First milestone for my startup and back to a normal routine

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I have been busy the last 2 months developing an photo-based browser and capturing tool of online classifieds for my startup Invantory. The good news is that I have finally released the app to the App Store yesterday and is now waiting for approval from Apple (finger crossed). There are still a lot that I need to do in order to get the product to the form and state we had envisioned. The 2 most pressing tasks at the moment are getting the camera feature incorporated into the app by the end of the month and developing the web application (very basic function) for release next month.

My work/sleep schedule the past month has been pretty messed up because of the project. Each day, I went to bed later than I did the previous day. Apparently, I tend to get in the zone only during the wee hours of the night after my wife has gone to bed. Since visual design and coding require long, uninterrupted time to perform, it was hard to stop working at 1-4am, especially that’s when I am feeling most productive. For this reason and the aggressive deadline, I often end up going to bed after sunrise. Working this way has its benefits. It’s the time of the day when it’s really quiet and best of all, no distractions – no phone calls, no incoming emails, and far fewer tweets and Facebook updates. I actually get very productive during this time. But there are drawbacks. I feel my biorhythm was out-of-sync and find my energy level low. This schedule isn’t really sustainable and not good for my health in the long-run.

Now that the app is released, I am getting back to the normal schedule and have a more balanced routine.

Synthesize not just analyze

I just finished reading this post on Boston.com. The article mentioned systems thinking a few times, but it is the word “synthesize” that strongly resonated with me. When I was writing my master’s thesis, my thesis supervisor ingrained it in me that synthesis is just as important as analysis. I remember whenever we met, I would just report my findings of my research to him. But he would immediately stop me from continuing and ask me to synthesize a pattern, trend, hypothesis, or solution from these findings. He emphasized to his students the principle of first decomposing a system to its constituent elements (reductive) and then combine the separate concerns into a unified, coherent entity (holistic). He stressed that careful analysis without good synthesis is useless, conversely synthesis without analysis is almost worthless and can even be dangerous. Analysis and synthesis are complements of each other.

Since graduating from grad school, I am finding that analysis and synthesis plays an even more important role in decision making. Knowing how to perform a synthesis of any analysis is vital. However, while many organizations are either good at analyzing problems or making irrational decisions, very few are capable of performing both analysis and synthesis. This is why Lex Schroeder, the author of the above article, is spot-on to say that universities, industries, and think tanks should embrace a new approach that enable future leaders to “synthesize information, making something new and useful out of seemingly disparate ideas.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Picture credits: Applied Systems Thinking Institute

What can entrepreneurs learn from Restaurant Impossible

Lately, I am hooked to a reality TV show on the Food Network called Restaurant Impossible. In the show, Chef and Restauranteur Robert Irvine is given the mission of turning a failing restaurant around in 2 days on a $10k budget. Each episode typically starts with Chef Robert coming into the restaurant to assess the situation. Next he creates an improvement plan, which typically includes doing a physical makeover of the restaurant with the help of his interior designer and general contractors, revising the menu, training the staff, cleaning the kitchen, or introducing additional modern dishes. It’s quite a feat to turn a failing restaurant around in 2 days and with $10k budget. To be honest, I do find the show to be dramatized sometimes and still don’t buy the fact that their $10k budget can realistically produce the kind of interior decor that the designer had conceived. That aside, the show is still entertaining and even educational. Entrepreneurs can learn a lot about identifying problems in a business, turning a business around, and running a business. Here are some of the take aways from the show:

  1. Listen to the customer
    Sometimes the restaurant featured in the show is simply out of step with the market. The root cause of this problem is often attributed to the restaurant failing to listen to its customers and continuing with the path of producing the same food or maintaining the same dinning atmosphere. To get a critical sense of what the restaurant is lacking, Chef Irvine often starts his assessment of the restaurant by simply asking the customers for their critique of the restaurant. Establishing customer feedback loop is key for any business. Feedback doesn’t need to explicit like asking customer directly. Sometimes tacit feedback is just as good in finding out what customers want. Body language like smile, cringe, and puzzle can be very telling about what they think of your products and services. So be critical, observant, and engaging with customers.
  2. Know the bottom-line
    It amazes me how many restaurant owners in the show don’t know what their operating costs are. Some owners don’t even know that they are losing money until Chef Irvine reveal it to them after he looked at their books. Business is all about the bottom-line. Understanding cost is a fundamental imperative for any business. Any entrepreneur should know the cost and cost structure of their business like the back of his hand. If there is no mechanism for tracking costs and revenues, they should be established. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated. Tracking financial/performance metrics by pen and paper is still better than not knowing what’s going on in the company.
  3. Set (high) standards
    Chef Irvine is relentless when it comes to food quality. He trains kitchen staff to maintain a high level of standards. Food must be made with fresh ingredients or mostly with fresh ingredients. No compromise. If a dish doesn’t meet the standards, it gets tossed to the trash rather than to have it served to the customer. Chef Irvine is also adamant about service too. Waiters and waitresses must meet and even exceed needs and expectations. Chef Irvine expects the staff at minimum know the menu well and be able to describe and make recommendations as well as being attentive to customers. But you can’t foster an environment of high standards, unless you clarify expected standards with the staff. Chef Irvine is good with setting clear expectations and even giving feedback to articulate how the standard is not met and what needs to be done to address it. Similarly any business should set high yet attainable standards, clarify them to employees, and finally provide constructive feedback to maintain those standards.
  4. Keep it simple
    In the show, Chef Irvine is often seen revising the menu. Not surprising, most restaurants have big menu with multiple pages, which makes it hard for the customers to select the dishes to order. Also, big menu makes food prep difficult due to a large variety of food involved. The message is clear. For any business, it is better to be in the position of doing few things very well, than to doing many things mediocrely.
  5. Creativity
    To turn things around, Chef Irvine would create new dishes to appeal to the customers. He did so not by using more expensive, new ingredients or complex techniques. He uses existing and often run-of-the-mill ingredients that are already found in the kitchen to create those new dishes. Basically the same ingredients, but combined and cooked differently using simple techniques. The moral of the story is that in the face of constraints and fewer resources in a failing restaurant, Chef Irvine is forced to rely only on improvisation and ingenuity to continue using the same ingredients to yield better results. Call it readjustment, improvisation, or recalibration. Sometimes constraints in business can be drivers to creativity and produce good results.

Well, those are my main take aways from the show. The show is not only entertaining, but for those who are running a business, it is also educational.