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I still get amazed and amused at how simply this guy pulled it off.
Oobah Butler created a restaurant, listed it on TripAdvisor and out of 18,000 odd restaurant reviews in one of the busiest cities of the world, he managed to take his restaurant to the number 1 position in London within just 6 months.
The thing is, the restaurant did not even exist!
A gem of a lesson is lying here for start-ups and for established organizations wanting to implement new ideas.
Butler used to write fake reviews for some restaurants on TripAdvisor and this led him to the thought that whether a restaurant itself on the platform could be fake or not. This motivated him to carry out a social experiment.
He created a simple website, listed it on TripAdvisor and got his friends to write reviews from different computers so that the anti-scammer technology of TripAdvisor did not get alerted.
He positioned his restaurant as an appointment-only restaurant and with no exact address, lest he had people knocking on the doors of his “restaurant” which was actually the picture of the shabby shed of his house. The reason why the name of his restaurant stands as “The Shed at Dulwich”.
His food menu was categorized as per people’s moods like “love”, “happy”, “excitement” etc. There was a weird picture of two guys eating on the roof of the restaurant, or rather his house.
All these unique factors and the mystery around it, coupled with his friends’ reviews, created such a frenzy curiosity amongst people that it reached a point where his phone refused to stop ringing from people wanting to book his restaurant. He used the “over-booked” reason to deflect all the requests.
But it was not only customers who were calling him. He also got calls from people who wanted to work there, PR agencies, television production companies, celebrities, and bloggers. And one day he even got a call from one of the government councils who wanted him to relocate the restaurant to a place that they were developing. All for something that was thinner than air itself!
The funny part is, even his food pictures were fake. For instance, the shack of lamb was a clever picture of his own leg!
So, did he actually open the restaurant? – the start-up gem.
No. At least not till now.
Although, after it was rated as number 1, he did decide to invite some guests to his “restaurant” (the shed of his house) just for one evening. He did not even bother to cook or hire a chef. Instead, he bought ready meals from supermarkets to serve his guests and decorated his shed into a rustic and queer atmosphere. It was already quite shabby and thus required minimum effort.
Guess what? The guests loved the atmosphere, found the microwaved “food” to be great and told that they would definitely come back.
Butler can now actually go ahead and open the restaurant for real if he wants to. His experiment has already proved that people loved the unique concept that he was offering. Imagine if this was Butler’s business idea, then what a brilliant strategy he executed to test whether his idea had enough punch in it or not even before spending a single penny on a single ingredient. With the minimum amount of effort, cost, and risk, he proved that the concept would work in a city where competition was cut-throat and restaurant churn-rate hovered around 40% in 2016.
What we are witnessing now is a minimum viable product (MVP) at its best.
The thing that we need to take away from this is not that we have to do stuff like getting fake reviews or misleading people to test our ideas;
but how can we be constructively creative and clever in testing a business idea in real-time by investing the minimum amount of cost and effort, thereby immensely reducing the risk that is attached to any start-up idea; and in the process, learning the maximum about the customer.
This equally applies to established organizations
The MVP for matured organizations would have to be more polished, depending on the context; but the principle should remain the same.
In one of my earlier jobs in a large multinational, we got a requirement from a business unit to display real-time invoice statuses on our web portal for our B2B customers. The idea was that it would improve the timely payment of invoices. This required plugging the website with the ERP system which was a costly and time-consuming affair in that particular context.
To test the idea, we built invoice status fields in the website for just two key clients. Then we got someone to manually fill up an excel every day with the invoice statuses which was sent to the developer who would manually upload the file on the website so that our customers could see their updated invoice statuses every day. Although from outside it looked like an automated process, behind the screen it was all manual. That was our MVP.
What it showed was that there was no considerable improvement in invoice payments! Imagine if we had done all the technical work to integrate the website with the ERP system for a need that actually did not quite exist!
Butler’s story is one thing that I will try to remember every time I have to execute a business idea for an organization or for myself.
And I sincerely hope the same for you.
Click here to watch the amazing video of Butler’s journey of creating the fake restaurant and taking it to the number 1 spot. Don’t miss it.
If you want to know more about MVPs, you may want to read this amazing success story of a start-up.