A Lean Business Model: Mac-n-Cheese

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day, with my contribution to the family feast happily bubbling away in the oven. I’m also hungry, and hope that I don’t take the food metaphor so far as to encroach on Word Chef territory. 😉 That said, this post is about getting back to or constructing a lean business model, by knowing how and what to trim away. It starts with my Mac-N-Cheese Bake.

Mac-and-Cheese Bake

Image from MyRecipes.com

I made this dish about a week ago for my family, following a recipe that I think I found online (for I cannot seem to find it again). I wanted to make something a little more exciting than regular mac-n-cheese, so this bake, with its real-cheese sauce and breadcrumb top crust, seemed like the perfect amount of flair to a very common and ordinary dish, while still being simple. (And by that I mostly mean fast and with little cleanup, which is the name of the game in this three-kid household!) It turned out to be a 100% edible dish…and nothing more. The cheese was bland, the breadcrumbs were bland (and not quite moist enough), and we ate it. It may even have nourished our bodies a little, but I don’t think any of us ENJOYED it. It needed MORE…but WHAT, and HOW MUCH?

The converse problem to the bland dish is the one that’s got too much going on…a little of everything, trying to appeal to every taste but just overwhelming and confusing everyone in the process. You see the metaphor here: maybe you have so many activities associated with running your business that you’re pulled every which way, not allowing yourself to specialize in any one area. Remember that the second half of the phrase “Jack of all trades” is “master of none“. Maybe you have built a menu of many diverse offerings, so you can say “YES” to any job that comes along. I’ve been guilty of this one, so I know that it can easily be borne of hunger.

Somewhere in between the two extremes of comfortable-but-bland and exciting-but-overwhelming is a great dish that everyone can love. I think that’s what’s bubbling in my oven right now, and I think we can build businesses that function well, with just enough flair to stand out, and not so much that they’re confusing to the palette. I think our customers will RECOGNIZE what we’re doing, find VALUE in it, and ENJOY it!

I suggest that a lean and focused business is one with just a few areas of specialization (easy to prepare, with common ingredients), in which you portion your time/effort/resources efficiently (simple prep, little cleanup), and wherein your menu is trimmed to the items you’re most passionate about and/or best at (your high-quality ingredients), with a few bits of carefully chosen fun thrown in to keep it unique (the spices)!

“Recipe” is a misleading term here, even though it fits the metaphor, because how you do this will be unique to you and your business AND because I’m not claiming to be a business master-chef who can tell you exactly how to do it anyway. I do have a few ideas, a little experience, and this blog, though, so…

  • A RECOGNIZABLE DISH: From your entire current business “menu”, choose the 1-3 items that you most love and/or are the best at. There are lots of online tools to help you identify those things if you’re a bit stuck or are just starting out. Ditch the rest (for now).
  • EASILY PREPARED: Actively seek out tools and strategies that will help you be/stay productive and efficient. There are MANY, and your particular situation and personality will lend itself toward or away from certain ones, which is why I’m being vague. I know this to be a particular challenge for me since I work from home, so my strategies and the setup of my workspace have to support the separation of work tasks and home tasks that essentially take place in the same physical space. One tool that I find valuable is the Pomodoro Technique of portioning my time and keeping myself on task.
  • WITH QUALITY INGREDIENTS: Look at the on- and off-line places where you’re putting business effort and resources. List ’em. Indicate the 3-5 of each type that you’re most enthused about AND are bringing you the most return. Ditch the rest (for now).
  • AND A BIT OF FLAIR: Keep (or add back in) ONE OR TWO of those efforts which are unique or fun but from which you have yet to see any tangible return. An example might be that you find it stimulating and enlightening to use Twitter, even though you can’t trace a single sale to it yet. Keep it; you’re building relationships that will pay off later, and you’re maintaining a spicy bit of fun for yourself and those that stay connected with you. “I don’t need what she’s selling (yet), but her Tweets sure are fun!” is A-OK at this point. These are the spices that will make the dish interesting and memorable, but their absence wouldn’t make it inedible.
  • Make connections with people who offer the things that you just cut out. That way when someone asks you for that previously offered menu item (and they will), you have a quality lead to give them, and more to say that just “Nope, sorry!” (Bonus Tip: Also learn to say “Nope, sorry!”)

I’m finishing this article the day after Thanksgiving, and I’m happy to report that my improved Mac-n-Cheese Bake was AMAZING. It had the right balance of everything, which means that I’ll be making it again and that my family will come back for seconds. You get the metaphor. 😉

This post is part of the November Word Carnival. The topic is Letting go: How and What to Trim to Keep Your Business Lean and Focused. This month’s carnival will make the juggler want to go stand out in the cold; multitaskers – you’re on report!

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21 Responses to A Lean Business Model: Mac-n-Cheese

  1. After reading (or maybe I should say “devouring”) your post, Evan …
    I’m going to be a lot more cognizant of what I’m slipping in the oven and what I’m serving up!

    I immediately wrapped my heart and my head around these delicious words …
    “Somewhere in between the two extremes of comfortable-but-bland and exciting-but-overwhelming is a great dish that everyone can love.”

    Nicely done! (But not too over-baked). Love the metaphor. Really clever. :)
    Melanie Kissell @SoloMompreneur recently posted..Out With The Trash And In With The TreasuresMy Profile

  2. Love the system you outline for trimming the fat, Evan. That last throwaway tip (saying no) is also essential to avoid being overwhelmed.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..How to Create a Lean, Focused Writing BusinessMy Profile

  3. This would’ve made a most excellent guest post at my site, evan. Great job with the food metaphors! And it’s actually inspired me to start a new weekly series. I’m calling it “The Marketing Dish.” You send me a picture of your favorite dish/food and I’ll use it as inspiration to write a marketing-related post. (There’s more, but I’ll spare your readers the rest.) Suffice it say, I thought this one was mighty tasty.
    Tea Silvestre recently posted..Speak Up! Why and How to Find Your VoiceMy Profile

  4. Sandi Amorim says:

    And now I’m hungry! 😉

    Great metaphor and recipe for doing more of what works! My favourite, “Using quality ingredients”.
    Sandi Amorim recently posted..A New Kind of Devotion for the New YearMy Profile

  5. I love the Pomodoro technique. A big problem for me is that my awesome home office is sequestered from the rest of the house, so I often take my work where my wife is hanging out… which leads to distraction or the blurring of the space between home and work (leading to all-night workfests which aren’t very productive).

    Freelancers often have similar problems, but it’s worth noting that with a little prep time and a shovel full of focus, we can make awesome things happen.

    While we’re on the restaurant metaphor, one of my favorite people on the topic of how to squeeze the most out of your business productivity is Gordon Ramsay. Simply watching Hell’s Kitchen can make you a better entrepreneur as the battle-cry is often “attention to detail through elegant simplicity”. In fact, watching his Kitchen Nightmares show inspired me to create a joint project with Annie from Pajama Productivity, Help My Awful Website.

    Great post, Evan!
    Nick Armstrong recently posted..Are We There Yet? Nick’s Origin Story – Killing Some Dreams To Save OthersMy Profile

    • evan says:

      I totally hear you, Nick! For me, the office also contains the home computer AND is as far away from any heating sources as it could possibly be….so this time of year it’s an unwelcoming ice-box. (Okay, I’m in southern California…it’s probably never far below 60º, but dammit, that’s cold enough!) Flip side of that is that everywhere else is the Domain Of The Children. Ah, balance, you elusive devil.

      What an unexpected inspiration for HMAW!

  6. Pingback: This Week’s Marketing Dish: Apple Nachos

  7. Carol Lynn says:

    Ok first of all, if you really do have THE mac n cheese recipe then I totally want it. Boxed stuff is evil and most of what I make “for real” turns out in the bland column.

    And since this isn’t actually a cooking blog and I should probably get some FOCUS, I’ll say that I love your analogy and especially the “spice” part. Keeping things in your mix that may not be paying off – but could – is not advice you hear a lot. Usually you get people telling you to look at the revenue and ditch whatever isn’t contributing. But this goes to the whole slow marketing thing, too, where you have to persist and build the relationships slowly…. wait for it… let the pot simmer!

    Loved this, lots of fun and perfect message.
    Carol Lynn recently posted..Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Knowing When It’s Time To Say Goodbye To CustomersMy Profile

    • evan says:

      Yes, Carol! I didn’t even consciously connect to Slow Marketing, but it makes perfect sense. I’ll totally type up the Mac recipe and send it to you! I made it gluten-free, so it’ll take slightly more effort than cut-and-paste. Worth it, though. 😉

  8. Clare Price says:

    i agree with Carol. i want the recipe! Great point that when we grow, we might skimp on those quality ingredients and it always comes back to bite us with a “flavorless” product or service offering.

    • evan says:

      Glad that resonated for you, Clare! I’m posting the recipe as a new Comment below…will stick it in the Word Carnival FB Group too…

  9. SandyMc says:

    Awesome post Evan. Advice we needed years ago when we did everything known to man in terms of graphic design and marketing – sort of like a specialising in haute cuisine and take-aways!

    If you were a restaurant and were known for cooking a particular type of cuisine really well, people who liked that particular food would queue to eat it. If you put out there, that you cook everything from Thai to Turkish, the chances are you’d do no cuisine any justice and your restaurant would be empty.

    Specialising is a sure way to draw quality custom. And only when you’re known well for the speciality can you afford to add those special little spices that make you truly unique.
    SandyMc recently posted..Have you lost the passion for what you do?My Profile

  10. Nicole Fende says:

    You had me at Mac N Cheese! Always one of my faves as a kid and now one of my daughter’s faves.
    The corollaries to business are surprising. Yet as I was reading this my mind went to those restaurants where they offer everything, from deep fried shrimp to cheese enchiladas. You know that they’re all frozen / prepackaged. Yuck.
    The best restaurants specialize just as you say with the mac n cheese. Thanks for the great analogy.
    BTW – does this mean my mac n cheese is now a deductible biz expense?
    Nicole Fende recently posted..Tame The Paper BeastMy Profile

  11. evan says:

    By popular demand, here’s the baked mac recipe I used (PDF download). I actually not-quite-doubled the recipe and it PERFECTLY fit my 9×13″ baking dish, feeding 10 people (as a side dish) with enough for left-overs. Enjoy and share at will!

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