The failure of Jamie’s Italian shows Blitzscaling isn’t a growth strategy for every startup

My Oldham born wife is one of the finest cooks I know, and at the same time, one of the most vicious critics of celebrity TV chefs. Whilst she effortlessly makes two soft centred poached eggs on toast – such seductive delights are the basis of our thirty-five year relationship – she generously peppers criticism on any TV chef who appears to pay more attention to their own ego than the flakiness or their pastry or the creaminess of their stilton and celery soup.

Whilst James Martin is in her current good (cook) books, a regular target of her wrath is Jamie Oliver. His image as a slightly mouthy, salt-of-the-earth chap was always slightly at odds to her refined Northern palate, but apart from once paying a fortune for a mediocre meal at his Jamie’s Italian outlet in Manchester, I’ve taken little notice of him.

But last week in an era of millennials eating habits graduating from cheese on toast to avocado on rye, the failure of Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain is a perfect example of how not to scale a startup venture. Susan, it seems, really does know best.

The mass-market chain was founded by Oliver and his Italian mentor, chef Gennaro Contaldo, in Oxford in 2008. The chain rapidly expanded to 43 outlets by 2016. However, appetite waned as it faced rising competition from numerous Italian-inspired rivals and the market became crowded after private equity investors piled into casual dining chains.

Consumers became nervous amid the uncertainty of Brexit, while the rise of takeaway apps and delivery services such as Deliveroo and JustEat and high street food takeaway emporiums, and the emergence of home-eating kits such as Gusto and Hello Fresh, encouraged the Netflix generation to stay at home on the sofa.

Jamie’s Italian struggled for relevance as people changed their eating habits. It first showed signs of trouble in 2017 when it closed six outlets as its relatively expensive prices and unexciting menus failed to stand out from the crowd. The chain made a £30m loss that year and the chef pumped £13m of his own money to keep it afloat. January 2018 saw the closure of a further twelve outlets, and Oliver injected another £4m. Customers would buy his books and watch his shows, but choose to eat out in a rival restaurant.

Susan always said the end was nigh when he added chorizo to paella. But of course he’s not alone, other chains, such as Carluccio’s, Prezzo, Byron Burger and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, have closed many outlets.

The boom which increased the number of chain restaurants by a quarter since 2014 has come to an end. The latest sector analysis from Alix Partners, reports the number of restaurants in Britain fell by 2.8% in the year to March 2019, with 768 net closures over 12 months – that’s 15 per week – with five successive quarters of decline. Compare this to the heady days of 2013-18, when the restaurant sector expanded by 15%.

In the midst of the barrage of negativity, it’s easy to forget the positives – his 20 years in broadcasting, selling 40 million cookbooks that cajoled reluctant cooks to give it a go, campaigning on issues such as school dinners and energy drinks, and his charitable venture Fifteen Cookery schools, which helped the poor and underprivileged to become chefs.

But that was not enough to persuade diners to pay £4.50 for a garlic flatbread or £15.30 for a prawn linguine at Jamie’s Italian – the ingredients needed to make a celebrity chef aren’t those for a businessman. The restaurant business margins are notoriously slim and those who do well do so by either constantly evolving – anticipating rather than following trends – or delivering classic experiences with superb service and outstanding food.

Oliver did neither of these, his hubristic approach led to Jamie’s Italian expanding at a ferocious pace.. This for me shows why the populist Blitzscaling growth strategy for startups is fundamentally flawed.

Blitzscaling is an accelerated growth path, prioritising speed over efficiency to move a company from startup to scaleup at a furious pace to capture the market. Its advocates are Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and Chris Yeh.

Dropbox cofounder Drew Houston described the feeling produced by this kind of growth when he said, It’s like harpooning a whale. The good news is you’ve harpooned a whale. And the bad news is, you’ve harpooned a whale!

While blitzscaling may seem plausible, it is fraught with challenges and is just about as counterintuitive as it comes. The classic approach to growth strategy involves taking risks when you make decisions, but conventional wisdom says take calculated ones that you can both measure and afford. Implicitly, this technique prioritises efficiency over speed.

However, when you blitzscale, you deliberately make decisions and commit to them even though you’re very uncertain about the outcome. You accept the risk of making the wrong decision and willingly pay the cost of significant operating inefficiencies in exchange for the ability to move faster.

Historically, stories of breakneck growth involved either tech businesses, which offers nearly unlimited scalability in terms of distribution – for example Amazon – or software-enabled hardware, such as the Fitbit fitness tracker or Tesla electric car, whose software component allows the company to innovate on software timescales (days or weeks) rather than hardware timescales (years). Moreover, the speed and flexibility of software development allow companies to iterate and recover from the inevitable missteps of haste.

So, the failure of Jamie’s Italian looks to be a good example of why Blitzscaling doesn’t work. Here’s why I think this, against my own ten-step startup scaling growth plan.

1. Scale the personalised customer experience Every company needs to connect to customers as individuals, with highly personalised experiences. That’s why it is vial to make the most out of every customer interaction by transforming single moments into personalised customer journeys.

Oliver’s growth plan was classic blitzscaling, driving rapid expansion in pursuit of bums-on-seats to the detriment of the dining experience. Behind every social post is a customer.  They ignored the feedback from TripAdvisor local ratings, which always showed a poor dining experience.

2. Scale simplicity Oliver said he relies heavily on others to help with the day-to-day running of his businesses. Don’t forget that my day job’s making content for television and books. I can’t do everything.

The rapid growth in branches meant they were effectively franchises, and run very differently to the TV chef’s early restaurants. Blitzscaling means you quickly dilute the culture and personality of your startup venture.

3. Scale through validated learning How many moving parts in your startup do you need to scaleup? Maintain a learning mindset, be the best at getting better, recognise growth is never done. Maths and metrics don’t lie but they don’t tell us everything.

The expansion of the chain was intended to provide economies of scale and market share, but in fact market share fell. It’s one thing having a strategy, but when it’s obviously not working you ought to change it.

4. Scale the right mindset When your startup enters the scaleup stage, ensure you’re not just thinking about the numbers, you need to have the right mindset for your current phase of development, and ensure the people you’re working with are on the same page too.

Scaleups are especially vulnerable to mindset mistake when things are working well. Rather than developing their customer base organically, Jamie’s Italian tried tie-ins with voucher schemes, such as Groupon, which attracted fickle bargain hunters, and didn’t inspire loyalty or regular customers. The blitzscaling mindset is ‘growth’, not ‘experience’

5. Scale unit economics You need to reach a point where unit economics start making sense. A startup is a bet on a business model attaining the scale/critical mass beyond which the unit economics starts making sense.

Again the focus on blitzscaling isn’t efficiencies but simple raw growth. Reports about Jamie’s Italian raised questions about the location of new venues and the suitability of those he appointed to run and the way the business was run, hurting Oliver’s reputation in the process.

Blitzscaling means you lose sight of your purpose, your ‘why?’, and when the numbers don’t add up, you’ve no other options.

6. Scale transaction frequency The purpose of scaling is to build a sustainable, repeatable business model where customer attraction, acquisition, retention and traction build the revenue model, and brand builds transaction volume and value.

Research showed tourists and those who happened to be passing by became the key clientele, with very few people coming in because of excitement of being at a Jamie’s Italian. Again the focus was on growing numbers, not learning about customer habits. Blitzscaling doesn’t focus on the right growth metrics.

7. Scale thoughtfully Scaling means ensuring everything moves together. There is no shortcut leading a startup restaurant from one customer location to 50+, each function must mature, staying in line with equal attention to detail and support.

By avoiding the trap of ‘one-size fits all’, and smaller thinking, growth is considered and intelligent. For Jamie’s Italian, the feedback is glaring, as one critic review stated: firstly, the restaurants are far too big; due to pared-down staffing numbers, on busy evenings staff are waiting on as many as eleven tables at once, while managers and chefs also felt overburdened.

8. Scale things that don’t scale The early days are the perfect opportunity to do things that don’t scale, for example cultivating special, one-off menus. Keep doing this as you scale for as long as you can. Startups become Scaleups because founders make them take off.

Again Blitzscaling ignores the finesse, personalisation and remove the opportunity for localisation. Jamie’s Italian was just a faceless, soulless franchise vehicle that had no connection to Jamie’s personal passion, vision and focus on food. It was a business model.

9. Subtract as you add Scaling is all about more – adding employees, customers and processes. Often, this masks what you are losing and what you should lose. Scaling is actually a problem of less, there are lots of things that used to work that don’t work anymore, so you have to get rid of them.

You have to be aware of necessary subtractions even as you keep your eyes fixed on additions. The Blitzscaling model is ‘wash, rinse, repeat’, it may work for a global software application, but not in a competitive local market where experience is a key aspect of the customer purchase.

10. Scale Out. Think of scaling out as building the base of a pyramid, the foundation upon which everything else is built, and you know that it will hold. Most startups focus on building their architecture in an intelligent way that will allow you to grow to realise your potential, without over taxing your team or endangering your roadmap.

For me, this is the fatal flaw in Blitzscaling. It’s a bet. Blitzscaling combines the gut-wrenching uncertainty of startup growth with the potential for a much bigger, more consequential failure. It’s a do-or-die approach. A mass market roll out without a solid foundation gives you nothing to fall back on when the growth stalls.

The failure of Jamie’s Italian also shows the flaw in the financial model of Blitzscaling: unless you can finance your growth from an exponentially growing revenue stream, Blitzscaling means you’ll need investors with deep pockets, and you usually need more money than you thought, because you’ll need further funding to recover from the many mistakes you’re likely to make along the way.

At the beginning, there was so much promise. Oliver was the fresh-faced, down-to-earth culinary whizz with his charming, stripped-back style and no-nonsense approach. Then, just like me when I refuse to choose between cheesecake and chocolate mouse, his eyes became bigger than his belly.

His ambition and ego absorbed the Blitzscaling hype, and the metaphorical soufflé went flaccid. I bet he felt like I did recently when I burned the home made sausages, and Susan’s retort was simple: the whole plate looks like it should go straight into the bin and then the dishwasher.

Stages in the startup growth cycle

Growing up and getting older is something that happens to us all, whether we are consciously aware of the aging process or not. We are born, and then immediately starts a period of physical, mental and emotional growth taking us from a new born through childhood, merging to the teenage years and then adulthood milestones.

Throughout, this journey remains personal and subject to flux, both good and bad things happen, opportunism and fate both intervene and have a hand on points of inflextion. Of course, upon reaching adulthood the aging process continues (it accelerates!) and we reach another watershed, that of old age.

Hopefully we enjoy a lifespan over a good number of years. It’s a deeply personal and unique journey, life stages filled with learning, health, relationship and cultural influences, psychological changes and expectations.

Birth happens as a result of the chance encounter nine months earlier of Jack Sperm and Jill Egg, the throw of random dice. the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid.

From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test and losing your virginity, casting your first vote…to first job, marriage, first house, kids, life is a series of milestones as time passes.

Startup ventures have similar stages of growth just as the human development lifecycle, although obviously a different set of laws apply, but there are chronological steps of business growth milestones akin to the stages in the human journey.

Being born: problem-solution fit

The starting point is the momentous event of birth that emphatically announces your arrival. Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day.

What was the genesis of your startup? Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark in business.

At the very beginning of the startup lifecycle, you’ve got your idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess how viable your startup is likely to be. At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second part, then you’ve got problem-solution fit and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing with potential users.

Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. At the outset, walking involves conscious intent, like the seismic convulsion twelve months earlier, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move.

Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension.

Be careful your first articulation of your startup with potential users is a clear conversation, not babble. This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk your idea with potential customers and there will be noise.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk.  Once you’ve validated your MVP and confirmed customer pain points with traction, focus on building a customer base and get out of the building into the market.

Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, it’s not like starting to grow armpit hair or adopting social norms, it’s about consciously learning to do something, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before.

Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment when conviction meets doubt is that leap from dependence to independence, self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, getting out into the market and winning customers to prove your value proposition. As Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, no longer stationary, tottering to balance on two unsure legs, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, to focus on the wide horizon ahead, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions, with options of straight on, or turning left then right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

Your MVP gains traction, you’re learning and iterating, you’ve got paying customers, they buy again and keep using your product on a regular basis. These are the signs of product/market fit, an elusive entrepreneurial goal.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. It’s about building trust with yourself on that bike, pushing off, ready to go, and enjoying exceptional experiences.

Facial hair: scaling

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew stubble, overnight, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly. The rite of passage that is the first shave at the onset of puberty is monumental. Hormones central. Frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. Here are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

After the Victorian mania for chest-covering growths and mutton-chop whiskers (also known as Dundreary whiskers, Piccadilly weepers or bugger grips), the early C20th trend was clean-shaven. It was always assumed that beards were camouflage for something: a scar, or a weak chin.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Businesses in this puberty stage often see rapid changes in their business model, as venturing out into the market, fumbling and discovering, offers lessons building a repeatable, scalable sales model and customer acquisition process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

Your first kiss: high-growth

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation, anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending.

In Shakespeare’s words, a kiss becomes poetry, a pleasing rhyme between two faces that tenderly meet, the poetic, sensual ceremony, a ritual and romantic interlude. For unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang. Kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

In the startup growth cycle as you’re growing and scaling, you’re metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt from those that say no – as it is in real life. When you’re seventeen, you aren’t really serious, just enjoy the moment, but that’s when the high-growth kicks in.

Summary

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order. Some businesses may see astronomical growth and the jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable and at times, unruly.

Everyone’s biological clock has its own time line, likewise your startup. As John Lennon said, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans, and in reality, your startup plan will not survive its first encounter with a customer.

Positivity, confidence and persistence are key in life generally, so never give up on yourself in startup mode. Equally to succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone, and that’s no different in a startup either.