Tag Archives: Strategic management

Old Bay Bacon

It’s Foodie Friday! A friend of mine made some bacon a while back that might have been the best bacon I’ve ever had. It wasn’t so much that it was a nice thick cut nor that it had been perfectly cooked although both were true. Something had been added to the bacon that enhanced its overall porkiness (bacon fans know what I mean) and threw in some extra flavors for good measure. I was smitten.

I asked what was done and the answer was Old Bay. Yes, that Old Bay, the one you have hiding in the back of your spice rack to add to the shrimp and crabs you never quite get around to boiling. While the chef used the same technique I do for bacon (400-degree oven, bacon on a sheet pan for 20 minutes or so, maybe on a rack if you’re feeling ambitious about clean-up), they had sprinkled the raw bacon with Old Bay. It was transformative.

You might not be familiar with Old Bay if you don’t live here in the eastern U.S. It’s a spice blend long associated with Baltimore. Invented in 1940 by a German immigrant fleeing the Nazis, it became ubiquitous in the Chesapeake area and is one of my favorite spice blends. Celery salt, mustard, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika – 18 spices in all – make up this magic dust.

There’s a business point or two to be made here. First, we can’t be afraid to try new uses for old products or people. I would never have thought to put Old Bay on bacon but it’s magic. Maybe you haven’t asked a senior member of your staff to do UX testing on your new digital presence, but why wouldn’t you? If someone who, in theory, is less adept at the digital world can appreciate what you’ve done, odds are that your real target will like it as well. Or take an old product like a tape that was invented to keep ammo cases dry, change the color, and voila! Duct tape. Or maybe a heart medicine that had an unusual side effect in many men and suddenly, Viagra.

Second, to my knowledge, Old Bay’s recipe has never been changed. There’s always a tendency out there to tinker with successful products through line extensions or even wholesale revamps of the product. Resist it. Look at Craig’s List – it’s still pretty much the same as it was when it launched 23 years ago. No bells and whistles, no streaming video, just classifieds and a whole lot of success. Create new things but don’t dilute the brand and don’t ever jeopardize the cash cow. There is Old Bay flavoring in many products, but the core product – the spice blend – has never changed.

Sprinkle a little Old Bay on something – bacon, a Bloody Mary, popcorn, almost anything – and remind yourself that greatness can endure even as we find new ways to incorporate it into our businesses.

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Facebook, Sears, and Kodak

When I was a lad several decades ago, many Americans did their shopping at Sears and took their pictures with Kodak film (I can explain “film” to you youngsters if need be). More recently, my kids might have shopped at American Apparel or Claire’s. What all of those formerly huge companies have in common is that they are all nearly dead. The reasons for that range from bad management to dumb financial deals to changing tastes to the digital revolution. In every case, however, I think there is a common thread of a failure to understand their customers in the context of the customers’ changing world.

We have something similar going on in my mind with Facebook. It’s huge and seems invulnerable but one might have said the same thing about Kodak or Sears 50 years ago. First, think about how the world is changing for their customers. Privacy has moved from something that digital folk like me were babbling about many years ago to something that is on everyone’s mind. In an April survey of 1,051 US adult internet users by Janrain, most respondents said they are not in favor of websites or apps using what they learn about them online to target ads. In fact, 70% of them want some very restrictive laws, similar to the E.U.’s GDPR, passed here. I don’t think there is any doubt that a tech backlash is going on and the more consumers and lawmakers find out about the sloppy (at best), invasive, and maybe criminal (at worst) data use by large tech companies, the greater that backlash is going to become.

Facebook’s entire business is built around invading your privacy. Two points from eMarketer:

More people are becoming suspicious of sharing data through third parties. In a March 2018 survey from Raymond James, more than eight in 10 US internet users said they were at least somewhat concerned about how their personal data is being used on Facebook. Similarly, in a Gallup survey of 785 Facebook users in April 2018, 43% said they were very concerned about invasion of privacy. That’s an increase of 30% in 2011.

What has resulted is that people, especially young people, are sharing less content. The entire reason Facebook is valuable for most people is that content that their friends, classmates, and family post. It’s the network effect – that value of the network relates to the number of people on that network.

I’m not shorting Facebook stock today but I’m not so sure that unless they get their privacy house in order that won’t be a bad play down the road. Less content means fewer active users which leads to less revenue. Will they all move to Instagram (a Facebook company)? Maybe, but probably not since that’s not what’s occurring now. As each day brings a new headline involving a bad actor and data, another nail gets pounded into the coffins of companies that don’t respect their customers’ privacy and wishes. Privacy and data use are no longer just food for geek chats. They’re on the front page. How long can Facebook or any company last if they don’t figure this out? Longer than Sears or Kodak?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Reality checks

Ghost In The Machine

Foodie Friday and my question for you today is have you ever been to a ghost restaurant? I’d say probably not, because the entire point of a ghost restaurant is that there is no restaurant there. Huh?

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is one explanation I read:

A ghost restaurant is a “restaurant” that people can’t actually physically visit. For us, it involves using our existing space, kitchen equipment, and staffing to execute a menu that’s not served in our normal restaurant. Customers place their orders and we deliver.

The key is the different menu. A normal takeout order from someplace would be the same food. Many of the “takeout” places I’ve patronized have a table or three even if the business is focused on preparing orders to go or for delivery. You probably would think of many Chinese or pizza places. Ghosts, however, don’t have to worry about decor or servers per se. Front of house is non-existent. Imagine a sit-down steakhouse that was also delivering pizza out of the same kitchen but not serving it in the restaurant other than as the odd special. Two restaurants, one of which is virtual operating our of one kitchen.

The beauty of this model is that it can overcome bad weather (which might keep people at home and not dining out) as well as maximizing the use of the kitchen, perhaps with the addition of a few more kitchen staff. You can close one restaurant at 9 while continuing to deliver from the other until midnight. Like on-demand grocery delivery, on-demand food service is a growing business and a ghost restaurant opened in an existing place can tap into that demand by formulating a menu that is delivery-friendly even if it doesn’t align with the base restaurant at all. I would never order eggs or a steak or pretty much anything fried because they generally don’t travel well (soggy fried food is gross).

Why do I bring this up and what does it have to do with your business? It’s a great example of out of the box thinking. How can you expand what you’re doing without major capital expenditures? What’s the worst, least efficient part of your business? In this case, while there is a nice margin in serving customers drinks, they tie up tables and require servers. What happens if you keep the customers but eliminate the need to have them linger or be served? A ghost restaurant eliminates the inefficiencies while retaining the base business and it doesn’t compete with it because it’s a different menu. What about your business can be “ghosted”?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

DIY Failure

What do you do when you’ve done almost everything right and yet your business is failing? It’s not a hypothetical question and the answers I’ve come up with kind of scare me a little. Let’s see what you think.

The town from which I moved has fewer and fewer “mom and pop” stores. Most of them have been replaced by national chains. Main Street used to be unique, interesting retailers. Now it’s basically an outdoor copy of most malls with chain store after chain store packed in next door to one another. I still read the local news from the town in which I lived for 35 years and I was saddened to see that another one has bitten the dust. Let me explain why it raised some questions in my mind.

It was a local hardware store run by a family who is well-known in the town. As one local blogger wrote, “They’ve been the go-to place for gardening supplies in spring, rakes in the fall, paint and keys and pest control and light bulbs and a lot more whenever we need it.” It wasn’t huge but as local places go it had a fair amount of inventory and I suspect that it could satisfy the Do It Yourself needs of most folks. Therein lies the problem. The owner put it well, citing irreversible challenges, including online sales competition and the loss of skilled DIYers to a keypad culture.

Guilty as charged, sir. Much of the time I just have Amazon deliver what I know I’ll need in a day or two. Of course, in my old town, fewer and fewer people actually even do things themselves, preferring to call someone. When I changed out my first toilet fill valve here in my new place, I did think to myself that I probably would have called a plumber and paid for an hour of his or her time to do a 10-minute job – 40 if you count the time it took to run to Walmart to get the part.

This family did everything right. They were never too busy to help you understand how to do a repair or improvement job as they made sure you had the right materials and tools. They personalized everything, something the online world is still learning to do. Did you pay a little more (and it really was a little)? Yes, but you also were 100% sure you had what you needed. The market has changed, however, and competing with Home Depot or Lowes or Amazon (for the smaller number of people in town who still did things themselves) became impossible.

What would I have advised them? More in-store classes, a better online presence establishing themselves as local, available experts, maybe get a kid to deliver. Yes, the big guys do some of that too, but having the local, familiar edge could make a difference. I’m not sure any of that would have worked, but I also know that most retail is still brick and mortar, not online. I do think that competing with online as well as with giant home improvement centers, however, is too much. The benefits of technology are generally good, but in this case, tech has disrupted the local ecosystem, much as introducing a non-native predator to solve one problem can cause many others. Any local grocery stores in your town? Not in mine. Auto repair, restaurants, clothing stores, heck, even car dealers are all heading down this same path. Could your business be as well? What can you do NOW?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Soap To Soda To Gum

It’s Foodie Friday and today we’re going to raise a glass to chewing gum. Well, not to the gum itself, but to the founder of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company, Mr. William Wrigley. While he made his fortune selling gum, he started out to do something quite different and therein lies the thought I have for us today.

English: Doublemint gum Photo by User:Hephaest...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Wrigley began selling soap. Like many of us in business, he tried to distinguish his brand by giving his customers a little something extra which would help distinguish him and his product from the competition. In his case, he would give away baking powder. After a time, he figured out that his customers liked the baking powder more than the soap and so he started to sell baking powder. Along with the baking powder, he gave away two packages of gum. You can guess what happened next.

There are two things in his story that I think are relevant to any of us in business. First, giving the customers what my Creole friends call a “lagniappe” – a little something extra – always pays dividends and sometimes they’re huge. I don’t know if Mr. Wrigley’s soap (or baking powder) were premium-priced to cover the cost of the extras he gave away, but the outcome certainly negated any cost. Always ask yourself how you can do more for the customer.

At some point, Wrigley realized that he had to pivot his business because his sideline was more successful and popular than his main business. He’s not alone in this. WeWork grew out of a baby clothes business renting unused space in their building. Instagram was something that grew out of the users of a whiskey lover’s app posting photos. The founders recognized that the photo sharing was more important to the users than the whiskey information. When Justin.Tv began letting users stream videos, (having started as just one guy streaming his own life) the “gaming” channel blew up and Twitch was born.

We need to keep an open mind when we see opportunities. Yes, we can’t always be chasing the new shiny new thing, but when one aspect of our business is screaming to be given a lot more attention, we need not be afraid of making a pivot. Mr. Wrigley pivoted (twice) a century ago, and while technology has changed, the basic business acumen he displayed hasn’t. Ruminate about that!

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Copycat Recipes

This Foodie Friday we’re contemplating the field of endeavor known as copycat recipes. If you read any food sites, at some point you come across recipes which attempt to replicate some of the more popular dishes from chain restaurants. Yes, you too can have unlimited Red Lobster Cheddar Bay biscuits and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at the same time!

There are books of these recipes and I’ll admit to having tried a couple over the years. While I’ve come close to duplicating a few dishes I’ve enjoyed in restaurants, the results were not exactly the same. One wouldn’t expect that though. I’m not using the same ingredients (the bacon I buy may not be what McDonald’s uses) nor do I have a commercial convection oven or deep fryer. Still, they were enjoyable enough and in a couple of cases, the experience inspired me to create my own variation that I liked even better.

I think these recipes can be fun for some but they miss a fundamental point. Making Girl Scout Samoas at home, besides being incredibly time-consuming, doesn’t support the Girl Scouts. When I want a “hot now” Krispy Kreme, I don’t want to wait a few hours for my homemade versions to rise and fry. What makes some of these dishes so good, in part, is that you don’t have to cook them. They’re risk-free, they’re ready when you want them, they’re always available, and they’re consistent. And of course, that’s the point today.

It’s quite possible that someone will try to copy what it is you’re doing if you’re doing it well. In the case of recipes, the cook can’t turn to the copyright law to protect the dish. Recipes aren’t subject to copyright. Mp3 players had been around for several years before Apple “copied” the recipe and improved it. One could argue that Apple was the victim when Microsoft “copied” the graphical interface that became Windows from Apple, who had “copied” it from Xerox. Sure, you can file a patent to protect you but that immediately makes how you’re doing what you’re doing available to anyone. They can then produce a variant on what you’re doing. Each of the folks in my examples made the recipe their own. That’s the point. You protect your secret recipe in either of two ways and the law has little to do with either.

The first is never to make the product public so no one has a chance to duplicate what you’ve got. Obviously, that’s not a great solution. The other way is to make sure that you produce the end-result to a consistently high standard which is risk-free for the customer, and that you provide that customer with an unrivaled level of support and service. That’s why copycat recipes will never be as good as what you get when you dine out. You copy?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Tribute Bands And Your Business

Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.

I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?

I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.

What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.

Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?

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Filed under Consulting, Music, Thinking Aloud