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.

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