Working in technology isn’t easy, especially for those of us who have lived through the peak of the 1999 bubble and subsequent crash. But that was nothing compared to a nightshift at Texas Roadhouse, the national steakhouse chain.
When I joined NoWait in 2013 as CEO, the founders suggested I work a couple of hosting shifts seating guests at one of our restaurant-chain partners, to witness first-hand the friction our company was working to solve. It was, undoubtedly, the scariest and most sobering professional experience of my life. Most wouldn’t realize the degree of dexterity required to juggle baskets of bread with pots of coffee, while grasping for menus and rolled up cutlery, and remembering to keep smiling.
Yet, when the time came to close up, I realized how empowering this experience really was. Right then, it became clear that no one could join our team until they had hosted at one of our restaurant partners — whether they’re an intern or an investor. Yes, even our VCs are required to spend eight hours behind a host stand (refreshingly, no VC has turned us down on this; in fact, they’ve embraced it).
While it might seem strange to suggest that everyone from a developer to a seasoned investor can walk away with an experience that will benefit their startup, here are four key insights that result from those restaurant shifts.
1. No one is too big or too small
What initially began as industry research, or “eating your own dog food,” quickly evolved into an excursion yielding something far more significant. For restaurants, it’s always all-hands-on-deck – everyone contributes, from the general manager to the busboy. When one link in the chain is weak, it trickles down through the entire operation. A weak link can be at the top or the bottom of the organization, and similarly, a strong link, or a mentor, can be either a manager or someone on your support team.
My first night at the restaurant, I relied heavily on Claire, an honor-roll high school student juggling her job with exams and varsity tennis and, for the next two days, my new boss. This young girl became my mentor, showing me the ropes for how to quote wait times, memorize and balance the restaurant’s floor map, properly place cutlery, guide guests to their tables, and learn the spiel for welcoming and seating them. Claire believed in me and, after two nights, I had a newfound appreciation for the complexities and challenges of working in a high-performing restaurant.
When Claire noticed that a customer had made a mess, she didn’t wait until I or one of the other servers was available. She leapt into action and took care of it herself. This kind of attitude yields a bigger takeaway that’s beneficial to any company. Working on the battleground together – inside or outside of the office – sends the message that we’re all in this together, and no one is too big or too small to do the work. For startups in particular, where there is always more work to be done than there are people on-hand to do it, this shared can-do/will-do mentality is critical.
2. They see behind the scenes
When you dine at a restaurant, the experience only seems effortless. Even if your food arrives late or you need to send something back, you’re sitting in a pleasant room – perhaps with a glass of wine; the whole customer experience is buffered from what’s going on in the kitchen (hopefully). As someone who has worked in the industry can tell you, though, if you peek behind the scenes, it’s chaos – hopefully of the organized variety.
Building a tech product is similar; ideally the user will have a smooth experience, completely oblivious to the trial-and-error, beta-testing, and all-night coding sessions required to make the app possible.
There’s a lot of moving parts, and in a startup you’ll have lots of people contributing who may not all be on the same page at the same time. Your designers won’t necessarily know a lot about code, and your developers might not necessarily appreciate the importance of having a perfect font. People might have strong opinions, and everything takes much longer than you think it will. When you work in a restaurant, you learn how to handle an environment like that without losing your cool. We wanted to make sure the people building our app were seeing behind the scenes and getting a glimpse of the commotion they were trying to eliminate.
3. Product feedback
It’s impossible to anticipate anything and everything that could go wrong in a restaurant. From ingredients spoiling to unreasonable customer demands, you can work a lifetime in restaurants and still not feel like you’ve “seen it all.” And as it turns out, one of the most powerful insights we glean from having every employee work a hosting shift is product feedback. Virtually every employee we’ve sent into a restaurant has come back with at least one thoughtful improvement for the app. They experience the stress of impatient customers or making a mistake. When one of our developers or designers goes through these experiences, it changes the way they look at the product; it helps them see flaws they wouldn’t have realized before.
4. Empathy and confidence
Most importantly, they get a sense of empathy and confidence they didn’t have before. Whether I’m speaking with investors or interns, when they’re told they first have to work a restaurant shift, they are completely convinced they won’t be good at it. You’re dropping utensils and forgetting orders, and through all the impatient demands on your time and energy, you have to keep a smile on your face. It’s incredibly hard, but it’s also something that 14 million Americans do to earn a living. When we have everyone in our company, big and small, go through that same experience, it doesn’t just help us improve the product, it helps us become more compassionate, confident people in our everyday lives.
Empathy is incredibly important for startup employees. Too many founders set out to solve problems that they don’t really understand that well, and so they build irrelevant solutions. Within a startup, there’s also no room for playing politics. People will always have competing priorities, and you’re almost always going to be in close quarters. There’s no room for pet peeves, and no room for personal qualms. Great restaurant employees know how to put that stuff aside when it’s time to get the customer what they want.
I have to admit, I was incredulous when first embarking on this experience. But as I spoke to more and more members of the team – our marketing head, who had worked as a hostess throughout business school, our customer service lead, who had managed a Chili’s – I realized the impact that this shared experience was having on our company. There were some harrowing moments, for sure. But the experience also gave me a sense of empathy and depth of understanding that I cannot say I had before. Getting a table on short notice might be easier said than done. Knowing exactly why, helps make me be a better CEO and a better customer.
Ware Sykes is the CEO of NoWait, a mobile network for casual-dining restaurants.