What Gordon Ramsay can teach you about startups

In my hometown, an Irish guy recently opened a fish and chips shop. When I first got to know him, he offered four kinds of battered-and-fried foods (fish, chicken, asparagus and risotto balls), with chips that came with three kinds of special salts (regular sea salt, spicy salt and salt with basil) and three different sauces. Apart from that, he also offered burrito’s (which also came in fish, chicken or vegetarian) and some side dishes.

The day before yesterday, I visited him again. He now offers fish, chicken or fried risotto balls. No more asparagus. No more exotic salts. No more burrito’s. A limited range of sauces. I told him Gordon Ramsay would be proud of him: such radical choices! Such a short, sweet menu.

If you’ve never seen ‘Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’, the number one advice he gives restaurant owners is: make the menu shorter. Choose a few dishes that you can endlessly nail exactly right, and then proceed to endlessly nail them exactly right. The advice never fails to scare the restaurant owners, who are usually already struggling, and who can be relied upon to find numerous reasons why this is a bad idea. “But we have a family that always wants to order five different dishes. They’re our best customers. We’ll lose them!” Most of the time (when he’s not yelling at some chef) Gordon Ramsay can be seen reassuring nervous business owners that yes, they will still have customers if they offer a shorter menu.

Like them, and like many startup founders , the owner of the fish and chips shop was initially afraid that his core product (hot, fried food) would not appeal to everyone, so he decided to add something (burrito’s). Did it please more people? Maybe. Did it improve his business? On the contrary. This is what he said: “The menu was costing us about 75 orders a day because people didn’t know what to choose: which food? Which of the sauces? Which salt? Which side order? At the same time, the demand for tables was far greater than the number of people we could seat. So we decided to speed things up by reducing the number of choices.”

The move hasn’t hurt his business, on the contrary. It turns out that people go to a fish and chips shop to eat deep fried fish with chips. They don’t care which salt is added. They also don’t care that there are no burrito’s to be had. Who would have thunk? Today, the message was reinforced again when going on a bicycle tour: we stopped for icecream at a place that offers two tastes. Vanilla and mocha. That’s it. It’s incredibly easy to order and the stuff is incredibly good.

Both places are thriving, because they can focus all their energy on doing a very limited range of things incredibly good and fast. And I realised that this I’ve been hearing this in some version in all the recent interviews I did. One was with Tristan Kromer of Luxr (about to be published), who told me: “Without knowing anything about your business, I can generally tell you that your MVP will have nine features that it doesn’t need.”

In my recent interview with Eric Wahlforss of SoundCloud, he said that SoundCloud is now now trying to reduce options. Less navigation, to make the product clearer and easier for new users. The same was true in a recent blog post by Hermann Simon on how to become a “hidden champion”: focus. When I read this line in his blog, I literally laughed out loud:

“When Manfred Bogdahn invented the retractable dog leash in the 1970s, he gave up his job as an engineer and ever since he’s been focused on leashes, leashes, leashes. His company Flexi makes only one product: leashes.” (Manfred Bogdahn with his leashes is my new hero.)

The pattern is clear by now: don’t be afraid to think hard about what the value is that you offer customers. It requires some nerve to say out loud: we’ll be all about fish and chips, and nothing else. But when you have identified your value proposition, just proceed to offer it. Be obsessively, freakishly predictable in your quality.

I look forward to reading your stories of successful reduction of your product in the comments! (And I would equally enjoy it if you have applied this successfully to a service business.)

[Photo: asgw, Flickr]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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