Diligent MBA students mine their schools’ alumni databases for possible internships and jobs. The value of networking and information gathering is a given. I’m sure they frequently contact alumni from investment banks, management consultancies and Fortune 500 companies, but as the owner of a retail bakery in Pittsburgh, I am blissfully unencumbered by such requests. So, when a Harvard Business School student contacted me seeking advice on opening a bakery in Boston, I made myself available and was quite curious to see how she thought I might be of help.
It’s a running joke that all MBA students are taught to “think in threes,” so I smiled to myself when she told me she had three questions. Her first inquiry involved staffing: where do we recruit people with baking expertise, what type of experience do we look for, and what skill sets do we need? Next, she wanted to know about site selection. What do we consider in deciding where to locate a new bakery? Last, she was concerned about intellectual property. Specifically, how do we prevent an employee from stealing our sacred recipes?
All were good questions. These are indeed concerns of any bakery or any business. They are exactly the type of questions I would have asked at her stage in life. And I would have been proud of myself for thinking so “practically” while in an academic environment where so much emphasis is placed on “running the numbers” at one extreme and “strategic thinking” at the other without a lot of connection to what actually transpires in real life.
But I met her practical questions with even more practical answers, which I fear may have burst her bubble. The reality is that the days of quality trade schools and apprenticeships are long gone, and there is no reliable source of employees.
With site selection, you need to factor in the obvious such as customer travel patterns and parking, but it’s still a bit of a crapshoot. The city or a developer can turn your location into a construction zone for years on end. A major employer can move away, taking customers with them. Or you could hit the jackpot and find yourself on the ground floor of a blossoming community with cheap rent in exchange for attracting other tenants. I suggested she try testing various locations with a food truck and told her it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear she’d ended up with a food truck business instead of a bakery.
And honestly, what can a business owner do to stop anyone from stealing a recipe? You can keep your master recipe file under lock and key. You can have different employees work on various parts of a process so no one knows the whole recipe. You can premix parts of the recipe, preferably offsite, so the folks using the mix don’t know exactly what’s in it. But the reality is your most trusted employees who have been there longest will know. And even if you have them sign an agreement (and we have often done so), is it practical to think that the time and money spent enforcing it will ever end to your advantage?
In reflecting on our conversation, I concluded that despite their academic nature, “big thoughts” are still relevant to small businesses. Even if one is powerless to change the education system’s ability to prepare workers, or influence city repair schedules, or enforce a non-disclosure agreement, it doesn’t mean those issues aren’t worth considering. A successful small businessperson can ponder such questions, recognize the real world constraints, and then proceed with one eye on the big picture and the other on the challenge at hand. It’s the mental equivalent of bifocals— all the better to see the world more clearly.