Houston voices

Here's what lean startup tips founders can learn from this Houston restaurateur and Rice University MBA

Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA grad, practiced a lot of lean startup techniques when starting his restaurant business, ChòpnBlọk. Photo via Instagram

It was one of those toasty, 95-degree evenings in late September in Houston, and we were clinking our craft cocktails to a full house at ChòpnBlọk's latest pop up concept – the fifth restaurant takeover in his series. I don't know what was hotter… outside, the vibe, or the spice in the ata rodo (scotch bonnet) maple syrup our plantain pancakes were lathered in. But one thing is for sure, as he prepares to open a brick and mortar location in 2020, Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA graduate and the founder of ChòpnBlọk, is proving himself to be a mean, lean (startup) machine.

After getting his MBA from Rice Business in 2014, he began traveling extensively for work and was frustrated with his inability to easily access authentic West African cuisine in Houston and beyond. He was able to conveniently experience other cultures through successful restaurant concepts, but not his own. So in order to see if he had what it take to bring high quality, convenient West African inspired cuisine to Texas, he did what every MBA graduate dreams of: he rolled up his sleeves and secured a part-time job working the line at Chipotle.

Chipotle taught Ope the art of restaurant operations, and he made money learning it. Pulling together his lessons learned, he began building out his business plan. He identified a large West African population in Houston that was being under-served and was confident in his ability to address this market gap with his fast-casual concept. From his time working with various engineering groups, he knew that he needed to test his idea early so he could fail early and fail fast without breaking the bank.

This led to the inception of ChòpnBlọk. Ope knew acquiring a food truck would be too timely and too expensive, so he went a more creative, cost–effective route. He began hosting private dinners where his guests experienced a multi-course dining program rich with West African flavor.

Those full and happy guests unknowingly were participating in a fun focus group. He leveraged these dinners to collect data from each diner. What did they recommend he charge per meal? Did they like what they were eating? What was their current dining out behaviors? After hosting over ten smaller private dinners, he had collected valuable pieces of information that would inform his business plan including:

  1. He had market data from over 200 diners.
  2. He proved that there was an appetite for West African cuisine in Houston. His fears that the common stigmas about African culture would hinder his growth seemed unfounded.
  3. He quickly optimized operational efficiency in feeding his guests.

Having validated customer demand, honed in on customer preferences, and demonstrated that the market opportunity he believed existed could be captured, all without taking on investors, it was time to take the next step. ChòpnBlọk began efforts to scale, finding a way to re-engage customers who were hungry for more.

This is how the pop-up experiences came to life. With his restaurant takeovers, Ope is able to serve well over 100 paying customers per dinner and gain all the operational know-how that goes along with such an affair. In a risk-free environment, he gets to test various creative concepts and fine-tune logistics…all with almost zero overhead and very minimal risk.

You can probably guess what is next. It should come as no surprise that ChòpnBlọk has been approached by funders and developers to launch a brick and mortar location for 2020. With hundreds of paying customers, a net promoter score staying high at 9/10, and an entrepreneur's tenacity like his, I have a feeling ChòpnBlọk will be coming for Chipotle in just a matter of time.

Want to learn more? Visit their website and follow them on Instagram.

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Caitlin Bolanos is the senior associate director at the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

Budgeting your startup is one of the most important aspects of ensuring success. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

According to Jean Murray, a business professor at Palmer College where she taught business startup and finance, the most important thing an entrepreneur must meet head on is budgeting. Startup budgeting is important because it allows you to make an educated guess as to what your expected income and expenses will be.

Murray recommends planning for the first day of your startup.

"You have to start by determining what you'll require on the first day of your business in order to open the doors and start accepting customers or having your website go live," she says.

Your first day budget

Murray says it's best to break down your "day-one startup budget" into four distinct categories:

Facilities cost. This is the cost of your startup location. Your office. Your company building or office or warehouse.

Fixed assets. These are expenditures for furniture, equipment, or company cars that you'll need to establish your company on the first day.

Materials and supplies. This is pretty straightforward. It includes office supplies and promotional stuff. In order to get your company started, you'll need these materials on the first day.

Other expenditures. This can range from paying an accountant to help you build a reliable and efficient HR system, licenses and permits, deposits, legal fees, or any other fees needed on the first day.

Monthly expense "guesstimate"

Murray recommends that you estimate monthly expenses, too. Both of the fixed and variable variety.

"Fixed expenses are expenditures that don't rely on how many customers or subscribers you have. We're talking expenses like rent, utilities, office supplies, insurance, loan payments and utilities," Murray says.

Variable expenses, on the other hand, are expenses that actually DO change with how many customers and subscribers you have monthly.

"Variable expenses range from production costs, commissions, postage and shipping, packaging, and wholesale price of items," Murray explains.

Estimating monthly sales is the hardest aspect of startup budgeting. Nobody can forecast what sales for a new startup will be.

"You'll have to take an educated guess. What are your best and worst case scenarios? Then come up with something in the middle," she advises.

For realistic budgeting, you have to understand that not every sale will be counted. It will depend on what kind of business you are running and how your customers and subscribers pay.

"It's wise to include a collections percentage with your monthly sales estimate. If you estimate sales for February to be $100,000 and your collection percentage is 70%, then you should show that your cash for February is $70,000," Murray suggests.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.