I like “difficult” people Some thoughts on startup development, company culture, and leadership

15 years ago I launched my first company. Being an entrepreneur, I went through highs and lows, deadlocks and personal transformations — and took notes along the way. Here are the most worthwhile ones. At least I hope so.

Fyodor Ovchinnikov
Fyodor Ovchinnikov

There are no shortcuts to triumph

Many people think that success in business is defined by unique ideas. But in reality, it’s simpler and more boring than that. Long-term success is defined only by the quality of implementation, and remarkable success means the high quality of cool ideas implementation. And the quality of implementation just means long work hours.

Companies are like athletes. Do you want to be a world champion and reach the highest point? It’s possible, even if you were born in an industrial community somewhere near Nizhny Tagil. You just have to visualize your big goal and be ready to work hard. You have to forget about “ordinary” life. When your classmates hang out in the yard, you have to be at the gym. You have to exercise a lot — and I mean a lot. Every day. Day after day, perfecting every move, so that one day you can become the best at what you do in the whole world.

Everything is simple and difficult at the same time.

Business is about limitations

Business cannot operate without limitations. Limitations force us to prioritize and find inventive solutions. Limitations force us to say “no” to what we want to do, but it’s not so important right now. It often seems that everything you do today is necessary for business. The number of such elements increases and all this leads to an increase in costs. We must learn to refuse and focus on less. This is the choice that limitations determine. If 10 years ago I’d had no limitations, there would have been no Dodo Pizza.

They are not the end of creativity — on the contrary. It’s like an IKEA designer’s task to make an elegant and comfortable chair, but only for $7. You always want to create a cool product but you have to restrain yourself, understand the current context and stage of the process, be patient and move step by step. It’s difficult, and you always try to strike a balance, because any extremity can be potentially lethal. If you think about operating revenue and nothing else, you can’t grow and build the future. If you think only about the future, you can die on your way there because you won’t have enough time and resources to change the market.

You’re like a dancer on a tightrope above the abyss and without a safety net.

You can’t lean against a soft wall

I work with people for whom business and the product are more important than their personal career within the company.

There are places where having a successful career depends on being on good terms with the management or with your colleagues. This can lead to people not expressing their thoughts honestly, in order to preserve these relationships. I like “difficult” people who personally value the importance of making a good product. They ask tough questions. They argue because they care. This discussion, the differing points of view, and the feedback, are conflicts that are useful for company development.

People who avoid product-related conflicts in favor of the relationship can gradually lead a company to stagnation. The best way out is to specifically look for people whose main motivation is the product, responsibility, and the opportunity to make decisions, not just to work in a “cool company.”

One word matters in life and in business, and that’s balance. Balance is important here as well: conflicts should be productive and safe, based on mutual respect and trust in everybody’s best intentions. Another important principle is that there has to be total democracy and freedom of speech while the discussion is happening, then the decision and all the responsibility falls onto the team leader, and when everything is put into motion there has to be support and team discipline.

Who can replace me?

Every two weeks, I hold regular meetings with the leaders of our main areas of operations. These are not chaotic talks — they run according to a preconceived plan. For instance, every two weeks we ask ourselves and answer the same key questions. How are we implementing our strategy? How have we boosted Dodo IS development? How have we improved the flavour and quality of our pizza?

And I’ve realized that there is one more key question we must ask ourselves regularly, “What have I done to groom a successor — a person who could take my place?”

Of course, it doesn’t mean I want to replace everybody, but a company can’t grow if we don’t groom leaders. I think it’s the key issue for a manager and leader fit for our company. This question changes your thinking patterns. It’s the key for everything — knowledge transfer, task delegation, coaching, team member growth, long-term goals, and the company culture.

I’m going to ask this question every time, every two weeks, even if this period of time doesn’t seem long enough for our leaders to be able to think about it. What can you do in two weeks? You can hold a meeting with someone, delegate a project, expand their responsibility, and then analyze results together. It might be just small steps, but all this will lead to the key question — who in my team can replace me?

Why would a CEO roll up sleeves?

We’re already a big company. Many markets, different concepts, a large IT system. It would seem that there is no practical sense in it. It’s been a long time since I was immersed in operations, so I can’t suggest a hardware or standards improvement, and even if I could, it wouldn’t be at all consistent.

Firstly, I like to feel the actual business — our guests, and our employees. I want to understand on an emotional level where we are, where we are going, and how close the image I have in my head is to the reality of the situation. Are our values and principles carried over into real life?

Secondly, I want to set an example. Gemba is a very important practice. We believe that managers creating products, regulations, processes, and standards should personally test what they create, to see and feel the reality of it.

I have to admit, managers mostly don’t enjoy rolling up their sleeves, because it’s a step out of their comfort zone, even though few will admit it. You come from an office where you feel secure and in your element, into a completely foreign environment, into a world where you’re a newbie and a klutz. That feels uncomfortable.

And yes, for me gemba is a step out of my comfort zone, too, but, as they say, life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I like stepping out of it.

The Art of Balance

Balance is probably one of the most important words in business, in life, and in the world in general.

In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins calls it the great power of the “and” conjunction that makes opposites unite. A company has to be both creative and systematic. Free and disciplined. Innovative and conservative.

We at Dodo truly love innovating. But we must always keep balance in mind. Business is art within certain restrictions, be that strategy, principles, business model, or technology. Unmitigated innovation can bring a business down, something that almost happened with LEGO.

At the end of the 1990s, the construction toy manufacturer was undergoing a crisis. The company took Poul Plougmann on board as an emergency CEO. LEGO started launching new toy lines that were not made from the traditional intercompatible bricks and experimenting in various directions. Initially, sales grew drastically, but by 2003, it became obvious that another, even deeper crisis was awaiting the company.

In 2004, Plougmann left and LEGO returned to what it was most competent at. Designers had to create new sets out of the bricks they already had at their disposal. Art within restrictions. Ultimately, the LEGO company achieved an unimaginable surge in an era when all seemed to point to the fact that kids weren’t interested in old-school construction toys.

Unrestrained innovation is bad. An absence of innovation is even worse. Balance is the key.

Survival of the fittest

The QSR market is extremely similar to nature. It’s a market where an enormous amount of players, concepts and models function, appear, and die simultaneously. Total competition. Every concept and every business model is like a species in the wild.

It is probably impossible for a single individual to invent a new and successful concept (I am not talking, of course, about standalone restaurants, but about the mass market, hundreds of stores, and millions of customers). It appears as a result of natural selection, through an almost random exhaustive search of options in menu adjustments, prices, locations, production models, etc., during which many a beginning dies off.

Founder’s channel: Dodo reaches beyond pizza

Why do all of the “hyper-innovative brand-new” products, like “pizza in a cone” and the like, fail? Because it’s so very difficult to teach a new and unknown product to millions upon millions of customers. You’ll die teaching.

The only efficient strategy is to observe and find working patterns, models, products, and logic, ride the wave, and only then to improve and develop. The McDonald brothers didn’t invent burgers and fries. ;)

Going the long-distance

When I was a kid, we would watch football with my dad. He said to me once, “Do you know what separates the truly great players from the simply talented or just excellent ones? The great players know how to play more than just a single good game, but to do it constantly, for a long time, and consistently. They can avoid burning out for many years.”

A lot of people who work with me have probably heard the words “we’re going the long-distance” many times. Large plans and large goals demand time and patience. So how do you keep that energy and motivation for many years, if not forever, if that’s the only part that defines everything? What keeps me coming back to work at Dodo with a smile on my face after ten years?

The only way to reach the end of a long road is to enjoy it and to be happy along the way. Not to dwell on the future, but to live in the moment, moving towards that future, discovering something new every time, and deriving pleasure from the learning process, growth, and creation.

Don’t wash your project out

If the company starts to “challenge” ideas far too much, people start to doubt everything, and as a result, an environment is formed where it is difficult to make bold projects with their own vision. Doubts, of course, are necessary up to a certain level, but they can greatly interfere when you do something new, because no one knows exactly how to do it — you have to step into the unknown, and to do this you need to believe, otherwise you won’t have energy. 

As a rule, people with the most developed critical thinking are financiers, as they assess risks professionally. I realized that it’s impossible to leave financiers alone with as yet inexperienced entrepreneur-managers inside the company, since it’s possible that they’ll sow too many doubts in the minds of the latter. In short, we should be looking for balance everywhere.

There is no doubt, questions and criticism are bad. Too many doubts, too. Financiers and entrepreneurs need each other. The art is to feel the balance. It is necessary to feel it, because we are people, we consist of feelings.

I learned an interesting expression from the world of cinema — “to wash out the project”. It’s when producers, investors, all little by little, make so many changes to the director’s idea that nothing remains of the original idea. In the end, everyone loses.

Great crews are about trust

When I was an archaeologist, we often went to archaeological digs. In the evening, the team would choose a suitable place to spend the night. We’d drive up to the shore and set up a camp.

As a rule, at the end of the day everyone was exhausted. We wanted to quickly put up the tents, light a fire, cook food, and relax. The process of setting up the camp was different for different teams. Let’s say there were teams A and B. Team A had a leader who was very clear about what everyone needed to do. When someone finished a task, they stood up and waited for further instructions. There were no orders in Team B. The camp grew as if by magic. People did what they did best. If someone coped with the task faster, he began to help others. No one thought that someone was doing more and someone else was doing less. I’ve seen people change by the end of the journey. There was an atmosphere of trust and mutual assistance in Team B. In non-standard situations, this team acted most effectively, and team A was in chaos.

I recall this experience when I think about teams in business. What is the main difference between Team A and Team B? I think it’s trust. In Team B, people trusted each other and initially believed that no one would skip work. This created a magic atmosphere of mutual assistance and cooperation. I’m sure that such a psychological aspect as trust plays a key role in the team’s efficiency, especially in a company where there are a lot of horizontal interrelations.