Posts Tagged ‘startup’

what the hell is going on with Sabi Sushi?

part. II – The Pivot

(if you missed part one, The Location Hunt catch-up here)

I couldn’t help but laugh. Not a “hahaha- you’re so witty!” laugh. It was a “hahaha- are you serious? I just spent the last year believing steadfastly in something, and you just made me go back and question everything….asshole!” – you know, one of those laughs.

The Pivot came during our last day at the Mass Challenge. For those of you who haven’t heard, it’s the largest start-up competition in the world, with over $1,000,000 in prize money, and a 3-month accelerator program in downtown Boston for its 125-Finalists (which Sabi is one of….nobigdeal.)

On our last day in Boston, we reached out to a mentor on the list named John P., founder of BlueLeaf, and to our surprise, one of the original franchisees of Boston Market (formerly Boston Chicken). He sat us down in his ultra modern, inside-of-an-ipod designed office.

We walked in, expecting to shake hands, trade business cards – hear him drop a few big names and thank him for his time. Instead, he flipped through our business plan (the one that’s won us over $25,000, and entrance into this prestigious Mass Challenge) and jotted down a few notes. Now most people would hesitate to be brutally honest, especially considering that we just met, but John immediately began to rip us into shreds….(this is what makes John awesome, he’ll support you, but will do so as a straight-shooter). (UPDATE: John’s response to this blog)

We had the following verbal joust:

John P. – I love your concept, obviously, that’s why I took this meeting…I do think there’s a huge need for great sushi, and more accessible through your style, price, speed…but I don’t think you’re going about this the right way. 

Shaan/Dan – (zoning out, ready to hear another person talk generically about how 90% of restaurants fail)

John P – Let me ask you this. How much does it take to open a location?

Shaan – About $400k to be safe

John P – And how long is the lease?

Shaan – 10 years..

John P – How long does it take to find a location…6 months? And then to build/design it – another 5-6 months?

Shaan – (nodding, grimly)

John P – So lets say you sign this lease tomorrow. You put in $400,000 to build it, it takes 6 months to open, you’re on the hook for 10 years…and the landlord’s asking for a $100,000 security deposit? And assuming that goes well, it’ll take another year or so to get the 2nd location, and you’ll have to go raise another half a million dollars to pay for it…

Shaan – (nodding, and quickly becoming nauseated)

John – so from the start, commitment is pretty heavy…How many customers do you have on board so far? Have you tested the concept…at all?

Shaan – Well its hard to test the restaurant…without the restaurant!

John – That’s what I thought to myself before you guys came in. I’ve owned restaurants before. And well: everything’s great about owning a restaurant…except the f*%&ing restaurant! So listen to this idea, and tell me what you think…

That’s when he outlined the idea. A radical one. An idea so strange that he left me (someone who talks so much that he’s on pace for an arthiritic jaw by the age of 28) – speechless, with no rebuttal.

The Idea: (well…the most basic, simple version of the idea)

– Who – take a highly dense urban area of young professionals

– What – deliver them awesome sushi. Deliver it in a way that makes them understand that you’re changing the game of delivery. Deliver food created by a tremendous sushi chef. Deliver on time. Deliver for free. Deliver in packaging that looks like it was designed by Apple (N.M.S. – No More Styrofoam).  Don’t just deliver food, deliver happiness.

– When – stop waiting on external factors. Rent a commercial kitchen. Get a business license. Set a launch date (1 month from the moment we heard the idea).

– Where – Downtown Denver

Why – Focus on our strengths – great food, hustle, creative marketing, and again, great food. Think about what Food Trucks (a restaurant, on wheels) has done so successfully. We will be the next step in the evolution of the industry (a restaurant, online).

– How – Rent a commercial kitchen 1mi from the heart of downtown Denver. Get initial customers through Sabi Sushi VIP tastings, and just meeting people, telling them our story, and letting them try our food. We also had to change the mechanics behind our delivery model (sorry, that’s our secret) to make sure that all the orders are fresh, accurate, and on time.


…so that’s it? Delivery sushi…?  No….it’s The Restaurant Without a Restaurant. We’re taking the entire restaurant experience: ordering, service, food, and packaging – and doing it our way. What does that mean? It means its going to be bold, its going to be creative, and its going to be better than its been done before.

which leave us with one last bullet point:

The Long-Term Dream – With this model, we can quickly/cheaply test new markets, and grow the company organically. We want to be an example for who may not be the most marketing/design savvy, or be the best at managing a restaurant – focus on making great food. We can plug them into our business model, host them on our smooth website, deliver their food in our efficient system, and let them focus on making killer dishes. Do what you do – at its best.

Will it work? Will people be too sketched out by the thought of sushi being delivered to them? Honestly…I have no idea.

What I do know is that we’re off to a great start. We’ve got promising relationships with the Colorado Athletic Club and the Westin Hotel downtown. Everyone that’s tasted our food has loved it (although people generally enjoy all types of free food).

Seeing people’s reactions to the website (currently under dev. thanks to my man Frank L and ongoing support from our guy at Duke – Siyaun T.) and the food so far have me believing that this is really going to be huge. The point is, it doesn’t matter what I think is going to happen…I’m just happy its happening. In fact, its happening in 3 days. That’s right, we’re launching Sept 1st. We’ve already been doing private menu tastings (see vid below) to get feedback and our name out there. We’re starting small at first, just targeting one ‘hotspot’ for a few buildings downtown, but soon we’ll be doing it big. That’s where we’ll end the : “what the hell’s going on with Sabi Sushi” series with part III – The Launch . No promises on when I’ll get that blog up, this next week’s looking a little busy…

With an idea that’s so disruptive to an industry as this is – it’s either going to explode, or completely fizzle out, rarely do game-changing ideas fall into mediocrity. Which is good, because mediocrity is a place that you’ll never find Sabi Sushi.



Entrepreneurs have it all wrong. We only get excited about ideas that are new. We’re wired all wrong.

We barely flinch at the threat of future competition (cue the MBA student screaming “first mover advantage!”), but upon our first Google search of the idea we’re faced with disappointment: “shit, someone’s already doing it..”


It’s over? Just like that? Are they profitable? Are they controlling significant IP that would prevent you from entering the market? Can’t you learn from their business and iterate/improve on it? What’s better than learning on someone else’s dime? (and finally, will this whole paragraph consist of sentences ending in question-marks?)

As Daymond John, Founder of FUBU and investor on Sharktank puts it:

“Pioneers get slaughtered….Settlers prosper.

Daymond "The Shark" John - Founder of FUBU "pioneers get slaughtered...and settlers prosper"

Having a truly unique idea generally results in early failure. Rather than spending your most important resources as a start-up, (time and money) on educating the market about your product – you must create the market in the first place. Before Ipod and Facebook, there were portable music players and Friendster. Being first, being new, and being successful are rarely related.

Now for some non-cliche examples.

You’re an entrepreneur, and its the 1990s (put your Ace of Base CD in your walkman, you still eat bread because you don’t know who the hell “Atkins” is yet, and deal with the fact that Uncle Jesse from Full House is your generation’s sex symbol).

You have a truly new idea. Online Poker – HUGE potential, easy user interface to build, and poker celeb Mike Caro is on board to be your spokesman. Your company is called Planet Poker – and you launch with a ton of buzz becuase you’re the first online platform to offer “Real Money” poker, elevating the game from free, Solitaire-status, to what will eventually become a $2,400,000,000/yr online platform.

Now before you plan that retirement in the Carribean, you have to deal with market mistrust*. It’s the 1990’s, people aren’t used to depositing money online. They don’t trust your online “card shuffling” algorithm. They don’t know if the other players are sitting in the same room somewhere and cheating by telling each other their cards. Like a boyfriend with a history of cheating, you’ll spend all your time and money ‘buying your customers flowers’ to convince them that you’re a sweet, trustworthy partner – rather than growing and improving your business. This all goes on for a few years until the more handsome and well-financed competitors Party Poker, Pokerstars, and Full Tilt swoop in to steal your customer base.

Now here’s the rub. Why do the settlers prosper? Doesn’t being first count for something? Well yes. It does. And while the later versions do make improvements on their pioneer predecessors, their distinct advantage is not their flashy new interface. It’s the fact that their idea is not new. They enter an existing market. They spend their money marketing, adding features like security, rapid payment processing steal your customers, while you went through the grind creating the market. They don’t waste time educating customers about where a product fits in their lives; instead, they focus on how their product is better than the existing options.

Don’t let yourself toil away, waiting for the next “new” idea. New ideas suck. They sap you of your time and money simply because the market is probably not ready to adopt it right away. When it works – it works great, but they are the exception, not the rule.  Don’t confuse starting a business, with having a truly unique idea. Innovation isn’t about creating a new product, technology, or industry – its about finding better solutions for age old problems.


*Term Shaan made up. Refrain from using in academic papers.