Happy Blog-Day: 5 Blogs I like!

Hello world!

Today is a good day, it's Blog Day! Since this is a new blog, just a baby really, I have decided to post pictures that I like from five blogs, some of which I've only recently uncovered. I hope you'll enjoy!

Design Sponge
No words, just watch.

Cycling 2
No words, just watch.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space
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I think this is an important topic with the right social message. US-focussed unfortunately, but a universal message.

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No words, just watch.
And last, but not least!

Signal versus Noise
Many words and a blog I've been reading for a while. Tech-readers will know this blog, because it's by the people from 37signals and the programming-language, Ruby-on-Rails. The blog is not all about software though, some great principles of design are discussed, using both real-world and graphic examples.

So that's it! Please feel free to suggest some interesting links of your own if you happen to be passing by. Everything goes!

For stuff I've actually been reading for a while, please also check my Blog-Day picks on Tech IT Easy.

Last time, I wrote a little about how I feel that retail & food venues are very much people-businesses. You are essentially running a piece of real-estate, filled with people that represent you, and people that use your services. It adds a special dynamic to the whole thing, because you can achieve a lot with maintaining a good quality staff, but of course you have to understand how to get there. On Tech IT Easy, I wrote an article on "People First," in regards to organisations like Pixar. This a principle I firmly believe in, but is easier said than done. I think it really starts at the selection- and training-phases, but also requires regular attention to ensure that this continues.

The July-August issue of HBR (which I'm devouring like crazy) has some interesting advice towards branded leadership, which they explain as: "you want your leaders to embody the promises your company makes to its customers," and they present 5 principles to ensure that will happen. It is not my desire to summarise whole articles here each time, but I will focus on the message instead. 

Essentially, they are saying that your company is unique, has to be unique in the eyes of customers, to ensure a certain loyalty, i.e. have people come back over and over again. This is based on an identity, which can manifest itself in ways like low-cost, high-service, great quality, great ambience, etc. etc. Preferably the more selling-points the better, as that will ensure a richer experience for customers, appeal to a broader target-group, and hopefully beat the competition.

And you have to instil that identity in your workforce. One of the ways that HBR proposes to do so, is by training leaders to handle as many situations as possible. You can achieve this by putting them into settings which confront them with new challenges and makes them come out as better leaders and a better understanding your business. 

And this applies to employees also. If you can manage to bring out more from them than their core-funtion would suggest, not only do you create a work-place that motivates people to come in eager to learn, but will automatically transfer their enthusiasm to your customers, who they interact with.

One way that this can be achieved is with something called participation-management, as I found out from a new podcast I discovered, focussed on Specialty Shop Retailing. Essentially, participation-management is a method that is meant to motivate employees, by giving them more responsibility in the company. Some ways that the podcast (episode 1) mentioned, include: having staff participate in the hiring-process, having those assigned to certain divisions take part or make the buying decision for that part of the business, and involving employees in writing the employee handbook. There are some risks associated with this method as well, namely that you may have to release financial details about your business, that decision-making can be slower in a group, and that firing can be more difficult.

More on this later.

The picture is courtesy of Liz Strauss' great article-series on successful personal branding.

I just got a chance to give my feedback on my university-experience at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. I really let them have it! Much of my thinking and standards is certainly based on my positive experiences at the University of Manchester, (formerly UMIST) School of Management, which contrasts starkly with those at EUR.

Now, before I go more into this, how is this relevant to my focus on this site? Simple. Much of my attraction to working in this industry is because of the people-focus. Not only is much of your brand determined by the people working your difference, they are in fact your product. And, in addition to that, you can be sure that your customers, who happen to be people too, will let you know immediately if they find something lacking. S+FnR is a people-business, for people, by people, which gives it a lot of similarity to the higher education system.

Now let me start with what bothered me with EUR. When I began there as a master, I immediately got the sense that everything was very relaxed. Students were in my class, who still had to finish some bachelor subjects. At UMIST, you had to finish your courses for one year, or you would not pass on to the next. It's perhaps a small thing, but can have significant consequences on the mentality of students. In the Netherlands, you are penalised if you study too long, 7 years to be exact, by way of no longer receiving funding. So 7 years later, if you went wrong, here's your punishment.

What also bothered me was the complete freedom you got with writing your thesis. Basically, you have to enrol into a thesis-course, which means you get started on your trajectory. You can choose a topic, then choose a coach, then submit a proposal. Your coach can guide you, but you only get access to a dedicated coaching-system after your proposal has been submitted. That opens up a large loophole for students to fall through, those that can't even decide on a clear topic.

At UMIST, from week 1, you are introduced to the central secretary, who is your access-point when you have a problem. In my case it was a pretty friendly lady, who had a dossier on me 5 cm thick, and would help me find relevant people to talk to and communicate messages to me. At EUR, everything goes electronically.

Now there are a few things of note here, which relate to business. First, targets. You have to set clear targets for the people in your company, from the start. That pressure also forces people to work their asses off to make it.

Second, transparency. There are two things here. You need to be physically accessible to the people working for or with you, so they can discuss their problems openly and vice versa. This understanding also leads to a better development-plan to coach these people to become future leaders or whatever they desire in your business. 

Now, by coaching, I of course don't mean holding people's hands all the time. No, in fact targets should send a clear message that this is not the idea. But in order to move things forward, there must be a combination of the carrot and the stick, to put it this crudely.

Clearly, people-organisations (though all organisations are people-based in some way), present some special challenges, that of effective communication and motivation. It's not as easy as turning on an engine and adding gas. When dealing with humans, you must act human too. More on this in future posts!

This morning I got two stories in my s+f&r reading list, both on China. One is that the country is building 100s of hotels in anticipation of the Olympic Games next year and the World Expo in 2010. And two, that China is retail heaven.

For the first story, Misset Hotel is reporting (in Dutch, I'm afraid) that around 109 hotels are currently being built, varying in size from 80 to 4000 rooms. Last year it already reported on a monster-hotel being constructed in Shanghai, housing 3500 rooms. Now it put together a ranking-list (click dutch link; 'kamers' means 'rooms') of hotels being built, with the largest, the Sheraton Macao, housing around 4000 rooms also, on a surface area of 140.000 m2. Macao, which is an island, is attracting a lot of attention, because it features a mild tropical climate.

The second story, which is only a Business Wire excerpt from a pretty expensive (but standard) report, analyses the Chinese retail-industry through a PEST (Political, Economic, Social and Technological issues) framework. The current annual growth-rate for retail is 14%.

But clearly, while China is a big target, it is not a risk-free market. There are many concerns whether this boom will last for very long, though China is certainly betting on this being true. In terms of retail, you are of course dealing with issues of piracy, though a local presence can only be a good thing there. And there is the issue of cultural sensitivity. I remember reading that Starbucks, which is doing very well in China, had to close one of it's locations near the Forbidden City, as it was meeting with a lot of protest.

Whatever people do in China, it helps to have deep pockets to deal with the problems that will certainly arise. And it helps to do your homework. I remember doing some research on Chinese Guanxi 7 years ago, which may not be nearly as relevant today as China becomes more and more Westernised. However, it is important to bear in mind that social relationships in the country are very different from what business-people from other countries are used too. There is the emphasis on saving face and showing proper respect to business-partners. 

And there is the risk of showing too much respect and being cheated in the process. At that time, at least, and I'm not too familiar with the current legalese, there were many situations where contractual breach was not perceived as a real crime, and many businesses had to withdraw with big losses or prepare themselves for a long negotiation-period.

Update: New York Times just posted an article on Macao as well (free reg. required)!

The picture depicts Macao @ Night and is courtesy of Dan Suit on Flickr.

Let's talk music-venue scenarios

This is an area, I'm probably most comfortable with, and thus like to talk / write about. I suppose there is different formats to go with here, of which there are four categorisations: 

  • Pop-music
  • Niche-music
  • Loud-music
  • Background-music
I believe that the best products are those that you believe in, as you put most thought into it, most effort into selling them as well. I personally like the loud kind to a degree, dancing is great, and niche-music is often better than MTV's finest. But I come to music-venues to relax as well, to meet friends, and have conversations. Any place that I would create, would have to integrate both loud- and background-music and be niche. That's simple.

Now, how would you organise this? For now, I can only base my thoughts on past experiences. A woman I met on a plane told me once that she puts different aspects of her life (relationships, money, family, etc.) into different rooms in the house that is her world. I like that approach, and would like to create a similar venue, which puts different interests into different settings. 

That brings forth some design-considerations. Let's propose scenario 1
3 floors, guests enter on the level floor, which is the bar, they descend to the basement, which is the dance-floor, or they ascend to the top-floor, which is the restaurant.

There's also scenario 2:
A flat building, with 3 rooms. Guests enter through the bar, from there they can go through a soundproof tunnel to the dance-area, or through a second doorway, to the restaurant.

A final scenario, I can think off, is a little more abstract, and scenario 3; It is based on the concept of 'silent disco' and thus involves a technological, and probably complicated solution. It is different though! Basically:
It is one large room. There is a dance-floor in the middle, and bars surrounding it, as well as one being in the middle. On the edges of the room, there are arrangements for people to eat. And this is the gist for it all to integrate! The room has a relaxing music playing, and the dancers, they get headphones to dance with.

Why I like scenario 3, is because I'd like to find a solution where people can easily dance and lose themselves in music. But I'd like for people to easily be able to switch to chat-mode. Why I don't like it is because of the technological barriers: is it comfortable to dance with headphones? How would you organise the logistics? And would people feel comfortable in such a setting? Still, I like this scenario the most somehow, it's different.

Very early-stage thinking obviously, but enjoyable. More thoughts on this as my thinking evolves! Btw. writing about real-world entertainment-venues is very fun, because it's a big world, and you actually want people to steal your ideas to test them for you. 

This blog and myself are still in the gestation-phase, which means I'm still forming my thoughts about my future business and finding my voice here. That said, all my past thoughts about opening a venue in this area involved creating great experiences, yes, offering food 'n' drink, yes, but also making music an important ingredient. Much of this should've already been clear to me from my post on inspirations, but hey, I'm not that smart.

Now, I'm not going to change the url for now, as that would be a wasted effort in marketing, but I did rename the blog, and purposefully mentioning "Sounds" first, to not make it sound like an afterthought.

Why the food and retail? I suppose, I should explain that too. If you look at successful chains, they often integrate various services into their venues. Starbucks sells CDs and internet-access, next to their coffee and other products. McDonalds sells toys and internet-access. You get the idea. While I think of a food-venue as something more personable, more intimate, it is still first and foremost a business, and much can be learned from the world of retail there. More later.

Via About.com, I stumbled across an interview with Dina Howell from Proctor & Gamble, on their marketing strategy. P & G, for those that don't know, develops and markets a wide range of consumer-products from hair care to pet nutrition. 

Being a producer is very interesting and obviously a very complex position to be in. For instance, you do not have complete control over the product experience, which can be frustrating, if not handled properly. Nevertheless, both producers, retailers, and shoppers have shared interests to make the experience a positive one as possible. The obvious step is thus an increased co-operation between these parties. Ms. Howell outlined several ways in which this is happening at P&G.

I imagine that P&G's methods, as will be outlined in this article, are not the best, nor the only way to improve the shopper-experience. Nevertheless, some interesting core-principles came out of the article, namely the importance of collecting data; the effects of new strategies on the organisation; and how to work with partners in the value chain.

The importance of data
On Tech IT Easy, I wrote a post on the importance of statistics, and similarly everything at P&G is dependant on measuring data, which comes from a number of sources: retail-locations, shoppers, and consumers, in the context of the store (the first), and in the context of home-use (and the second moment of truth), and is instrumental in what Howell calls "commercial innovation"—basically innovation which happens on a marketing-level, as opposed to a product or packaging-level.

Commercial innovation comes from studying shopper-needs closely and adapting products in the sense that they become useful for them. An example mentioned is long-haired people and hair colour. Observation taught P&G that they these types of shoppers tend to buy two packs of hair-colour as one simply doesn't suffice. So a commercial innovation was to sell packs of two's, simple but effective.

The challenge of organisational change
The advantage of understanding the customer-perspective is of course obvious: it leads to leaner and more effective product-strategies. At the same time, it requires a massive organisational dedication, which does not come easy. For one, traditional mass-marketing tactics still work and there is not always the incentive to change. Much of marketing-literature is still focussed on that area of business as well. And, of course, change is costly, requiring resources, human, technological, or otherwise, to be relocated to this purpose only.

Developing co-ordinated strategies
Another challenge as a producer is to overcome the disconnect with consumers, particularly if you're not the one doing the selling, and certainly not the one using it. That requires finding channels that work, by co-operating closely with retailers, and giving them an incentive to co-operate with you. One method of effectively measuring in-store product-performance and designing effective sales-environments is to use a benchmarking system like PRISM, which ties all these parties in the retail value-chain together, and turns the retail store into a medium "compared to television advertising". That brings advantages to both the retailer and the producer, as both can co-design an environment that maximises revenue.

Final thoughts
The question is of course whether these measures can be applied to other environments as well. It seems to me that new businesses will find it easier, if they design their organisation from the bottom up in a way that performance can be measured and improved on various levels, and which are also compatible with practices of business-partners. Since, so far, much of my thinking comes more from software-design, it is an obvious conclusion. But is it a workable one?

The graph is courtesy of Clickz. Dina Howell is leader of Procter & Gamble’s shopper-marketing strategy and the entirety of the interesting interview with her on these issues can be read at Hub Magazine (pdf).

I know I'm not exactly communicating the core message of NMS accurately, but having lived in the UK for four years, I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments on the British style of catering.

  1. Stop microwaving pastry. Do you not like food? 
  2. Room temperature is not a cold drink. Fix your coke fridge.
  3. Give me broadband wi-fi or I keep walking, suitcases and all.

Regarding the third point, broadband, this is a universal problem, which a lot of catering-places need to fix. There needs to be a universal connectivity to things. People are used to transparency online and translating that too offline use is something that still needs to happen. For example, imagine checking IMDB in a cinema or at a DVD-store; recipes in a supermarket; or reviews, while sitting in a cafe or restaurant. That just seems like common sense. Not to mention giving people a chance to continue their work at your venue, which leads to more coffee, etc. Incidentally, given that laptop batteries are not perfect, I would also like to add conveniently-placed electric plugs to that request.

All in all transparency is not a bad thing, in fact it is great. First off all, it forces you as a caterer to focus on excellence, and secondly, it generates trust from your visitors, which in turn translates to greater loyalty and perhaps a favourable online review now and then. Imagine not only given people a chance to suck the internet from your venue, but also to transmit their favourable sentiments about their experience to the whole wide world. Now that is viral marketing! NMS makes similar points.

Incidentally, New Music Strategies is a great blog on translating traditional thinking about music to the new age of all-round connectivity. I read it on a weekly basis. The picture is courtesy of SeenyaRita on Flickr and totally my idea of a good breakfast.

The world of food and retail is huge, HUGE! That is what I'm finding out as I subscribe to rss-feeds, look at possible books, and think about specialists I want talk to, as well as possible locations to start. 

My plan (version 1), which I linked to several times now, is to evolve in stages: start with gathering all kinds of information—from desk-research and people, gain some experience in the industry, write a good business-plan, etc. etc. 

I say it is a HUGE enterprise, but it is FUN also, to be all-consumed by an area, as that's what they call a fulfilling job. Ok, but let's get pragmatic.

Obviously, it is impossible to do everything. At some point you will have to choose, restrict yourself to your competencies, outsource / delegate the rest. 

In my research- and planning-phase, I am looking at following areas:
  • Catering and retail-news and tips - I find that both fields share a lot of the same characteristics and will likely integrate principles from both of them. I will be adding the best of them to my link-roll on this blog.
  • Business-news - I don't really discriminate against what companies are being written about. For instance, when Katsuaki Watanabe from Toyata says: "We've never tried to become number one in terms of volumes or revenues; as long as we keep improving our quality, size will automatically follow;" I think that is perfectly applicable to what I want to do. Similarly, I try to look at specific fields like marketing, finance, logistics, innovation, etc. holistically, under the umbrella of what the strategy should be, and thus just take notes of what I consider relevant in any field.
  • People: This a broad field, so many people out there. Here, I tend to progress in two ways, the direct and the indirect. Directly, I have a few contacts, which I am and will be contacting, that have experience in the field of catering. Indirectly, many of my friends are specialists in fields that I need to know more about and they can consult me on relevant issues and data to gather. 
  • Work: This is important. I have already worked in this world, as an entertainer, as a barkeeper, in sales and marketing, and in event-management. But I will still have to find a position to gain a lot of relevant experience, while I'm preparing my business-plan. It's a choice, based both on internal capabilities and interests, and external ones—which is the best company, the best location, the best position, to gather the most relevant info? Making the wrong choice here, can result in a lock-in, meaning you can lose months or years in the wrong place, and not learn anything.
  • Location: This is also important, but should be done very slowly. For a new entrepreneur, I think it is better to start in a place where you can make a lot of noise, and not be crushed by the competition. Deciding this depends on both visiting as many places as possible, doing extensive market-research, and—very important—finding the right match between what type of place you want to set up and the location.
  • Investors: apparently they are people too… no, just kidding. In the near future, will be writing a piece on the financial ecosystem, as I understand it. What is important is to find people that can add value beyond the financial kind. That means experts, and people that can handle the risks associated with starting a business.
  • The Type of Place: I've left this for last (though this is not an exclusive list), because I still need to work it out. Ultimately this will shift everything else into one line. Deciding whether you want to open a cafe, bar, restaurant, or club in catering, or a supermarket, corner-shop, specialist-shop, etc. in retail, not to mention the type of good you want to sell, will make a lot of things clearer, as far as preparation, location, and people goes.
Ok, I hope this sheds some light on how messy beginnings always tend to be. Personally, it helped me to write out my freak-outs as I then start thinking about it logically. I hope it helps other people too. 

Blogs are an exercise in evolution, but it is mostly an evolution of a left-brained activity: writing. As I research, think, and write more about the world of food and retail, I expect my expertise to increase. But will my creativity? 

Therefore, along with the writing, I will try to make a short and stupid drawing to accompany the post. As my factual knowledge grows, so will, I hope, my artistic skill. Which, will only help me in future creative endeavours. Not to mention avoid law-suits… 

Vision part 2

I did not present anything like a coherent vision based on my inspirations, except if you read between the lines. If I were to present one now, I would say:

I want to start a place which allows for controlled freedom—i.e. people have to be free to experience a broad range of emotions, as they desire. At the same time, there is a sound engine underneath this experience, which focusses on providing best-in-class quality. 
Much of this will come from the people working there, their values, and their interactive skills with visitors. Much of it will be the environment, the decor, the music playing, which should be varied and quirky. And the food & drink enjoyed should be a rich experience, one you will tell your friends about.
And much of it will come from the type of customer, whom I still have to get a better picture off… because I don't want to be discriminating and instead base this on further study, thought, and simple coincidence.
The next step is now to work towards achieving such a vision, which depends on the series of steps I linked to in my last post (to be tweaked as more experience is gained). To recap, those are: 
  • initial research, which I will discuss in my next post
  • gain hands-on experience
  • conduct a more thorough research and write the business-plan
  • start the sucker
  • etc. etc.

One of my main goals today is to start a business in the food/drink/entertainment sector, i.e. a restaurant, cafe, club, or similar. I devised a series of steps to achieve that goal, through what I would call a risk-minimisation strategy. The reason being that I believe that proper research results in a better business-plan, a better executed idea, and more trust from your partners and investors.

But what about vision? That's important too right? My father, who is consulting me a little in this venture asked: so if you could take over a place today, which would it be?

This really forced me to think about it, go beyond my oh-so-rational plan. It forced me to remember why I wanted to do this in the first place, look at my inspirations. In my case, there were different experiences which contributed to my dream:

  • when I was 14, I went to Cuba and was invited to a club/bar at the beach. It was completely open, with some tables, a live band, and people dancing. 
  • When I was ca. 17 (around 1992), Prodigy released a music-video for their song "No Good (start the dance)." You can see it below. I liked the coolness-factor and the way it suggested freedom of expression. It inspired me to set up some parties in the same style.
  • When I was 18, I held two parties in semi-abandoned houses, representing that vision. The consensus of many was that it was the best party they've ever been too. Controlled freedom, is what I would have called the experience. There were bands, separate rooms with different themes, an insane amount of booze, and a diverse crowd.
  • When I went to uni in Manchester (2000-2004), I went to a whole diversity of clubs in this semi-industrial city. They were all a great inspiration, and one particular one, which had style (forgot the name now), was excellent. Another, Holy City Zoo was cool as well. I like the combination of glamour but a lack of judgement also.
  • In Rotterdam (now), I really like a restaurant / Hotel called Bazar. It has a mediterean / middle-eastern spirit, which is represented in the decor and the food they serve. The organisation is tremendously efficient as well, and you can see an open kitchen. Even the toilet is an object of beauty.
  • In Barcelone (2006), I saw some amazing architecture, a gym on the beach, an intimate jazz-club, all great inspirations to me.
Of course it is probably impossible to integrate all these great things into a single idea. But when you are working towards something, it is important to follow your values and dreams as much as possible. It motivates you, creates passion and loyalty, and most of all communicates good things to your customers. 

Stuff to think about.

I'll leave you with Prodigy - No Good (start the dance):

One of my current activities is trying to relate everything I learn to the field of HnR, because I believe that the more I know, the better prepared I will be when I start my own venture. This has consequences on better execution and will make it easier to attract investors / partners as well, not to mention run a better business.

The latest Harvard Business Review has a somewhat interesting, yet quite academic article on principles of long-term success. They are:

1. Exploit before you explore
This is actually probably the most important principle in running a start-up. You are running with very scarce resources and maintaining cash-flow to pay for expenses is an important priority. 
In a FnR environment, I think this means: making the best of spaces, by re-using them or otherwise; making the best of people within your organisations as those will mostly be the ones with the strongest values (That said, I don't believe in exploiting people!); it also means making the best of innovations already on the market. What it ultimately comes down to, is a focus on exploiting quality and not constantly running in all directions looking for new things.

2. Diversify your business-portfolio
HBR does stress that diversification is pointless if you do not benefit from economies of scope. In plain English, this means that diversification only works if all these activities can somehow be combined efficiently in the package that is your enterprise.
In a FnR environment, if you can offer the customers products that complement each other, you increase the level of service, while making use of existing resources, like sales, warehousing, marketing. This is a very dangerous area to exploit, and must be carefully prepared.  
Other areas of diversification include supply-side and geographic.

3. Remember your mistakes: Again, very relevant to start-ups, as at that stage it is very easy to make mistakes. What is important is to avoid repeating them and have that be reflected in the strategy and structure of the business.

4. Be conservative about change: What this means is not to not change, but instead base it on sound preparation. That means preparing a business-case and evaluating the consequences this can have your employees as well as the outside environment. When expanding to other regions, it is also very important to see whether your current strategy matches the local culture.

I do think these principles are somewhat stale and perhaps difficult to relate to small or starting business in the food or retail sector. If I were to summarise the lessons in a few words, however, I would say: be careful about the strategy for a business, evaluate everything possible and only implement changes if they make business sense. It is equally important not to lose your core-values and your vision in too much change and always weigh the consequences of actions, in as far as that is possible. 

The article can be ordered here: The four principles of enduring success

This is not the first time, we've heard this of course, but still interesting how the company deals with the challenges of diversity and picky European customers.

In this case, it wants to invest 800 million dollar this year alone into its European locations, in order to focus more on healthy, organic, and regional food, and get rid of its "hamburger" image. Apparently, revenue has been falling for years.

Good call, I say. I look forward to seeing if health-food can finally be transformed into a mass-market product!

The Food 'n' Retail Manifesto

Grrr. Manifesto, schmanifesto. I say that because lately it feels that I'm writing a lot of them. That said, I believe people should follow their passions and mine are several, which I try to express through action and writing.

In this case, Food and Retail has a clear purpose. My objective is to find out as much as possible about this world, because I want to work in a field where I can create experiences and gain direct feedback from those experiencing it. F&R fulfils that need nicely.

This blog is thus my path towards achieving that goal. In it, I will write about interesting news in the industry and my own conclusions and visions about it. As far as regularity is concerned, I do have a day-job, so I'm planning on 1-2 editorial posts a week, as well as some smaller re-blogged stories.

Please also read my other writing on Tech IT Easy, where I co-blog, in this case my thoughts on Starbucks (1 & 2), McDonalds (1 & 2), Coca Cola, and CoolBlue.nl, as I expect to write more like this than anything else. 


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