Just before Thanksgiving, I found myself having an email conversation around an interesting Harvard Business School post regarding Spanish uber-chef Ferran Adrià and his world-renowned restaurant elBulli. The conversation started with this quote from the article:
“Adrià says he doesn’t listen to customers, yet his customers are some
of the most satisfied in the world. That’s an interesting riddle to
One of the conversation’s participants, Phil, then noted that
“All indications point to Apple/Steve Jobs using the same strategy. El Bulli isn’t at all a mass market success, but the other is. Interesting indeed.”
Gastronomy and my favourite computers, together at last? That really got me going…
The key thing about both Adrià and Jobs is that they’ve taken a leap of faith, choosing to focus primarily on producing the best things they can – this, to me, is the primary goal of both businesses. Apple rarely if ever competes on price – in their view of the world, the profitability/viability of the business seems to be more of a constraint on how good they can make something, not a primary factor in considering how to build it.
This can seem expensive – Adrià’s huge test kitchen (not even mentioned in the HBS article) is an utterly ridiculous extravagance for one small restaurant out in the middle of the Spanish countryside. You can get a taste of the test kitchen (and the things that happen there) from this section of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations…
Apple. meanwhile, has taken some product ideas through many, many stages of development before deciding to shelve them entirely.
As Michael Lopp explained during an interesting session at SXSWi 2007, designers at Apple are often specifically briefed to come up with “whatever you can think of” in the early stages of product development, with no consideration of practicality or cost. They will produce around ten different designs, which are then pared down towards “the best stuff we can think of, within the constraints of shipping a profitable product”.
The key thing here, and the common thread between Apple and Adrià is to truly believe that “if you build the best, they will come.”
As to the relative “mass market”-ness of the two, the biggest reason elBulli isn’t a mass-market success is that they’ve chosen not to be. Adrià could open a London elBulli, A New York elBulli and a Paris elBulli tomorrow, and all three would have overflowing reservation books. But a distributed restaurant empire would make it impossible to ensure the attention to detail and quality which makes the original restaurant so celebrated. And since producing “the best” is his absolute focus, expanding the restaurant would make no sense.
This is precisely why he’s branched out with Fast Good – it’s an opportunity to produce the “best possible convenience food experience” – a different set of constraints to being “the best dining experience in the world.”
“The best” is subjective, and depends partly on your market and the constraints under which you operate. But we live in a world where many companies seem to aim for “just good enough”, where “customer care” is a frustrating, maze-like mess and most products are serviceable but uninspiring. In such a world, it’s sometimes refreshing to remember that there is another way. That striving for excellence over budget streamlining; aiming for a defined audience rather than the mass-market can lead to the production of truly wonderful things, without necessarily sacrificing a sustainable, profitable business in the process.