I couldn’t believe how lucky I had just gotten. It was the fall of 2008 here in Charlotte, and I walked into the door of the nearby location of a large fast casual fresh-mex restaurant franchise, and there was Paul. I had worked for Paul a dozen years earlier, making salsa at a similar fast casual place in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. He taught me a ton about the restaurant business, like when I would leave spilled shredded cheese on the counter and he would walk by, pinch it in his fingers, hold it up to me and say “money, money, money!” He taught me the restaurant business is a business of pennies. He was also a genuinely nice, humble, hard working guy who I admired.
Back in the early days of Schedulefly in 2008, I was trying to figure out how to drum up business. At the time, we didn’t know we would never have sales people and we didn’t know we’d never serve chains. To the contrary, I spent my days attempting to get decision makers at large restaurant groups and restaurant chains to hear our story, convinced that if they gave me the chance to make a business case, they’d become customers. So I was thrilled when I saw Paul and he told me he worked in this franchise organization’s corporate office, helping new stores during their opening months. Bingo! An in with the corporate office. I felt the forces of serendipity working for me.
Fortunately, that organization didn’t show any interest in our software, but more importantly, Paul gave me bad advice. Well, not bad advice, just advice that made sense from his perspective. I ate lunch with him one day and asked him a bunch of questions about how to sell products to restaurant people. How do sales people get your attention? How many sales people do you normally meet with in person? What have you seen people do well? What has not worked well? How about advertising? Etc. As I was leaving that day, I asked Paul to call me if he thought of any other ideas.
Several days later he left me a voice mail. “Wil, this is Paul. I have an idea for you. A vehicle wrap. We have all of our franchise owners wrap their vehicles with our brand and its a great way to create brand visibility as they drive around town. You should give it a shot! People would see the Schedulefly brand everywhere you drive.”
I’ll be honest, I thought he was joking at first and waited for the punch line. There wasn’t one. I laughed anyway. A vehicle wrap? What?! How would that help me create awareness for restaurant people, who are my target audience? More importantly, how would it help me do that anywhere but Charlotte?
It hit me immediately. Paul was giving me advice that made sense to him in his world, based on his experiences. And how could I possibly expect him to give me an idea that would help us move mountains? At the time, I was spending 100% of every day thinking about that stuff, and I couldn’t figure it out, yet I was asking a guy who had spent 0.00000000001% of his day thinking about it, and who had zero experience doing what we are doing, no vested interest in our success, to come up with an idea? It was nice enough of Paul to even call me back. Most people would have just moved on. But there is simply no way Paul could have helped me.
I knew at that point we would have to figure this stuff out on our own, through trial and error. That’s just how these things go. Sure, it’s good to learn from people and keep an open mind, especially if it’s from somebody who has done what you are doing. If you want to start a restaurant, speak to other restaurant owners. Don’t speak to successful business people from other professions. They have zero context for what you are trying to do. Paul had no context to help me.
But even when you speak to somebody who has successfully done what you are trying to do, be careful. What worked for one person may not work for you. When I worked on our book, I interviewed a guy who used very provocative billboards to polarize people, cause protests, and generate free publicity. That worked for him, but there’s no way I would do that if I started a restaurant. I don’t have the stomach for that.
But the larger point here is we often seek advice because we are unsure of how to go about something, and we are looking for a quick answer to a complex problem. We think are looking for a magic “Aha!” moment. But that’s rarely going to happen anywhere but in your own mind. We also have fear. Sure, we believe in ourselves, but there is some lingering uncertainty deep down that we are trying to overcome. That’s natural. It’s not comfortable, but it’s natural. And the sooner you learn to embrace it vs. trying to escape it, the better off you will be.
Paul was not the first person I asked for advice, but he was the last. I guess I did have an “Aha!” moment. Upon listening to his idea, I immediately realized I had to stop asking for advice. Tyler and Wes realized this long before me. They weren’t seeking advice, they were tinkering and trusting their own instincts. I’m glad I finally figured that out as well. And I’m so thankful we decided to follow our own ideas, not others’. If we had done what smart, successful people have (mostly unsolicited) told us we should do, we’d have 20 people in our company by now, not 5. We’d have sales people and marketing people and PR people. We’d have partnerships. We’d have “strategic alliances.” We’d belong to restaurant associations. We’d have investors so we could “raise capital to accelerate growth.” And I would drive a Toyota 4-Runner wrapped in the Schedulefly logo.
We’d be following everybody else’s playbook vs. writing our own.
Wes wrote a great post on a similar topic a few years ago. It’s awesome, and it’s here.