I read somewhere, once, something to the effect of “if you want to truly master something, you’ve got to be willing to suck at it for long enough.” As far as I can tell through my experience, that’s true.
After 5 years of teaching at the U, the department was going through some changes, and my class was affected. It was an interesting position for the department, because my class brought in over half a million dollars every semester to the University, and the department’s share of that was quite important to their budget. They needed me, but I wasn’t irreplaceable, nor did I think I was. On the other side of the coin, they didn’t much care for my class, because they said it lacked quantifiable learning objectives and outcomes. I disagreed quite vocally, to no avail. I had only four assignments for the students, four papers to be written. The first, a New York Times-style restaurant review on a locally-owned ethnic restaurant of their choosing, the second an interview with someone that has been in the U.S. less than 18 months, the third a personal reflection paper based on a topic of their choosing from a selected list, and the last a paper on how this course and being in the food lab had impacted and changed their awareness of food, culture and their lives. After 5 years of 500+ students each semester, I had stacks of papers, and all of the data they could have wanted on the learning objectives and outcomes. But it didn’t matter to them, and so I left. It sucked, because I loved the impact my passion had on the students, but truthfully, I was only being paid $13k/year plus benefits, which was a pretty low-ball figure considering the amount of money my course contributed to the departments budget. That said, I feel like we left on good terms, overall.
I didn’t worry too much about it – I had a thriving personal chef business, my catering business was doing great, and now I’d have more time to devote to both of them. But the universe had other plans for me.
If you’ll recall, I worked on a food truck for a few years. Utah’s original gourmet food truck, to be precise. I had loved the work, but it just wasn’t financially feasible for me to continue working on the truck for 20-30 hours a week when I was making so much more money in my personal chef business. It made far more sense to spend my time developing and growing THAT. Well, I still filled in on the truck when SuAn (the founder and owner) was in a pinch, I helped her develop the menu for her new brick-and-mortar extension of the truck, and we remained good friends. Well, less than two weeks after I left the U, I got a call from her, asking if I knew anyone that wanted to buy the truck. She was selling the business so she could explore other opportunities.
And, you’ll also recall that I went to work on the food truck in the first place because I had dreams of owning one, which changed almost immediately once I witnessed how much work SuAn put in on a daily basis. However, Megan thought that we should consider this purchase. We did our due diligence, met with accountants and attorneys, and bought the truck.
Now, this was the first venture of mine that carried with it a significant financial burden, and so failure would actually mean losing tens of thousands of dollars. That was a huge deal to my little family. After looking over several key factors of the truck, it was clear that the business was struggling. I was pretty confident that I could make the necessary changes to put the truck back on top, and make it profitable again, and so, based on not much more than my own confidence in my abilities, we completed the purchase and got to work.
Payroll was FAR too high. We had less than a dozen employees, and two of them made up a significant portion of payroll. I let them know that I would need to either cut their pay or let them go, and gave them the choice. Both chose to leave, without giving notice. No big deal, I’d handled situations like this before. We hired two new people at half the cost (still fair wage for the work they were doing, of course), and kept on rocking.
Social media needed to grow. Megan and I learned everything we could, and because our finances were so tight, we decided not to hire a social media manager, and just handle it ourselves. I was pretty optimistic that I could grow all of the social media accounts fairly quickly, so we developed a plan, and dove in, with Megan doing the lion’s share of the work.
We bought the truck at the worst time of the year – early November, at the very beginning of the slow season. I streamlined our inventory, and did everything I knew how to do to bring food cost down.
At the end of it all, those first six months were pretty touch-and-go. We struggled to make payroll every month, and I was working around 40-50 hours a week on the truck, which means that my other two businesses suffered. We failed a LOT in those first six months. Then summer rolled around, and we were being booked left and right, making really good money on the truck. We hired one pf the guys that had worked with me in catering to come and manage the truck day-to-day, which would free up more of my time. Things were going GREAT.
And then winter came again. We failed harder and more often than we had our first winter. By the end of December, we’d blown through the nest egg we’d put away from the summer earnings to get us through the winter. By January, we were covering payroll out of our own pockets. By March, we’d exhausted all of our resources, and were within 24 hours of closing the business for good. We were failing, hard. I called a friend that owns a very successful construction firm, to ask him about his investors, and explore if finding an investor would be an option for the truck. Turns out, he was interested in being that investor. He wrote a check on the spot, and we were back on track. His investment got us through the next few months until summer came around again, and then we had two catastrophic mechanical failures within 4 months time. This left us in an unrecoverable financial situation, and we made the hard decision to close the truck
Here’s the truth: there are SO many aspects of the truck that I completely sucked at. I’ve failed at social media. I’ve failed at finding profitable locations. I’ve failed at securing enough catering gigs to fill our schedule. I’ve failed at taking care of my employees. I’ve failed at finding qualified and reliable new employees. The list goes on… I’ve failed FAR more than I’ve succeeded with this venture. And I’ve learned with every failure, and every step. Honestly, I’ll likely fail a whole lot more. And I’ll learn more. I don’t feel like I mastered the food truck game in Utah, but I DID learn, and the things I learned through those failures have been instrumental in the events that followed.
Who knows what may come next? I’m sure that I have no idea what comes next, so I’ll continue failing, and learning, and getting closer to mastery with every failure.
That’s what success is. Sucking at something long enough to master it.