Business Lessons from Alton Brown

I decided to write a blog post about Alton Brown (“AB”) not just because he is interesting, but because he is an entrepreneur who built a business without venture capital. AB has on several occasions talked about how he needed to get bank loans to grow his business. Since bank loans, together with personal savings, loans from friends/family and cash flow from operations are the way most entrepreneurs finance a business, his story is a great example for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from. AB is also interesting in that he was forced to deal with gatekeepers (cable channels) to get distribution for the product his business creates since his career began before the rise of streaming. The YouTube option was not available to AB when he was trying to build his business.

AB is a story teller who taught himself to be an entrepreneur so he can tell his stories. AB’s back story can be told with a few quotes from him and two sentences from a Wikipedia entry:

alton brown

“I started off as a cameraman when I was still in college, and moved into shooting music videos in the ’80s, then became a full-time cinematographer and a director-cameraman for TV spots, which I did for about 10 years.”

“I shot commercials, many of which weren’t very good. I was unhappy and cooking made me feel better.”

“I remember I was watching food shows, and I was like, ‘God, these are boring. I’m not really learning anything.’ I got a recipe, OK, but I don’t know anything. I didn’t even learn a technique. To learn means to really understand. You never got those out of those shows. I remember writing down one day: ‘Julia Child / Mr. Wizard / Monty Python.’ That was the mission. I knew I had to quit my job and go to culinary school.”

“Two pilot episodes for Good Eats (“Steak Your Claim” and “This Spud’s For You”) aired on The Chicago PBS affiliate in 1998. The show was discovered by Food Network when an executive saw a clip of the show on the Kodak website.”

The usual quotes from the subject of this blog post (AB) are:

  1. “Because I was executive producer, writing the show, directing, all this stuff, I was so busy doing the work that I didn’t think about getting famous. There was no social media. So there was no feedback.” “When I did my first season of 13 episodes I didn’t know if people were even watching until we got renewed.” 

Feedback is fundamentally important in any healthy system, particularly if someone is trying to make it grow. What the internet and connected customers have done is enable businesses to create systems that harness feedback. These systems now overwhelmingly reside in the cloud and are more powerful interpreters of customer feedback than the world has ever seen before. The availability of cloud services enables businesses to create innovative products and services for a fraction of what it would have cost just ten years ago. By combining relatively inexpensive web services with modern data science it is now possible for businesses to run many thousands of experiments that utilize the scientific method. Most of these experiments will fail, but some will be spectacular successes. The people who can operate these cloud based systems (e.g., data scientists and artificial intelligence experts) have become the new high priests of the business world. The businesses that have the best systems which harness customer feedback and the most talented high priests are outperforming the business that don’t. It’s that simple. This phenomenon is just getting started and will become even more pronounced as the years pass.

When AB started making television, the primary feedback system was the Nielsen ratings. Businesses today like Netflix know vastly more about what their customer’s  consume than businesses that rely on Nielsen as their primary source of feedback. One implication of the increased value of data is that providers are increasingly going direct to customers and cutting out distributors. For example, you see businesses like Disney deciding that they must directly stream their own content in order to capture the customer data. As I said above, control of the customer usage data is increasingly what gives businesses a competitive advantage. If a distributor sits between the creator and the end customer that data often can’t be captured.

Social media is obviously a big source of customer feedback. AB has mastered the transition to the social media era as well as anyone. One of the more interesting questions about this new “connected customer” era is whether AB would have been able to sell his show to a network today. How effectively would AB have been able to compete in today’s business world if he was just now starting out? There are so many people trying to get traction on streaming network would he ever have been able to get traction? The number of cooking shows YouTube is astounding. That number isn’t 24.5 million, but it is a lot. Even my neighbor’s dog has a cooking show on YouTube.

Read the rest of the interesting article here

+++

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *