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Pivoting During the Pandemic to be More Robust with James Stevenson - The Biz Sherpa Podcast

Cooper's owner, James Stevenson, made his first podcast debut a few weeks ago on Craig Willet's show, "The Biz Sherpa." They sat down to discuss Cooper's experience navigating the pandemic as a small business in a ski town, starting Cooper's, and the importance of communication as an owner. ⁠


Listen to the podcast here: https://bizsherpa.co/james-stevenson-episode-10/

Or watch below:


Enjoy the full transcript, courtesy of The Biz Sherpa blog (here).


Speaker 1:

From his first job flipping burgers at McDonald’s and delivering The Washington Post, Craig Willett counts only one and a half years of his adult life working for someone else. Welcome to The Biz Sherpa podcast with your host, Craig Willett. Founder of several multimillion-dollar businesses and trusted advisor to other business owners, he’s giving back to help business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs achieve fulfillment, enhance their lives, and create enduring wealth. The Biz Sherpa.


Craig Willett:

This is Craig Willett, the Biz Sherpa. I’m grateful that you’d join us today for our podcast. We have a special guest. And before I introduce him, I just want to thank you for your continued viewing and listening. I hope that our episodes are very helpful. I think our guest today, James Stevenson, will be a great example for us to learn from on the principles that we try to teach here at The Biz Sherpa podcast. What I like about James is, he’ll have a story of leaving corporate America to start his own business, which I think is the American Dream and I think all of us can benefit from his experiences. The other thing that I like about James is that he’s honest. He’ll speak from his heart. He’ll tell you exactly how he feels. So it’s my pleasure to welcome to The Biz Sherpa podcast, James Stevenson.


James Stevenson:

Thank you, Craig. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.


Craig Willett:

Great to have you here today. Now, I forgot to mention. James is from England so I don’t want you to misunderstand that he might have an Australian accent, but he’s really from England.


James Stevenson:

That’s right.


Craig Willett:

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing in England—what you did and what part of England you’re from?


James Stevenson:

Yeah. So I grew up on the south coast of England, Brighton. Just a little town outside of Brighton, went to school just outside of Brighton, did what we call a sixth form and then decided whether or not—I was trying to chase that dream of being an English soccer professional or football player as we would call it, realized that I wasn’t that good and just had to accept that I probably was smarter than I was good at football. My dad and my mom coached me through that, if you like, and instead of going to university in the UK, I went to university in Long Island. And that was my first thing. I had a soccer scholarship out there, which was a really fun thing to balance. You always have that athletic drive, but then you manage to sneak in some schooling at the same time.

So it was the perfect balance for me leaving what I thought was going to be a career in soccer to then actually focus on some academics as well. So I went to school in Long Island, Long Island University, had a soccer scholarship, and then graduated from there. I got my MBA there as well and then started working in finance in New York. That was the start of this long journey, if you like.


Craig Willett:

Great. What was it like to give up the dream of a football career, or in the United States, what we would say a soccer career? How did you make that connection and decide that you had to rely on your education?


James Stevenson:

It’s really difficult and I think a lot of players struggle with it especially when they don’t have anything else to fall back on. I think professional athletes, you have to admire their drive, their passion for it. As soon as that drops off, we go back and we look at some of the players that we played with that made it to the professional leagues. And the differentiating factor wasn’t necessarily skills, it was their driving passion. As soon as you dilute that with something—for myself was I do want to go to university, I had other dreams, I had other travel dreams, et cetera. As soon as I diluted that dream of being a soccer professional, it was pretty much over. I realized that I didn’t have that same drive as everybody else did. And you have to respect the commitment that those athletes have to that next level of professional sports.


Craig Willett:

One thing I like about your background, I always have thought that owning a business is like being a professional athlete except instead of playing at your peak for 70 minutes, you’re playing at your peak for seven to 10 hours a day. You never know what’s going to happen when that phone rings, you always have to be performing at your top level. Whereas an athlete, they practice, they get some time off, they get time to mentally prepare but then they give physically for an hour, hour and a half on the field.


James Stevenson:

And that’s easier sometimes, isn’t it? You’d love to just focus for two hours and know that that was your workout or that was your thing. Unfortunately, seven to 10 hours can become 18, 20 if you don’t know how to switch off. You related to the sport so well and we’ve talked about the scorecard. It’s hugely important for someone that was in sports to realize you’re still competing. You’re still competing whether it’s nine to five or whatever, but you have to be able to switch off because their game ends at that final whistle. We don’t have a final whistle so you have to score yourself on your years of growth and realize you’re winning or you’re losing and act accordingly.


Craig Willett:

And make the adjustments, right, Make the adjustments, get the healing done, right?


James Stevenson:

Yeah, absolutely.


Craig Willett:

Get injured, right?


James Stevenson:

And realize that you were injured because of a weak ankle or you’re injured because of a weak employee, and you have to go back, and you have to rehab, and do physio, and you have to do training with the employee, whatever it is. It’s tough, but there’s a lot of comparisons you can draw between them.


Craig Willett:

I love the analogies in there and I think it’s something that we all have to consider as business owners that, Are we in top condition mentally, emotionally, and physically for the rigors of business ownership? Not to discourage anyone. But I think that’s why some of your background makes you a good business owner. So you graduated with an MBA and an emphasis in finance and you went to work in finance in New York?


James Stevenson:

Yeah. So I was working for MassMutual, a big insurance company, and I did believe in the product, but I wasn’t immersed in it. I wasn’t truly passionate about it. My network of my clients and the products, the trust and the estate stuff we were doing, it wasn’t relevant for the network that I had at that time. I was pushing products and trying to sell to people that were 30 years my senior and I just realized after a while, I was like, “I’m not passionate about this. I’m not passionate about whether it was wills, or—.” It just wasn’t relevant to me. The pain wasn’t close enough for me.


Craig Willett:

But that’s a big step to go from New York City. England to New York City to Park City, Utah. How did you make the jump?


James Stevenson:

Well, I made a sneaky jump in between. I’d done a ski season when I was 18 right before I came out to New York to go to school. In a ski season for most people, as much as they want to pretend it’s educational and it’s professional development and stuff like that, it’s really just a gap year to go and have some fun. So I’d done one in Les Deux Alpes in the French Alps and then I couldn’t stop talking to my wife now about how fun it was. So we went back and we actually ran a—it was an eight bedroom ski chalet and it was eye-opening for her. It was eye-opening again for me to realize the way that the service industry is treated.

We look at the service industry and sometimes we think of them as the help. Now, we’ll talk about my business a little bit. We’re the help, right? There’s a way that the help is treated and sometimes it’s pretty demoralizing. So one of the things that differentiated us and one of the ways we were able to cope with it, was we explained that that was a choice for us. We explained that when we moved out to France, we didn’t have to. We were making good money. We were educated. We could do whatever we wanted. We made that choice.

So when travelers came out or people came out on their vacation, we were able to—by the start, when they thought of us as the help, to the end of it where they realized that we were choosing that lifestyle, to watch their behavior pattern shift—they were in the kitchen helping us cut carrots.


Craig Willett:

So you became their friends?


James Stevenson:

Exactly, right. They wanted to know where we were skiing. They wanted to experience what we were experiencing because we’d made that choice. It wasn’t that we had to sit in that kitchen and bake a cake for tea time or whatever it was, we chose to do that so we could ski for 120 days.


Craig Willett:

So you no longer were the hired help, you became, “Hey, we can help you understand what’s the best thing to do here and we have aspirations similar to yours.”


James Stevenson:

Absolutely. And that was a lot of fun to see that transition.


Craig Willett:

I think that’s a great principle in business is to be able to become friends with your customers and to be able to relate to them. And I think that really has been a key common characteristic that I’ve seen in a lot of people that I’ve interviewed. So you went over to France. When was this?


James Stevenson:

This was eight, nine years ago.


Craig Willett:

Okay. All right. But you were still working with MassMutual?


James Stevenson:

No, I’d quit. Lindsay was a teacher on Long Island. I was working for a group on Long Island and we just upped and went for it and everyone thought we were crazy, absolutely crazy.


Craig Willett:

How do you go from the French Alps, then to the ski resort of Park City?


James Stevenson:

Yeah. Well, something that’s interesting about the English tourism industry was we’re set in our ways. What we realized was if we tried to take the English or European model that traveled in France and tried to relate that to Park City, we thought, “This is going to be great. We’re going to have English travelers come out to America. We’re going to have the US travelers embrace the European style experience.” And then we got here and we realized—we wrote a whole business plan the entire time we were there. We were planning on Utah.


Craig Willett:

As a bed and breakfast type?


James Stevenson:

Yeah. We were thinking we were going to run one chalet.


Craig Willett:

Okay.


James Stevenson:

And we’d had a couple of cool interactions with local people. Dana Williams was the mayor. I met him at a coffee shop once when we came out here and just that local Park City feeling was really, really infectious. So we said, “All right. We’ve decided on Park City.” We did our due diligence in Colorado and we said with the airport where it was and stuff like that, we said, “Park City is the place to be.”


James Stevenson:

So we think that this bed and breakfast idea is going to work. And then we’ve even talked about this. If I told you to come down and have breakfast with everybody else on a big, common dining table—thank God we didn’t do it during COVID times, right?


Craig Willett:

Right.