Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Tajine

This Foodie Friday, let’s investigate tajine. Those of you with some knowledge of middle eastern or northern African food and cooking will recognize that a tajine is both a dish and a cooking vessel. You probably aren’t aware that it makes a great business point as well.

The dish, as one might expect, varies quite a bit depending on the location and culture. Generally speaking, a tajine is a stew that’s cooked slowly. Depending on the culture, it can have meats, fish, regional spices and broth. Some cultures add fruit and nuts. In Tunisia, eggs and cheese are common additions, making the stew more like a frittata.

What most of the cultures have in common is that the dish is cooked in a pot with a pyramid-shaped lid that does most of the work for you and produces consistently moist results, condensing and redirecting steam back into the food. Technically you don’t need a tajine to cook a tajine (see what I did there?) but because the pot is made from porous terra cotta, it gets seasoned and infused with flavors over time. Yes, very much like a great cast-iron skillet. Yes, you could use a slow-cooker which develops a similar cooking environment and yes, some tajine pots are enameled so they don’t really absorb flavor, but no matter which way you go, the business point remains the same.

A tajine is very much a product of a specific environment. The flavors reflect the culture and what the pot does so well is to create a condition that keeps the product inside in an optimal state. I think that’s what great corporate cultures do as well. First, they select “ingredients” – people and processes – that reflect who they are as an organization. Next, they create an environment that allows those ingredients to combine while protecting them from burning or overcooking. It’s a slow, gentle braise.

Think about the best places in which you worked. I’ll bet it was a “braise” environment and not “broiling”. I’ve worked in the latter and the staff tended to be overcooked quite quickly.  It’s like one lovely description of tajine cooking says:

Fill the pot with your layered ingredients before it has fully heated, either at room temperature or when barely warm. This helps to mediate overall temperature and prevent any scorching. There’s no sautéing necessary—simply layer ingredients and add liquid all in one go. A moist and saucy tagine comes from the trapped steam, not pre-cooking.

As you’re creating your corporate tajine, think about both the dish and the pot. Keep the staff from scorching and the environment so it creates optimal conditions for success. It’s probably simpler than you think if you have the right tools!

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Dumplings

This Foodie Friday, ask yourself why it is that every culture has a dumpling of some sort. When I say the word, your mind might initially flash to Chinese dumplings. After all, nearly every Chinese menu offers a dumpling or two (and often many more). You can usually get mandu at a Korean place. Italian ravioli, Spanish empanadas, Polish pierogi, Puerto Rican pasteles, Indian guija – heck, even Jewish Kreplach – are all members of the dumpling club along with dozens of others.

At the most basic level, dumplings are a wrapper filled with something. Generally, it’s meat or vegetables (or both) but it can be soup or it can be something sweet. They almost always can be eaten with one or two bites. I think they’re an apt metaphor for your business or your brand.

There is a core element. That’s your “why.” It’s not a “why” based on how you see yourself but on how your customers see you. What problem are you solving for them? How do you interact with them? It’s the messages you send and the reality that you provide (and those things had better be aligned and consistent!).

Dumplings have wrappers. I suspect many of us don’t pay much attention to the wrapper but let’s remember that the wrapper holds the whole thing together. The wrapper makes the dumpling possible. Your business has a wrapper. It’s your staff, your partners, and your suppliers. A great dumpling’s wrapper complements the filling. It’s of appropriate thickness and texture. It can be fancy or plain, but in every case, it is complete – without holes so the filling stays intact. Your team needs to be that way – without holes, appropriate to the essence. If the dumpling is broken, the odds are that the product that lies within is not optimal either.

I think every dumpling began with the filling, just as your business should. I am unaware, however, of any dishes that are just “dumpling filling”, despite having a child who would remove the wrappers and only consume the filling every time we had Chinese food.  The dish isn’t complete without the wrapper, the filling, and often the broth within that brings everything together. You need to pay attention to all the parts of your business as well – the entire experience – and not just focus on the filling. It’s just one part of the dumpling!

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Do You Really Want The Real Deal?

Happy Foodie Friday! I was asked to give some restaurant recommendations to a friend who will be traveling in a month or two. They’re going to a couple of cities I know pretty well and wanted me to tell them where they could get “authentic” cuisine. That got me thinking about the whole authenticity thing and I realized that maybe what many of us say we want isn’t really exactly what we mean.

They wanted to see NYC’s Chinatown and I told them about one of my favorite places there. It’s been there forever (always a good sign) and serves authentic Chinese food. Oh sure, you can get the American/Chinese stuff that’s available elsewhere but you can find things here like snails that you won’t find at P.F. Chang’s. They serve 24 different soups – I’m pretty sure your local place might serve 5 or 6. A lot of the “good” stuff isn’t even on the menu.

Of course, to try some of these “authentic” dishes, you have to put aside your preconceptions. Even some of the standards – Kung Pao Chicken, for example (known as Gung Bo Gai Ding here) – are different from what you’re used to. Authentic, yes, but is that really what you’re after?

They also asked for some recommendations in Rome. I am pulling together a list of places I like there but cautioned them to stay away from places that offer a tourist menu. They inevitably dumb down the food and in some cases, Olive Garden would be an upgrade. Of course, one place I love has no English menu and the last time I was there my friend ordered a plate of what I told him translated to “guts”. That was exactly what it was – liver, kidneys, etc. It was delicious and very authentic but is that really what most people want? Sanguinaccio isn’t exactly on the tourist menu (it’s a blood sausage).

InterContinental Hotels did a survey asking travelers in major destinations to select the sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and scents from a selection that provide the best experience for a traveler visiting their city. The answer for New York was fresh bagels from a West Village shop and summer rays while sunbathing in Central Park on a Sunday. I can tell you that while that may be true, most visitors would have a hard time dealing with Central Park on a Sunday and there are endless arguments in my hometown about where the best bagel can be found. Personally, I’d opt for a bodega bacon egg and cheese as being authentic, along with the lesser-known chop cheese. Good luck finding tourists who are wanting those authentic gut bombs (they’re SO good!).

Authenticity may not always be what we want. Honesty, yes. Transparency, of course. But authenticity can be something altogether disturbing. It can precipitate a massive attack of cognitive dissonance (I want the real thing but the real thing is not what I want!). Careful what you wish for!

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Walkin’ The Talk

I spend a lot of time on the telephone these days. I’m constantly calling people who have indicated that they have an interest in changing their lives by investing in a franchise. It’s great most of the time even if it’s frustrating at the same time. The reason for that is something from which any of us in business can learn.

I think that a number of folks are now using some sort of auto-responder on their phones. I will very often dial someone and just as their voicemail kicks in I get a text from them. “I’ll call you back” is pretty common or even the more maddening “I’ll call you back in an hour.” The reality is that I rarely get that callback.

I pride myself on walkin’ the talk. If I tell you that I’m going to do something, I do it. People are trusting me with a lot of sensitive information – their financial situation, their unhappiness with their current work situation in many cases – and I need them to know that I’m worthy of that trust. Keeping commitments is part of building trust. If I tell you that I will call you at 10, you can be quite sure that your phone will ring at 10. That’s what several decades in the TV business do to you – 10 means 10, not 9:58 or 10:02.

Trust is foundational in business. Yes, there are contracts so that everyone knows what the deal is although I probably didn’t pay enough attention to contracts because I always felt that if I could trust the person I was dealing with, contractual issues would tend to take care of themselves. Making a commitment via autoresponder isn’t walkin’ the talk. It’s just talking to get someone off your back. I’m willing to bet most of the folks don’t even know that a text was sent.

I made a resolution this year. I’m not chasing after anyone. They can generate all the texts they want but if they don’t follow through and make the call, I’m done with them. There are lot of foks who are serious about changing their lives for the better and I’m going to be spending my time with them. That’s a commitment and you can bet it’s one I’ll be keeping.

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Tasks And Experiences

Happy Foodie Friday! This article came into my news feed this morning. It’s about Walmart’s store of the future, where robots can fill grocery orders up to 10 times faster than humans. Pretty spiffy and it’s an interesting read, but it also got me thinking about a pretty important distinction about which I think you may want to ruminate.

When I go to the grocery store (every Thursday!), I have a list of things I want to buy. Most of the things on that list are there because I’ve planned out meals for the week and I need things to make those meals possible. It’s a pretty straightforward task. Other things are on the list because I use them in general and they’re on sale. Maybe I have a coupon that for them that is expiring. Maybe they’re on sale AND I have a coupon (can you feel the excitement?). Again, it’s pretty cut and dry – here’s the thing on the list, buy it and bring it home.

That’s really only half the trip, however. Inevitably, I find things to buy that aren’t on the list. I’ve found them as part of the shopping experience. Maybe it’s an unadvertised sale, maybe some local produce came in and looks spectacular. This is experience-oriented shopping versus the aforementioned task-oriented shopping.

Back to the article. It’s lovely that Walmart (and Amazon and others) are extremely efficient in servicing these orders, but they’re only serving the task-oriented shoppers. In-store discovery is impossible when there is no in-store experience. That’s why you always see “people who bought (the thing you’re buying) also bought (another thing).’ I think it’s also why Amazon is moving into physical stores, both through Whole Foods and their own “register-less” stores. Obviously, serving the task-oriented shopper is only half the battle.

I think it’s the same in other businesses.  Almost every business interacts with customers, partners, vendors, and employees in a task-oriented framework. When you stop and think about it, good businesses make sure there is an experience-oriented aspect to the relationship as well. What I mean is an experience that the participants can enjoy for its own sake and not as a means for accomplishing a task or achieving an extrinsic goal. Maybe it’s just drinks after work with no agenda. Maybe it’s a round of golf. All of my best business relationships had both task-oriented and experience-oriented aspects.

Think about how you interact with your customers. Is everything a task where items get ticked off a list or is there an experience that’s part of the relationship? How can you bring that balance?

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I’m Sick Of Scammers

Another year, another scammer surfaces. I’ve written many times in this space about marketers who try to take advantage of people’s limited attention spans and fear of all things “official”. The mail delivered another example of one to my doorstep the other day and I want to tell you about them. Admittedly, part of this is venting but another part is a very real concern that many marketers have lowered their standards to a point where they’ll do just about anything to drive business. It’s even worse when the business itself is a scam.

North Carolina, like many states, requires that all businesses file an annual report with the Secretary Of State. If you’ve never done that, it’s a very easy process that can be completed online in about 3 minutes. I had to do the same thing when my LLC was registered in Connecticut and the process was equally easy. You check a few boxes and pay the fee. Easy peasy.

In the mail the other day was an official-looking document – 2020 Annual Report Instructions Form.  The blanks in the form were already pre-populated with my LLC’s information. It also contained the language from the general statutes about having to file an annual report. I thought it was something the state had sent until I gave it more than a cursory look.

In a different typeface was a sentence that said this was being sent by a third-party who would file my report for me. Just send along the $292 fee and that would be that. Of course, the filing fee is only $202 – the other $90 was what this company was scamming me for. The grift IS the business – there is very little, if any, work involved otherwise.

My first thought when I saw the form was, oh, I’ll do this online, as I do pretty much everything. My next thought was “wait, this isn’t the state, this is a scam.” The thought after that was “some percentage of business owners are going to fall for this.” It has all the right information and it’s very official-looking. Of course, anyone can get that information on the state’s website and matching the state’s form and typeface isn’t exactly rocket science.

I admit there are a couple of disclaimers that the company is not affiliated with the state but why should anyone have to read very carefully to avoid being taken advantage of? Are they providing a service? I suppose so, but why not offer the service in a clear manner instead of trying to obfuscate that you’re charging $90 to save someone a few minutes’ work?

If you market a product or service, the road to profitability isn’t made easier by misleading or scamming your customers. Let’s not do that. Even better, let’s shine some sunlight on those scammers who do.

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Most Read Post Of 2019

Happy New Year and a new decade to boot! This post was the most-read screed I published in 2019. It’s fitting both to end and to begin the year with it since the topic involves change. This is the time of the year when many people stop and assess their lives which often leads to change. This piece, originally titled “Taking The Beaten Path” has to do with some issues involved in starting your own business. I published it last February and I hope you’ll give it a read and some thought if you’re thinking about starting fresh in 2020.

One of the questions that has come up often in my newish role as a franchise consultant has been why one should look to invest in a franchise to begin with rather than starting a business from scratch. After all, there are generally fairly substantial franchise fees associated with a franchise along with the other expenses one might expect when starting a business plus you usually have on-going royalties. You’ll still have to pay to incorporate, you still often need insurance, licenses, equipment, space, and people. Why incur the extra fees on top of the ordinary expenses? It’s a good question and I have what I think are some good answers. If you’re thinking of starting a business or maybe changing the nature of the business you’re running, here are my thoughts.

First, the biggest advantage of buying into a franchise is that it’s a business in a box. It’s a proven business model, one that comes with built-in support. Almost every franchise I work with has some form of training and on-going mentoring. I think about that in terms of the businesses that have hired me to consult in the past. Much of what I did would have been covered by that sort of support, negating the need for an outside consultant. The franchise will have research and the business results of all the other franchisees. That’s invaluable and beats the heck out of going it alone.

Another consequence of that is you’ll probably experience much faster growth. You won’t be spending time formulating a business plan. Instead, you’ll be getting trained and executing one that has been time-tested. Something as simple as logo design, which can take time and several iterations, is not really a concern. You’ll generally be presented with operations manuals and marketing materials. Your time to market is greatly decreased.

One thing that is much easier is financing your business. Franchises are less risky in lenders’ minds since they’re known brands and proven businesses. While banks aren’t the best source for franchise ending, there are many lenders who specialize in that (I work with 6 of them) and SBA loans are easier to come by as well. Finally, your potential customers will already know who you are. Most franchises have good brand recognition, and even those that don’t have a current local presence can often benefit from being seen as part of a bigger entity.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that roughly 1 in 5 of all businesses in the U.S. close after the first two years of operation and a little over a third shut their doors after four years. You can beat those odds by taking the beaten path and investing the franchise fee to gain the above benefits. In my mind, and why I added this to my consulting portfolio, that investment yields as good or better returns than blazing your own new trail. What do you think?

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