Involve everyone and brainstorm for new ideas. When everyone is contributing and involved, they take ownership and embrace the idea.
Val Kiossovski is a native of Bulgaria. He lived his life as a musician doing odd jobs, as any emerging artist, under communist rule. At the age of twenty-seven, Val defected from Bulgaria while on tour and sought asylum in the United States. He found his refuge in the city of Seattle, Washington. His future was dependent on his adaptability to find a way to survive, while advancing his music career aspirations.
As a musician, he was naturally drawn to work at night clubs, bars, and restaurants, as he began his new life in America. After spending several years working hard and adjusting to life in America, Val Kiossovski joined forces with couple of friend’s musicians to open Solo, his first bar and restaurant.
By 2011, another location became available, which became known under his ownership as Saint John’s Bar and Eatery. The location is in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. As an entrepreneur, at the tail end of the Great Recession, he was confident with the expansion. Due to artist ownership, both of his establishment gave home to Seattle’s theater, film, arts, and music community. Val jokingly refers to his establishments as “barstaurants” since his focus has always been to break the barrier between the typical American dive bars, and restaurant quality food. Both places serve diverse clientele, do not tolerate bigotry of any kind, and strive to provide safe, wholesome, down to earth, and fair to the pocketbook experience.
Val Kiossovski has been serving people in the bar & restaurant industry for twenty-nine years. He has been entertaining them with his music for nearly thirty years. He values non-conformity and encourages individuals to think-outside-of-the-box. As owner and manager of unique enterprises, you can be sure he will continue to live his life on his own terms.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
When I first arrived in the United States, I spent the first five years working at the Off-Ramp Cafe, a famous Seattle grunge club. In the mid-nineties, I was hired as a bar manager at the Crocodile Cafe, a busy and popular club. The job was multi- faceted and extended beyond simple bar management, in constant coordination with the talent booking and production teams. As I thought of opening a club of my own, there were many things to consider. As time passed, I got tired of the high volume meat grinder and longed for an opportunity where I can strive for quality, not quantity, and apply all I have learned in the bar business, plus the inevitable good food angle- I am a European by upbringing after all.
With that in mind, my partners and I designed a place to reflect this vision. Solo is a small place for artists, musicians, actors, theater people, and moviemakers, as well as those who attend their shows and performances. For the past 14 years, our place has reflected the energy of the bustling Seattle performers’ community. We are a hub for activities for people in theater, film, music, and comedy, providing our own selected programming, and serving those who attend shows. As we opened Saint John’s, the concept organically transferred to it.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I enjoy being around people. I still bartend three days a week. The rest of my time is dedicated to running the back-office. That includes events booking, advertising, making sure taxes and insurance are paid and licensing is in order, along with daily bookkeeping. I manage the general activities and logistics of my internationally touring band. I also have my family life. There is a very fine balance between my family, the bars, and my music. All three aspects define me as a person. It is who I am.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Regardless where and by whom ideas originate, bringing them to fruition are made by consensus with my management team, band mates, and family. I am a natural-born manager, it turned out- who would’ve thought? When ideas are presented, we sort out the good ones, make sure we are all on the same page, then create the path to make it happen, even though I have a reasonable veto power if something is skewed. As a strategy, it has worked very well. I like involving rank and file employees, too, because they are in customer service tranches on a daily and are a hell of a source for information. It is a winning way to go so that everyone is contributing, feel vested, heard, and involved. Employees and management team have the power to experiment, I’m just watching to be sure experiments don’t break the bank…
What’s one trend that excites you?
The thing that excites me the most, is general non-conformity. It is much easier for someone to succumb to the way of thinking of others on the proven “beaten path.” They simply follow what “others” considered to be the appropriate path for success. Whereas, non-conformity is thinking outside of the box. Even if it doesn’t provide the commercial success one can achieve by following the beaten path; you follow your passion to exciting and interesting experiences that are challenging but rewarding. The best part is that you get to present yourself as your own person. You have the opportunity to enjoy those you have cultivated to work with. You can sleep well knowing that regardless of anything, you have done your best and you were true to yourself.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
One of the things that makes me most productive is that I am very responsive to address any issues that may arise, regardless of how uncomfortable they may be. Being timely in this business- and any business- is essential. Returning phone calls and keeping appointments is the foundation of a healthy personal scheduling.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to trust my gut more and take more chances.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Social democracy and democratic socialism are not one and the same thing. Social democracy is a good old, successful, regulated capitalism. Democratic socialism is an oxymoron, since socialism by its nature is undemocratic, since it necessitates expropriation of the means of production.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Strive for balance. A balance between the interests of my teams of employees, and my clientele. As Richard Branson said once, to paraphrase: I have three priorities in my business life- my employees, my customers, and my investors, in exactly that order. It is a challenge I have to address daily.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One strategy is not to look at growth as an absolute measurement of success. Frequently, growth satisfaction, financial success, and emotional and personal wellbeing are not the same. Staying true to one’s self and staying flexible in a changing world, is the best way to be. This strategy reduces pressure and keeps positive energy flowing. Another great strategy is to pay attention to your clientele. It is word of mouth, positive experiences, and community engagements, that will keep customers coming back. You can’t advertise a bar; you have to encourage people to experience it.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Failure to communicate is the biggest danger. As an entrepreneur, you must be able to communicate who you are and what you are all about. You have to be able to convey your personality, views, beliefs, the world view, and the esthetics of the business as one of the most important issues. that to the outside world. Communicating with staff and keeping people informed as to what is happening and why is paramount. No-one likes to work in what sometimes seems as a total chaos. Controlling chaos is what entrepreneurs do.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’ve always wanted to open a place with Slovenian style pizza. Throughout my touring I found it to be the best one there is and would love to replicate it here at some point.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The best hundred dollars I have spent recently was when we added some beautiful greenery to the interior lounge. It changed the ambiance of the space. It feels like an expanded version of your grandma’s basement that you always wanted to throw party at, with somebody else cleaning your mess after.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
We use Google Docs for nearly everything. All of our internal communications and most of the daily reporting goes through Google Docs. It has been extremely useful.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Real Frank Zappa, by Frank Zappa. It’s an amazing memoir by the artist himself, with all the dark humor one might expect, political commentary, endless creative endeavors and candid details about a hard-working musician with philosophical mind that is next to none.
What is your favorite quote?
When you’re going through hell, just keep going. – Winston Churchill.
• Involve everyone and brainstorm for new ideas. When everyone is contributing and involved, they take ownership and embrace the idea.
• Trust your gut more and take more chances.
• Two things that lead to success are when all issues are addressed immediately, and deadlines are all met.
• Word of mouth with positive experiences and community engagement is how to keep customers.
• Staying true to one’s self and staying flexible in a changing world, is the best way to be.