Schedulefly Stories

Growing a software business one restaurant at a time

Month: August 2013

Creating happiness in your restaurant (new vid)

Marilyn Schlossbach of Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, NJ talks about why she wants to create an atmosphere of happiness in her restaurant. I think the mix of great b-roll and very meaningful thoughts from Marilyn make this one of the best videos we’ve shot for this series. Enjoy…

//player.vimeo.com/video/73036162
(If you are viewing this in email and don’t see the vid, it’s here)

Wil

Don’t waste your time if you’re not passionate about it (Raw vid)

In this raw video of Marilyn Schlossbach of Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, NJ, she talks about why it’s important to follow your passion in the restaurant business. These comments were part of a conversation she and I had about what advice she’d give to aspiring restaurateurs, and I really like what she says in this clip.

//player.vimeo.com/video/72951489

Marilyn has been in the business for thirty years, so she speaks from experience and the collected wisdom she’s earned through trial and error, learning from her mistakes, and simply being engrossed in the restaurant business day in and day out for three decades. She’s a really sharp lady, and I had a hard time editing her interview down to three fully-produced videos (with b-roll and music), so I asked Luke to upload two raw videos as well. (I’ll post her other raw video, about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, next week).

Wil

P.s. We’re heading to Chicago next week to film Mike Schatzman from Union Sushi + Barbecue. Can’t wait!

Why the restaurant business needs more women (new vid)

The Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series continues with Marilyn Schlossbach, who shares her thoughts on why more women should be in the restaurant business.

I’m so glad we asked Marilyn to talk about this, because her candor and passion really shined through as she discussed the issue, and those are the kinds of moments we look for every time we film. Plus I completely agree with her, and I hope more women will follow her lead.

Wil

Why people are leaving corporate America to own restaurants

A lot of the restaurant owners I have interviewed or am planning to interview for Restaurant Owners Uncorked used to be successful in corporate America, but left to start their own restaurants.

Twenty years ago, I bet people didn’t make that move very often. Corporate jobs were considered much less risky than owning a restaurant then, but I’m not sure that’s the case today. And I doubt it will be in the future.

That graph I displayed is Nassim Taleb’s “Turkey Graph.” The X axis shows the number of days a Thanksgiving turkey is alive, and the Y axis displays the turkey’s confidence that he will live another day. Notice that with each day he lives, he is more confident that he’ll live another day, which is of course based on yet another day in his history of seeing evidence that his farmer will feed him and take good care of him. Of course, on the day when he’s the most confident as he’s ever been that he’ll live another day, his confidence is proven to be unwarranted. That’s the day before Thanksgiving.

I show this graph because I believe corporate America, a place that use to be relatively safe, has become fraught with risk. People who work their tails off for many years, who give their companies everything they’ve got, who have very long tenures with their companies, can lose their jobs in an instant. Like the turkey, things can change overnight for them. And the hard and sadly ironic truth of this is that these are people who’ve passed on the risk of entrepreneurship for what they believed was a safer road, and yet they’ve unknowingly risked it all.

Clearly I’m not unveiling anything new here, and I think that’s why people are starting to realize that there is often less risk in entrepreneurship than in corporate America. And I believe restaurants are a great example of the type of business that used to be deemed very risky, but given the alternative these days, maybe not so much. So that’s why I’m not too surprised that folks like Chris Sommers, Matt Frey, Tad Peelen, and some of the owners we’ll be filming soon, left corporate jobs (in which they had done very well and were having significant success) to start restaurants.

Restaurants are not easy. On the contrary, the more owners I interview, the more convinced I am that anybody who is successful has figured out a very tricky, complex formula. It’s a dynamic, unique business of all kinds of moving parts, and it’s not easy by any means. But the people who’ve made the leap have learned that they are able to take on much more control of their own destinies than they had when they worked for large companies that fed them really well every day for years, but that may have altered their lives dramatically in an instant.

I hope this is the beginning of a big trend of people leaving corporate America to become entrepreneurs, and especially to start restaurants. There would be nothing cooler than for tons of smart, hard working, well-intentioned people take control of their destinies and put their imagination and creativity and passion into something that both lessens their own long term risk, and enhances their community. Owning a successful restaurant would do both.

Wil

P.s. This post is labeled “Restaurants are awesome” because I am starting a new series featuring my thoughts and observations based on what I’ve learned from working on the Restaurant Owners Uncorked book and video series.  

* Taleb is one of my favorite authors and is one of the few people who understood well before the financial crisis that large banks were ticking time bombs, and he outlined why in his book The Black Swan – before the crisis happened.

You can’t build an institution overnight

Last week when I was interviewing Marilyn Schlossbach for Restaurant Owners Uncorked, she said this: “You have to have patience with your passion. Nothing happens overnight, and if it happens overnight, I’m a little nervous about that. Things should take time to grow and be deep rooted.” I couldn’t agree more, and just as Marilyn is working to build deep-rooted institutions along the Jersey Shore, we’re working to build a deep-rooted institution in the restaurant services industry.

It took Schedulefly six years to hit 3,000 customers, which we did a couple of months ago. That’s an average of 500 net new* customers per year. That’s about 42 net new customers per month. Or about 1.4 per day. That is a very manageable, steady rate of growth. So, while we are definitely growing faster today than we were five years ago, I am thankful that growth has been relatively slow and steady. It’s worked incredibly well for us, and I wouldn’t change a thing. 

However, when I started five years ago I would have predicted that we’d have many more customers by today than we do right now. In fact, I sat down on a flight to L.A in January of 2009, when Wes and I were going to present Schedulefly to a large chain (we thought for a short period we might be able to serve chains), and ran through projections, forecasting increased growth brought on by higher trial conversion rates, successful sales efforts, partnerships, marketing, PR, etc.**, plus the accelerating natural growth from word-of-mouth and increased industry adoption rates. We finished 2008 with 178 customers, and I projected a best-case scenario where we had 1,486 customers by the end of 2009. Guess when we actually hit 1,486? Somewhere around Sep. of 2011. That’s right, nearly two years later!

Admittedly, on that flight I made three projections for the end of 2009, and 1,486 was the most unlikely outcome. I called it the “Possibility” scenario, and balanced it with a “Conservative” scenario and an “Aggressive” scenario. The funny thing is, my “conservative” estimate, which I thought was painfully, painfully conservative, was still wrong. We didn’t hit that number until two months into 2010. We hit my “aggressive” number at the end of 2010.***

Truth be told, I really thought we had a legitimate chance of hitting 1,486, because I had so much confidence that every lever we pulled would move mountains, and that industry adoption of web-based restaurant employee scheduling software and word-of-mouth would keep growing quickly. So you can imagine how many customers I would have projected us to have by now. Probably 10,000. And at that time, on that flight, in January of 2009, I would have said I’d be disappointed if we didn’t get there by August of 2013. I guess I was envisioning Schedulefly becoming a bit of an overnight sensation, falling prey to the idea that great things in fact can happen overnight.

Yet as I sit here typing this I’ll tell you that I couldn’t be more thankful that we didn’t grow faster than we have. Of course it’s not like our growth has been slow. On the contrary, having lived through it, I can’t believe how fast we got here. But had we grown at a more rapid rate, especially if fueled by partnerships, marketing, sales efforts, and so forth, it would be so difficult to keep it up. You see, all those engines for growth require fuel, which equates to time and money. And the faster you rev them, the more time and money you burn through. And here’s the real kicker: no matter how fast you rev them, it’s never fast enough (Did I just unintentionally steal a line from one of the dozen or so “Fast & Furious movies?).

But seriously, when I think of rapid-growth environments, I imagine an anxious, angry person loudly telling his team (which he would probably call his “troops”), “We grew by 1,000 net new customers last year. We have to improve that by 20% this year. We need 1,200 net new customers. We need more partnerships, more marketing, more sales, more PR, more of everything! Offer discounts with deadlines! Post more banner ads! Make more sales calls! Push harder! Work more! Spend more! We simply have to accelerate growth!!!”

Ahhhhhhhhh! Stop! Serenity now! It makes me anxious just typing this stuff, because I’ve been in those environments. I know what it’s like. I know it’s the way many businesses grow, especially big businesses that have managers whose incomes are tied primarily to growth metrics. And it’s not a good environment to be in. It’s unhealthy, stressful, leads to burnout, causes lots of employee turnover,  unfulfilling, risky (burns cash, leads to repetitional risk, etc.), and, even if successful for some duration, is ultimately unsustainable. Had we chosen that path, even if it had worked, I’m positive that by now we’d be so beaten up and worn out and stressed, we’d be ready to be a “module” in somebody else’s “platform,” and not excited about building a great company for years to come.

So while we are definitely excited that our growth continues to occur a little faster every year, we are more thrilled that it’s happening at a manageable pace, and that we’ve had the ability to be patient and calm and let it happen in a natural, organic way. That way we can stick around for a while and take our time, and try to build a truly deep-rooted institution.

Overnight sensations come and go. Institutions endure.

Wil

Here’s a post Wes wrote recently about a similar topic, and here’s one I wrote last November. I guess we’ve made our point by now.

* We lose about 1% of our customers per month, so “net new” is the real measure of our growth.
** Early on we (sigh) did all of that stuff. We don’t do any of it now.
*** I learned from that scenario that I was way too aggressive with forecasts. I later learned that most people are way to aggressive with forecasts, so I don’t really trust them. More on this topic in a future post. 

Are you building a company, or just a module?

Recently I received an email from an investor who has invested in a company that offers an online scheduling service – a competitor I guess you could say. This investor said and I quote “Wes, we are building a diverse platform of technologies that we are going to offer to the restaurant industry and would like to speak to you”. After I read that, I threw up in my mouth a little bit and then politely responded – no thanks. Another investor emailed me a few months prior to that and said “Wes, we find your industry attractive and we think your software would make a great module inside a larger system.” He then rattled off some large HR company products where I guess he pictured our “module” fitting in. I thought to myself a “module”?? Is that what he thinks we are building and what we strive to be? Sheesh. I responded and told him if a module was what he was after – just go build it. Stop wasting time bothering companies like ours and just go build it. The product is the easy part. The real work and the reward comes from making it a great company and a brand. Side note, I also find it funny that 10 years ago – our industry (online scheduling) didn’t exist and now after people have worked their butts off to create great companies around it – investors find it “attractive”. Of course they do.

So anyway, the reason I am telling this story is because I am so damn excited that many (business) people think the world wants lots of stuff and lots of features packed into “enterprise” platforms and diverse ecosystems made up of multiple companies and modules and integrations and blah blah blah. I am really glad that most people truly don’t think that a simple product can actually become a very successful business (that grows every year) and a beloved brand – on all it’s own. Because it can. And if you let it be just that and protect it from being swallowed up and turned into a feature (or module) – I can almost guarantee you’ll be different than everyone else and a big breath fresh air to your customers. They will literally hand you their hard earned money – and say thank you. Thank you for keeping it simple.

Wes

I really admire Marilyn Schlossbach

Last week Luke Pearson (Lift Films) and I travelled to Asbury Park, NJ to film for the Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series. I interviewed Marilyn Schlossbach, who owns a handful of restaurants and has been in the business for 30 years.

Marilyn talked about all kinds of really interesting stuff, from when the chef in her brother’s restaurant quit on a July 4th weekend and Marilyn had to learn to cook while her brother walked her through it on the phone, to opening her first restaurant (a success), to learning from several failed restaurants, to how she personally and professionally weathered Hurricane Sandy (which demolished her restaurants at the same time she and her husband had just brought beautiful twin girls into the world), to being a female owner in an industry dominated by men, to the challenges of being a business owner when you are creative person by nature, to why it’s so important to follow your passion, to her desire to create a positive atmosphere in her restaurants so that not only her customers, but also her daughters, will be in a happy place every time they visit.

Marilyn is a determined, self-taught chef and business woman who didn’t get a college degree and didn’t got to culinary school, but she understands the value of rigor, tinkering, learning from mistakes, humility, and always, always pushing forward, no matter what life throws at her. These philosophies have helped her build a $5,000,000 business on the Jersey Shore, and I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for what she has accomplished. I can’t wait to display her videos soon!

Some behind-the-scenes stuff…

Here are some really cool, professional pics Luke took:
And here are some pics I snapped on my iPhone:

Since it was sunny and a beautiful day in the boardwalk in front of Langosta Lounge, we spent a lot of time at a bench. I dared Luke to jump over it…

Finally, some true behind-the-scenes pics of what goes on once we’re done filming. After a long day that started at 5am with that sunrise you see above, we headed into Philly and did a crossfit-style workout in Rittenhouse Square, a park in the middle of downtown. I thought it was hilarious that even though we were doing overhead pushups and pull-ups on that tree, smack in the middle of a very busy park in the early evening – added to which, I was barefoot and wearing a neon yellow bathing suit – not one person seemed to think it was odd. You can only get away with stuff like this in big cities like Philly…

Wil

It’s rare to never hear from them again

There are a ton of things that we don’t do at Schedulefly that many (if not most) companies do – probably enough to write an entire book about. And I should add that these things we chose not to do are done by very successful companies of all types – so clearly the strategies work – we just prefer not to do them.

This morning I got an email from a subscription software company that we used to be a customer of (about 4-5 years ago) offering us a discount on their services if we come back. It’s actually the 2nd email I’ve received from them this summer offering a discount if I sign up by a certain time. I don’t know why I’ve not unsubscribed from their emails since I am no longer a customer and they don’t email too often but I realized something today when thinking about that email….

Once in 2008 we did this and I don’t recall what the results were but I do recall feeling a little desperate and was not really excited about it. We never did it again and now when people move on – so do we. Based on how many restaurants have tried us in the last 6 years and how many are now paying customers – we have thousands and thousands of contacts we could go back and reach out to again dangling some carrot trying to coerce them into returning. Most people would think we are crazy not to – but to me it just doesn’t make sense and doesn’t feel right. They moved on for some good reason and that’s what they needed to do. They know what we do and know they are welcome to come back. So maybe the company that emailed me today is selling to a fully saturated market and they have no new business to go get – so they are trying to go back and bring back old business and that’s their only option. But I doubt it. They sell a software service to small businesses.

So when I realized today that we don’t email old customers or trial participants, I felt really good. Maybe just because it’s not normal and it’s pretty rare on the internet these days.

Wes

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