Ep #34 | Focus on the 'Why'


26-year-old Hadyn Hilton is the owner and founder of Java Cats Café, Georgia's first cat café located in the heart of Atlanta. Though Hadyn’s degree and career path were slated for the film industry, it came as no surprise to friends and family when she decided to drop everything and open a business revolving around one of her favorite things: cats! Hadyn, facing many hurdles in order to open her business, enjoys encouraging other entrepreneurs who are starting their journeys as well as giving advice about being a young female business owner in a male dominated society. With adoption numbers doubling the shelter rates, Java Cats has been a huge success for cat adoptions and has an established following all across the US and several countries in the world. Hilton's focus is to give back to the community, which her café does by providing a safe and nurturing environment for cats to live in while awaiting adoption, selling food items that support a nonprofit employing the Atlanta homeless, providing resources for local entrepreneurs and being a positive influence on social media platforms. Since opening, over 200 cats have been successfully adopted into their forever homes.



Shantel: Hi, Hadyn. Welcome to the show.

Hadyn: Thank you for having me.

Shantel: Yeah, we are excited to learn more about Java Cats. Can you kick things off and tell our listeners more about your first company?

Hadyn: Sure, so Java Cats Café is Georgia's very first cat café. It is a full-functioning coffee shop with a partitioned cat lounge where we have adoptable cats that live there. We work with a local shelter called, PAWS Atlanta. People can in, grab a cup of coffee, come hang out with cats, and play with the cats. If they're in adopting, they can adopt right there on site.

Shantel: Wow, that sounds like a really fun place. I'm going to have to take some Claritin and then I will come in.

Hadyn: You wouldn't be the only one.

Shantel: Yeah, I bet. Well, tell me a little bit about how you got this idea to start this café.


Hadyn: Yeah, so I was a film student at Georgia State University here in Atlanta. I was in a media class. For part of the media class we had to write a 12 page research paper on any topic in the media that we wanted to cover. Naturally, I decided to cover cat videos on YouTube, and why people are so intrigued by watching cats on YouTube. Through that paper, I came across for the very first time, the concept of a cat café in Taiwan. Up until then, I had never heard of it before. I was super intrigued by it, so I started doing some more research and found out there were some in the US, not many at the time. I just got this crazy idea. Well, there's none in the South, so maybe I can look into being the first one. I love cats and I've always been in animal rescue. It just sounded like a lot of fun, my dream job. I kind of started my little journey. From there, I dropped out of school. I'd done a lot of research, done some fund-raising and kind of started watching Java Cats come to life.

Shantel: Wow, so do you come from a family background of entrepreneurs or anyone in the food and beverage space that you could pick their brain?

Hadyn: Kind of, so I would say ... I have some cousins who are on the entrepreneurship path. I think it might be in my blood to be like a risk-taker. My dad's in business, so it was nice to be able to talk to him about finances and things like that. I picked up a lot of really great mentors along the way. It is nice to have family and friends that do understand like, "Okay, you're dropping out of school, kind of crazy." At first, my parents were like, "Don't drop out of school. Do this." Once I dropped out of school and started to pursue it, they were like, "Don't go back to school. This is such of a good thing. You need to stick with this." It's kind of funny how that's changed. I think people around me, my family, understood. They have that same entrepreneurship mindset. So, yeah, it's been pretty good. I think my mentors, my family, they're all very understanding and helped me along with the Java Cats journey.

Shantel: Well, that's nice to have a good support system. Did you have, if you don't mind me asking, funding to get started? Did you have a lot in savings or how have you raised the capital to open up a shop?

Hadyn: That was my biggest fear about this whole business opening thing was the money. Where does that come from? I cashed in the rest of my college fund. That was my capital invested, and then I took on two investors. The two investors pretty much funded the whole project. Then we raised about $20,000 on Kickstarter. We had a good chunk of money from the get-go to put into the business as we went. It was pretty good from the beginning. A lot of expenses popped up along the way we weren't expecting. It was hard financially when you can't plan necessarily what's going ... You can't plan for the unexpected. Money was there in the beginning, and yeah, so we just went off of that.

Shantel: That's amazing. Are these investors people that you were introduced to from friends and family? Did you know them previously? 

Hadyn: Yeah so I actually ... When I left my job, I was working in fine dining and the restaurant industry. I left my job to go work at a coffee job for about seven months to get a crash course on managing, being a barista, being a cashier, all that, so I would know what I was doing. Friends of ours own that coffee shop. It's called Ebrik Coffee. They're right on Georgia State Campus. I guess the guy that owns that coffee shop plugged me in with my investors. It was awesome, because he believed in the idea. He's like, "Money will follow you. Don't worry about the money, it'll happen." Then he helped plug in that gap for me.

Shantel: There's nothing more powerful than learning exactly what you learned to do on someone else's dime. Then being open and sharing those experiences with you, so you could build a good foundation.

Hadyn: Absolutely.

Shantel: Let's dive into the people. Are you running the café solely yourself? What is that dynamic look like right now?

Hadyn: Right now, I have a staff of eight, including myself. We do have a really small staff. We have four cat lounge employees, and three baristas, not including myself. We have a really small team. In the beginning I was there every single day, open to close. You know, as a small business, I guess that's normal. Now it's at the point where I can work on more admin stuff, with in the background of things. It's much easier for me. I have a really amazing team that allows me to do that, and have more time to really grow the business from the backside of things. I'm not there every single day. I was in the beginning, but I'm still pretty much there all the time.

Shantel: Wow, and how long have you been in business?

Hadyn: We have been in business 10 months now.

Shantel: I mean, that is amazing to have a team of eight people in less than a year, that is so awesome.

Hadyn: Yeah, it's pretty cool.

Shantel: Did you get guidance on how to find the right people? How did you find your team?

Hadyn: I definitely overstaffed in the beginning. I wasn't sure what to expect. I was kind of basing staffing off the coffee shop that I worked at at Georgia State. We definitely overstaffed at the beginning. Everyone knew, I was very up-front, very transparent with everyone, that I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't know if we would need everyone. Everyone just wanted to come along for the journey. We had a really, really good core group of people that helped launch Java Cats. I think some people weeded out. I definitely learned what to look for in an employee and not just opening to whoever. I think that was definitely a growing thing for me. We have a really amazing team now. I look for certain traits. I look for certain personalities that are very hospitable and welcoming. I feel like a lot of coffee shops kind of lack on that aspect of being welcoming and warm. We wanted that to be different for here. We want people to feel at home when they walk in. We have a great team that does that now.

Shantel: How did you get the word out about Java Cats when you first opened up?

Hadyn: Fortunately, because it was the only one of its kind in the entire state, the media came very naturally. It was non-stop media from the get-go. Every paper, every news outlet would come knock on our door. Even on opening week, I had laryngitis from talking to so many people for the first two weeks. I had no voice for a month after that. It was terrible, but that was just how many media people would come in. The news would come in, the newspapers, the bloggers, just people from all over were traveling to come and check out Java Cats. Fortunately for us, since it was such a new concept, the media was very natural.

Shantel: Well, that's nice. Have you leveraged social media or continued to leverage some of those PR and social media outlets to help continue to foster those relationships?

Hadyn: Absolutely. We have a couple really, really awesome things booked for the future that I can't announce quite yet. Things that have organically happened through the media from the beginning. We definitely haven't lost traction as far media goes. It's only grown from there. I think it's gotten a lot of people's attention. Like I said, being the only one in Georgia at the time, was very helpful for our success, as far as media goes.

Shantel: Yeah, absolutely. I was reading on the website more about the adoption side of things. Where are the cats coming from? Do they stay there at night? I'd love to learn more about that.


Hadyn: Yeah, so we work with PAWS Atlanta. They're Georgia's oldest non-kill animal shelter. They're out in Decatur, so all of our cats come from them. They pull from all kinds of places in Georgia, so cats come from all walks of life, all backgrounds. They come to Java Cats to get socialized. We have shy cats. We have outgoing cats. We have cats of all kind. It's almost like a dating service. You come in. If you're looking for a cat, it's like, "What kind of cat are you looking for?" We can match you up to your perfect cat match. The cats do stay there at night. They're free roaming cats. They have the best playground ever in the cat lounge. They can go from the ceiling and around the room. If they didn't want to touch the floor, they wouldn't have to, because there's so much other places they can climb, sleep and hide. It's a really cool experience for the cats.

Shantel: That's really neat. We were actually laughing offline before about how both of our dogs are in the background, so we're hoping that they don't bark during the show. Are you, I'm guessing, a cat lover? I'm a dog lover. Do you have cats at home, as well?

Hadyn: Yes, so I grew up an animal lover. I don't think I've ever met an animal I didn't love. I have two rescue Pomeranians and three rescue cats. One of those cats did come from Java Cats lounge accidentally. It wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. We have a little family of five little creatures running around our apartment.

Shantel: Nice, well let's talk about your day to day now. I'm sure it's continually evolving. Where do you see your role in the next year? Are you hoping to complete step out away from the business and hire the staff to manage it? What do you see your future there?

Hadyn: Yeah, so a little inside scoop. We are actually opening a second location in Marietta, close to the Marietta Square. Yeah, so I'm just now starting to make that official. I haven't even announced that on social media yet. Before this phone conversation, I just was sent the lease. It's happening. It's very real. I think just kind of seeing where Java Cats goes. Where we can step in and help shelter cats, get more exposure. I think Marietta for us is a really great step. It's not too far away. It's local and just keep growing. I definitely don't see myself stepping out completely, because I absolutely love what I'm doing. I love Java Cats. It's my second home. What I would like is the point where .... Admin work can be a little overwhelming, so I'd like to get to the point where I'm actually working barista shifts, and I'm on the backside working on admin, payroll, and finances. Doing that and working actual shifts is very overwhelming and it's a lot to take on. I would like to take a step back, work more on that, grow the business, and be more active in that role. That's where I see it going.

Shantel: Do you anticipate opening more locations than just the two in different cities? Would that be a really long-term vision for you?

Hadyn: I'm not sure, honestly. I was very opposed to opening a second a location, just because I had a very difficult and challenging time opening the one in Atlanta. The city of Atlanta was nearly impossible to work with. With this new concept, they just didn't get it. With my experience with that, I honestly was very opposed to Marietta. The Marietta Square actually asked for us to come up there. They're very open to the idea. They want it. They've seen how successful it's been and how it's helped cats. It just kind of brings the community together in a very different way. I don't want to jeopardize the integrity of what we have going on in expanding it. I know people have asked me about franchising. I've been approached about franchising. I'm not sure. I think that's something I'll have to grow into and do some more research on. I just want to keep the feel the same that's at Java Cats now, which is very homey, welcoming and warm. I don't ever want to lose that. I don't want to grow too big. I think it's just where it's needed. That's why I'm open to Marietta, because it is close enough for me to go every day. Yeah, I think that's where I stand on that, but we'll see.

Shantel: Yeah, I mean that's a really interesting point. In our company, we're in a similar position. If we could continue to grow and grow really fast, but then we run the risk of losing what we hold near and dear. It's an interesting balancing act in trying to figure out what are the goals and the vision, and continually reminding yourself of that, so you don't lose site of it just because a lot more business is coming in or more opportunities are opening up. Speaking of challenges, you kind of touched on this twice. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first got started, you first opened up?


Hadyn: So many things, so many things. I could honestly probably write a book on just that question. Because I'm very typey, very unorganized, and artsy, I never saw myself opening a business. I never thought I would be the kind of person that enjoyed it. I think my strengths of being creative, and my weaknesses of being unorganized, it kind of helped the charm is what I make myself believe. Taking the business entrepreneurship journey a little differently. I think if I could have told myself something, it would have just been not to be so terrified of failure. I think that was so scary for me in the beginning of what if this fails? What if this is not successful? I think that fear is almost worse and more crippling than actually failing. I think that's something that I've taken on is that it's not all that bad. I think, gosh, I don't know ... That's a loaded question. Yeah, I don't know. I think the fear of failure and just not being so scared. I think that's the biggest point I would take.

Shantel: I think that's a good one. It's funny with the fear now looking back and thinking, okay, if it did fail ... At least for us in retrospect, it would be like it was the best lesson we probably ... If we did fail. Thankfully, we haven't. It's really not bad, thinking now looking back and knowing if we had failed, it would have been really cool to learn X, Y, Z and then apply it to whatever else comes in the future.

Hadyn: Absolutely. I think when risk is involved and lots at stake, the failure idea is super scary. You're like, "Well, I'll lose all of it." Really, you've gained a ton of knowledge. Right now, I'm leading a Java Cats entrepreneurship group back at Java Cats on Wednesday nights for women. I think there's just a lot of challenges for a woman business owner. That, in itself, is challenging. We have like 70 that have signed up. We have about 30 that show up in-person, then 12 to 15 online that are all across the country. The one main thing everyone is so scared of is failing. That's one of the things that we talk about every single time we meet up is what's so scary about. What are you actually afraid of? I think everyone's coming to terms that it's not that scary. There's more lesson in the failure than failing itself. I think we're taught to be so scared of that.

Shantel: Yeah, absolutely. I so appreciate it when you said that you were a typey, creative, person. Have you found tools or techniques or maybe people that you rely on in the company to help you stay organized or manage some of those processes that you ... Like is nails on a chalkboard for you?

Hadyn: Yeah, I am very unorganized. I think one of my ... The key that I've learned is writing things down, keeping it on my phone, keeping it on a calendar. What's amazing is I've had people that are not hired employees at Java Cats, but because of what we're doing and what we're doing with the cats, they just come along to help, to stay more on top of things, to stay organized, and help me out. I think that just the right people have come along that I can really rely on and trust that a jobs going to be done well. That's honestly been a huge blessing for me is people see that that's my weakness, but they don't judge me for it. They kind of come along to help out, come alongside me, and make sure we're successful and we're doing things right. I think the right people have definitely come along and it's been awesome.

Shantel: It sounds like you have a very good network of people. 

Hadyn: Yeah, definitely.

Shantel: On some of the more challenging days, what do you do when you're feeling drained? If you are having a bad day and you're like, "Why did I start this?" What do you do to stay motivated?

Hadyn: Honestly, I hang out with the cats.

Shantel: Okay, that's good.

Hadyn: Yeah, I think just going back to the reason why I started this and the reason why I'm doing this is to get cats out of cages. In the beginning, I think there was so many issues I was running into. I was super discouraged. Back when Java Cats wasn't tangible yet, I would go to PetSmart or Petco and see the cats in cages. Go and talk to them, pet them and just remember I'm trying to get these cats out of cages. I'm trying to get them more exposure. That's the heartbeat behind Java Cats and what we're trying to do. I think just refocusing my energy, too. This is why I'm doing this. It's not for anything else. It's for this reason here. It's so easy to get caught up in the to do's and the business and the overwhelming task at hand, but I think is just refocusing to why, the why. If you can answer the why, that should be the heartbeat that keeps you going. I think that's what I do is I try to re-center and focus on that.

Shantel: I love that and probably such a stress relief to pause and put your attention on something else, another animal and play, which is nice. When you were doing that research did you see anything about puppy cafés? 

Hadyn: That's always the second question is when's there going to be a puppy café. The very first dog café opened in California not too long ago. I'm not sure how it's going. I've played around with the idea. To me, cats are more my spirit animal, I think. I think I'll probably be sticking with cats and focusing on that. I'm not sure if there's any dog ... Dogs, to me I think would be a little bit more difficult in a café setting, feel like it would be a little bit louder. You have to walk them. I think there's some aspect of a dog café that would be incredibly difficult than compared to a cat café.

Shantel: Mm-hmm, yeah, that a good point.

Hadyn: It's not a challenge I'm willing on taking up.

Shantel: Not yet, yeah.

Hadyn: I'll stick with cats.

Shantel: I was traveling in Japan early last year. We heard of a lot of the cat cafés there. There was also an owl café, which was interesting. It made me sad, because I feel like they needed to be outdoors, but it was something different. 

Hadyn: No, it's interesting.

Shantel: Yeah, different concept for sure. Where do you continue to learn and grow in your entrepreneurship journey?


Hadyn: I think just growing into this role of owner. For so long, I've worked under people. I've had bosses, and now I'm that person for my team. I remember when we first opened, there was a difficult situation that came up. A family had traveled like three hours away to come see the cats. We definitely recommend reservations. We limit the number of people in the room. They were very upset about not being able to get in. I remember looking to my staff like, "Okay, what do we do about this." They're like, "What do you do about this? What do you want to do about this?" I feel like in that moment, I'm like, "Oh, that's a different shift I'm having to take on as owner. It's me. I'm the go-to person now.” I think just growing into that role and feeling more confident about it. Yeah, so it's been very challenging to become the boss. I think I'm always going to grow into that role. I don't think it'll ever just happen. I want to be a good boss. I've worked under enough difficult ones. I want to be one that's well-liked, but well-structured and running our team very well. I think that's going to constantly be something that I'm learning.

Shantel: Yeah, I imagine we'll always, as a fellow business owner, always be learning. Anytime I'm with friends who work for other people, I'm always asking. I dive into those questions when they're talking about something that went wrong at work. I want to know how did they handle it verse how did someone else handle it? It's interesting to hear those different perspectives. Just a couple more questions to wrap things up. What do you think is your top strength? How did you leverage it every day?

Hadyn: Fortunately for me, I was in fine dining before Java Cats. I was in fine dining as a host captain for about two and a half years for the Ford Fry Company. That was such an amazing experience for me, honestly. I don't think Java Cats would be what it is without learning the skills that I learned being a captain at the host stand. You learn a lot about people. Especially in Buckhead, which Buckhead is a very nice side of town. There's very difficult people, very entitled people. I think learning how to just be very ... Our motto is genuine hospitality. Genuinely caring for people, meeting their needs whatever they are, and not treating everyone's needs the same. I think learning that tool from that company has really helped me propel the hospitality. That's our motivation at Java Cats is be very hospitable, very warm and welcoming. I know I've said that a couple times, but it's so important when you're running a business. Like I said before, it's what a lot of coffee shops lack. They're just there to do a job. At Java Cats, we want people to feel at home. We have a core group of people that come in all the time, because that's where they feel at home. I think my top strength would be, being very hospitable, being very genuine with people and meeting them where they are. I'm very fortunate to have learned that skill from my previous job.

Shantel: I love that. I think it's such a true testament to the work environment you're creating that you have these regulars that are coming in day after day. I think that's awesome, so kudos to you.

Hadyn: Thank you.

Shantel: Of course. Do you feel like you've striked a great balance in your personal and business life? How have your friends responded? I guess then second question, how have your friends responded to this new endeavor?

Hadyn: Yeah, I think it's been challenging. Running a business takes up a lot of my time. Work life balance, we actually talk about this on the Women's Entrepreneurship Groups on Wednesday. We were talking about how do you balance that? It's so easy to get caught up in business, life and just combining it. I think for me it's just learning to say no to things and learning to say no to even opportunities sometimes. Learning to say no to work sometimes, putting that to the wayside, and focusing on what's important. I'm married, so it's important to not combine work and married life, and having that time to focus on each other. Fortunately for me, my husband's a master's student, so he's striving for something, working hard for something. We're both go-getters and we're doing our own thing. When we come together, it's nice that we just ... We work really hard and then we play hard. We love to travel. We definitely prioritize taking trips and doing fun things around town. I think just saying no and taking that time to focus on you. Especially if you're married, it's really easy to put that to the wayside, and especially friends, too. Just saying no and just having fun. I think it's important to have fun and keeping those friendships. You don't want to drop those friendships. Fortunately for me, my friends are very understanding and are very supportive about what I'm doing. It's nice. It's nice to have that understanding support.

Shantel: That's great. Well, as you're approaching your one year ... Last questions. One year is around the corner. Are you doing anything to celebrate the big milestone?

Hadyn: Yes, so I am teaming up with Riverbare Films, which is a local Atlanta film production team. We are doing a cat film festival. Because I'm a film student, cat videos are still my thing. I still love anything cat and film related. I still have a major passion for the film industry and film. We're hosting a cat film festival. People can submit their videos. You can go to Javacatscafe.com and go to our film festival page. You can submit a short cat film. There's a $500 cash prize. The Atlanta artist, Catlanta, is making a custom trophy for the main winner. We have some really cool things lined up for that. That's how we're going to celebrate our one year anniversary is just doing a cat film festival, bringing it back to where it all began.

Shantel: That's so exciting. Well, congratulations again. Congratulations on the Marietta location. We can't wait to link that in the show notes and follow along. Hadyn, thank you so much for being on the show. It was great getting to know you more.

Hadyn: Thank you so much, really appreciate it.