Tag Archives: Consulting

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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Is Crowdfunding A Killer?

One of the ways I’ve been working with startups to raise money is through crowdfunding. You might be most familiar with Kickstarter but there are dozens of other companies that help to fund companies that are too small for VC funding but need capital to grow.

I’ve always thought that this was a good thing. Many entrepreneurs aren’t well-connected to a network of people who can afford to invest. Having entities such as Kickstarter available to raise the startups’ visibility and to grow their investor pool seems valuable. Something I read this morning, however, challenges my thinking.

Crowdsourcing initiatives like Kickstarter are hurting innovation, according to a new study from a business school, INSEAD. Researchers found that the ‘crowd’ appetite for investing in innovative products is startlingly low. Claims of novelty and usefulness are viewed unfavorably and result in lower pledge figures on crowdfunding initiatives. This is significant as the equity crowdfunding industry is set to surpass venture capital as the leading source of startup funding.

Data from Kickstarter from its inception in 2009 to 2017 was interpreted by state-of-the-art machine learning technology that incorporates speech and image recognition, seasonality, perceived risk, etc. to determine the funding success of both ‘novel’ and ‘useful’ products. This is the first time large-scale speech analysis and image recognition has been applied to the study of innovation. You can check out the full research here. What it found was that the Kickstarter community does not view claims of product novelty and product usefulness as congruent. While the total amount pledged is boosted when a product is said to be useful (or alternatively, novel), claiming that it is both reduces the total amount pledged by 26 percent.  In fact, a single claim of novelty increases project funding by about 200 percent, while a single claim of usefulness leads to an increase of about 1200 percent, as compared to projects devoid of any such claim.

I’ll let three academics explain why this might be hurting innovation:

“Prior research has shown that products that are novel and useful typically succeed in the marketplace,” said study co-author Amitava Chattopadhyay, Professor of Marketing and the GlaxoSmithKline Chaired Professor of Corporate Innovation at INSEAD. “But when projects make both claims, backers either assume a product’s benefits are inflated, that it carries a high risk of failure or that it divides the crowd between believers and skeptics, making it hard for backers to pick a side.”

“The higher level of uncertainty in the crowdfunding context drives backers to choose modest innovations and shy away from more extreme innovations,” said Cathy Yang, Assistant Professor of Marketing at HEC Paris.

“This is deeply disappointing as the premise of crowdfunding is to support creativity and innovation”, said Anirban Mukherjee, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Singapore Management University. “Entrepreneurs, therefore, might be advised to frame a project as only novel or only useful, rather than both”, Dr Ping Xiao of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) added.

Something I’ll be keeping in mind when putting together a crowdfunding campaign. It seems a little sad though, doesn’t it?

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Embracing Change

“The only constant is change” is an old saw, but it got to be so because it’s true. I mean, it was uttered by an ancient Greek philosopher (Heraclitus) and has been repeated for 1,500 years. Change is inevitable yet a lot of us are incredibly resistant to it. We carry that resistance into our business lives as well.

Most businesses are pretty good at living in today. They have a grasp on their current situation and have allocated resources to deal with their daily operations based on that situation. A lot of businesses also have a grasp on what will happen tomorrow. They plan lines of succession within departments and train their staff to move up. They allocate capital to grow strategically based on how they see tomorrow playing out. Generally, the short-term doesn’t portend radical change.

The problem occurs when you ask businesses (and people) to think about the day AFTER tomorrow – the longer term in which change occurs. In some cases, people don’t even recognize that there will be a day after tomorrow. Try to have a chat with a 23-year-old employee about retirement and the need to start saving today for something 50 years down the road if you want proof of that. A lot of managers guide their businesses based on a series of short-term plans and goals without contemplating the sustainability of their plans over long-term. They don’t embrace change because they don’t want to accept that it’s going to happen.

The music business fought change and where are they now? My beloved TV business is going through this now as they continue to deny cord-cutting is a problem and refusing to adjust to this massive change. On the non-business side, I believe that many of the challenges our country faces are due to the refusal to accept how our demographic and economic base has changed. That refusal, both in business and outside of it, sparks fear as the signs of change become more prevalent. It’s really only traumatic, however, if we try to resist rather than accepting change and planning for it.

I believe in controlling your business. That means you need to contemplate change, accept it, and revise your plans before change happens to you and not because of you. Things happening due to circumstances beyond your control should be rare if you look to the day after tomorrow, embrace the inevitable change, and having a clear picture of where you’re going, not clinging to an unreasonable and unsustainable changed past. Make sense?

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Navigating To Success

One of the roles I play along with my regular consulting gig is an advisor. I am what’s call a “Navigator” at one of the oldest incubators in the area. Each month, the Navigators get together and listen to a pitch from a resident company. It’s good practice for them (you can NEVER have enough practice pitching your business) and it’s good for us to become better-versed in what’s going on.

Most of the companies headquartered at the incubator are engaged in scientific research of some sort and there are a lot of Ph.D.’s wandering around the building. They know a phenomenal amount about their fields and about the company they’re germinating. The problem is that they don’t seem to know that they’re building a business and not a science experiment. We had one of these get-togethers yesterday and I was speaking to another Navigator, comparing notes about the companies we’ve seen and the pitches we’ve heard. He had found, as had I, that most of these very smart entrepreneurs had no trouble explaining the nuances of some very complicated science but had massive difficulty in explaining how they were going to make money.

A book from a few years ago wrote up research that found that 87.5% of Millennials disagreed with the statement that “money is the best measure of success.” On a personal level, I couldn’t agree more with their thinking. There ARE many more important things in life that reflect success and failure. On a business level, unfortunately, that’s dead wrong. When you raise capital, your ability to provide a return on that investment – i.e. money – is the measure of success. Otherwise, you’re not a business: you’re a charity. Since these entrepreneurs – almost all of whom are Millennials – claim to be building businesses, part of what I and the other Navigators help them do is to focus on the business of their business and not just on the science and their products.

We ask them the kinds of questions I hope you ask yourself. What problem are you solving? Who else is solving it? Why is your solution better? How much will it cost to build your product at scale? How is it priced? What is the profit margin? What’s the competitive set in how big a market? Pretty basic questions, I know, but these are smart people who have never been asked them before. The ones that can answer them clearly are the ones that will get funded and survive. Do you fall into that group?

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The Pivot

Way back when in 1995, I was working at ABC Sports as their VP of Marketing. My job entailed meeting with advertisers and constructing packages of media and on-site benefits. We’d collaboratively design in-program elements, popularly known then as “enhancements”, to capitalize on the marketers’ involvement with a sport or an event. These things all took place on-air or on-site. The other big “on” – online – didn’t exist.

One day the president of ABC Sports walked into my office and asked me if I knew anything about computers. As a user of AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and other early services, I replied that I did. He informed me that I was in charge and was to attend a meeting. ABC corporate had made a deal with this little start-up of under a million users called America OnLine and I was now to provide sports programming on behalf of ABC.

That was my pivot into digital. I didn’t realize it at the time, but saying “yes” to my boss’ question and being willing to take on some new, different responsibility had changed my life forever. None of us knew at the time that digital was going to disrupt the television business. We certainly didn’t think of it as anything other than an interesting sideline. But we began to see a little money coming in based on what we were doing, and once in a while, I could add some online stuff to the broad package of rights and benefits I was offering in my “real” job. Less than 5 years later, my job had become fully centered on digital, as I was now running a division of the NHL that didn’t even exist when I entered the digital world.

Being willing to pivot is a critical thing. Many businesses would be long gone if they were unwilling to do so. Foursquare, for example, pivoted their business from a consumer product to a B2B product, providing “location intelligence” to marketers. 90% of their revenue comes from that change. YouTube started as a video dating site. Nokia was a paper company. Twitter was a podcasting network. None of those businesses would be as successful, or maybe even exist, if they hadn’t been willing to shift their business paradigm and pivot.

I’d love to tell you that I saw the digital tsunami coming and got out in front of it on purpose but that would be a lie. I was lucky enough to ride the wave once it did show up because in my mind we were just doing what we’d always done – making great content and deriving value from the attention users gave it – albeit through a very different channel. The pivot was allowing my mind to be open enough to make that connection and to take the risk that it would be a rewarding road. Is your mind open to things like that?

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Filed under digital media, Growing up, Reality checks, sports business

Weenies!

It’s the start of the college football season this Foodie Friday and that means weenies. You may call them pigs in a blanket but my daughter and I, who are aficionados of them, refer to them as weenies. One football Saturday several years ago we heated up a tray to watch our favorite team play (Go Blue!) and have never looked back. They are a staple of our game day experience and we’re so serious about them that we have tried just about every brand we could find. We learned a few things, some of which have to do with your business as well.

The first thing we learned was that these are one of those foods that are just as good bought frozen as making them yourself. It’s not that they taste appreciably better from the store but the effort required to roll out the puff pastry and properly size either the cut pastry or the hot dog doesn’t yield a dramatic improvement over the best of the store-bought products. That’s an important business thought as well, as we return to the old cost/value equation. For consumers to choose to use your product or service to solve their problem, you need to provide a better return on their investment of time and/or money. In this case, the final results of our homemade weenies took a fair amount of effort that wasn’t a significantly better solution.

Next, we learned that not everyone’s concept of what a weenie should be is the same. We bought versions that were bland hot dogs in buttery puff pastry. Some pastry was dense, almost biscuit-like. Some had parmesan cheese rolled in. Some folks even try to pass off a bagel wrap as an acceptable option. Ha! None were perfect. We found that we loved one brand’s hot dog and another brand’s pastry. Yes, it crossed our minds to buy both and combine the best parts, but our top choice has decent enough pastry to negate the Frankenweenie from happening. But the business point is that you can call your product whatever you want, even a fairly common name, but not everyone is going to think of it in the same way. I think the IHOP even calls sausages wrapped in pancakes pigs in a blanket. That’s definitely NOT what we have in mind to munch whilst watching college football.

Present your product clearly. Excel at solving the cost/value equation from the consumer’s perspective. That’s a dish worth eating every time.

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Living In A Potemkin Village

I’m not sure if the story is true (historians disagree), but back around the time of The American Revolution, Russia had fought a war to annex Crimea (talk about history repeating itself!). The governor of the region, Potemkin, was trying to impress the empress and the ambassadors from other countries as they toured “New Russia.” Although the region was devastated, Potemkin set up “mobile villages” which were populated by his men dressed as peasants. As the barges with the VIP’s passed by, they’d be impressed by how lovely it all seemed. Once they were gone, the villages would be dismantled and moved to the next location. The term “Potemkin Village” has come to mean any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it is.

The term (as well as a key plot element in Blazing Saddles!) came to mind as I read an article about a new app that allows businesses employing it to summon “its ideal crowd and pay the people to stand in place like extras on a movie set. They’ve even been handpicked by a casting agent of sorts, an algorithmic one that selects each person according to age, location, style, and Facebook likes.” Presumably, when you see the line, FOMO kicks in and you are overcome by an insatiable desire to join the crowd.

I’m not naive. I worked in TV for a long time and know how laugh tracks are used and how stage managers will fire up a crowd to applaud as a show goes to and returns from a commercial break. I get enough press releases to recognize hyperbole and the need to surround something very common with an uncommon sense of excitement. The use of this app by a business, however, reeks of opacity when transparency is a critical element in marketing these days. In my mind, it’s as bad as any other kind of “fake news” that is manufactured out of the air to advance an agenda.

How would you feel if you found out that most of the other people attending a party were paid to be there? Deceived, I’ll bet, and that feeling generally leads to anger and a determination never to go back. Is that how you want your customers to feel?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?, Reality checks