What would you want to know?
July 19, 2007 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I am meeting with a VIP about a business idea that I have (restaurant). I've lucked out in having a chance to pick his brain. How do I prepare for this meeting?

A little background. So, I've been working in a wide range of restaurants since I was 14. From casual to fine dining, from independent to chain. Now I'm 26 and I've done everything in a restaurant that you can do (serve, cook, prep, wash dishes, host, bus, bartend, etc.) other than manage and own. I've aquired a knack for talking to strangers and I actually like what I do. Now I'm serving in a great restaurant in Chicago that is always busy, fun and keeps me happy.

Anyways, I've been toying with a brain child restaurant idea of my own. I like it. A lot. I mentioned it to my boss, who mentioned it to someone, who knows someone.... All of a sudden, next week I have a lunch meeting with one of Chicago's most successful restauranteurs to pick his brain about my idea. Holy crap! I've been doing my homework and now that's all I'll be doing this weekend but this happened really quickly and possibly sooner than I was ready for. I don't have a business plan. I have an IDEA. So, my question to you is this. I've scored a royally good sit down opportunity and I can't mess this up. How do I present myself without looking like a joke? I know the questions that I have about opening a restaurant. A lot about the business plan itself. A lot about money and finding money. A lot about menus. But I was wondering what you guys would ask too. Aside from "How do I do this?" what would you want to know? Any suggestions on reading material that I can devour this weekend? I want to make a decent impression on this guy. I want him to want to check up on me again in six months, when I actually DO have a business plan. (How long does a business plan take to write anyway?) Any and all suggestions welcome.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Restaurants are notoriously difficult to keep alive. I'd ask what common modes of failure are. Also ask what uncommon modes of failure he's seen. Also, mistakes made by people with great restaurant ideas.
posted by rhizome at 6:19 PM on July 19, 2007

Well, my restaurant plan didn't it make it past the initial funding phase, so take any advice I give with a grain of salt.

However, I did get very positive responses to the business plan I wrote from Restaurantfunds.com. You can get ideas about business plans from a million places, but this program also came with an Excel based financial planner that was geared to restaurant use. I estimated covers and avg. checks, and then tweaked it by day of the week and the season to get a good sense of the yearly gross. And it understood how cost of food and labor expenses would also vary against seasonal changes, while keeping rent and overhead expenses stable. Loved it.

My one grand question would be to ask how he finds and retains great workers.
posted by saffry at 6:25 PM on July 19, 2007

You have a couple different ways to look at this.

One is that the guy is offering you a free lesson in how to run the restaurant biz. Maybe he's just nice.

Another is that the guy likes your idea so much that he's considering helping to fund your business and go in as a partner. In that case, he's not interested in teaching you anything; he's interested in quickly assessing your integrity, knowledge, motivation, and competence.

The third is that the guy's interested in stealing your idea. Based on my experience over the years, I'd guess this is most likely.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:26 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just as a positioning point, I think there's a risk that if he feels he's been shanghaied into a "Teach me Restaurant Management 101" session, he's going to find it a little off-putting.

(As someone who's been involved in e-commerce for a long time, I can vouch that I'm really sick and tired of "Hey, can you just get on the phone and help my nephew work out his business plan? It'll only take you 15 minutes to whip it into shape, and then he'll make _millions_, I'm _sure_!!")

Basically, I'd just be careful about just making it a "pick his brain" session. Not that you shouldn't try to learn as much as possible, but you probably want to position things a little more like "Here are the broad outlines of my _awesome_ idea. What do you think about this part? What do you think about that part?"

The more you can convince him that (a) you've got a really solid idea, and (b) you've thought through everything you can on your own, you're in good shape.

The fact that he's apparently agreed to talk to you is a really good sign. That alone means that you should feel free to try and learn a lot, so don't feel that you shouldn't ask any questions. Just try and do it in a way that feels like you've already got a full head of steam, and are asking for his help in moving forward (not like Billy Blaze from "Night Shift", you know what I mean)?
posted by LairBob at 6:41 PM on July 19, 2007

That being said, ikkyu2's third point is a totally legitimate one. I wouldn't go into _too_ much specific detail around your actual idea, but just make sure you've got a structured way to work through your questions.
posted by LairBob at 6:46 PM on July 19, 2007

My first bit of advice: learn how to manage a restaurant (you said you have not done this yet) before starting one.

As part of my day job, I help technology entrepreneurs and inventors connect to Angels and "qualified" mentors. The people who are hoping to launch a startup are often looking for advice, startup capital (beyond friends and family) and perhaps someone to sit on their board.

As a rule, I do not facilitate introductions to "VIPs" unless the potential entrepreneur has demonstrated commitment by lining up friends and family financing, has a background in technology and understands the market, or has a solid business background and understands the market. 8 out 10 people who phone me up have a great idea, but none of the above. I try to avoid encouraging them.

Your meeting is a good chance to ask this guy about war stories. Get him to talk. Ask him for two more introductions - build your network. You want to impress him, so that he will return your phone call some day in the future. Make sure you know all about what he has done in the past. Make sure you ask him some technical questions that demonstrate your own knowledge of the industry, as well as your analytical skills. Make sure you find a way that you can help HIM. This helps build community and also creates social capital - better to give than to receive.

But, at the end of the day, what is a VIP? In my experience, it's all like the Wizard of Oz. The people who give off a VIP aura are often shysters. The true Angels who can help you are often low key.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:50 PM on July 19, 2007

Also: people often force me to sign non-disclosure agreements because they're afraid I'll steal their idea (there are also securities regulations that demand this, but this is rare).

It's super tough in any idea to commercialize an idea and take it to market. So don't get too paranoid - it's unattractive.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:52 PM on July 19, 2007

what would you want to know?

"Hello, Mr. Experienced Restaurant Guy. If I gave you X dollars to start a restaurant tomorrow, what would you do? Where would it be? What's on the menu? How would you market it?"

At the very least, you can compare/contrast his ideas with yours.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:53 PM on July 19, 2007

I was listening to a podcast recently which interviewed Peter Jones, the British businessman, co-creator of "American Inventor" and the star of "Dragon's Den" and "Tycoon".

He explained that he's constantly being hit up by colleagues and contacts who want to pick his brain on their latest idea. He said that the first thing he asks them is whether they've assessed the market and checked out the competition. Nine times out of ten they have not and he sends them back with their tails between their legs.

Even though you don't have a formal business plan, I would recommend you spend a day researching the answers to all the usual questions which you would need to address in a business plan. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats; potential market size; competition; a sense of the operational infrastructure, profit margins and so on.

You want to be convincing and confident in any response you give to his enquiries. And the more it seems you've really thought the idea through, the more likely he is to be receptive to your questions.
posted by skylar at 12:23 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I may be guilty of chatfilter here, but "Dragon's Den" is the antithesis of entrepreneurialism.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:21 PM on July 20, 2007

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