd and a New Yorker, and claims Coffee Ethic is THE BEST. And that’s saying something, because he goes to A LOT of boutique coffee shops. Tom knew his craft inside and out, and it showed in the quality of his product. A successful entrepreneur of any kind, in any industry, has to be an expert in their craft. Your knowledge will show in your product or services – whether it’s abundant or lacking, it will show. 

Tom was also innovative. The environment that he cultivated within The Coffee Ethic was sort of the first of it’s kind in our town. Many of the furnishings and structures within the shop are refurbished or created from reclaimed materials. The coffee was sourced from farms that Tom had visited first-hand and formed relationships with. Even the location of the shop was a part of town that had become a little run down and was in need of some new life. Great care was put into every detail of the product and the environment it was housed in – it became an entire experience. A lot of people didn’t think The Coffee Ethic would last because it was so different than anything else around it. But it quickly grew to be a staple for locals, especially budding entrepreneurs and creatives who knew it was more than just a good cup of coffee. As a creative business, so much can be pulled from this model of creating an entire experience for your customers or clients. Creating a brand that extends beyond your little office or your little coffee shop, and inspires others to pursue their own dreams. Creativity breeds creativity, and that’s a space I want to hang out in.


Lessons learned from an entrepreneur lost too soon – Paper + Oats



The recently popular phrase “people over profit” comes to mind when I think of Tom and what he created with The Coffee Ethic. It was evident in how he ran his business that he cared more about the people sitting at the tables than the dollars in the cash register. Not only did Tom care deeply for his own customers, but he cared about his competition. He actively helped nearby businesses start up, always willing to offer advice or support to the newbies. He cared about their ideas, and genuinely wanted their businesses to succeed. He partnered with them, collaborated with them, and formed lasting relationships with them. Tom’s inclusive spirit was weaved into countless downtown businesses and formed a tight-knit community who cheered each other on. One friend posted this week something Tom had said to her a few years ago that has stuck with her – and something that I think sums it all up pretty darn well – “Good people know each other.” Hospitality, kindness, generosity – these things go a long way, especially in business.

As creative business owners, it’s easy to get caught up in the competition and keeping up with the Joneses. But wouldn’t it be easier to just work with each other rather than against each other? I see more and more online creative businesses collaborating in this way and it’s so cool to see the communities springing up because of it. It’s easy to feel protective of strategies or so-called business “secrets,” but sharing it all to help someone else succeed is way more rewarding. And frankly, it’s just easier to share it than hide it.





Lastly, Tom cared about the environment. He cared about where things came from and how they were made. It shows in every detail of that shop – from the furniture to the flooring to the cups to the coffee – and it showed in his attitude towards business. Running a business with heart and with purpose is so much more powerful than running it for profits. Giving back to the community was and is an evident piece of The Coffee Ethic’s mission. Using your business as a way to give back to your community is something that holds a lot of importance with me, and the way I run my own business. Tom and The Coffee Ethic are just another reminder that an attitude of generosity for those around you, and respect for the space you’ve been entrusted with, are vital parts to being sustainable as a business and remembered as simply a good human.


Along with Tom’s incredible legacy, his death serves as a reminder that you really never know the impact you may have on other people. You can never know what someone thought of their own legacy after they’ve passed, but influence is a funny thing like that. It’s how you affect other people – it’s outward, not inward. I’ll take a wild guess and say that if you’re reading this, you’re probably someone’s “other people.” You can probably think of people in your life that have influenced you to be better. Sure, you’ll think of parents or siblings or close friends, but what about the Toms? The people that you’re not necessarily related to or even close friends with, but who have a subtle impact on your life – maybe even an impact that you’re not noticing. Someone’s positive attitude or quiet perseverance that makes you want to work harder or do better. The barista who remembers your drink, or the bank teller who's always friendly, or the jogger who runs by your house everyday. Do they have any idea? What would they think if you told them what you thought of them? What would you think if someone told you the influence you’ve had on their life? Might make you smile, I’d say. Might make you want to keep going.


If you're interested in giving to a memorial fund in honor of Tom that will go towards causes that he was passionate about, you can do so here.  If you want to hear more about how Tom started The Coffee Ethic and his journey as a small business owner, you can listen to his 2015 interview on my other brother's podcast (not the coffee-drinking-New-Yorker brother).


Kelsey Baldwin

Graphic designer + blogger providing design resources to help creative entrepreneurs navigate the world of design + branding for digital products so they can share what they know.

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