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What Traverse City’s Food Trucks Can Teach Us About Launching and Growing a Business

The Little Fleet – one of our co-sponsors for the Spring Fairy Fling on May 1 – announced on Facebook earlier this week that food trucks would be rolling into its lot throughout this month. This got me hungry. It also got me thinking.

I’m pretty fascinated by the whole food truck scene in Traverse City. I always marvel at the quality of the food and the speed at which it is produced out of the back of a truck. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise – food-trucking in Traverse City is ultra-competitive. Just spend an hour or two at The Little Fleet in the summer and you’ll see what I mean. A food truck can’t put out a subpar product and expect to make it because customers have way too many other options just steps away.

Food Trucks of Traverse City

I’m also intrigued by the fact that, at least in Traverse City, a food truck is often but a stopping point on a longer entrepreneurial journey. Food truck Roaming Harvest opened a physical location – Harvest – several years ago. White on Rice, which will be back at The Little Fleet, also recently opened a physical location on Fourteenth Street. Sparks BBQ food truck is also in the process of opening a physical location on Front Street.

It’s no coincidence that food truck operators often go on to bigger things. They’ve cut their teeth in a cut-throat testing ground. And food trucks are by no means unique in this respect – this is how business works in all industries.

So what can a food truck lot in a small town in northern Michigan teach us about decision-making and entrepreneurism in today’s economy?


Out of Your Head and Into the World

Many people have business ideas inside their head, but few act upon them. Even when someone does act, it’s relatively rare that an actual business grows from the seed of an idea, and rarer yet that the business succeeds.

There are many reasons that most business ventures fail. It might just be a bad idea to begin with. There may not be financing available. There may not be time to execute the vision. But often the problem is that the entrepreneur simply fails to put his or her idea out into the marketplace. At the end of the day an idea is just that, an idea, until you act upon it. {tweet that}

This failure is driven by one of two – or sometimes both – factors: fear and perfectionism. Some fear failure, or rejection, or ridicule, and so never reveal their vision to the world. Others tinker with their concept or product for so long that it never gets off the ground. In other words, they “Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Whatever the reason for the entrepreneur’s decision or, perhaps more aptly, indecision, the result is the same: a failure to launch. It’s the worst type of failure because it means that someone didn’t even give their idea a chance.

Entrepreneurs in the most dynamic, innovative sector of the economy – technology – live by the mantra: “Iterate fast and release often.” It’s a core tenet of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial philosophy. The most well-known evangelist for this idea is Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, who is oft-quoted for saying “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” This is a variation of the old saying that “You always throw away the first pancake.”

The point is that if you wait until your concept or product or service is perfect and proven, you’ve waited way too long. It goes without saying that it’s better to get something imperfect out into the marketplace quickly, than to tweak something to death that never sees the light of day.

In the tech world, companies are encouraged to release the “minimum viable product.” The minimum viable product is the most basic product that can be released that provides some customer value and some opportunity for the company to solicit feedback and learn from customers. This process allows companies to launch then improve, or iterate, when releasing the next version of the product. It’s the reason you’re continually pinged to upgrade and update Apps and software to the latest versions.

Ironically (to some) the quality of a launch is often inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes. Tinkering, adding on and optimizing features tends to weaken, not strengthen, the finished product. Think about some of the most successful consumer-oriented products in the tech world. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Craigslist and SnapChat are relatively simple in terms of interface and function. On the other hand, Yahoo! and AOL struggle due to overreach and complexity.

“Faster is better” is something we’ve experienced in our own business. When designing and developing a website, the best outcomes are often those with the tightest deadlines. As designers, when time is tight, we have to focus intently on what’s most essential and not on what’s possible. Clients also have to be decisive in their decision-making. We just launched a website for a new law firm in Detroit on a short timeframe and the process ran smoothly and (in our humble opinion) the end-product turned out great.

When launching this blog, we had to put aside some of the features we wanted in order to meet our self-imposed deadline for launch. But in the long-run that decision will help, not hinder. We’ve had almost three months of experience working with Life and Whim, and gathered lots of real-world feedback from our users, which has allowed us to “iterate” behind the scenes. We’re now on the cusp of rolling out some of the new features that we delayed in order to launch, and with the benefit of feedback have discarded other ideas that we now realize are unnecessary. Just as it’s important to edit your writing, you must edit your business, too. Less is almost always more. {tweet that}

At the end of the day, if you have an idea, you have to get it out into the world – no matter how imperfect – and see what happens…which brings us back to Traverse City’s food trucks.

Food Truck Equals Minimum Viable Product

Many food truck operators don’t start cooking and serving out of a hot, cramped space in a gravel parking lot because it’s their ultimate objective, but rather because it’s the first, most viable step in a more ambitious journey.

Traverse City Food Trucks

A food truck allows operators to test their concept, refine their menu and culinary skills, learn business basics and gather essential feedback from customers. Sure, some would prefer to simply open a bricks and mortar location right off the bat, but it’s rarely that simple. A food truck typically requires significantly less startup capital, less staff to manage, less cash flow to operate, and less red tape to navigate. It’s a minimum viable product that allows operators to hone their craft.

Despite gaining experience, some ultimately fail. Others are content to maintain the status quo. But some, such as Harvest, White on Rice, and Sparks BBQ, leverage the skill-sets they’ve acquired and iterate their way into a physical location.

If you have an idea in your head that you just can’t shake, let it out into the world. What you unleash won’t be perfect and that’s okay – it’s not supposed to be. But just like the food trucks of Traverse City, you’ll get better with experience, and pretty soon you’ll be serving up something irresistible.

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