I think we all know that every business starts with an idea — usually a very straightforward idea. Sometimes to achieve our primary goals, entrepreneurs get creative and launch side initiatives. With some good fortune, an owner can even end up with two value-creating possibilities.
Every once in a while, I’m reminded that really straightforward businesses can generate substantial value. Restaurant chains are classic examples – Ray Kroc made all the difference with McDonald’s. Business trajectories can change when the vision for the company changes. While a consultant might say the change is manifested in its operating plan, the reality is the change starts with the embrace of a new goal — a goal frequently championed by a new voice. Potbelly is a Chicago-based company restaurant company is now publicly traded. Potbelly is a great example of a business that experienced massive change — even a business with relatively long history. It is history that I have seen unfold. Every time I look at a small business, I’m going to remember the Potbelly journey.
Around 1980 one of my friends worked at the original Potbelly shop on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. In 1985, after we completed college, moved to the neighborhood and took jobs as bankers, we enjoyed Potbelly meals many evenings. While we loved the product, we never talked about how this great product could be the core of a large business. Yet, when I saw Potbelly’s expand several years later, I couldn’t have been more pleased.
This quote from Potbelly’s S-1 helps illustrate just how long this transformation took.
“Potbelly started in 1977 as a small antique store on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. To boost sales, the original owner began offering toasty warm sandwiches and homemade desserts to customers. As time passed, Potbelly became a well-known neighborhood sandwich shop with a loyal following of regulars and frequent lines out the door. The original owner sold the Lincoln Avenue store to Bryant Keil in 1996. Bryant was the entrepreneur with the vision to expand Potbelly. We opened our second shop in 1997 and continued to open shops in more neighborhoods, reaching 100 shops in 2005, 200 shops in 2008 and 300 shops in 2013. Throughout our growth, each new shop has maintained a similar look, vibe and experience that define the Potbelly brand.”
It took 20 years to open the second store. Wow! The great menu and concept weren’t tapped until a new owner took the business over. To be clear, I’m not being critical of the antique store proprietors who created Potbelly. I’m guessing they had another passions and skills. They might not have been cut out to build hundreds of sandwich shops. Yet, this publicly-traded business came about because of a new vision. This happened because someone had the courage to ask, “How big can Potbelly be?”
As you think about your business, are you sure you’re asking yourself that same question about your business? Becoming a really big business won’t be automatic or easy in most cases, but it might just be possible. You owe it to yourself, employees, friends and clients to consider all the possibilities, including the big possibilities.
Disclosure: I have no direct or indirect economic interest in Potbelly. No Potbelly employees or advisers have been consulted in the preparation of this blog. The photo is a derivative of a photo available on Flickr. Click on the photo to view the original shot.