Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

What Restaurateurs And Founders Share

It’s Foodie Friday, and this week an article on a restaurant trade site caught my eye. It’s all about the things restaurant owners wished they’d known when they decided to open a place. Having spent a lot of time working with startups, what I find interesting is that many of their statements are not unique to the restaurant business. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you will nod your head in agreement with these if you’ve even started a business or worked with one in its early stages. You can read the entire piece by clicking through here.

Photo by Bank Phrom

First and foremost, the time involved. One owner said she wished she’d known “That I was going to spend the first couple months basically living in the store and two years married to the business. 86 my social life!” I’m often amused at the founders who still have side gigs, especially if those gigs are not consulting positions that are very flexible. One startup with which I’m working has two founders who don’t seem to be able to focus enough time on their company, and as a result, their progress is very slow. What should have taken them several months has taken them a couple of years. In part it’s a financial decision – the gigs help fund the startup – but I sometimes feel as if they don’t really get that you need to be married to the business, as this owner says.

Another owner wishes he’d known “To have enough money reserved to be able to wait to open the doors to the public.” There is something to be said for throwing a lot of tests out there and iterating, but I’m a believer in making sure you’re putting your best foot forward. That doesn’t mean every beta has to be perfect but it does mean, to paraphrase the words of the old Paul Masson commercial, not selling any product before its time. The world is too cluttered and I’m not sure any business gets multiple chances after a bad customer experience (think about how many apps you’ve deleted recently or a restaurant at which your first meal was your last).

Then there is the point never underestimate the value of private dining. As the owner put it, people wanted a place where it was quiet and personal. I think that makes it as much about the experience as it does the product. Personalization is key!

Finally, I love another owner’s point: “To build your squad. We always knew that having good people was important, but I’m not sure we realized how important.” As any business grows, the founders can only do so much and your success is in the hands of the people you’ve brought in and trained. Your job as a manager is to help your team to do their jobs, but it’s also to be sure that every person is carrying their load. Nothing will bring a business down faster than a weak link in the chain that causes resentment among the rest of the team. Hire well, don’t be afraid to admit you’ve made a mistake with a hire if you have, and do everything in your power to retain great talent.

Yes, the food service business is different in many ways (you probably don’t have the health department visiting nor do you deal with many cuts and burns), but as the piece demonstrates, every startup faces many of the same challenges, don’t they?

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Filed under food, Consulting, Thinking Aloud

Keeping It Real

Back in 2015, an engineer at Twitter asked his security team to look into fake accounts. He said he was stunned to find that a significant percentage of the total accounts created on Twitter had Russian and Ukrainian IP addresses and he also found that they were, for the most part, fake. They were “bots”.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

No, today isn’t a political rant about how our Democracy might just have been hijacked by a foreign power. Rather, what happened next, as told in this piece by Bloomberg, is instructive to any of us in business because it raises a few issues that are common to us all.

The engineer was part of the security team. That team was tasked with keeping the platform secure. He took his findings to another team – the growth team – which had the responsibility for increasing the user base. That user base number is critical for every business since how the business is valued is based in part on how many users (we can’t really say people in this case, can we?) are active. Discovering that a significant percentage of the user base was fake could have a negative effect on the business’ balance sheet, and in this, we begin to see the problem.

There is a misalignment of goals. If part of security is keeping the platform free from spambots, the people responsible for deleting the spambots can’t have any goals which make deleting those bots counterproductive. In this case, the engineer was told to “stay in his lane”. In other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain – the reality of our user numbers – it’s not your job.

No organization should have these kinds of silos. No organization can base its public statements about growth and user engagement on numbers it knows are fake. It’s one thing for users to inflate their follower numbers by buying fake followers but it’s quite another for Twitter itself to be aware of these non-human accounts and to do nothing about them because they want to keep their user numbers up.

I don’t mean to single out Twitter. The same issue persists on Facebook and other social platforms and it’s way more insidious than research can find. There is a term – dark social – that refers to sharing activity among the network’s members that isn’t easily measured. Let’s say a fake account spreads a lie and maybe even buys an ad to do so. We can see how many impressions the ad had or how many followers the fake account has. What we can’t easily see is the network effect. I see the post and am outraged about it. I tell five friends, who tell five of their friends, etc., particularly when it’s shared off the network itself via email or text.

I am fairly certain that each of these networks could identify and stop this activity despite what you might have seen in Congress last week. Those were the lawyers testifying, not the engineers. The point for your business is to keep everyone’s goals in alignment, don’t build silos, and to be honest with yourself and with your investors. These are public companies who might just be committing fraud, but every company has the same responsibility for honesty and transparency.  You with me?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Are We In An Information Death Spiral?

Sometimes I wonder if we’re in an informational death spiral. That’s when an aircraft is out of control, loses lift, and heads in a corkscrew motion toward the ground. My pilot friends say they usually begin with a random, increasing roll and airspeed. That’s where I think we all just might be with respect to information. We’ve had a random, increasing rolling of what “real” information is and the speed at which it is generated is increasing.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Why this matters to you, both in business and in life, is that it’s becoming increasingly impossible to tell fact from fiction. The revelation that the Russian government created thousands of fake accounts across the social sphere to generate and amplify “news” items that were made up out of whole cloth is devastating to anyone who tries to figure out fact from fiction. That devastation is multiplied by the findings of this year’s Pew study which found:

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) use Facebook, and a majority of those users get news on the site, similar to 2016. Looked at as a portion of all U.S. adults, this translates into just under half (45%) of Americans getting news on Facebook. While a large share of its users get news on [Twitter} (74% say they do), its audience is significantly smaller overall. This means that overall, fewer Americans get news on Twitter (11% of U.S. adults).

In other words, we’re increasingly relying on the least reliable sources for news and information. Imagine if you were doing this in your business. Rather than looking at actual revenues, you based your appraisal of how things were going on how full your warehouse seemed or how busy your staff was. Sure, a warehouse that’s becoming empty can signal great sales but it can also signal an issue with your supply chain or with your accounting department who hasn’t been paying suppliers. Maybe it’s a collections issue. You don’t know until you get the real facts.

Being able to separate fact from fiction is the basis of being an educated, competent person. When others are out there trying as hard as they can to mask facts or to impose fiction, that job is thrown into a death spiral. When Facebook changed from being a place when you could focus on friends and family to a platform for news and information, the spiral began. When their algorithm began to reward the click bait that was able to deceive enough people by being outrageous, our collective noses headed toward the ground.

Don’t be fooled by fake news, either in the office or out of it. Find the facts, level off your wings, and fly on.

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Filed under digital media, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

The Real Magic

I bought a ticket yesterday to see the Michigan Wolverine basketball team play North Carolina. It’s a chance to see a team that I root for in person, and since I don’t live close to Ann Arbor, those chances don’t come very often without significant travel. It wasn’t cheap – over $100 to sit in a so-so seat – but as I’ve written many times, cost and value aren’t the same

Yes, the game will be on TV and I could just stay home and watch it, as I do many of their other games. In fact, as a person who made a living in the sports TV business, I often ask myself why people both going to games now at all. After all, it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, and the viewing experience is often much better sitting at home. I know from my time at a league that clubs are well-aware of this and they try to make the game-day experience worth the time and money, and many do. But the real reason I and other fans go to the game is something that any of us can bring to our business: authenticity.

I’ve been to hundreds of sporting events. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts. They’re often forgettable – your team getting shellacked or a bad night for a band. But every time the experience is real, and part of that is sharing it with thousands of others. Some bands forget this – they use a lot of recorded sound in their show, often including vocals. Some teams come out tired and slow – maybe it’s their third game in four days. No magic there because in neither case are we seeing the real deal – an organization performing at its full potential. The fans know it too – there’s no electricity in the building (and in sports, there’s often a lot of negative energy expressed as booing). People want experiences, and especially experiences they can share.

This is something any business should remember. Customers want something real. They can tell when we’re “fake nice” or when we’re being unresponsive. They want consistency too. The fan who pays for the “off night” goes away unhappy and is unlikely to return. As our lives get more virtual, I think we all crave genuine things, experiences and businesses among the things for which we hunger. You?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, sports business

Winner Winner

Monday for is a day of some reflection since it inevitably follows a weekend of sports watching. This time of year one can watch just about any sport being contested at the highest levels. College and pro football are in full swing, as is world soccer. Baseball is in the playoffs as is NASCAR. The NHL and NBA seasons are just getting started, as is the new professional golf season. Not a Saturday or Sunday passes without a bunch of winners.

Business has seasons but they’re generally not as cut and dry as those in sports. It’s pretty much a year-round effort, but it does have quite a bit of winning and losing that goes on. Every day can bring about a victory: a new contract won, a great new hire, a new position or job, or an improvement in the bottom line that the entire team worked to bring about. It’s important, however, to think about what winning means to you. What does it mean to win?

That implies a few other questions you should be asking yourself and your organization. Why are you doing what you’re doing? That question gets at your purpose and begins to provide the measuring stick for victory. We succeed by effort and by striving to reach a goal or goals. Defining what they are is an important piece for each individual and for the common goals your team needs to have.

As businesspeople, we need to remember that winning is different for everyone. We need to foster an environment where each person can win by their own definition. How can we help one another to improve? How can we put ourselves and our organizations in the best position? The answers to those sorts of questions are what fills up sports TV pregame shows and the analysis of how well each player and team accomplished what they set out to do is postgame fodder. Maybe we ought to do pre- and post-game interviews in our places of business since it would become fairly obvious if we’ve defined winning and set ourselves up to achieve victory. What do you think?

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Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Truthiness Wins

If you’re not familiar with the term “truthiness,” you should be. Coined way back in 2005 by Stephen Colbert, it’s a term that refers to

"I created this cartoon illustration in c...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.

It was meant to be a term of satire, generally describing a politician departing from an obvious set of facts to espouse something that seems like the truth but isn’t. A dozen years ago, that was a circumstance that was relatively unusual. Today, it’s the norm, both in business and out. If you’re reading today’s screed thinking that I have an answer, you can stop here: I don’t. There are way too many vested interests that have come to rely on truthiness as a way of doing business, and that’s a shame.

Facebook recently admitted that Russian agents used its network to distribute disinformation to roughly 10 million U.S. users in order to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They and other social platforms are trying to figure out how to readily identify “fake news“, all of which fits the definition of truthiness to a tee. To paraphrase Cassius in Julius Caesar, the fault, dear reader, is not in our stars or our social platforms, but in ourselves. We believe what we want to believe thanks to confirmation bias, and the explosion of content sources has made it possible for us never to hear a point of view to the contrary.

This is bad in real life and could be fatal in business. If we only pay close attention to evidence and arguments that support our own thinking on various business issues, and to toss out or ignore contradictory evidence, the odds are good that we’ll fall for something that’s truthy rather than true.

It’s 2017 and truthiness has won, or at least it’s holding the high ground and doing an excellent job of fighting off reality. Our job as business people is to win the battle and put truthiness back into the hands of the satirist from whence it came, both in business and in real life. Are you with me?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud