Startup Lessons from a Sushi Chef

October 14, 2012

12:00 pm

At 86, Jiro Ono may be the most passionate man alive.

He is a sushi chef and the subject of the 2012 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Even after decades in the business, he cannot imagine retiring. He would be bored, he says. And he hasn’t reached his full potential, even though his restaurant received three Michelin stars and he is considered by many as the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is always looking forward and upward, never satisfied, constantly tweaking. One wonders what it would be like to see the world as he sees it, to smile the way he smiles.

In the documentary, which I highly recommend, one of the commentators mentions the five traits of a great chef. They can also apply to entrepreneurs, and really to anyone who cares about their work.

Take your work seriously

To Jiro, sushi is art. He serves up 20 pieces of sushi to each customer, one at a time, to be eaten immediately after he lays them on the counter. He knows the subtleties of each flavor: the difference between fatty, medium, and lean tuna, how the taste interacts with the vinegar in the rice and the wasabi and soy sauce. If his son comes back from the fish market with a slightly flawed fish, he won’t serve it; he can’t serve it.

Jiro knows that your work is your creation, an expression of yourself. It’s a little piece of your mind that was once an idea – or in his case, maybe a dream he had – and is now in the hands of your customers. Taking your work seriously means understanding that you have the potential to build something that can change someone’s life, or make them smile. That doesn’t mean you can’t joke in the office, but it does mean that you should be devoted to and proud of the value you’re creating.

Constant improvement 

Jiro’s mastery is all in the little details – from choosing the perfect-tasting fish from a line of fresh catches at the market, to massaging octopus for 50 minutes to bring out its flavor and softness, to fanning seaweed over a grill for a lightly roasted taste. And he always wants to be better, better, better.

Entrepreneurs can channel this state of never being satisified. As Jiro says, you don’t know what’s possible because it hasn’t been done before. Be sure to leave time for imagination: what haven’t we tried? Who haven’t we talked to? Where could we be more efficient, or deliver more value? Even staples of the web, like Facebook and Google, are constantly making changes because they know that stagnation leads to irrelevance.

Cleanliness

“If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean, the food isn’t going to taste good.”

In the same way, if the product isn’t “clean,” users aren’t going to enjoy it. And what’s more, clean and understandable design shows a respect for them. Hidden FAQs and cluttered homepages tell another story.

Impatience

Jiro does things his own way – he cooks rice differently, handles fish differently, and prepares seaweed differently – and his sous chefs have to obey. He sounds a bit like Steve Jobs in this respect. Jobs could be impatient and stubborn with those who didn’t see the product the way he saw it, or who made mediocre attempts at a design.

Even entrepreneurs who don’t dictate from above can be stubborn, in a positive sense. Their stubbornness lies in doing things their own way rather than the status quo. Startups attract outside-the-box thinkers who are confident in their wacky ideas, disruptive schemes, and oddball strategies.

Passion

Perhaps the most inspiring part about Jiro’s story is his passion. He says he is “ecstatic” when making sushi, and never once hated his work.

As the movie rolls on, you get the sense that it’s not about the sushi at all, but the pursuit of excellence. And I think entrepreneurs can be similar, especially those who jump from industry to industry. It’s not so much about the particular ideas, but about the process of creating and bringing about change in the world. That’s a passion that makes you rush back to work after a meeting, like Jiro does; feel fulfilled year after year after year, like Jiro does; and experience ecstasy, like Jiro does.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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