I recently read two excellent books – Kitchen Confidential by chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by entrepreneur and uber venture capitalist Ben Horowitz – and took away some interesting lessons from both. While the books seemingly are unrelated – one is about the restaurant industry and the other about running a technology startup – I drew many parallels between the two and both gave me very similar insight. Here’s what I learned.
1) Being an Executive Chef and a CEO are pretty similar
The overarching aspects of running a kitchen and a startup are very much alike. You need to build a great team (more on this later), set your expectations, give your employees everything they need to succeed and let them do their thing.
In the kitchen, after putting together his team, Bourdain provided them with direction about the menu, guidance on how he likes things done, and the ingredients they need to create delicious food.
In his startup, Horowitz was responsible for raising money to keep the company going, setting expectations for all of the staff, and creating processes and a culture to allow everyone to flourish.
While the inputs may be different, the fundamental activities of an Executive Chef and startup CEO are similar.
2) There’s no glory in this stuff
It’s all hard work.
The Food Network and shows like Top Chef glorify the culinary world and make us think that cooking gourmet meals and running a restaurant are easily achievable. In the same vein, tech publications like TechCrunch and PandoDaily, who constantly report on startups who are “crushing it”, make it seem like running a startup is a piece of cake.
Quite the contrary. Both are complete grinds that wear you down physically and mentally. In the kitchen, your day may entail peeling 300 potatoes; no one will show that on TV. In a startup, you’re responsible for making cold calls, dealing with product bugs and issues, hearing customers complain, balancing the books, and many more menial, thankless tasks that are necessary to keep the lights on. Even when you leave the office, your mind never stops thinking about your company.
Both are grueling jobs that require passion and determination to succeed. If you’re in it only for the glory, you might want to pick another career. These books make that very evident.
3) People are everything
The most important task of executive chefs and startup CEOs is to put together the best team possible.
Bourdain stresses the importance of hiring the right people for his kitchen’s situation, which is typically an intense, raucous, profanity-laden environment where his employees are physically and mentally pushed to the edge. High falutin, entitled CIA graduates have been eaten alive in his kitchen; he prefers hard-working, tough-as-nails cooks manning his stations (ironically, Bourdain graduated from the CIA). Bourdain’s kitchens are well-oiled machines, and he completely depends on his employees, from the sous chef all the way down to his dishwashers, to achieve this. Thus, hiring the right candidates who will do anything to get the job done and who fit his kitchen’s culture is of utmost importance.
Same deal for startups. Horowitz’s company, Opsware (formerly LoudCloud), was similar to Bourdain’s kitchen – hard-charging and full of cursing. Thus, he had to hire the people who fit into this culture.
But the difference between a startup and a restaurant is how much the former changes over time; therefore, it’s important for the hiring process to adapt. In a startup, products and business models can change very quickly, and the right employees for today may not be the best employees for tomorrow. Regardless, you need to hire and maintain the best team possible.
Another great point that Horowitz explicitly made (and Bourdain made more implicitly) was to hire for the candidate’s strengths, not for lack of weaknesses. To portray this, Horowitz walked through his process for hiring a head of sales for Opsware. The candidate, named Mark Cranney, was awkward, introverted and generally not an affable guy, but he could sell snow to an Eskimo and train a team to do so. Everyone who interviewed him didn’t like him but Ben hired Mark anyway. He became a star and was critical to the growing the company to eventually sell to HP for $1.6 billion.
As Horowitz titled one of the chapters in his books, take care of the people, product, and profits – in that order. The most important task is to hire the best for your company’s – or kitchen’s – situation, and take care of those people and help them succeed.
I highly recommend reading both of these books even if you don’t work in these industries, as they are both educational and entertaining. You won’t regret it.
If you’ve read these books, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section.
Images courtesy of Amazon