When Founding A Company With No Experience Isn't A Huge Mistake

How a 23-year-old CEO with no business background or restaurant experience grew his healthy fast-food restaurant into a global chain with 160 locations.

When Matthew Corrin imagined the opening of his fresh-produce-serving, fast-food restaurant, he imagined a line-up of hungry office workers looking for a healthy lunch alternative to greasy fast food chains. What actually happened was chaos.

One opening day, the founder and CEO of Freshii sliced his finger and had to rush his kitchen manager, who’d broken his nose after fainting at the sight of Corrin’s bloody finger, to the hospital. His business was off to a rough start.

Then again, what would you expect of a 23-year-old who had never taken a business course or worked in food service?

Now, nine years later, even Corrin is surprised of his success. "I had a concept of more than one and probably less than 10 (locations)," he laughs. The company is now a global chain with 160 locations in 50 cities in nine countries.

Corrin's inspiration was born of his frustration with healthy lunch options when he was working as a marketing manager for Oscar de la Renta. There were a lot of hitches with his plan. Aside from his youth, he had no business background, no retail management or restaurant experience, no business plan, and money borrowed from family and friends.

"When I approached this business, it was not with a business eye. It was not with a restaurant eye. It was with a consumer eye," says Corrin. In lieu of a business plan, Corrin did write down some guiding principles, which he says have been instrumental in leading the company to success. He argues these principles not only apply to the restaurant business, but are an essential foundation for any company, especially one led by a young entrepreneur.

1. Talk is Cheap, Execution Sets You Apart

In the early days of Freshii, Corrin poured over earnings columns and press releases from other consumer companies and recognized a trend. "The ones that were not succeeding in the public markets were talking about the same thing over and over again and never actually doing it.

The ones who are actually succeeding every quarter seemed to be growing," says Corrin. One such company Corrin sought to emulate was Starbucks. "Every quarter they’re executing," he says. It’s not often you’ll find Freshii executives sitting around a board table talking about taking action. "We’re pretty good about not procrastinating," says Corrin, who took this principle to heart about three years into the business when he changed the company’s name.

Freshii was originally called Lettuce Eatery. In 2008, with 15 stores, Corrin wanted to expand the menu beyond make-your-own salads and include burritos and rice bowls (meals that had higher margins), but with a name like Lettuce, he knew customers would continue to think of the restaurant chain as a salad bar.

"We had to have a name that convinces people that we could be an authority on all types of fresh foods not just salads and the longer we waited the harder it was going to be," says Corrin. The name change was bold, if not controversial, but has clearly paid off.

2. Launch Fast, Fail Fast, and Integrate Even Faster

The fact that the word "fail" is visible in Freshii’s guiding principles may come as a surprise, but Corrin accepts in order to be innovative in the restaurant business, failure has to be an option, and he isn’t afraid to take risks—but says the failures must happen fast.

"We have a number of test stores (where) we’re always testing, failing, succeeding, failing again, then getting to a point where we’ve finally figured it out and can scale it," he says.

3. Build a Company with a Killer Culture, Not a Culture that Kills Your Company

While Freshii continues to open new locations, Corrin says he looks for like-minded partners whose philosophy is aligned with that of the company. His ultimate gut check on a potential partner is whether he would go out for a beer on a Friday night with them, arguing like-minded people make the best business partners. He often meets with potential franchise partners several times before signing a deal (sometimes over a beer).

4. Pick Your Battles

As a young entrepreneur, this was one of the toughest and most important lessons for Corrin. "I think young entrepreneurs have a naiveté," he says. Corrin says his youth can at times be a strategic advantage, allowing him to play the young, naïve CEO card to get the person he’s negotiating with to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I’ve had so many contract negotiations where I’ve been called an arrogant little prick and I could have either fought back or I could have said, 'Wow, thank you for having the confidence to tell me that. Can you tell me what you think I should do better?" he says.

Backing down and occasionally playing up on his naiveté has often resulted in more successful deals than if he had fought back.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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