Saturday, May 06, 2006

the scaa and all its conceits

so as a newer business one of the concerns brown faces is the issue of trade memberships and associations. governing bodies, accountabilities and so forth are a good thing for a business. and in this industry the specialty coffee association of america (scaa) is that trade membership. so i've been considering joining them.

the pros: some modicum of standardization. some semblance of accountability. some slight recognition by the general public of scaa membership as a good thing to see in the front door window. the softer benefits of networking and knowledge sharing.

the cons: politics. attitudes. irrelevance. not a good value for the softer benefits.

because the pros should be largely self evident let me take a crack at explaining some of the cons. i've been watching the scaa for about five years, well before i was in business as an independent in this industry. i've looked at it much in the past through economic eyes: will spending these several hundred bucks be worth it to me as a small independent? will i get anything tangible out of it in terms of more business generated, more customers, greater exposure in the community? the more i sit with the proposition, however, i realize that economics is a poor gauge of it, not least of which because if i focus the lens at simply the pocketbook it will indeed not be a good value. about the only value it gives the independent is a discount to their annual trade show. customers don't generally express greater confidence in one place with an proverbial sticker in their window versus one across the street without the sticker. one can produce excellence in coffee without the fees to the scaa, is basically my point there. and listening to others talk about it, having the scaa in your corner doesn't exactly pay for itself in terms of post-scaa membership customers blazing a path to your door.

so then what are you left with? you've paid several hundred dollars to some organization and expect you'll maybe at the very least get tools, forums, workshops, maybe a dash of tech support, advice and the like along the way. nada. well, not nada. you have to pay for it by going to the trade show. so now you've paid for the little window sticker and then you pay some more to get into the trade show to access the workshops and panels (which is where people--"experts"-- who know way, way more than you could ever possibly expect to know and are cooler and better looking and just way more important than you sitting in the audience) and you get...platitudes. generalizations and caveats that this formula or that may not work for everyone. anecdotes and war stories, if you will. "great. i paid for this?" now granted, one is certain to glean a good bit if info from cruising the workshop circuit. but the real benefit is walking the vendor exhibits, in meeting equipment makers, in chatting with other industry co-workers. but you don't get that unless you pay at least once and maybe twice--once for membership, once for the show. (for the record, you can go to the show without being a member.)

unless...unless you seek out a place where those people are willing to interact and listen as well as share and ideas can be bandied about in a free exchange. given such a forum, what would be the purpose of paying to get that? why buy the proverbial cow if you can get the milk for free? it would seem, then, at least to my trogladyte thinking, that if the economic benefits are negligible relative to what can be procured online that from that perspective the best reason for an organization like the scaa to exist continue existing. dues are paid to keep the people in place who keep collecting dues. it's kind of like a caffeinated labor union, only with a labor union the labor boss can keep the members in line and get them all to vote certain ways and take certain actions for the good of the group. the scaa doesn't even have that power. so it exists to wield influence and create some baseline of standardization but doesn't. well, it does wield influence but not actionable influence, meaning its decisions and prognostications are non-binding among the proletariat.

so economically my dollars are better off in my pocket. but as i said above, economics may not be the proper lens through which to view a body like the scaa. any analysis of cost-benefit has to also include content and content relevance in terms of the generally expected aspiration of any business owner in this industry: to serve a better product and thereby create a more satisfying bottom line. but the product comes first. believe it or not, there are a good many folks out there for whom a quality product is a virtue in itself, not merely to swing a bigger buck. so because one could surmise that an organization such as the scaa, ostensibly, shares that goal it would be a safe bet that the scaa would plaster evidence of fielty to that goal all over its website and publications and send them freely to members and prospective members alike. it would be an outward manifestation of the organization's real relevance and value to the industry. one would guess that admission into the club would show you those things in even more depth: perhaps some way to brew better coffee, to increase traffic flow to your site, to flow a greater percentage of your controllables to the bottom line by reducing cogs, keeping markouts and shrink to a minimum, balancing net/net needs to one's actual ideal so that your labor line is maximized, etc. and also, you know, things like how to develop relationships with farmers in coffee producing countries; how to carry as small an environmental footprint as possible through reuse, recycling and reduction of resources (consider the alliteration); opinion and analysis of new industry products, techniques, trends and so forth. any evidence of that? well, not on the face of it--not on their website, anyways. but maybe if you pay.

ah, but there's the golden key. because, as some (perhaps in a desire to tote the party line or because they are knee-jerk reactionaries against those who ask questions) are almost aching to point out, the scaa is a "mutual benefit society." meaning, of course, if you benefit them with your hundreds of dollars every year, they will benefit you being a member and sharing everything you know with everyone else. and, of course, prospective members are free to inquire about the value of joining, so long as they're willing to accept "join it and you will understand the value of joining" as a legitimate rationale. really, it's absurd on its face.

how long will people continue to do that, to pay people to let you tell everyone what you know and listen to their opinions about their experiences that may or may not work for you, depending on your business situation? how long until people simply decide to shrug off the inefficient and largely unnecessary bureacracy and connect more organically? how long with they accept "join it and the value to you is the value you create by joining it?" (heck, i can create value among myself to myself all day long...there's nothing, some might say, i love more than the sound of my own voice!)

and how long will people tolerate what appears may be financial malfeasance? well, i won't go into that because i don't know much about it and honestly, couldn't care less as i have no dollars currently in the scaa and no future plans for it.

one might carry the expectation that those currently in the scaa would be interested in garnering new members by selling the public face of the scaa, putting it in a positive light and welcoming questions and concerns--even tough ones--with forthrightness and honesty. i must say that has not been my personal experience. and since i am a value unto myself i suppose i can take my dollars and keep them firmly in my bank account and allow the scaa to mutually benefit others. as far as i can guesstimate the quality of the coffee i source, roast and brew will be diminished not in the least.

and that, friends, is a value unto itself.


At Tuesday, 09 May, 2006, Blogger CoffeeGeek Bloggin' said...

I want to point Rob Stephen to this excellent post of yours, Aaron.

At Tuesday, 09 May, 2006, Blogger blanco said...

mark prince? hey, thank you for reading and thank you very much for your kind words. wow. an honor to have such vaunted eyes at my humble blogsite.

i don't know about "excellent post" but i can say it's how i feel. maybe someone from texas doesn't command as much respect as a pnw'er. who knows?

anyways, nice to "meet you" and maybe we'll meet again in person or around the net. at least we both like to haunt the same [name withheld at moderator's request] board.

thanks again.

At Thursday, 11 May, 2006, Anonymous Mark said...

LOL! Mr. Blanco, I've been "spying" on you for some time - your name gets around (in a very good way), and I always like checking out people who are making a difference, no matter how small or large, in the biz.

RE the comments - I've been telling various powers that be for a few years now about retailers' perceptions of the SCAA, most recently Rob. But it's much better if they hear it directly, and you said the comments very well.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home