A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business

My wife, our two kids and I were starving after a long afternoon of shopping on Takeshita street market in Harajuku, Tokyo. As tourists, we had no clues whatsoever where to eat.

We turned to Google, our reliable unofficial tour guide. Google map showed several options for the best places to eat ramen in town. There was one with fantastic reviews albeit it was a bit far from Takeshita street.

So we walked, and walked, and walked, but for some reason, we could not find this place.

Bummer!

Getting a bit desperate we were ready to walk into a 7-Eleven shop to grab a couple of pre-packaged meal boxes.

And that was when a smallish ramen place caught our eyes. It looked like it was squeezed in-between two buildings.

We decided to give it a try.

“Just One Type of Ramen”

We realised there were limited type of ramens. There were only four of them. Inside there was a machine for ordering and payment. Each of us chose a different type of ramen. Mine was called a winter special with chillies, yummy.

It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.

“Ahh welcome, welcome,” the owner (and head chef) said with a big smile.

The owner was amicable. His name was Jun. We called him ‘Uncle Jun’. He prepared the foods swiftly and within 15 minutes we were enjoying great tasting ramens.

“Uncle Jun, can I ask you a question?” I asked.

“Ahh of course, of course,” he replied.

“Why do you only have four types of ramen?”

Uncle Jun smiled and fixed his headband. “Ahhh good question. You see, ramen is a simple dish. It mainly comprises of noodle, broth, flavouring, and toppings (egg, meat, onion, etc.). There are not many types of ramens we can do with such a small number of core ingredients.”

“Ok, but surely you can make more than four types?” I was not satisfied with his answers.

“I like your enthusiasm but let me tell you a secret. In this place, there is only one type of ramen.” He smiled as his eyes twinkled. “I put four on the machine, so people have choices. In reality, they are just slightly different combinations of the core ingredients.”

“Only one?” I wondered even more.

“Yes.”

Uncle Jun realised my confusion. “My motto is: ‘Focus before Quality’. We only have limited resources at our disposals. If I try to have a big range of ramens, then we will not be able to cope. So instead I focus all my efforts into one exceptional dish. It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.”

“Your ramen is delicious indeed. The noodle is springy and tasty. And wow, I have never tasted such a delicate combination of pork and soy sauce.” I slurped the broth with delight.

“Hmm .. maybe I should try to focus all of my efforts into one special service or product too,” I was thinking in my head. “I also have limited resources like uncle Jun.”

“Sweet Spot for Special Customers”

“Uncle Jun, can I ask one more question?” I said.

“Yes of course, what do you want to know?” Uncle Jun replied.

“Umm, I realise some ramen places use machines to take orders, including yours,” I said. “Isn’t it better to take orders yourself?”

It is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat.

Uncle Jun smiled again. “You are very observant. The main purpose of using a machine is to eliminate mundane tasks so I can focus more on making great tasting ramen.” He stopped a bit to catch his breath. “You see, taking orders is more than just taking notes. It also involves handling cash which can be deceptively time-consuming. Using a machine eliminate all the extra tasks.”

“But what if customers want extra salt, a different type of noodles or more meat?”

“Ahhh, yes, yes, some ramen places do give those options. For us, it is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat. Trust me, when you have achieved that ‘sweet spot’ for your customers, they will come back again and again. No need for extra meat or salt.”

“How do you figure out this ‘sweet spot’?”

“It will take a while with a lot of trials and errors but be persistent. And above all, always do it with love for your customers. Never stop asking them for feedback and suggestion. Ultimately, their satisfaction is your success.”

“I never thought about this. Maybe I should find this ‘sweet spot’ too for my own customers.” I was again thinking in my head. “What a great idea, the sweet spot for special customers.”

“Seasonal Ramens for Special Experiences”

“I have one more thing to tell you,” Uncle Jun said to me.

”Great, tell me, tell me,” I was too eager to learn more.

”There is an addition to the sweet spot.”

”There is?”

”Yup I call it the ‘Seasonal Spot’.”

”Ok, please tell me more.”

”Well, the basic idea is to create a special type of ramen with a certain season.” Uncle Jun poured green tea to my cup. “Think of it as a sweet spot with a theme for your customers. Got it?”

”Not really.”

”For example, now it is winter, and I offer spicy ramen with Japanese chillies. That is the one you are eating now.”

”Oooh I have the seasonal spot ramen,” I said smiling.

”They taste the same as our unique ramen, only spicier. The whole idea is to add certain interesting elements without sacrificing the uniqueness of your products. And then use it as a seasonal promotion.”

”And what is the purpose of doing that?”

”So your customers have something to talk about every season. They are your best marketers. You need to give them reasons to tell their friends about your products. Talking about the same thing for a whole year is boring. But talking about a different thing every season is not. The product is the same, just altered slightly for effect.”

“Wow, that is an excellent idea.”

“I am glad you like it.”

“I should be doing something like this,” I thought to myself. “It’s true, my customers are my best marketer, and they need help in spreading the words.”

We were all delighted with Uncle Jun’s ramens. My kids and I practically fought for every last bit of noodles and pork meat. My wife was sitting quietly while guarding her bowl of ramen.

“Thank you, Uncle Jun,” I said to him. “It was ‘oishii’.”

(oishii = really good-tasting)

“Arigatou,” my kids said to uncle Jun.

“Arigatou gozaimashita, Uncle Jun,” my wife also said.

“Ahhh no problem, no problem, come back anytime,” Uncle Jun said with a big smile.

“What great lessons from a humble bowl of ramen,” my thought was swirling again in my head. “Focus before Quality, Sweet Spot, and Seasonal Spot. I will remember these lessons every time I eat a bowl of ramen.”


As previously published in The Ascent: A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business.

What Marketing Budget?

When a business finds itself in financial trouble there is an inherent meaning which most consultants don’t get. The business has ‘financial’ trouble. It needs every dollar to survive. The last thing they need is another marketing budget for that campaign to get more leads which presumably will get them out of trouble.

We need to understand that there is no money left (well maybe a little bit).

We need to fix the cash flow first, cut cost, chase payment, move (not make) some cash into the bank (if there is any), and fix the fundamentals. Then we have a little bit wiggling room. These precious resources are all they have. That’s it, there is nothing else. If it is not enough then that’s it – it’s not enough – start to think about an exit strategy. The more time is wasted the worse it will get.

But don’t lose hope because it might be just enough for us. The challenge is to use these little resources to turnaround the business. And this is when we get a bit ‘creative’. The words ‘free’ and ‘creative’ will be your best friend in the next few months. In order to make all of these to work, we need to be creative in using freely available tools around us. The internet is a great place to find them. But also do some outreach to your friends, families, etc. – not to get free money but free contacts, advice, knowledge, etc.

Fix the fundamentals, hang on to every resource, and be creative to get and use more resources (free is preferable). Then we will have a good shot to turnaround the business.

Now one more thing. While it is great to have a strategy, the real impact will happen during execution. And things will change, the great strategy will be rewritten, and execution will stall.

So persevere, be flexible, focus, and take it one step at a time. We might not have the big budget enjoyed by larger companies. But our mind and mental strength will make up for it.

 

 

Money The Necessary Evil

The only issue with money is either you use it or it uses you. How does that happen you might say. In reality, it doesn’t. It’s just an excuse we use when we couldn’t control ourselves when it comes to money. We are always in control, money is not.

Have you ever thought about how much money you can make? Or will make?

What about how great business will be if it makes ten times more than it does now?

It is the main currency used by most advertisers. It is how we measure our success, our dignity, our legacy. It is why we rank people based on their wealth.

Let’s face it money is addicting, probably the most addictive substance in the world.

We forget there are other more important things. We forget that money is temporary. We forget that money is only a means to an end. We forget that money is not the end goal.

But talking about a small business we cannot argue that money (or we prefer to call it ‘cash’) is necessary. We must not forget though that it is only necessary to a certain extent. A good business is not focused on cash, albeit it cannot function without it.

So how does this intricate relationship work? We need cash but we don’t want to focus on it? But if we don’t focus on making money how on earth are we going to build a great business?

In every great business, the focus is always on the customers. They exist to solve customers’ perceived problems. These problems do not have to exist – they only need to be perceived to exist. So if you ever felt ripped off by certain businesses, most probably because you are being ripped off. And this is how certain products command such high prices – because they solve ‘perceived’ problems that might not exist in the first place.

Anyway, back to our original discussion.

Regardless of how much you can rip off your customers by creating certain perceived problems and then charge an exorbitant amount to solve them, the focus is still on the customers. The exorbitant amount is the after-effect. Once you start focusing on the money your effort will shift to short-term activities such as reducing operational cost, renegotiating with suppliers, and so on. Not that these activities are bad – they are necessary but they are not the main focus. Your customers will figure out quickly if your business is solving their problems or not. They will sense very quickly if your only interest is their hard-earned cash.

Focus on solving their problems and they will never feel that they are being sold to.

Money is required to fund all these operations but it is never the focus. Never let the temptation of making money pull you down into never-ending addiction.

Focus On One Point

Small businesses often found themselves competing with much larger competitors. Sometimes the amount of money these competitors spend on their operational expenses alone is enough to acquire several smaller businesses. They are so big it is futile to compete head-on. So how do you compete? How do you win in the marketplace?

Well, as large as any company can be they cannot serve everyone. There are pockets of customers they are simply not interested in or they are not perceived good enough by these customers. The issue is then how to identify these pockets and how to dominate them.

It is not possible for any small business to conduct in-depth market research to identify these little gold mines. So what they can do instead is to narrow their search and focus on certain type of customers they can serve better based on their competitive strengths. These strengths can be anything from unique products, locality advantage, similar cultural background, excellent customer relations and etc.

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Lee is a cabinet maker who has been struggling to make ends meet due to the onslaught of cheaper imports. He used to make at least 10 units per month and now only down to 4 or 5. His skills mean he could make any type of wooden products from budget version to the most sophisticated one ever built. In fact the more sophisticated the design the more energised he is.

In addition to his cabinet making skill, he is also an avid gardener with real passion and a very green thumb. Not only he has a vast collection of plants he also builds all sort of wooden boxes, benches, garden beds and so on. He magically transformed his humble backyard into a place of serenity with such artistic touch of a master carpenter.

Of course, like any good inspiring story – Lee then realised how he could use his carpentry skill to transform boring ordinary backyards into majestic gardens. He started to work with landscaper and garden designer to come up with unique designs in Continue reading