The founder of Balzac’s Coffee left the brand she built — to create an entirely new retail business during COVID.
Diana Olsen’s latest venture, Inner Beach, merges online and in-store channels.
By Sarah Kelsey
How do you know it’s the right time to leave a job? It’s a question many people seem to be asking themselves as Canada comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have even begun to warn of a coming wave of resignations.
For Diana Olsen, who left her long-term career at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters in December 2020, it came down to two things: gut instinct and timing.
“You have to hone in on your intuition and what it’s telling you,” Diana says. “You can’t listen to the advice or thoughts of anyone else. The decision to leave has to be one you make for yourself.”
Diana became a household name in the coffee world after beginning the much-beloved brand in Stratford, Ontario in 1996. She spent almost 25 years building the company and turning it into a café chain with outposts across the province.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced her into an unusual period of downtime, which she used to reflect on her career and future goals.
She knew she loved the people she was working with and adored her customers. “The thing that set Balzac’s apart from other coffee shops was I did take the coffee seriously — we roasted it ourselves. I learned the craft of roasting,” Diana explains. “But I was also interested in the design and ambience of the café, and I took my inspiration from the ones in Paris, a city I lived and worked in for years. That’s what made Balzac’s unique. It wasn’t just a chain of coffee shops, it was a coffee roaster with a beautiful space.”
But as the brand grew, so too did her disconnect with these elements of the business. Diana began to desire a return to the fresh and small. That led to the creation of her latest venture, Inner Beach.
“Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person. The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.”
“I started Inner Beach in the spring of 2021, months after retiring from Balzac’s, because I wanted to build a community and bring the laid-back energy of beach culture to everyone at a time when they need a way to escape their day-to-day and destress and relax,” she notes.
The result is a thriving omni-channel business — with a stand-alone store near the shores of Port Credit, Ontario, and online presence at innerbeach.com — full of boho-chic finds. Integrated into the experience is a partnership with Swim Drink Fish, a charity with a goal of cleaning up Canadian shorelines to protect swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone.
Launching an entirely new retail brand during a pandemic came with unique challenges. Diana leaned on technologies she had used at Balzac’s to create an online sales channel, and she turned to social media to source suppliers. “Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person,” she says. “The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.”
Even the vintage products carried in the store were found through a combination of virtual and live thrifting events, as well as auction sites. Embracing a hybrid model of online and in-person — which she’s used from sourcing to sellingChas led to success.
Today, Diana says she feels a renewed passion for the work she does; she’s reconnected to her start-up roots and her ability to be creative. While she acknowledges some may think her move to leave a successful brand to launch something new is risky, she doesn’t let their thoughts phase her.
“Being an entrepreneur is risky. You want to stand out and you want to be unique, but sometimes in the back of your mind you’re thinking, should I be doing this?” she says. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you feel you need a change, tune into your intuition. You have to keep pushing and being forward thinking. You have to remain resilient and do what works for you.”
“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day.”
She adds all entrepreneurs should remember that advice or the unsolicited thoughts of others should always be taken with a grain of salt. You will know your business best, and just because someone advises you of something doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s great to have a trusted mentor to lean on and bounce ideas off of, but you can’t let them knock your confidence or confuse your instincts.
“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day,” she says.
Diana’s last piece of advice for anyone who is looking to make a career shift during this time is to make sure the move is calculated. She reiterates she still loved Balzac’s when she left, but knew it was time to challenge herself in a different way and to take a smart risk.
“I’ve failed over the course of my career. But I know you have to make mistakes along the way to learn and grow. Any entrepreneur is going to make mistakes. You’re going to be completely convinced of something and then you’re going to realize you’re wrong,” she says. “Just remember: there will be plenty of times you’re right. You can’t let fear stop you. Know when something is no longer working for you. Tap into your intuition. Take risks. All of this is way better than not having the confidence to try something new.”