He had me at coffee. Last year I entered a meeting through an empty hallway. Halfway through it, one of the participants stood up and said he’d like to treat us all to coffee. He then opened the door and in the once empty hallway was what seemed a magical apparition: Wilson Hailey and Tezpresso.
A portable coffee shopped had popped up and Wilson was ready to make all of our caffeinated dreams came true. This was my first time meeting Wilson, but luckily for me, not my last. And now I get to introduce you to the wonderful world of: Wilson Hailey.
I knew it was a terrible idea, so I said, “Let’s do it.”
Sierra Bailey: You have an extremely interesting entrepreneurial background! You are originally from the US, but you not only lived in China, you started your first business there. What brought you to China?
Wilson Hailey: Some people just get bit by that wanderlust bug. I grew up in Austin, but had to get out at an early age. The opportunity for a study abroad program for junior year of high school fell into my lap and I took it. What was supposed to be 1 year turned into 3, then into 5, then into 10 (actually, I left exactly 1 day before my 10th anniversary in China). I fell in love with the struggle of learning the language and couldn’t leave until I felt I’d mastered it.
I fell in love with the culture and the insane population density that showed you every swath of human existence. And I fell in love. My wife and I moved back to Austin in 2016, because we decided against raising a child in one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Sierra Bailey: How different is it to start and own a business in the US versus China?
Wilson Hailey: Very. China has seen a huge upsurge in economic development over the past several decades, and you can feel the energy that creates in daily interactions. For most of its modern history, the vast majority of the population hasn’t had a stable career, which makes entrepreneurs out of everyone — at least in spirit. There’s overwhelming support from the community for entrepreneurs and small business owners in China. Contrast that with the US, where, in my opinion, there’s a gap between people who want a stable career and those that want to create something. They’re two types of people that really don’t understand each other very well.
Logistically speaking, it’s a minefield. Our cafe was in Beijing’s city center in the historic hutongs. Permitting was impossible, so no business in that area did it. We opted to get something, but it certainly wasn’t the right classification of permit. I still remember when the health inspector came by. He strode in, hands behind his back, with a serious look on his face, along with a photographer (presumably to collect evidence) and a Spanish translator (no idea why they thought I spoke Spanish). When I began speaking with him, his entire demeanor completely relaxed.
He said to me, “Thanks for speaking Chinese with me. All the other ex-pats who run businesses in this area pretend they can’t, and then expect me to just ignore them because of the communication barrier. It’s really frustrating. Look, this is a routine inspection, and while you are absolutely not up to code, yours is the cleanest kitchen in this neighborhood. If you move the chairs and tables before I come by next time, we can reclassify you. Thanks for raising the bar in my neighborhood.” We became fast friends after that, and we even held coffee seminars for the local police station where he worked.
Comparatively, starting a business in the US has felt considerably more… clinical. The rules and regulations are all there and readily available, with forms and fees clearly stated, and there’s a ton of them. There’s a pretty straightforward process to operationally starting a business. There are significantly fewer people, which means a smaller market, and coffee, in particular, is pretty saturated.
Those who have worked with Tezpresso in any capacity recognize the value we provide and have walked away both happy and caffeinated.
Tezpresso is definitely an experimental company since I hope to corner the market on a level of convenience nobody else is even thinking about in coffee. Getting the word out about a new company in the US — not to mention an entirely new business model — has proven more difficult than expected, partly due to my rose-tinted glasses after my experience in Beijing. I’m incredibly grateful and proud that so far, those who have worked with Tezpresso in any capacity recognize the value we provide and have walked away both happy and caffeinated. To me, that’s a sign we’re on the right track.
Sierra Bailey: What made you decide to come back to the states, and did you know you would be starting a new business here eventually?
Wilson Hailey: Our coffee shop in Beijing, along with hundreds of others, had a brick wall erected in front of the entrance literally overnight. Boom, successful business gone. We tried to operate out of our back door for a month or two before realizing it was time to call it quits.
The entire hutong neighborhood had been deemed unfit for tourists, and the district government initiated a plan to rebuild most of it — with no warning to or regard for the thousands of small businesses and residents in the neighborhood. We realized that Beijing was shifting in a direction that didn’t include us anymore. That, and my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we wanted to raise him in a less polluted city. So, we’re here back in Austin.
The few times we’ve gone back to visit have only confirmed our fears, which is not surprising. Beijing is a city in constant transformation. Even the short 10 years I was there, it was constantly changing. New development, new influx of people, new industries, global events, etc. That energy was exciting for a long time but eventually burns you out. One of my favorite questions I used to get from newly-arrived ex-pats is some version of: “Wow! You’ve been here 10 years? What was it like in 2005?” All I can think about is how I wish I could have seen the Beijing of 10/20/30 years prior to 2005.
Sierra Bailey: Like almost every talented, tiny business owner I talk to, the path to this business was with not straight. Although, there did seem to be coffee at most of your stops, which I love. What skills have you learned from past jobs or careers that are the most useful to you now?
Wilson Hailey: Ha! Not straight is right. While I’ve been a coffee drinker since forever, it wasn’t a focus until the past 5 years or so.
I started out with the dream to write and/or edit dictionaries, preferably multilingual ones. Then I got into translation. Then screenplay writing and story development. Then videography. Then I made a jump to manufacturing (for adventure photographers). After that, I worked as an interpreter/consultant/tour guide/general-purpose-servant-in-a-land-you-do-not-understand for product development managers and CEOs in the manufacturing and import/export business.
Then I worked as a business consultant for factories, and then for food and beverage establishments. All of this was due to me being incredibly well versed in the language, culture, and business practices in China. I’m so incredibly privileged to have had the experiences I did because of my language ability.
Anyway, each of those professions has contributed to building a coffee business in one way or another, but it was that last profession that has helped me the most. My wife had been studying under the World Barista Brewing Champion of 2012 in Shanghai and had the dream of opening a coffee shop. Being a business consultant in that industry, I knew that coffee shops are often the dream of mom & pop operations, and terribly difficult to keep afloat — much less run profitably. I knew it was a terrible idea, so I said, “Let’s do it.”
Actually executing — for myself — on a lot of the recommendations I had been making to other business owners for the past year or so definitely taught me a lot. There are so many things to juggle!
While acknowledging the transitory nature of business, the greatest skill I’ve developed is to have fun with what I’m doing now. For me, I have the most fun when I’m doing ridiculous marketing stunts that may or may not work, when I’m creating an environment that inspires my team to want to contribute, and when I get the privilege of making my customers’ days just a little better. I’m a firm believer that anything can be fun with the right mindset.
Sierra Bailey: What was the biggest lesson you learned from last year?
Wilson Hailey: Previously, my experience with owning a business had only been in a massive city with 32 million people, where I had a huge network of people who loved and respected me as one of the longest-term ex-pats where most people only stayed 1-3 years. When starting up Tezpresso in early 2019, I factored in those things into my planning, but waaaaaaay underestimated their impact.
Luckily, I’ve had the privilege of serving thousands of people in the greater Austin area over the past year. I’m beyond grateful for all of them, and in particular those who have been advocates and supporters of what Tezpresso does. Shoutout to you guys. You know who you are.
Sierra Bailey: What is the one, under $100 purchase in the last year has been life changing in your business or life?
Wilson Hailey: Oh, man. This acupuncture mat from Amazon. Even though I lived in China for 10 years, I have never done acupuncture (cupping, now that’s a different story). This thing is amazing for back pain. Life changing.
Sierra Bailey: If we could do one thing to help you get to the next level, what would that be?
Wilson Hailey: I’d love to get to know you. Shoot me an email at [email protected] and say hi! Come visit me at one of my locations. Send me a telegram. Shine a coffee mug symbol into the dark night sky.
My motto for 2020 is “I only charge for coffee”, which means I’m actively looking for people that I can help with my other skills in my downtime. So far this year, I’ve taken on 20 or so minor projects to help people with their marketing, operations, connections, and/or Chinese learning.
Of course, if you want to geek out about coffee, I’ll gladly drag you down into that rabbit hole with me anytime!
If you’ve had our coffee and/or services before, a social media review would go a long way to spreading the word that an espresso bar pop up service is even a thing people can get. If you haven’t and are able to come to one of our locations (follow us on Facebook or sign up for the newsletter to learn where we’ll be), come say hi! Coffee is on me if you mention this post!