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In the technology world, one of the buzz topics for almost a decade is “20% time.” This is time that you don’t spend on client projects and you may or may not spend it on internal projects. It has a structure, but sometimes that structure is vague. Sometimes the structure is solving a problem that you’ve been having.

20% time was a concept originally developed by Google. By spending their “20% day” on any project they wanted, Googlers developed Gmail, AdSense, and Google Transit. Not too bad for the so called goof off projects. But this article is called “The truth about 20% time” so what’s the truth?

The truth is, 20% time can work in any industry. While it’s straight forward in technology; give employees a day to work on anything they want, I’ve seen it used in other industries by several of my clients.

You can buy a vanilla latte anywhere

My first client back in 2008 was a local coffee shop. At the time they were just a coffee shop. They served good coffee, but it wasn’t really different than what you would find at any other coffee shop. And the same could be said for their pastries and lunches. Everything was good, but there wasn’t anything to make this shop stick in your mind. But then came 20% time and everything changed.

The first change they made was to their coffee. You can get a vanilla latte anywhere. What you can’t do is get a Mexican vanilla latte in the morning and come back that afternoon and get a French vanilla latte or a bacon latte. (Yeah, a bacon latte. Don’t knock it ’til you try it) Their first step was to increase the number of flavors they have. Because here’s the truth about a coffee shop: coffee, milk, and syrup are all pretty cheap. What you’re paying for is a $6,000+ espresso machine and a barista that knows how to pull the perfect shot and get the right foam on your milk.

But the truth is, you can’t spend one day training a barista and expect him to win the Specialty Coffee Association championships tomorrow. It takes a lot of work and practice and it takes a barista that wants to master his craft. So this is where 20% time comes into play. Instead of scheduling their baristas the minimum number of hours they could, they gave them some extra time when the shop wasn’t busy. They created new drinks, practiced latte art, and became experts on their machine at pulling a perfect shot every time.

Sure the barista isn’t going to create a billion dollar product like AdSense, but the 20% time invested by the coffee shop has turned them into one of the best coffee shops in the area.

Not just turkey and swiss on rye anymore

But they didn’t stop with their coffee. They took the 20% time concept to improving their lunches as well. Almost a decade ago, a fine-dining Italian restaurant opened a couple of doors down from the coffee shop. They hired some good chefs and developed their skills to think outside the box and to innovate in the kitchen. Almost two years ago the restaurant had to shut down. This ended up being a great opportunity that the owners of the coffee shop acted on.

One of the chefs wanted to stay in town instead of moving an hour or two away to find another chef position. So what do you do when you have a trained chef wanting to work for you? Well, you don’t just serve turkey and swiss on rye anymore. You get out of his way and let him cook.

Until this year I always stuck to a couple of staples when I had lunch at the coffee shop. A toasted chipotle roast beef sandwich was my go to because I couldn’t get it anywhere else. Well, I haven’t had one in over a year because of the shops new special d’jour offerings. They’ve had citrus tilapia with wild rice, pasta primavera, and chicken milano.

They’ve done all of this while still maintaining and improving their coffee offerings. The only change they’ve made is to give their chef 20% of his day to experiment and create new dishes.


So what’s the truth about 20% time? The truth is, 20% time works and will work in any business. It may not be a whole day to work outside the box, but by giving their employees 20% time each day, I’ve seen this coffee shop go from good but mainstream to amazing and unforgettable.

Take a lead from Google and my favorite coffee shop and give your employees time to work on their own. Let them learn new skills or create their own project. The result may surprise you and may be what takes your business from being run-of-the-mill and sets it apart in your industry.

Starting next week, Friday is going to be Oso Studio’s 20% time. I already have an idea of how I’m going to spend my day, and I think the results are going to be amazing. Have you grown your business by using 20% time?