Please learn from our mistakes

No-bullshit lessons in business and careers. One mail every day. 15k+ readers love it. Join in?

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
7 Jan

Businesses with a spine

At the New Year Party, a friend told me about restaurants in the USA known for their obnoxious and rude wait staff. This got me thinking about some of my own experiences at Indian restaurants.

Specifically, this one time, at Vidyarthi Bhavan, Bengaluru, we got shouted at by the wait staff for asking too many questions. It was unbelievable.

I thought — Who speaks like that to a customer?!

Although a tad miffed at the mistreatment, I didn’t question the behaviour publicly. If it were any other experience, I'd immediately tag the business on Twitter and let more people know about the mistreatment.

But as a founder, this definitely made me wonder. Because, somehow, this attitude didn't seem to affect the kind of footfall many of these legacy restaurants get. It made me feel that legacy businesses didn’t play by the "rules" and yet achieved success.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed this about any legacy joint.

So, what makes these businesses immune to criticism or failure? How can they afford to have the kind of customer service they have and still keep thriving?

You see, in the startup world, we keep hearing the following:

"It's a VUCA world."

"Talk to your customers."

"Identify a need."

"Don't rest until you find PMF."

"Crack the distribution game."

These are the unspoken rules we’re told to follow while building the business.

But then, take the case of Taaza Thindi in Bengaluru. Look at their menu and service timings:

They only serve the limited items they've had on the menu since eternity and nothing more. Their service time is limited too.

Despite these constraints, if you visit their outlet, you will observe a line of customers waiting to get their fill. The wait lines are maddening, to say the least. It is also a self-service restaurant.

To top that, look at the cost charged for every dish. I paid the same price when I visited them in October last year.

Inflation somehow did not affect Taaza Thindi.For years, the same six to seven items with little to no price changes feature on the menu.  Try to think of the restaurant you went to since your childhood. The area you live in might have developed drastically as you grew up, but that one legacy restaurant managed to remain the same.

It was almost as if it was living in its own bubble, protected from everything else going around it.

Furthermore, as a startup founder, I am always on edge trying to learn what my customers want and how to serve them better.

In stark contrast, I was surprised when at Kayani’s Mumbai, the outlet said,

"We only make a limited batch, and if you genuinely wanted the puffs, you would show up on time."

It was as if the business were indifferent to popular demand. The owner didn't seem bothered about pissing off a dozen customers. He was secure in knowing that they would throng either way.

They need not take feedback and produce more units. All that was produced would sell, and there would be no leftovers.

Isn't that certainty enviable?

Most startup founders, conversely, are obsessed with understanding how their product solves a need. It will not sell otherwise is the presumption.

But a legacy business, on the other hand, seems to operate timelessly. As if the need for the product isn’t dependent on the market. There is a sort of disregard for reacting to market changes or consumer demand.

I feel it makes their product timeless. I’ve seen so many Instagram reels romanticize this quality of food outlets. With the ample organic promotion these food outlets enjoy, their footfall is high.

Perhaps a disregard for the market and the consumer creates the timeless charm associated with legacy businesses.

Being raised up in the startup world, this almost feels like a blasphemous statement.

(Sorry, Paul Graham.)

But seriously, even when a legacy business does so much as do the bare minimum, the consumer seems floored by it?!

Their growth is unaffected. They do not need social media strategy and buzzing Instagram accounts either. It does not matter if their founder or owner has a personal brand.

Their product is enough of a brand in itself. The owner is secure that the business will thrive.

They feel secure in their legacy. And this sense of security they exude seems to work for them.

It feels funny that a legacy business follows no rules from the startup playbook but enjoys the same customer loyalty, or even better, in many cases.

But the more I think about it, I feel that the freedom to be radical stems from a level of privilege.

I realised this when I lived at an Airbnb in Amritsar.

The host was so accommodating I felt like I was living at home. In fact, the host came to pick me up when I reached there, drove me around, and fed me more than I could eat. In my conversation with the host’s mother, I discovered that they host guests because they enjoy it.

They do not depend on the income they earn from Airbnb. They are not trying to serve a need or provide a solution. For them, hosting people is a joy. They sincerely only want to be good hosts.

I am guessing most businesses cannot afford to simply scratch a personal itch, we need to solve a need. We can't be nonchalant about scale, afford an uncompromising philosophy, or pursue business only for joy.

And maybe creating a legacy requires those very ingredients.

I think it's tough for a startup to operate the way a legacy business does.

It's because most startup founders create solutions to plug a gap they observed. Most of our effort, therefore, is spent making all stakeholders see what we see.

Unlike legacy businesses that often serve in an existing market with a clear demand, startups often discover new markets and hence have to be quite sensitive and nimble to changing consumer behaviour/ preferences and pivot accordingly.

Startups also do not have an unlimited runway to prove their worth. On some level, we must pander to our customers, the market, and investors to see value in our solution.

And perhaps, what puts the "legacy" in a legacy business is a sense of spine that startups may not be able to afford — at least in the very early days.

That spine could either be the founding family's philosophy, their strong and uncompromising sense of mission, or simply their way of life — their DNA infused non-negotiably into how they serve customers.

The spine is also often supported by the financial and social safety net that the business benefits from.

For a legacy restaurant business, that spine could simply be the land they own. Just the fact that you do not have to pay a monthly rent to a landlord can help you tide over many difficult market situations.

(Covid-19, anyone?)

For another, the spine could be the work accomplished and the goodwill earned by the previous generation.

I am not sure if building a legacy business has a secret formula: something we as startup operators can learn from. But what was interesting for me to note in this exploration is that both kinds of businesses have a chance at success, even though their playbooks are in stark contrast to each other.

And in the startup bubble, we often keep hearing about one while ignoring the other.

Feeling Lucky?
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.
Subscribe to get new posts emailed to you, daily. No spam.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.