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Between hearing Rick Smilow, president and principal owner of NYC’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), on Thursday night, then hosting a group of friends on Friday night over a potluck supper, the prevailing wisdom I heard was surprising when it came to employees.
Smilow was the second featured business owner in the Insights from Entrepreneurs series being put on by the Westport Library. NPR journalist Alison Freeland conducted another engaging interview, particularly because she had thrown away all the questions Rick had sent her to be asked.
The two covered what it takes to be an entrepreneur (by Smilow’s definition)– ability to change gears at least 10x per day, drive, energy, adrenaline, plus a good idea; his background at Nabisco and his choice of product category–culinary education; the collection of businesses he didn’t buy–a nail polish company, a hosiery company, a modeling school franchise; and the series of coincidences that led to his taking on ICE.
What I found most intriguing during the interview was the discussion around hiring and firing and the culture one creates in a company. He took ICE from 15 employees to 175. Mistakes were made along the way that led him to develop greater discernment around hiring. More than once this successful entrepreneur alluded to some roll-the-eyes experiences he’d had prior to finding his current CFO. “Don’t be so trusting,” he warned. Sometimes the people who appear to be the most honest turn out not to be. Smilow mentioned having a gut feeling early on and not trusting it because the guy seemed so good.
That’s where the discussion picked up at dinner on Friday night. I was talking about this topic with the men and women at the table, one of whom was recently hired at a company with a strong culture. He, too, was familiar with the proviso to beware the ideal employee.
Not being from a corporate environment I wanted to know more.
It seems that often a person performing at the highest level, and who appears to be the most loyal, trustworthy and reputable person, may be covering up less than ethical behavior. We know that life is complicated, so something that seems too good to be true often is. Someone covering up the minor inconveniences and mishaps of everyday life may have a competing agenda.
I’d love to hear your experience around this. It reminds me of the saying “the lady doth protest too much.” Who might need to be always demonstrating their loyalty, talent and commitment without the dailiness and humanness of being imperfect? Any gut reaction?
I attended a stellar event last night at the Westport Library, the first in a two-part series called “Creating and Growing Businesses that Thrive.” Doug Bernstein, of Melissa and Doug fame, was interviewed by NPR reporter Alison Freeland in front of a packed house of business owners. The 90 minutes flew by as Alison tossed out questions to Doug and he shared his vast expertise.
Here’s some of the wisdom I heard (interviewer’s or audience’s questions in italics):
- What’s a typical day? Every day is different. Every day you get thrown a lot of pitches. You decide which ones you want to hit. There are always more than you can get done.
- If you’re not failing a lot, you’re not testing yourself hard enough.
- What is your definition of entrepreneurship? Wanting something to be different; wanting to effect change; making something different or better
- We begged our first customers (toy store owners) to watch our video [their first product]. It’s ALL about the customer!
- What advice would you give people who are starting a business? I’ll go out on a limb here and say, this Internet thing is going to stick.
- While the NYTimes recently wrote that toy companies are going techno, we love being contrarians.
- How do you manage the PR for your company? “We don’t. We’ve spent $1.87 on marketing in 23 years. Our customers do the marketing for us. The best marketing you can do is taking care of your customers.
- We stay intimately involved with our customers. It is always ALL about the customers.
- Our culture is unique in its lack of meetings. I’m not a big fan of meetings.
- Rejection is the best thing that can happen. It fuels your success. Mistakes are the best part. There’s a hunger you get from them.
- Are you worried about imitators? No, we realized that while they can copy a product, it’s the combination of our product, our interest in our customers and our innovative style–the culture and soul of our business–that can’t be duplicated.
During the Q+A session following the interview, I asked for confirmation on something I thought I heard him say while being interviewed. I asked, “Just to be clear, did you say that you left your job at MCA (Marketing Corporation of America) without a business plan or a product?”
He did. Without a plan, a product or a safety net, he quit his job. He then explained how he and Melissa went to their parents (they were in their late 20′s and not yet married), sat them down and told them, “We’re going to have a… business.” The rest is history.
I had the privilege of speaking at the Westport Library last week. One of the services the library provides is free podcasts recorded during presenter’s talks. For those of you who missed it and/or would like to hear my message, follow the instructions below. BTW, the subtitle of my talk is How I Got On the Today Show (without a PR agent!).
Here are the instructions:
1. Go to www.westportlibrary.org .
2. Click on “Listen to podcasts” in the center column
3. Scroll down to the October 6 listing and click on the podcast link.
October 6, 2010
Jane Pollak: Business Special
Jane Pollak, entrepreneur, public speaker, author, and business coach, discussed plans for getting noticed in the media on a regular basis, on Wednesday, October 6, 2010.
Click on gray arrow to begin podcast.