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SMB Impossible, Part II

In last month’s post, we got into a meditation on business turnaround principles, as demonstrated by the philosopher Robert Irvine (the host of Restaurant: Impossible). Restaurant: Impossible is my guilty pleasure, my Keeping Up With The Kardashians. And I thought it might be beneficial to try and divine real-world business lessons from a staged, pseudo-realistic makeover show. This is roughly like learning about culture and teamwork from Survivor.

Here is a brief review of the three turnaround principles from last month’s article:

1) Who You Are Is Meaningless; What The Market Wants is Everything

This means that you should get over yourself and your original concept, and make what the market will buy from you at high margins.

2) Knock On The F*#@ing Doors

This means that you should stop pretending that you instinctively know your customer’s mind, and show some hustle with phone calls, surveys, meet-and-greets, and other opportunities that force you to come out from behind your desk to engage the customer.

3) Simplify! Cut Down The Menu and Make Everything Delicious

This means that if you are working your ass of but not profitable, you’re most likely stretched too thin, with too many unprofitable and probably low quality offerings.

And now, let’s pick the conversation back up, and learn what else the great Robert Irvine has to tell us. For the remainder of this article, I consulted heavily with Gary Sutton’s insanely practical turnaround handbook, The Six-Month Fix.

 

4) You Are Ignorant, So Fix Your Ignorance

At the beginning of a standard episode of Restaurant: Impossible, Irvine typically asks the restaurant owner how they started the restaurant. The story usually goes something like this: “Well, I spent 15 years in the manufacturing / software / live bait / other completely unrelated industry, and wasn’t fulfilled. So I took my child’s college fund and all other life’s savings, and went into a business I knew nothing about with a person whose relationship with me I would never want to damage. We are no longer on speaking terms, and I am $25k/$50/$100k/$3M in debt.

The follow-up is always, “What knowledge or experience about the restaurant industry did you have when you started?” Invariably, the answer is, “None.”

Then, “Do you know what your average daily/weekly/monthly food cost is?” –“No.”

–“Do you know what your current food inventory is, and how fresh it is?” –“No.”

There are some businesses that people romanticize. They say, someday I’ll quit the rat race and own a restaurant/bed-and-breakfast/art gallery/eBusiness/really-popular-blog. As if with any of these endeavors, simply hanging the “Open” sign rings the cash register. Restaurants and hospitality businesses are difficult on a good day. The costs are high, the staff typically young and inexperienced, the patrons ungrateful, the economy flaccid, the kitchen chaotic, yada yada yada. Even people who’ve spent years in this industry have a tough time because certain elements like tastes change quickly.

Accept that you are ignorant. Even if you’ve been in your industry for your entire career, accept the philosophical stance that at any point in time, “I know nothing.” Then, get on top of the basics. What are my costs (fixed vs variable)? What’s my breakeven point? What are my product margins? That’s it. Start with your costs and your profitability. Knowing that makes everything easier.

 

5) Forget The Grand Plan, and Stop the Negative Cash Flow

The Six-Month Fix, by Gary Sutton

Once you fix your ignorance, you can proceed to fix your loses. Those managers who are aware of their costs and still losing money are usually under one of the many common illusions in business. These are illusions like, “We’re shooting to acquire this one massive contract, and once it comes in things will get better.” Another is, “We’re just holding together until our game-changer product comes out later this year/next year/in five years.” I’m cribbing heavily from Sutton here.

The illusion in the restaurant business is usually, “We are the only authentically Italian/Lithuanian/Madagascarian/Martian restaurant in at least three miles, so if we can just wait until the economy picks up…” Just as an FYI, the economy is a great scapegoat. I’ve made this mistake too, blaming the economy for the lackluster effects of poor execution. The list of companies that created their greatest profits in the middle of, nay because of, an economic downturn is large and humbling.

This is not the time for holding tight to illusions, egos, misguided concepts or unrealistic assessments of the future. This is the time for adaptation.

There is one caveat: I am not saying that we mortgage our future by killing off investment in future products, or anything like that. Cash is king, but it is not God. We all have to be actively figuring out how our offerings are going to be better tomorrow. That’s what a business is. But we will be judicious about it.

So rank all your current products or services by profit margin, and kill the bottom half of the list. Or see if prices can be raised on low-margin products without affecting sales too dearly. Rethink costly expenses like travel. Find out where your employees hours are being wasted (too many meetings, anyone?). Be open to all options that will save you from having to lay off employees.

 

6) Figure Out Your Core

As Tim Ferriss would council, focus on the 20% of your offerings responsible for 80% of your revenue, and make them outstanding.

In the last section, we discussed one side of the Coin of Delusion: hanging onto an outdated identity or long-shot possibility as a justification for not taking action. Like, “The economy will bounce next quarter.”

The flip side of that delusional coin is the notion of being everything to everyone. The restaurant that promotes itself as a bistro AND pizza joint. And they sell sushi. And coffee drinks. And they’re a music venue…

Diversifying your product (profitably) is fine if it doesn’t interfere with your core business identity. Sutton tells the story of a manager at Home Depot who, as a test, let a vendor sell pantyhose at a kiosk that was near the cash register. The test ended up being wildly profitable, and could be more so if it was expanded. The manager took this idea to his superiors, expecting to be instantly promoted and given a medal for original thought.

The idea was axed, and the manager was asked to remove that profitable kiosk. But why?? Because it’s Home Depot. What home improvement problem is solved by pantyhose, other than the potential attractiveness of the occupants? Their executive management said, correctly, “Fuzzy direction kills more businesses than competition or dying markets.”

There are some very general businesses, but most successful ones find success by distinguishing their product and their customer better than their competition does. This is like a pub that says, “We have many things on the menu but we are famous for how good our hamburgers are, and we tailor our business to the after-work crowd from our working-class neighborhood.”

In any business, you have to be able to do something better than all the other guys, and that something has to heavily influence the purchase decision in your favor. What do you do better than anyone else?

 

7) By the Time You Become Aware of Employee or Culture Problems, It’s Too Late

Of all the elements of Restaurant: Impossible, the one that adds the real umph is the human drama. The owner has their whole livelihood on the line, usually mortgaged many times over. They are typically desperate to turn around their failing business through long hours and pressure on the staff. In every case where Irvine finds business dysfunction, he also finds dysfunction on a managerial, which is to say a basic human, level.

This typically plays out as a Come to Jesus meeting between the manager and the staff. You can tell that it’s the first honest conversation that’s they’ve all had in a while. The manager is resentful that the staff acts lazily and unprofessionally, leaving him/her to clean up the mess and put in all the extra hours. The staff tries to articulate as best they can that they’ve never been properly trained, that there are no established procedures for anything, and that their personal boundaries are violated by the manager’s step-in-an-do-it-myself attitude. Crying is usually involved.

Trust is a tricky subject. Managers can screw up trust very unintentionally. I’ve known very well-meaning managers who put a lot of time and effort into developing a specific company culture, who then inadvertently screw up that trust by stepping in an controlling a process that they’re supposed to have delegated. They can’t help themselves.

Fight opaqueness and politics. Healthy culture does not begin with Foosball tables in the office (although there’s a lot to be said for that). Healthy culture starts with transparent conversations and honest assessments about collective strengths and weaknesses. The moment you feel you need to “puff up” or in any way massage or sugarcoat a communication “to the troops” (I hate that pejorative term), your culture is already dying.

Actually I’m wrong about that. Healthy culture starts with the manager being able to hear criticism of his/her performance voiced by his employees, value it, absorb it dispassionately, and fix it. Some would argue that should be a two-way street, but I disagree. The manager is setting themselves up as a leader. They set the example of how to take the criticism of a transparent conversation and use it to make improvements. “The troops” will do likewise if they have the good example to follow.

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