What start-ups can learn from street food vendors

What start-ups can learn from street food vendors

By: Collette Johnson
Director of Medical & Healthcare

14th June 2017

Last year I visited Vietnam and it was a truly captivating country with diverse culture, a great sense of community and phenomenal food. The food and street vendors particularly fascinated me. It was some of the most flavoursome food I have ever experienced, but beyond this, what really struck me was how each vendor ran their business. This made me think of agile start-ups and the difference between those who are successful and those who are less so.

A Vietnamese street food vendor has a basic business model; which is to do one, maybe even two things well and be widely known for these foods alone.  This is one of the golden rules for a successful product business.

Many businesses fall into the trap of thinking ‘more is better’ and within a couple of years of building their platform, they are marketing several other different products with a somewhat mixed message. The customer then loses sight of what the organisation is driving forward and the relevance it has to them.

A company that has not made this mistake is uMotif. uMotif have developed a patient-centred data capture platform for modern research and through investing in significant clinical studies and establishing key relationships, they have now become reputed for this product in their industry. They have also now started to strategically roll out their platform to other clinical service providers on an as-needed basis.

For start-ups out there at the moment, my advice would be to do one thing well, become recognised for this and build your business from there – driving your business in a scattergun approach will lead to a confused message and slow uptake of your product.

When the street food vendors prepared their food for sale, each person carried out a specific role, which they did with efficiency and to perfection. For instance, one would prepare the food, another would be cooking the food and the third person would serve and take the money. Every day these people would take their places and perform their specialist roles in the business – never once deviating from their responsibilities or taking on other roles.

In a similar fashion, some of the most successful start-ups I’ve seen employ specialists to drive the business forward, such as employing a Chief Commercial Officer to drive forward a business’s commercial prospects and actions.

Many start-ups that struggle tend to only have one person that covers multiple specialist roles. Once significant investment and growth are occurring, employ a specialist as they will be worth every penny spent. Without one, your business can feel the strain of becoming too general and not reach its maximum potential.

The most striking thing to me about the street vendors was that every person in the business knew their customer well and, in return, their customer loyalty was outstanding. From what I had seen, I’d say on average 80% of the street vendor’s sales were from repeat business. This funnel of regular customers led to vendors producing their orders before they even reached the front of the queue. It was some of the best relationship management I have seen in a long time and is a really good example of truly understanding your customers’ requirements.

As a start-up, opportunities can come in from all directions and this can sometimes confuse and dilute who the end target customer actually is. It can also distract from the business at hand and disengage those who support the business the most. Focussing on your key customers first will make your business successful in the long-term.

To end on a piece of advice once given to me when I was in Silicon Valley, “Imagine the business is a lion. In order to get a good meal, you need to chase the gazelles and not the mice. The mice will keep you going but they will not keep you full”. It’s the same in business. You need to chase those gazelles, they may take more time and strategic management but they will sustain you as a business for longer.