Stressed and Depressed University Dropout to Content and Driven Cafe Owner – Mr.Men Talk # 1

Posted on 07 June 2019

Stressed and Depressed University Dropout to Content and Driven Cafe Owner – Mr.Men Talk # 1

My name is Joe Penman. I’m 28, and I grew up in Surrey, in the South of England. I am also a proud owner of a café in Cremorne, Melbourne – Cuppa Joe. I always thought I didn’t really have a direction in life or stories to tell. I feel like everyone has kind of felt that at some point. After making a lot of mistakes, learning from them, and finally being able to see where I could be successful – I can see my future now and see where I want to be. It took me a while to realise my passion, let alone make a business out of it. Now that I’m here, I’ve never been happier, and I have my journey and the people who were involved in it to thank for that. I met a representative from Mr Men’s while they were getting their coffee from Cuppa Joe’s. We got to talking and they informed me of their brand’s initiative to get men to share their journeys in hopes of helping others going through what they are, and I was thrilled to help. As a café owner and throughout my hospitality career, I’ve talked to countless amounts of people. Everyone I talked to has always had a fascinating story to tell and I’ve always found something relatable to me, which has helped me on my journey. So, If I could do that for someone else who’s willing to read this, then why not?

Where I felt lost in life

When I was about 17, I was at school applying to universities and trying to find the degree I wanted to pursue. It felt like 99% of people I went to school with went to university, so naturally, I had to go. I didn’t know what course I wanted to do. All I knew was I liked art, I liked working with my hands and I loved meeting and getting to know people. I also always wanted to do my own thing rather than work for someone. I wanted to be my own boss. At the time I ignored this and chose a degree in chemical engineering because I was told there was no money in art. I chose that course after a recommendation from a friend who really enjoyed it. I didn’t have any better ideas and I had to decide on a career I could make a good living out of, so I figured “why not”? I dropped out after 18 months. I just wasn’t passionate about it. I wanted to socialise with people and I wanted to work with my hands and I couldn’t do any of that on the course.

The effects of feeling lost

During the course, I started losing my hair. I felt stressed and lost, so I started going out quite a lot. I probably would say I was in a depressive state at the time. I knew if I stressed more I could lose all my hair. For me, losing my hair was like losing part of my identity. I remember trying to make fun of it and getting my friends to rub the patches on my head, but it was actually really hard for me. I avoided my parents for a while because I didn’t want them to know that my hair just wasn’t growing back and that I was dropping out. I didn’t even know why I was giving up at the time, so I didn’t know how to explain myself to them. I just wanted to fix it and have a plan for what I wanted to do next. I remember not wanting to fail again or feel a sense of rejection and it was a bit crippling. I turned into that person whose friends were pursuing degrees and good jobs and I was just staying up late, waking up late and just not doing anything. I didn’t want to get up. I became lazy. I know myself and I’m inherently lazy, yet I have to force myself not to be. Because of this, I’m not a lazy person in the slightest. If I work, I work hard. I just had nothing to work for. It was difficult, because all 5 of my close mates back home were high flyers. They had their shit together, making money, stable, in relationships and enjoying life. I was very proud of them and looked up to them. They were 4 years into work and working very hard.

Still, it was very hard to think that I was so behind in the game. I was single, enjoying myself, yet feeling empty. In my stages of feeling lost, I remember talking badly about one friend behind his back to my other friends – calling him boring. In hindsight it was just to make myself feel better. They confronted me and I remember crying and thinking to myself: “have I become this person who talks about people they care about? About someone who I’m really proud of and respect?” I really hope my friends knew how proud of them I was and still am. I just wasn’t proud of myself, I guess. I could have easily seen myself go down the wrong path of hurting the ones I loved.

Making a move and realising I had a passion

I knew my hair falling off was a sign that I needed to change my life even though I didn’t know immediately how. I’m quite self-aware and it doesn’t take me too long to realise when I’ve done something wrong. I saw that I was unhappy and going down a risky path and I had to do something about it. My hair eventually grew back after I’d taken some time off and that’s when I got various jobs at bars and clubs, bartending and promoting. By that point I had some hospitality experience. I was good at it and I could get a job in it. I was passionate about food and cocktails; and hospitality just fit in well with that. I realised just how much I enjoyed the job to the point where I became invested in things like making a good cocktail and keeping the quality of my drinks to a high standard. It wasn’t just about doing the job. I wanted to do it well, and that gave me a sense of satisfaction.

Bartender to Barista to Café owner

Not too long into bar work, I went to visit my sister who was living in Melbourne and working in hospitality at Eureka tower to save up so she could travel. I saw her as a bit of a role model. She loved Melbourne and I thought maybe I could do well here, myself. I booked a ticket and didn’t look back. My sister helped get me in touch with the GM at Eureka and I worked there for 6 months where I first learned to make coffee. I then worked at Trunk in the city for 6 months as a cocktail barman where I met my now girlfriend. I also did a chef course so I could get my student visa to stay longer. At that point, I developed and started pursuing a dream of owning my own café. I carried on at various jobs as a barista to learn to make quality coffee – even honing my creative side of making “latte art”. I made friends with the head baristas at The Counter Espresso in Hawthorn, who taught me a lot. They offered me professional training and validated my skills at making coffee. I stayed there for 4 years as well as maintained a second job at 50/50 as a head barista. My confidence, happiness and skills really developed, and my drive grew with that. You always feel good when you know you’re good at something. To start finally working for myself, I built a coffee cart, then found a business with dead space which I could utilise for cheaper rent because I couldn’t afford anything else at the time. The girls from the counter had started their own wholesale business in Cremorne street and they kindly agreed to let me use their space. I owe them a lot because they gave me ‘my foot through the door’ which gave me a lot of confidence. I built up an active customer and audience base which I’m really grateful for as well.

A year later, I asked my customers around for a different space – close enough so I didn’t lose my foundation. After recommendations, I ended up in my own little café at the front of a communal workspace – Cuppa Joe. Listening to and forming relationships with people really helped increase word of mouth and maintain a loyal base. That combined with my drive to make good coffee really does prove to me that I did in fact have and find a passion which motivated me to keep working and avoid being lazy. I learnt, built, and taught myself because I wanted to. There was an endgame for it and I could see it because it’s all I wanted. For me, improving my business meant improving my knowledge of marketing and advertising. I began teaching myself in my spare time in order to do better for my café. I think just by pursuing what I actually wanted to do, I became motivated and patient. My passion enabled me to take all the little necessary steps to build my business I not only did that, but I found stability and clarity in my life. I know where I want to be now, I’ve even nurtured a healthy, stable relationship and we have a baby now. Upon reflection, it’ll be funny to see my friends who haven’t really seen my journey and my life take the turn it did. They remember me being a bit of a lost soul. I just needed to find myself, and now I have. I don’t want a pat on the back from them though, I just think they’d be really happy for me and It’s a nice feeling.

My gender identity played a role in my downfall

I think men, in general, have a problem communicating. I had some really good friends who knew that there was a problem. I don’t blame them at all, but it wasn’t expected of any of them to just sit me down and talk through it with me. They’d just try and cheer me up and take me out. That, though, was enough for me to know that they cared – which they did. It’s just rare for men to have a heart to heart, and I think we’re missing out. Simply upon meeting a representative from Mr Men’s, I took an interest in them as they were buying a coffee and they took an interest in me back. We just started talking and we both ended up appreciating each other and valuing each other’s journeys – to the point where this piece ended up being written. I think so many people should do this more – understand the true value of people’s journeys, really take it in and then share it. As a man, I also feel emasculated when I’m surrounded by men who are doing well. When I think of a man, I think of someone with certainty, clarity, a structure and direction. Someone who has their shit together and who can talk about themselves with pride and share an interesting story. I didn’t have one back then and it wasn’t until talking, where I realised I’d spent the last 12 years of my life building that interesting story.

I don’t know where I’m going to be in 5 years, but I actually don’t mind anymore; as long as I carry on. Crack on with the café and remain stable; take care of myself and think positively; give value to and acknowledge people. That keeps me happy. I want to take care of my family and make them proud.

What I learned from the Experience

How to cope with laziness and falling into a pattern

I set myself lists of tasks the night before each day. Give myself a reason to get out of bed in the morning and instil a feeling of “I have to do this and be here. If I don’t, I end up doing nothing or just doing little things, which I’m sure a lot of people do. I just find that I get frustrated and feel regretful and I don’t like that feeling. Planning helps me massively. When you finish your list you just feel like you’ve done really well for that day.

Talking helps

I do believe it would have helped more to talk to my parents sooner. Although I liked fixing things for myself, it would have been good to have that reassurance. I did avoid my parents for a bit, but when I finally opened up, I felt a sense of relief that my decisions were being supported. It’s always good to have someone who worries for you and cares for you but also looks at things objectively and reassures you that what you’re doing is, not even right necessarily, but okay at least.

Your mileage ALWAYS VARIES, and things change.

Some people are very lucky to find the right fit for them early on while others thought they found the right fit but then realised later on that they changed their mind. A friend of mine messaged me about a year ago. He studied psychology for four years and worked corporate for a very long time. He told me he wanted to start a café and asked for some help. I told him what I learned, suggested he get some café experience, and now he’s got a café in Southfields, England. People just change their minds and it’s okay.

Give value to and take an interest in people. You can help someone so much without even knowing and even learn something for yourself.

The best part of the job is meeting people and hearing all about them. Their success stories and businesses, jobs, and the apps they’re creating, or how they’re changing the world. It just inspires you to think more and further. I met this business coach, who told me that the people that come in contact with you are real people with real problems and you can help them. All you have to do is stop asking the wrong questions. Everyone has a busy day, but when I made the time to ask questions and solve problems, I found that my café became a place where people don’t just come in for their coffee but connect in the process. It’s really become a support network here. So, if someone comes in saying they’ve lost their job, either me or another customer listening in would offer a solution for a place that’s recruiting. It’s a very fulfilling experience. That alone made my business more than just a café.


What I would say to my past self

Remember- Baby steps

If someone had told me that if I had mastered any skill I could make money out of it (which I have learned now) I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to pursue art. I have no regrets, however, if I could go back and convince myself to just do something I was good at, regardless of chances of success, I probably would have got to where I am sooner. I would be patient with myself and take time to actually figure out what I want to do. You hear people say, “do something you love” so often and it is actually so true. When you do what you want to do, you automatically want to make it work for yourself and will get up out of bed every day to find a way. There is no shame in liking what you do. In saying that, I also was never particularly interested in marketing. It was the desire for my business to thrive that made me pursue further knowledge in marketing.

Talking to Mr Men’s

I usually ask the questions and don’t get asked the questions. This experience was a very rare turn for me. People don’t usually ask me how I feel. Just doing this piece felt very refreshing and I do hope people take an interest in reading it. I know how comfortable it makes people to be heard. I really just hope this piece helps someone with whatever they’re going through, know they’re not alone, and maybe help them find their own personal direction. You will find what you need to do, just ask questions. Thank you, Mr Men’s, for listening to me and for taking interest in my story.

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