Accelerator: Just Do It - Stick with your big idea

I strayed from the path of commercial virtue, admits Leon Restaurants' co-founder John Vincent.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Writing this column is the closest I've ever come to attending confession. Forgive me, fellow entrepreneurs, I have been a bad businessman. Instead of squeezing every last bit of value out of my business since I last wrote, I've spent company money on things that I now realise were rubbish, and, again, failed to do some of the important things on my to-do list.

Today's confessional is about false business gods and how to avoid following them. These are the business ideas and opportunities that seem tantalisingly attractive but could take you in the wrong direction - or leave you with no business at all.

Now, it is true that you can learn from mistakes. And a culture that does not allow for any mistakes is a bad one etc, etc, etc. But there are many mistakes that could be avoided by applying a phrase my friend Richard has taught me - 'the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.'

Allow me to elaborate. We've all heard of the elevator pitch. You get into the lift with the CEO, or a big investor, and you've got as long as you are in the small box together to sell your idea. To some, being forced to sum up your life's ambition, your team's grand design, is evidence of the cruelty of life and the inefficiencies of capitalism. Yet the process of being forced to reduce your thoughts to an elevator pitch, maybe even to a single phrase, can be a very valuable thing. And not just a way of getting money or support, but a way of keeping you on the right track long afterwards. A way of ensuring you don't get led astray by false gods.

You may have heard the story (true or not) of Nick Park securing money to make Chicken Run. He was flown over to Hollywood and put in front of a board of film executives. 'So, Nick, what's your idea?' 'Well, it's like The Great Escape... but with chickens.' After a few moments of reflection, the executives nodded their consent and he got back on the plane to England.

When we started Leon, we came back time and again to the phrase 'If God ran McDonald's' to sum up what we were about. It defined the type of ingredients we would use, how our food should taste, how we would serve it, the need for seasonality and connectedness with nature, the emotional warmth of the restaurants themselves, and it suggested the sort of relationship we wanted with the people who work with us, and the people who eat with us. It also provided strategic boundaries - it implied that in the long term we have international aspirations and it gave us clear direction about our formats - it suggested that we should be in the middle of the high street, in sites large enough to house a McDonald's.

When we have stuck to the principles of this one phrase we have done well. When we have allowed ourselves to be distracted from that touchstone, we've lost momentum. Having started Leon with fast food-style counters, we recently decided to buy three sites from a London-based sandwich chain called Benjy's, which had just gone into administration for the second time. We acquired three of its busiest units. These were significantly smaller than anything that we'd successfully operated before, and on top of that we decided to move from counter service to more of a self-serve format.

There were logical reasons why we thought it a good idea. On the whole, it wasn't. We were not skilled at running an operation that relied on retailing product on shelves, and the economics of running units too small to have seats wasn't a winner for us. Yet if we'd stopped to think about the opportunity at the highest level - what would God do if he owned McDonald's? - we wouldn't have done it. Everything we'd experienced in our first three years told us that sticking to this touchstone worked.

I was called by the FT to share a pearl of wisdom recently. I offered this: 'Once you have identified what business you are in and proved that it can make money, stick to it and then stick to it some more. The grass is rarely greener.' In Richard's words: 'The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing'.

Until next time, that ends my confession. If you have any views, ideas or anything else to share, I'd like to hear them.

E-mail: john@leonrestaurants.co.uk.

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