You’ve got a great idea. It won’t make you a millionaire overnight, but you’ve done your research and there isn’t anyone out there doing it right. You start talking to a few friends, tap all your savings and get a little money together from people who believe in you. You find a place to work out of and set up shop. You build out your infrastructure, hire staff and spend all of your time at work, honing your vision for what the product will be, how the service will be. Your launch is getting close. Your friends and family test, give feedback — you iterate, get more feedback, make a few more changes and then it’s time. You push your website live, notify the press and welcome guests to your new restaurant.
The story above represents a journey that tens of thousands of people around the world undertake every year. Before the term “entrepreneur” became associated with digital innovators who built software and scaled their businesses globally, starting a restaurant or running a small business was how you became an entrepreneur, and it’s still an incredibly popular form of entrepreneurship today. The restaurant workforce makes up a full 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the National Restaurant Association, and employs 14 million employees. And the industry holds remarkable opportunity -- nine in 10 restaurant managers started off at entry level.
So what can we learn from entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry? The following three lessons from this massive driver of American innovation are applicable across many different sectors.
Listen to your customers.
“Clean plates don’t lie.” — Dan Barber
Any restaurateur will tell you that their goal is to have guests leave happier than when they entered. And a big part of the effort behind a restaurant is figuring out how to do that. Chefs pore over each night’s orders to see which dishes were a hit and what needs improvement, servers stop by at multiple points during the meal to check in on the guest experience and managers carefully weigh online feedback from professional and amateur critics alike. Taking an analytical approach and constantly asking for feedback through a variety of mediums will help you better understand your customers’ needs and how best to meet them going forward.
“Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition.” — Lidia Bastianich
When you think about the kitchen as the ultimate laboratory, it makes sense that restaurateurs have valuable lessons to share about the value of testing, tweaking, updating and changing. Many restaurants change their specials, or sometimes even their whole menus, on a daily or weekly basis. Even signature dishes are updated and refined, sometimes over a period of many years. As an entrepreneur, relentlessly testing -- whether it’s your product, service, sales strategy or business model -- is necessary to stay competitive. If the goal is to make your customer happier and leave them satisfied with your product, constantly pushing the envelope to come up with new features (while not abandoning old favorites) is key.
Think about the whole experience.
“I obsess everyday about everything. Not only about what we do well but what we can do better.” — Mario Batali
Finally, an important lesson that we can learn from restaurateurs is to think not just about what you consider the core of your product or service, but every touch point your customer has with your company. From the service to the food and the ambiance, a good restaurant operator thinks about all the different ways these elements influence a guest’s experience. And any restaurateur knows that while you can prepare and plan to deliver the best experience possible, the real test is when things don’t quite go as planned. Over the course of any given evening in a restaurant, guests will arrive late, glasses will get dropped, drinks or dishes will get spilled and at least one person will complain about something. But at a successful restaurant, the staff will be focused on making sure that guests are accommodated as quickly as possible and always feel taken care of.
Entrepreneurship in any industry is full of challenges, but you can get a leg up on success by listening to customer needs, thinking about their entire experience with your company and constantly iterating and innovating to create a more delightful experience.
Greg Hong Co-Founder and Board Director of Reserve