I love to cook. What gets me is the self-expression on a plate, the creativity needed to improvise missing ingredients and, at least in my mind, the fluidity in the recipe itself--using a dash instead of a shake may open up an entirely new world. It's worth noting, though, that I don't bake. Baking emphasizes the mindset of precision, the wisdom of compensation and, in many cases, the impeccable sense of measurement--miscalculate the amount of flour and your masterpiece could be ruined. The last time I tried to bake, I improvised a bit and... let's just say I wouldn't have feed it to anyone I actually liked. How you cook reflects who you are. I know bakers, and I know I'm not one of them.

One very early morning, I realized my cooking style represented my entrepreneurial style, too. I thrive in flexibility and improvisation, hence my years as a freelancer and consultant, public speaker and, most appropriately, a startup co-founder. My worst years were not dealing with new challenges and uncertainty, but facing a lack of options and opportunity. At the same time, I have close colleagues that establish strong structure within their businesses and make wise decisions based on the security being offered.

As The Art of Risk author Kayt Sukel recently shared with me, all successful entrepreneurs take chances, but we just have different baselines on what, actually, is a risk.

Even if you rarely set foot in the kitchen, you likely lead as a cook, as a baker or as a hybrid of the two. Here is some food for thought:

  • Certainty vs. agility: Proverbial bakers aim for certainty, repeating a process until it is virtually guaranteed to produce the same result, while proverbial cooks focus on agility, adapting and maximizing to new circumstances as quickly as possible
  • Routine vs. schedule: Bakers get energy from routine, knowing what they are going to do and when they are going to do it, while cooks thrive under schedules, a to-do list that provides guidance but is flexible enough for improvisation
  • Precise measurements vs. slight variations: Bakers love precise measurements, thriving in the beautiful details, while cooks prefer room for last-minute insights once they are deep in the process

There are two legendary food entrepreneurs that reflect the complementary approaches to business.

Bakers are an appropriate mascot here, but the certainty, routine and precision apply to many other culinary arts--like raw seafood preparation. For the proverbial baker, look no further than octogenarian master chef Jiro Ono, featured in the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Brilliant and uncompromising, his little Japanese restaurant has focused on the same sushi and sashimi processes for more than a half century. The result is an unparallel--and uniform!--experience for his customers. His 10-seat spot, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is quietly tucked in a Tokyo subway station, yet it earned Ono-san something chefs would die for: A rare 3 star Michelin review.

Compare Ono-san's long-groomed approach to the Union Square Hospitality CEO Danny Meyer's organic plans. The proverbial cook is now the multimillionaire leader behind Shake Shack. Decades ago, however, Meyer almost became a lawyer, and then, with no prior food experience, he was encouraged to launch the local Union Square Caf. The success led to, one summer, making a small Manhattan pop-up burger joint. The short-term Shake Shack became so popular, he decided to open up a permanent location--but that was going to be it. Demand outstripped supply, though, so he expanded even more. Now Shake Shack is a public company with locations worldwide and just added a chicken sandwich to its long-standing burgers and fries only menu.

Meyer would likely fail living under Ono-san's narrow guidelines, just as Ono-san would collapse under Meyer's relative chaos. Meyer sets boundaries and rules, and continues to break them--if the opportunity presents itself, he'll go beyond it. For Ono-san, the routine and the beauty drives him.

Culinary author Jeanette Hurt recently reminded me, though, that it isn't a black-and-white proposition: Being more of a baker doesn't mean you don't change your plans, just as being more of a cook doesn't mean you don't follow recipes. Ono-san adapts his menu based on what's available at the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, while Meyer establishes and enforces proper guidelines makes sure all his Shake Shacks provide a uniform experience.

Chances are you can identify with some blend of these two styles. It is important to know what drives us, as every facet of our entrepreneurship should be built to encourage our personal and professional growth. How are you making your business more aligned with your innate style?

Published on: Jul 17, 2015