Over the past year I have talked frequently about the need for MennoMedia to think like a startup. The inspiration for this idea came from hearing Eric Reis (author of The Lean Startup) speak at the Tools of Change conference in New York City in February of 2012, but in certain respects it reflects a way of thinking that I have embraced in different settings over the past two decades. Startups attract a certain type of person—entrepreneurs, really—people who are creative, innovative, and willing to take risks. It’s a spirit I think that any publishing or media organization needs to embrace as we seek to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
Moving to Harrisonburg, Va. a few years ago, I became a regular at the Bowl of Good, a tasty and lively café next to the Eastern Mennonite University campus and within easy walking distance of my home and work. My wife and I also were privileged to get to know Katrina Didot, the owner and founder, mostly recently named the Harrisonburg Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year. Katrina is a person of engaging passion and energy and clearly loves her work.
Bowl of Good specializes in healthy, whole foods, locally sourced and prepared, all at a very affordable price. Soups and breads are a specialty. Located in a plaza with a Gift and Thrift store and next door to Artisan’s Hope, a fair trade gift shop, the restaurant is packed for lunch. As I got to know Katrina, I did an interview with her about how she established her business and it struck me how much she used the “Lean Startup” model along the way and how well it served her.
Starting with a few tables inside of Kate’s Natural Products, (health food store) in Harrisonburg, they moved out in early 2005 when the rent went up. Not dismayed, she collected customers’ emails and moved on to the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market where, “they could focus on customers and refine their products and business model.” Their customers followed them.
Over the next several years they teamed up with other local businesses (such as Red Front Supermarket, a local independent grocery) and continued to test new products and build a loyal and growing customer base. They baked breads in Katrina’s basement and bartered for freezer space at Red Front. The Farmers’ Market enabled them to test new soups and other dishes with minimal risk and to learn what works and what doesn’t This is known in the Lean Startup model as creating a MVP or Minimal Viable Product. Each small step is known as an “iteration,” which builds on stuff you already know, such as what your customers like and what they are looking for, but don’t seem to have found.
Katrina has a good sense of performance metrics and uses software to track their success. They tested multiple markets and continually fine-tuned their product line as well as their business model, including operating a catering business. They have always had a strong social value (including highly valued employees) and this is an additional ingredient in their success.
Making the jump to an actual store was a real leap of faith for Katrina, but with a loyal customer base, a good sense of location and timing, the store/restaurant became an instant success, as it should have been. She has now opened a second location in our city.
The Bowl of Good is not just good food—it’s a good model of how a small local business can start and thrive, and how MennoMedia can thrive.