Twelve months ago I was working a corporate job, working in the CEO’s office of a large organization based in Johor Bahru. It was then that I decided to venture into F&B by opening my first café, Double A Café. When the café opened six months ago, it was timely and opportune for me to leave my corporate job and I did so.
I was formerly a management consultant who later transitioned into the oil & gas / real estate industry managing from the CEO’s office. I believe in hard work, proactivity and high performance. At the same time, I believe in humility, empathy and doing the right things the right way. Given what I believe, as a food entrepreneur for 6 months, I have learnt much – about the industry, about the social situation in Malaysia, about jealousy, about friends and most importantly, about myself. The following are the six I want to share.
- The F&B business are filled with people generous with advice
When I started my business, I approached it like how I approach my work in the corporate world. All aspects of the job needs to be identified so we may manage risk. I started my business not knowing many things – I didn’t know how contracting work works, I didn’t know different types of wood, I didn’t know what a greasetrap was and hey, I didn’t know how to cook. I had friends who have friends in F&B and I was pleasantly surprised how the café fraternity in KL and JB are generous with their advice. (To those who want F&B advice, you can come see me at Double A :D)
- Don’t let business affect friendships
In starting a business, it is tempting to take comfort in the fact that you have friends here and there who you may rely on. Friends who may be your customers and friends who may be your suppliers. One of the things I have known about money, even before I started this venture, is that money can destroy friendship, maybe even change that friendship into unnecessary feeling of hate and anger. You may learn that your friend who becomes your customer is a consistently fussy and complaining customer. You may learn that your friend who is your supplier may choose not to supply to you anymore because it is not convenient for him. When you are in business and you are stress about managing costs and maximizing profits, things like this may make you feel bitter about your friendship. Take a step back and I tell you this: your friendship matters more than such squabbles, just because they are your friends does not mean they need to support your business. It is not their job to make your rich.
- The reality of F&B – our national leaders need to do better with cost of living
As a former corporate person who was interested in current affairs, discussion on how the economy is poor, how income levels are poor and how the poor is poor is common. All this is done amongst groups of people who are paid well above urban poverty level and these concepts we discuss about, have no face – we actually know no individuals who fit this bill. We talk about ‘urban poor’ but we actually know no one who is an urban poor who we interact with intimately on a daily basis. Being an employer in the F&B world, I was taken aback by F&B industry standards on pay, how low the salaries are and what they are to poverty levels. As my staff explains to me the realities of their lives, the hardship they have to accept to be their life, part of me is angry and disappointed with our national leaders for not managing cost of living better.
Examples would be recent policies – GST, toll revision, public transport price hike. All done while income levels stay stagnant. The salary they earn is worth less as they can buy less things and what it means is the poor gets poorer.
- People: Hire everybody on probation and put everybody on contract
People are not your best assets. People in the right positions are. Even though budget is tight and timing is crucial, putting together a team that is aligned towards your vision is and should be your priority. When I interview people, I always set my expectations upfront. I tell them that I want them to be happy at work, passionate about F&B, show initiative and proactive. Truth is, just because you clarify expectations upfront and just because they say “yes sir, I can be all that”, it doesn’t mean they will be. Also, never ever give people a higher starting salary thinking that they will be more motivated to work – it doesn’t last and eventually they will just be costly. People who are a right fit will ease your stress and those who are not, will drain the team’s motivation and affect your establishment’s ambience and for a shop that depends on customer service, that is crippling. Firing of course, is a difficult process – mentally for both you and your staff. My advice is, start everybody on probation (long, like 3 months) and hire staff on contract.
- Starting a business requires great optimism
I started this business using money that I saved and there wasn’t much float or working capital left when the business is launched. I was fortunate as the business was launched to a great success. Traffic was good and we received great attention from the Instagram community and mainstream media. However, over 6 months, it wasn’t all that rosy. Some days are slow to a point where you wonder if your competitors are stealing your customer and some days are so slow you wonder if your projections to break even is realistic. I learnt that you need to teach yourself to be optimistic (if you already are, be more optimistic) and you should always remind yourself of the enthuasism you had when you decided to start this project of passion.
- If this business venture is meant to be a side project, get a manager on Day 1
Before I started my venture, I read an article about succeeding in F&B start-ups. One of which is the need to have a few co-founders. Having a few co-founders means you can be assured that motivation among manpower is always high and depending on how each are empowered, decisions can be done fast. I started my venture knowing this and knowing that I do not have the luxury of having multiple co-founders. Its just my wife and I. We also started this venture knowing that we would eventually go back to full time corporate work.
As people with no experience in F&B, we figured processes ourselves (e.g. how cash box, floats and accounting works) and we manage all ad-hoc emergencies ourselves, from not having enough milk to suppliers not delivering on time. I took 5 months off work and my wife took 1 month off work to get this venture started. It is stressful. There’s a lot to figure out and some things you would only know work after rolling it out and making mistakes. My advise would be to hire a manager with experience running an F&B outlet from Day 1. While this may sound like a costly option, I sincerely believe this option works best. It works with the seniority complex among staff (i.e. I’ve been here longer, I know more), it works at freeing up your time and it works at enabling you use your time strategically – instead of calling up the milk man, you can call your leads on a potential collaboration.
Ultimately, I have learnt a lot over these 6 months and these are only some that I feel worth sharing. Like many things that involves your passion, my last advice is simple. If you are already thinking it, do your feasibility study and if it works out ok in your head, go ahead and do it.