Michael Robinson of Proof Incubator: “Invest in your team outside of the business or work environment”

Invest in your team outside of the business or work environment. Caring about your workers goes a long way, especially in a time like the one we’re living through. Check in with them regularly and make sure they are okay. Invest in their dreams and interests and it will pay dividends for them and the company. […]

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Invest in your team outside of the business or work environment. Caring about your workers goes a long way, especially in a time like the one we’re living through. Check in with them regularly and make sure they are okay. Invest in their dreams and interests and it will pay dividends for them and the company.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Robinson.

A co-founder of Proof Incubator, Michael Robinson has spent nearly two decades immersed in the food and beverage industry building and growing organizations. Michael has a deep passion for helping early stage entrepreneurs avoid pitfalls, find success, and realize the elusive “work life balance.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

The youngest of four, I was born into a family of entrepreneurs, but not necessarily the glamorous version of entrepreneurship most people envision. My father and his twin brother had children young and started businesses out of necessity. They had wins and failures, but ultimately came out on top after years of hard work. Watching them when I was younger, I decided I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur — but it’s funny how things work out.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m going to share two here.

The first is less a quote and more of a statement seared into my mind whenever I try and cut corners. I was working on a project at my dad’s restaurant, cleaning the grease trap and pressure washing the dumpster area. I was maybe 15 years old. I quickly finished the job and went to get my dad to sign off on my work so I could go play video games. “Son, if I wanted the job done half*&% I would have just had one of the employees do it. I asked my son to do it because it needed to be done well. Come get me when it’s right.” Seldom a day goes by when that doesn’t cross my mind. It has pushed me to go farther in sports, school, business, marriage, and as a father to my own children.

The second came from one of the grittiest line cooks I’ve ever had the honor to work with. It was the middle of a Sunday lunch rush on Mother’s Day, one of the busiest days for restaurants across the country. We were averaging more than $5,000 an hour in sales, tickets as far as the eye could see, and a ticket printer that seemed to never stop printing. When I started running out of ingredients at my salad station, I started to panic. No amount of Red Bull would get me through this, I thought. He quickly jumped in and said, “fast and hard like you live, boy!” It was like being on a whaling ship in the 1800s. He said, “as long as you never stop moving in life you will always be fine.” It took me a long time, but I think I am starting to understand what he meant.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense has always been a guide to staying real and practical in my approach to life, business, and politics, which are all one and the same when you’re a business owner. The vernacular he uses is a bit dated now, but his message is amazingly relevant when you step back and look at the world as a business owner.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I was a serial entrepreneur, mainly in the food and beverage arena. My first companies were brick-and-mortar restaurants and catering. Then I jumped into consumer packaged goods (CPG) as the chief operating officer for Chattanooga Whiskey. From there, I began investing and consulting in early-stage breweries and CPG companies. Looking back on my journey, while hard and sometimes disjointed, it couldn’t have been better scripted to prepare me to handle 2020.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

It was more of a natural reaction than a pivot. I had recently launched Proof Incubator with my business partner, Mia Littlejohn. Proof is an industry resource center, bar, and business incubator. Our grand opening turned into our grand closing on March 13, 2020. We didn’t have time to think about our business model. All we knew was that the pandemic was going to be really bad for people and businesses, especially in our industry. We closed our cocktail bar, restaurant residency space, and our commissary kitchen so we could go all-in on relief programs for restaurants and their employees.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

The “aha moment” struck pretty quick. Having been a cash-strapped restaurateur and server earlier in my life, I knew that most people in the industry, from top to bottom, live paycheck to paycheck, and that operators often exist from payroll to payroll, or depend on a busy weekend to break even. We knew it was going to be ugly in the restaurant world, so we rushed to add value and resources for anyone who could use them.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Incredibly well. We have developed and refined several courses that we are launching across the southeast and hope to have our platform operational nationwide by summer 2021.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

That’s a big list, honestly. I have a killer family and support structure that has allowed me to take the risks I have over the years. But if I had to rank them, they’d probably be in this order:

1. Wife

2(a). Mom

2(b). Father

3. My Proof team and partners in my past ventures

4. Everyone else who has been a part of this incredible learning process

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

As a father of three, husband to a wife that runs circles around me at home and in business, and an owner-operator, there are plenty of interesting stories from this year. Let’s just say that 2020 from start to finish has been one big “interesting story.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Leadership isn’t always about being in the trenches with your team. I have a bad habit of always feeling obligated to be in the thick of the day-to-day needs, but as a leader it’s critical you see the whole field. I never realized how much was lost being stuck in the weeds of running a shift or opening a kitchen.
  2. Delegation is essential for growth. Passing a responsibility on is tough because you know 9 out of 10 times it won’t be done the same way you’d do it. But for an organization to grow, you’ve got to be willing to hire well, train well, and trust those people to do their jobs.
  3. You can be more productive working 40 well-organized hours than 80 haphazard hours a week. The “4-hour Work Week” mentality is garbage for an owner-operator in the food and beverage industry. However, there are philosophies and organizational habits in it that can get you to a productive 40-hour workweek versus the standard 60- or 80- hour weeks most industry people are used to.
  4. Invest in your team outside of the business or work environment. Caring about your workers goes a long way, especially in a time like the one we’re living through. Check in with them regularly and make sure they are okay. Invest in their dreams and interests and it will pay dividends for them and the company.
  5. Build narrow and deep. Strong foundational relationships with vendors, customers, staff, and partners will help you overcome any obstacle.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

This is a huge issue for everyone and something that we’ve been working to provide resources around.

In regards to media or news cycles, the old saying “too much of anything is bad for you” certainly holds true. I consume a lot of information, but I almost completely tune out social media and 24-hour news networks. Most of what you’ll find there is so full of extreme opinion, right versus left arguments, and content for entertainment that it’s hard to discern the facts.

My strategy for social media might not be the best and probably not realistic for most people: I simply don’t do social media except for maybe once or twice a month. In those moments, I will check in on friends and see what’s happening in their lives. My suggestion is that if you can’t avoid social media, then at least don’t engage with people looking for an argument and just unfriend or block that crazy aunt or college friend posting every three hours.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

World peace would be nice, but I guess I will try and stay in my lane on this one. I think it would be incredible to see a movement to reimagine the work-life balance for those in the service industry. This was a huge struggle for me and many of my peers, and it’s not as difficult to achieve as many people think. The challenge is undoing decades of dogma and practices.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Number 1: “The Dude” (aka Jeff Bridges)

Number 2: Jimmy Buffet

I know they are entertainers, but they have built incredible brands and shrewd businesses while being some of the most fun and entertaining people on the planet.

How can our readers follow you online?

Keep up with what we’re doing at Proof Incubator online at and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn here.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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