Food, Connection & Innovation

TheaBaumann

When firms are trying to become more innovative, they often don’t know where to start.  Here’s one idea, start by making your people lunch.

Drake Baer wrote a terrific profile of a startup called Thumbtack discussing how their decision to hire a full-time chef has transformed their business.  Cofounder Sander Daniels lists the reasons they made this decision:

  • Meals build community: Everyone on the team eats together every day
  • Meals build networks: On Wednesdays they have an open dinner where recruits can hang with the company
  • The team is more productive: People aren’t leaving the office to wait in lines or scrounging around for food
  • Everyone is eating awesome food, so everyone is healthy

TheaBaumann

 

And they say this in their Food Rules for Startups manifesto:

Often startups try to attract talented teammates by offering benefits like ping-pong tables, video games, or gym memberships. While those things are valuable, a culture of good food is an order of magnitude more important. Sharing meals around quality food builds an environment that encourages collaboration and celebrates excellence. The team is excited to come to work because they value and respect the full work environment. We believe every company can benefit from a food-centric culture.

Baer outlines why this is a broadly good idea, but I want to talk about why this is a great innovation idea.

If you do something like this, you are actually changing your business model.   I’ll use the Business Model Canvas version of the business model to illustrate the discussion:

When you start cooking people lunch (and changing all the other food-related processes in your workplace) you are changing a key activity.  The first consequence that a lot of people will think of is that you are adding cost.  This is true, you are a cost.  But if your people are healthier, you are also reducing the costs that accrue from poor health.  And your productivity goes up, etc.

More importantly, this will attract a different, probably better, pool of people that want to work for you.  So your key resources change.

Idea generation will improve as people problem-solve together at meals – so another key activity changes.  Your key partnerships will change as more people learn about and interact through the company at the open dinners.  This may in fact lead to new channels to customers.

As all of these back-end activities change, you will be coming up with great new ideas that can lead to new value propositions, different customers, and so on.  One change to one activity has a domino effect throughout your entire business model.  After that happens, you are running a firm that is substantially different from all the other ones in your market.

Here are some of the important lessons in this:

  • You can innovate anything.  Not everyone can afford to invest millions in R&D.  Not everyone can start entirely new product categories from nothing.  But everyone can think about their business model and find ways to change it.  Find the things that everyone else takes for granted – like “we get our own lunch” – and change it.  It can transform the way you do business.
  • Face to face is still critically important.  Here is what Valeria Maltoni says:

    Emails, phone calls, or in person meetings are the best conversion tools for individual connections. In a post that has helped me research the question of influence more thoughtfully over the years, Stephen Downes said that rather than being a question of linkage, influence originates from [diversity, autonomy, openness and connectivity.]

  • Yes this probably will work for you. When I talk to people about ideas like this, they will often say something like “That’s fine for a startup, but that would never work here in the real world.”  Why not?  If you’re running a big company, isn’t it important to have healthy and productive people?  Every single CEO that has ever said “our people are our most important asset” should be doing something like this.  If they’re not, then maybe it’s their real estate that is their most important asset, or their fleet of vehicles, or….. something. But if your firm is built on people, you need to take care of people.

The idea that changing one activity can change your entire business model is powerful.  It takes time to reorganize the other components of the business model to adjust to this, and that can be hard.  But it can also be an important source of competitive advantage, because innovative business models are harder to copy than innovative products.

Give it some thought – what are the activities that everyone in your firm or industry take for granted?  If you can innovate lunch, you can innovate anything.

[Photo of Thumbtack chef Thea Baumann by Anastasia Tumanova]

 

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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