Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Tao of Taffer

In spring 2011, Spike TV premiered a show called Bar Rescue. It follows host and nightlife expert Jon Taffer as he transforms a failing bar into a local hot spot in 1 week.

Taffer goes into the science of nightlife as well as the business of it. Sure, he renovates the bars and modernizes their equipment, but he does much more than just give them new stuff. He may subtract bad employees, he may add new staff and positions, but he always changes the mentality of everyone involved in the rescue, ownership included.

Really examining the two seasons it's been on the air, I've noticed a few recurring themes. The more I think about those lessons, how they work and why they succeed, the more I figure out that what Taffer teaches isn't just about bars. His wisdom can be applied to almost anyone anywhere.

 Here are 7 things about business and life I've learned from Bar Rescue:


1. You have to stand out
Many of the bars Taffer rescues are nearly indistinguishable from the other bars in that neighborhood. Some of the bars look the same as every other business on that street! How is someone going to know that this is a bar when it looks like the shoe store next door? Why would someone go to this bar when there is no way to tell it apart from every other bar on that block?

In life, you have to be different than your surroundings. That doesn't mean do some random weird stuff to be "unique." That's called "being an idiotic, rebelling teenager" or "insanity."

No, you need to to create a way for people to tell you apart from your contemporaries in a way that highlights your assets and/or downplays your flaws. Are you good, but not great at a lot of things? Focus on your versatility. Are you an expert in 1 obscure thing? Highlight it and make sure the people in that niche know how to find you. Do you do really simple and basic things flawlessly? Position yourself as the master of the fundamentals or the small job specialist in the area. Do you craft things incredibly well with a lot of care and detail? Be that region's artisan.

Everyone is good at something. Even just being good enough and bankable is a skill. By leveraging yourself on your strengths and marketing accordingly, you give people a reason want you and your services.

2. Everybody needs a team
Taffer doesn't rescue these bars alone. He brings with him a crew of industry experts. His wife is a recon specialist and his daughter is a great bartender herself, both are often used to get intel from the customer perspective. He has several master chefs to help upgrade the kitchens, different types of mixologists to teach special drinks, flair and speed bartenders to teach style and quickness. He even brought in a music expert to help a club's DJ. He used past rescued owners in various roles and brings in an interior designer to help with the renovation and rebranding a bar post rescue.

Just like President Barack Obama famously quipped, "you didn't build that, you had help," everyone needs some back up. No one is great at everything. You can let your ego win and try do everything yourself or you can trust people who specialize in things you don't to do their jobs. When you let people do what they do best, you are free to do what you do best.

3. Cohesion makes sense and sense makes dollars
Many of the bars Taffer rescues fail because their concept is scattered and confusing. He showed an Irish pub with Mexican drinks and food, Reggae themed signage, Christmas lights for decor in the summer and it's located at a SoCal beach on the pier. What's the concept? It was a hodgepodge of stuff and no one knew what kind of bar it was. It lacked a consistent identity.

The same is true for success in life. A cohesive identity makes sense and that will bring prosperity. What do you call a person who is a certain way on Monday, different on Tuesday, changes again on Wednesday, is something else on Thursday, then flips it all again on Friday?

You call them "schizophrenic," "a poser" or just confused. I wouldn't trust them and neither would anyone else. Back to point # 1 about leveraging your skills to stand out: pick one thing and go with it. If you're something, be THAT thing. Don't trying to be a little of everything, it'll fail every time.

This is not to say don't try to become more or evolve. ALWAYS strive to be better, where ever that takes you. If you change over time and become something new, that's great, but don't bounce around all the time. Dabblers never win.

4. You gotta do recon
Taffer doesn't just show up and start fixing these bars, he spends a lot of time figuring out exactly what he's getting into and what their biggest problems are. He installs hidden cameras everywhere to see what others miss. He has his camera crew follow the staff around to see patterns. He talks to people who go to or have gone to the bar for inside info. He makes a point on almost every show to brief his experts before they go in for their professional recon mission by looking at Yelp reviews from past customers.

There is nothing in life you should just jump into blindly. NOTHING. You should always know what you're up against, what your exact mission is, what are the pitfalls, what the upsides are if any. I'm not saying do this forever because nothing beats action, but running into a situation, especially a bad one, with no knowledge of what is going on is a recipe for failure. Things don't just fail on a grand scale, there are big problems that aren't being addressed. If you don't know what they are, you are doomed to the same fate as your predecessors.

You don't see good generals just showing up to battle. They send scouts, get the lay of the land and, with modern technology, do surveillance on their opposition so they know their capabilities. Treat life like a military campaign and know what is going on before you find yourself in a hell storm with no way out.

Every minute you spend in preparation saves you 10 in execution.

5. It all starts at the top
All the bars Taffer rescue have issues. Obviously. Those issues came from somewhere, the leader. The bar owners/top managers either hire bad people, do bad things, let things slide or just don't show up until the entire bar is negatively affected. Employees don't clean because they see their bosses not cleaning. Staff does things poorly because they weren't shown the right way. The underlings coast because their leaders let them. Jon brings in people to upgrade the existing staff's skills. He also has to get through to the head people that they are the catalysts for what their employees do.

Life is leadership. If you are in charge, you need to act like it or you will get nothing done. As you go, so goes those in your charge. If you slack, they slack. If you care, they care. How do you kill a snake? Cut the head off. The head is the most important part of anything, it's the leader and leaders set the tone.

6. Don't be an idiot
Many of the myriad of problems plaguing the bars Taffer rescues stem from not knowing any better, just being lazy or being out of touch with their surroundings. A few of them are just mind-boggling stupid.

One bar was a pirate themed bar. Dumb. In the middle of a bunch of corporate highrises. Really dumb. The chef had no cooking training or experience. Super dumb. The owner had no bar experience and came up with the concept because she threw a "successful" pirate-themed party one time. Mega dumb. The whole staff were pirate reenactors, like from a renaissance fair. Tragically dumb. All of them fought Taffer, the expert THEY asked for help who they've seen save bars already, the whole rescue. Colossally dumb. Taffer rebrands the bar, trains everyone, relaunches and it's awesome, so they tear it all down and go back to the failure they had before the rescue that is 100K in debt, forcing the owner (a 50 something year old woman), her husband (the cook) and their 16 year old daughter to continue living in the owner's parents' basement. Dumb raised to moron power.

I shouldn't even have to make this point, but this is proof that some people are so stupid, I don't have a choice. Not everyone is an idiot. Some people are pretty smart, but almost everyone has a few bonehead moves that they can't see are bonehead.

When you find yourself in a heap of trouble and you've been there for a while, STOP DOING WHAT GOT YOU THERE. When you're in a hole and want to get out, you have to stop digging first. When you realize you've messed up and you ask someone for help, when they help you, SHUT UP, LISTEN AND DO WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO DO. If you're in trouble and ask for help, take the help. If you don't want to do that, get someone who you will listen too. Otherwise you're just wasting your time and theirs. If you do 1 thing on a small scale and it kinda works out, don't just assume you'll be awesome at a bigger version. That's like winning a game of bingo at the senior citizens' center and thinking you're going to just go to Vegas and become a Texas Holdem champ.

7. No excuses
Taffer famously said, "I don't embrace excuses, I embrace solutions." The one thing all the failing bars have in common is a lack of responsibility. They're in debt up to their eyeballs and working in disgusting dumps, but it's not any of their fault. The bartenders have dirty bars, but that's someone else's doing. The kitchen has dead rats behind the freezer because someone else should have gotten it. The employees are slacking off because they're lazy. As soon as Jon makes the owners, cooks, bartenders and staffs recognize that them not doing something about the situation they're in is what got them there in the first place, everything turns around and they start to get out of the mess they created for themselves.

This goes hand in hand with lesson # 5. Leadership is about not making excuses and taking charge of your life and your surroundings.  Everyone is a leader, whether its just you being in charge of yourself or if you're the leader of the free world. To do that effectively, you have to step up and assume responsibility. Yes, there are things outside of your control, but you control how you deal with those things. Once we factor out luck and random chance, 80+% of what happens to us in life is our own doing, good and bad. If you start hot and things fade, but you don't change anything, you are to blame when you are at the bottom of the barrel. If you walk by a mess everyday for a week, you are the reason it's there because you have several opportunities to do something about it. You are as much to blame as the person who actually made the mess.

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