Many entrepreneurs spend years dreaming, thinking, and planning before they finally decide to start their own business.

Not Craig Margolius. After college he landed his dream job with Infiniti, the luxury division of Nissan. In fact, he assumed he would someday retire from Infiniti.

And then one day the Senior Manager of Global Strategy and Brand Engagement decided to leave Ifiniti and launch SYPCOFFEE, a specialty coffee gift coffee business.

But as I found out when I talked with Craig, there's a lot more to his story.

Cars to coffee seems an unlikely switch.

(Laughs.) Starting a business was basically an unplanned detour.

I've loved cars since I was a little kid. I sold parts and tires in high school. I worked at a dealership in college. I got my dream job right out of college, working for Nissan in consumer affairs.

That first role set the stage for my career, even today. It was like a customer needs and experiences boot camp: We talked with customers to solve their problems. Of course people don't call any company in droves to offer praise, but still: When I was able to solve a problem for a customer or a dealer, it was very fulfilling.

Nissan also let us know this was a place to figure out our next steps. That's what has always attracted me about the automotive industry. There are so many things you can do. Even if you don't realize it at the time, your experiences shape what you are today.

My work today has come from that. But starting a coffee business really was unplanned. I expected to retire from Infiniti. That was the plan.

So why did you leave?

I was very happy at Infiniti. I didn't leave simply because I wanted to start my own business. I left because of personal loss.

After a week of sitting in my mom's hospital room and finding out she had three to four months to live, I wrote a resignation letter. I felt I needed to stay with my mom.

Infiniti rejected it. They said, "You don't need to resign. Take all the time you need."

I'll never forget it. Even though Nissan is a huge corporation, that was an incredibly human moment.

My mom passed away two weeks later. My father had passed not too long before. So I was cleaning out my childhood home, taking care of practical things... but personal loss helps magnify just how precious life can be. 

I also had this feeling that some of the things I had thought about, like coffee, something I had dreamed about but didn't know much about... I decided to do something that really scared me.

So you're thinking "coffee." Ideas are great, but execution is another thing entirely.

I discovered the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and realized it was a great resource for entrepreneurs. I took a 14-week program that helped validate what I was thinking.

In my mind, it was purely a social enterprise. I just wanted to do some good.

But I got great advice from several mentors inside that program. Some of the best advice was that if you want to change the world by selling X, make X a business first.

If coffee is your X, figure out how to differentiate it and make it work as a business... and then think about how you can give back.

You can't give back until your business provides the foundation to give back.

Exactly. And that's where my Infiniti experience came in. The first thing I did after finishing the program was write the "Why?" for the company. And now it's inside every gift we send.

Our "Why?" comes from my personal experience: Life is a beautiful thing and it moves quickly... which is why you should savor every moment.  

The company helps you recognize the people in your life who matter. Specialty coffee, packaged stunningly, personalized... we exist to recognize the people in your life who matter. 

One of the best things about a great "Why?" is that it drives a number of key decisions.

Our "Why?" definitely helped us take the right approach. For one thing, you can get great coffee anywhere. There are many wonderful people in the coffee industry that provide great coffee. So great coffee is the default. It's a given. If we don't provide an interesting cup of coffee, we're nowhere.

Our differentiation is everything over and above the coffee itself.

Originally I thought this would be an online-only, single-gift proposition. But because of our "Why?", because we want to earn your trust in gifting... it opens the door to so many avenues that I did not anticipate.

Like corporate gifting. Extremely personalized gifting. Wholesale gifting through a few select retailers; we never thought of having our coffee on a shelf. And we do events. And pop-ups.

And then we thought, "Wait. This could be something really special in a brick-and-mortar setting."  

We got more momentum from being in front of a person and putting a cup in their hands than we ever got from just having a beautiful website. Getting someone to pause and share a cup... and then they become interested in the story... that makes people not only listen but also feel something about the brand.

It's not just about the coffee. It's about making people feel something when they open a gift from you.

Many of the things you tried have worked well... but surely some did not.

We tried a lot of things that didn't work out. (Laughs.) But trying to provide different products or services that still tie in to who you are... that's an extremely important part of building a business. 

That's what interests me: Continuing to come up with ideas that reinforce who you are, but in a new way.

One example: Before we had the gift boutique, before we had brick and mortar, we had complimentary priority delivery. I thought, "What if we could deliver something that day, surprise people with a same-day delivery we could brew in their driveway..." The idea was we would deliver the coffee gift and offer the recipient a complimentary espresso.

I didn't know how to do that, though. So we figured it out.

That kind of innovation and service is necessary. You have to keep moving. It's constant trial and error. At the beginning I thought I needed to pick one lane to grow the business, but I realize now that instead of picking one avenue, all the avenues -- online, corporate, gift boutique, delivery, etc. -- are relevant as long as we don't leave a single customer behind. 

Multiple avenues help us diversify, which helps us help people recognize a special person in their lives in different ways. We want to touch as many people as we can through all sorts of channels. 

Plus it's a lot more fun.

How did your corporate experience help you as an entrepreneur?

I would not be where we are today without my experience at Infiniti.

Two examples. One is the look and feel and consistency of the brand itself. Our "Why?" is important, after writing that manifesto, my next step was to create a brand style guide we could hand off to suppliers to make sure wherever you may be, your brand looks and feels the same. If I hadn't worked at Infiniti I would not have realized how important that is.

Another is that no matter what you're doing, ultimately it comes down to making people feel something because of what you're doing. At Infiniti, it's the best product not enough people know about. How do you create an experience that is memorable. How do you attract people coming from another brand and make them feel something for Infiniti...

The same is true for us: How do we make someone feel something different, something that makes them pause and think, "This is wonderful... I'd like to share this with a loved one." 

Think of it that way... and SYPCOFFEE is really no different from what I did at Infiniti.

Which takes you back to your "Why?"

It can't be transactional. I don't want to retail $5 coffee. Plenty of people already do that. Getting the opportunity to put a complimentary cup in someone's hand, without the expectation of getting anything back, getting the chance to truly earn their consideration... that's awesome.

We have to earn your business. If you don't love it, why would you gift it? If it doesn't make you feel a certain way, why would you give it to someone else? 

Which also means you have to be in it for the long haul.

While we certainly do have objectives for a given year, we also want to make sure we have a long enough runway to figure out who and what we are. Our growth is fantastic and incredibly encouraging, but I'm not in a rush.

I really do love this. I'm not trying to build something and then go on to the next business. I want to build it slowly and organically so we have the time and freedom to figure out how to reach people...

We want to do this right. Whether you're the giver or receiver, we want you to remember and become a loyal client, and that takes time.

Also keep in mind I would have missed all the opportunities I mentioned if I had been totally focused on rapid growth. I would have missed out on avenues that turned out to be powerful ways to reach people. 

In short, it wouldn't be nearly as fun. 

I've heard "life is short" all my life, but I didn't really get it until my mother passed. Life really is short.

Jump in and do something scary.  You might find that you can do a lot more than you thought you ever could -- and that you can touch people in a way you never imagined.

Published on: Jan 10, 2019
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