Launching a start-up or a side hustle is an exciting challenge. And while earning your MBA can teach you a lot about business, I've learned many of the same valuable lessons from playing music in bars.
I've been a tech writer for 25 years, and a few years ago I met someone with a similar secret life: Dan Maccarone, who runs the interactive design firm Charming Robot, also owns a few bars in New York City. We laughed a lot about the unexpected things that happen in bars, and how operating one can be a lot like managing a start-up.
"Bars are like start-ups on steroids," says Maccarone. "You have to make money every night. There's insane production schedules and impossible customers. And if you do it right, there's also insane profit margins."
He and I wrote the Audible Original "The Barstool MBA: Why Running a Bar Beats Running to Business School," a how-to for creating a start-up. Here are three of our best lessons we've learned from the bar that you can use to increase your success at your start-up or side hustle.
People can pay 75 cents and drink a Bud Light at home. What makes them pay $5 to drink one at the bar down the block? The fact that the pub satisfies a primal need for human contact.
In an age of automated voice response systems, a good bartender will ask, "How was your trip to California?" The smile, the chat, the recognition of customers as people — that keeps locals coming back, and tolerating 600% markups.
You can use this knowledge of your customers to strengthen your own business endeavor. For example, if you're a fitness trainer, tell your clients they can report their workouts between sessions. This positions you as a real person in their life, not just someone they pay. If they tell you they're getting in shape for a big event, make note of that date and ask how it went. It costs you nothing and helps them feel connected.
A thoughtful bartender will notice a friendly couple at the end of the bar fiddling with their phone, ready to go, and quietly top off their glasses of wine. This keeps people with good spirit in the space and builds loyalty.
Meagan Smith, who manages an Italian restaurant with a bar in New York City, says that "tiramisu on the house" can fix a cold hamburger, a warm beer, or just about anything.
According to the peak-end rule, which says customers remember the last thing that happened to them before they leave, Smith is on to something. So if you're a hairdresser and your client endured a long wait, hand them a bottle of styling product to diffuse any lingering resentment.
There's a longstanding tradition at bars of sneaking into the back room for a scream when tensions rise. Then you take a deep breath, walk back out with a smile, and ask, "Is there anything else I can get for you?"
Let your frustrations go. Otherwise, they will affect the rest of your customers, and you could go home with half the tips.
Perhaps no other skill is more useful and transferable from bar work than learning how to stay upbeat and carry on when times are tough. If you're a babysitter, don't show you're upset when parents return late. If you're a dog walker, avoid complaining if you got caught in the rain.
At the end of the day, it's about how much your clients enjoy working with you. And you have a lot of control over that.
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