At some time during almost every training workshop I run, somebody approaches me and asks for advice about getting themselves into business. It’s to be expected really. A high proportion of the people we deal with are either chefs or senior managers from a broad range of hospitality businesses, and they’re at an age where you aspire to having a go for yourself.
Running away from something, or toward something?
I usually ask them a few questions to establish if they are being realistic. I start by finding out what sort of business they want to begin with, and why they want their own business. Occasionally I get a well considered answer from somebody who has obviously done their homework, but more often than not I get answers that indicate I’m dealing with a person who is running away from something, rather than towards something.
A natural progression for some
There isn’t much of a career path beyond chef or restaurant manager if you have chosen to work in independent restaurants. People often reach these positions at a reasonably young age — perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties. We meet them at training courses after they have done a similar job in three or four different places and they land a senior position working in one of the larger businesses that has a proper management structure.
It’s occurred to me that the trigger for them wanting to take the plunge into self employment seems to be the old ‘seven year itch’. It doesn’t only apply to marriage. Once you’ve done the same or similar job for about seven years most people are faced with a problem — your inbuilt desire for self development (as the great psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered) kicks in and in a big way and you can become very disgruntled with your circumstances.
It’s this nagging disgruntlement that seems to prompt most people to approach me for career advice while they are at training courses. Their desire to escape their present circumstances is the main motivating factor, not so much the lure of self employment. A lot of the people who approach me only have a vague idea of what they want to do. Chefs typically want their own restaurant so they can cook ‘their food’. Everyone seems to want to do fine dining. Most of them don’t have much money or access to money. A disturbing few of them have access to their parent’s or their family’s whole life savings.
Start modest and build from there
I usually suggest they start out in a modest venture to begin with. Something that will not require a huge up-front investment and is easy to run; something that will introduce them to the areas of management they haven’t experienced, and something that is reasonably profitable. They’re usually nodding in agreement by this stage, but their enthusiasm evaporates quickly when we get around to specifics. I usually recommend that they start in a basic business like a takeaway food outlet, sandwich bar or small catering business. That wipes the smile off their faces.
The thought of abandoning their present reasonably high status employment and plunging into the obscurity of a fast food business out in the burbs somewhere doesn’t sit well with most of them — even if it is a stepping stone for a limited number of years. The honour and the glory of the Good Food Guide seems to be a lot more important to most of them than financial viability.
Be realistic about your business skills
The fact that they don’t yet have the skills to survive in a complex business seems to completely escape most of them. There’s a huge difference between managing something for an owner who’s got the whole thing up, running and organised for you, and being responsible for everything yourself. I get a depressing number of phone calls from people who have either purchased their first restaurant or started one from scratch and then found they are in deep financial trouble, and they don’t have the skills to dig themselves out. They’ve often gone into a location with a history of failure attached to it, and purchased an unviable business from a grateful about-to-become-bankrupt owner who’s found a sucker with stars in their eyes.
Those odd souls who are prepared to start their first business in humble beginnings and then work their way up generally seem to do quite well. If they do fail, they don’t generally risk huge amounts of money or lose their homes like the ones who launch straight out into the rough and tumble world of the high profile restaurant. The successful ones sell out after a few years, take the money and all the skills they’ve acquired and move up to a more complex business. Some of the successful restaurateurs we deal with have worked their way up through four or five businesses.
Current employers are a good place to start
I have always believed that the best way to get into business is to approach the owner of the business you work in now (if you respect their business acumen) and offer them the opportunity to become an investor and partner in a new joint venture with you. That way you have access to experience, money and well developed business systems. If they turn you down, ask them if it’s because they think you are a risky investment. If they say yes, beware — and talk to them about it. They may be able to give you some wisdom that will save you losing your house.
The best businesses I see seem to combine the enthusiasm of youth with the wisdom of experience.