Star­bucks wasn’t built in a day

En­trepreneurs are told to go big or go home. Stop ob­sess­ing over scale, and per­fect the ba­sics

Inc. (USA) - - DEPARTMENTS | CONTENTS - Ja­son Fried

LAST YEAR, I MET a first-time en­tre­pre­neur who was open­ing a tea shop. We’ll call him John.

At the time, he had a pop-up shop in my neigh­bor­hood. I re­ally liked him, his vi­sion, and the qual­ity and pre­sen­ta­tion of his tea, so we kept in touch. When he de­cided to go from pop-up to per­ma­nent shop, he asked for my ad­vice.

While we were talk­ing about this per­ma­nent shop—which he still hadn’t opened—his at­ten­tion would of­ten drift to his next shop. And the one af­ter that. And af­ter that. And then, be­com­ing the next Star­bucks.

Whoa. Hold on, man, I told him. I get it, scal­ing the busi­ness seems sexy. But, I said, that is the en­tirely wrong thing to think about now. I wouldn’t spend even a sec­ond on it. You have a real chal­lenge in front of you: open­ing your first real store.

In get­ting just one store right, ev­ery­thing is against you. You have to de­sign and build out the phys­i­cal struc­ture. You have to hire good peo­ple to run the shop when you aren’t there. You have to train those peo­ple. You have to get the menu right. You have to get the pric­ing right. You have to get the pre­sen­ta­tion right. You have to get cus­tomer ser­vice right. You have to get cus­tomers in the door. And then you need to get them to come back.

So much to get right in the here and now. Not down the road, but to­day.

I’ve no­ticed that John isn’t alone in his de­sire to go big. Some­thing’s changed in what’s ex­pected of the en­tre­pre­neur. Ten years ago, peo­ple were ex­cited to just start a busi­ness. Cre­ate their own thing so they didn’t have to go work for some­one else. They wanted to make a good liv­ing, buy a house, and be able to pay for their kids’ col­lege. But now, en­trepreneur­ship seems like a sport. And the score de­pends on scale. How big can you get? How fast can you get big? How much power can you amass in the short­est pos­si­ble time? There are lots of forces push­ing this scale-itup, go-big-or-go-home mi­rage. Busi­ness schools are guilty of pump­ing pipe dreams into stu­dents’ heads: If you fol­low this frame­work, you can be­come the next Howard Schultz or Mark Zucker­berg, they prom­ise. Me­dia wor­ship of su­per-fast-grow­ing com­pa­nies—many of which are ac­tu­ally ter­ri­ble, money-los­ing com­pa­nies— fu­els the fire. Re­al­ity TV and so­cial me­dia make it look like ev­ery­one can af­ford a $5,000-a-month stu­dio apartment in San Fran­cisco.

This nar­ra­tive is out of whack. Your teenager may en­joy do­ing school plays, but you’d be ir­re­spon­si­ble to urge her to move to Hollywood and try to be­come a movie star overnight. If she is se­ri­ous about act­ing, you might en­cour­age her to try New York City or L.A., au­di­tion for roles, and build a reel and a rep­u­ta­tion, which, hope­fully, over time, would al­low her to re­place tips from wait­ing ta­bles with pay­checks from act­ing jobs.

Yet many en­trepreneurs be­lieve they can rush right to the top. Skip the fun­da­men­tal work, and just scale, baby! One store is for losers; if you want to make it, you need 100 stores. This kind of think­ing is poi­sonous. It sets en­trepreneurs up to fail from day one. It’s like telling as­pir­ing bas­ket­ball play­ers that all they need to prac­tice are flashy dunks. Free throws? Drib­bling with your left hand? Play­ing de­fense? Ha! What­ever! We know how that ad­vice would turn out.

So, back to John. His am­bi­tion is good. And it’s good that he has a vi­sion. But he would be much bet­ter off fo­cus­ing all that en­ergy on store num­ber one, pour­ing ev­ery­thing into mak­ing it a des­ti­na­tion peo­ple can’t ig­nore. Only then, once there is a line out the door, is it time to think about do­ing it again.

Ja­son Fried is a co-founder of Base­camp (for­merly 37sig­nals), a Chicago-based soft­ware com­pany.

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