How do you take an idea that’s close to your heart and scale it—way up—while keeping your investors happy and not losing the thing that made it special in the first place? In other words, how do you scale customer experience?
Those are the questions that keep Nick Stone, founder of Bluestone Lane, up at night. Bluestone Lane is an Australian-inspired coffee, cafe, and lifestyle brand providing a daily escape and sense of local community at 45 locations across the United States.
With more than $35 million invested in his company and plans for 10 more locations before the end of the year, Stone worries about how to ensure every Bluestone Lane cafe provides customers a personalized experience.
In episode one of WeWork’s new Up At Night podcast series showcasing midsize customers and partners, Stone discusses his company’s rapid growth and the challenges he has faced to scale customer experience and company culture with John Henry, a Harlem-based business founder, investor, and advisor.
Spreading Australian Coffee Culture
Stone grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where they take their coffee seriously. Melbourne has a reputation as one of the best coffee cities in the world, boasting coffee houses with distinctive neighborhood vibes, big communal tables, and world-champion baristas.
After spending six seasons playing professional Australian Rules Football, Stone went to business school in New York City. There he saw an opportunity to import Melbourne’s premium coffee experience. To get the personalized approach just right, he spent 75 hours watching people at 16 different Starbucks locations to see how much time they spent there and what they bought.
“The coffee culture in Australia is very, very curated and independent. It’s driven by these small boutique, premium, independent establishments, where it’s not just about providing caffeine,” Stone said. “It’s really about facilitating this human-to-human contact—the most pure definition of hospitality, where you walk in and you feel like a local, not a customer.”
The coffee culture in Australia is … really about facilitating this human to human contact — the most pure definition of hospitality, where you walk in and you feel like a local, not a customer.Nick Stone, Bluestone Lane
Growing From Humble Beginnings
Stone opened his first Bluestone Lane location in 2013 in a less-than-ideal New York City spot.
“It was a tiny hole in the wall with no outdoor signage,” he said. “You’d have literally no idea it existed. It was under an escalator in a subterranean basement!”
But Bluestone Lane become known among locals for knowing each person’s name, face, and order—and word began to spread.
More locations followed, each with the same feel-good vibes as the original. But now they had thousands of customers, and the big challenge was balancing the pressure to scale the business quickly while maintaining a consistent feel and culture. Stone admitted it hasn’t been easy.
“At a certain scale, you know, you obviously get worried that, are you executing in a way that is not as curated or personalized as it was?” he said. “We’ve had experiences where certain geographic areas have felt that they weren’t really part of the team, that they were sort of a side project.”
Nick Stone, Bluestone Lane
At a certain scale, you obviously get worried that, are you executing in a way that is not as curated or personalized as it was?
The answer was rooted in getting the basics right: visiting stores, getting to know the teams, and focusing on the fundamentals, like how each cafe looks and feels.
“Nothing can replace you being really present and spending a lot of time with your teammates,” Stone said. “And listening to their concerns and coaching them about all the wonderful things they’re doing and how they’re making a difference.”
Stone’s use of the word “teammates”—rather than employees—isn’t just a carryover from his days as an athlete. That’s truly how he views the more than 700 people who work at Bluestone Lane. He knows their experience is a big part of nailing the customer experience, so the company has an unofficial “no jerks” policy, starting at the top.
But even as he actively supports his teammates, Stone keeps an eye on the company’s big-picture goals. By taking on millions in venture-capital funding, Stone also inherited the stress of his investor’s expectations.
“A startup, a great exit, just from a superficial level, used to be, like, $5 million or $10 million or 20 million or 50. And now, if it’s not like a billion dollars, it’s a failure,” Stone said. “I think I was starting to absorb a lot of that pressure. You’ve got to think less about worrying whether it’s going to be this great perceived success, but rather, just be comfortable with what you view as success.”
Nothing can replace you being really present and spending a lot of time with your teammates.Nick Stone, Bluestone Lane
Stone compared the pressure to grow the business quickly to a Formula 1 race, where the driver and car are almost always on the edge of losing control, but always remain just this side of crashing.
The number of daily details that keep founders and CEOs on that perilous edge are enormous. Each morning, Stone worries about everything from whether each store will open on time, to if the menu is just right and whether the baristas remember the names of the regular customers.
But to successfully scale customer experience and company culture at a brand that’s built on a heartfelt, curated experience like Bluestone Lane, you have to keep sweating the small stuff.