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The Art of Making (and Learning From) Mistakes

Posted on Saturday, Aug 8th 2009

By Guest Author Bibby Gignilliat

I make a lot of mistakes! It’s inevitable: new entrepreneurs starting a business are bound to make a mistake or two along the way. If you let them, mistakes can hamper your goals and make you less confident in the task you set out to do. It’s important to realize, however, that mistakes often provide the greatest lessons, and getting through the biggies can make you feel like you can conquer any obstacle in your way. In my own career, I made three key mistakes that strengthened my resolve and my business savvy, and helped to make Parties that Cook what it is today. But first let me tell you about how my company came to be.

Parties That Cook stages hands-on cooking parties and corporate team building events in homes and rented kitchens in the Bay Area and Chicago. It all began 10 years ago when I conducted a culinary team building event for a bunch of inebriated attorneys at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. I was very directive in order to keep the masters of the universe on task. At the end of the night, the partner came up to me and said: “I loved how you handled me tonight. Would you consider doing a cooking event in my home for 40 Japanese businessmen?”  “Sure,” I said. The night of the event, the businessmen arrived timidly at the home. Keep in mind that many of them had never cooked in their lives, let alone in their non-native language. You can imagine how anxious I felt when I said, “Who’s excited to cook?” No one raised his hand. After a lively interactive demo, I assigned them to teams. Within minutes, they came up to me, covered in flour from making shortcakes, saying, “Chef, give me another project.” By the time they sat down to dinner, the decibel level had gone from zero to 10. Two weeks after the event, the host contacted me: “Bibby, your cooking party was the highlight of their two-week stay in San Francisco.” I knew I had a concept. In December of 1999 I founded my company.

Mistake #1: When I first started my business in 1999, my partner and I were the only local company hosting culinary team building events and in-home cooking parties. We started landing clients immediately, and we began to get a little cocky about our popularity and our skills. As we both worked out of our homes, we decided against a dedicated business line that neither of us wanted to answer, and we relied on voicemail to take messages from potential clients. We responded to messages, but it wasn’t right that second. Then competitors entered the fray, and they answered each and every call personally, immediately. We quickly began losing out on business, and the first crucial lesson was apparent: If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will. One of the key ingredients to Parties that Cook’s success is that we provide the best in customer service. We strive to give our clients more than they expect, and our clients notice because plenty of companies don’t go the extra mile.

Mistake #2: Starting a new business is uncharted territory, and I doubted that I could make it alone. In an ideal partnership situation, you outline priorities, objectives and business roles up front. Unfortunately, my partner and I didn’t outline anything — we were friends, and didn’t believe we needed an agreement. Although we had complementary skill-sets, the business was my livelihood and her hobby. Over the next five years, I spent more time managing my relationship with my partner than I did managing the business. Business relationships can be like a marriage — they take work, especially if you both are devoted to the success of the company. It was clear that the relationship wasn’t working, and we eventually dissolved the business. But I learned that I could manage, even thrive, on my own. I didn’t need a partner to be successful — and I re-launched Parties that Cook soon after. Once I finally believed in myself, went out on my own, hired great contractors and employees and focused fully on managing my business rather than a demanding partnership, the business flourished.

Mistake #3: Every bump in the road is an opportunity. Unfortunately, as the economy started to falter last fall, instead of being proactive and adapting, I ignored the warning signs and went on with business as usual. I didn’t want to face reality — I was fearful of making tough decisions, I didn’t want to lay anyone off and I wasn’t sure of the best route for cutting costs. I took the long road to taking the necessary steps, even as my bank account dwindled and my loan application was denied. We needed to be strategic to keep the business afloat, and we needed to reinvent ourselves a bit to find every last source of revenue available. To better adapt to the changing climate, Parties that Cook began hosting cooking classes that were open to the public, and we developed a low-priced cooking party option to meet our customer’s dwindling budgets. Instead of the status quo, we negotiated reduced rates with our vendors, including our landlord, and our staff graciously took pay reductions to help us get through the hard times. However, I learned that you cannot rest on your laurels, regardless of the situation. Tough times are an opportunity to focus on priorities, to be creative, and to streamline business operations.

If I knew 10 years ago what I know now, I could have avoided a lot of mistakes. But I believe the only real mistakes are the ones we don’t learn from. James Joyce was right: “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Embrace your mistakes — when you fail, you practice success.

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Bibby,

I loved this post ! It reminded me so much of the struggle that I went through myself !
If I may add my bit “when you lose, don’t lose the lesson !”

CK Saturday, August 8, 2009 at 3:59 AM PT

Yes. I agree. It is not so bad to make an inital mistake but a mistake that is not learned from is the real mistake!

Bibby Gignilliat Monday, August 10, 2009 at 10:16 AM PT