Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Jeff: I played lacrosse in college, played professionally for a stint, and then returned to playing lacrosse at 50 years old. I’ve loved the sport ever since I picked up a stick and it’s been an incredible experience to revive that passion for the sport at an age when many people would have put the stick away. But it’s also helped me teach my daughters a strong lesson about not giving up on your joy and not to let people tell you that you can’t do something, or you’re too old for something, and that’s been a real incredible experience.
Adam: How did Which Wich come to life and how did you scale it? What advice do you have starting, building and growing a business?
Jeff: In all honesty, I started Which Wich with a logo and a business card. Coming off of Genghis Grill which we had grown significantly, I was itching for what was next and saw a huge opportunity in the sandwich space to disrupt and innovate from what people had come to expect. I’ve always been a big fan of alliteration so was playing around with a variety of different names for this vision of a sandwich restaurant and ended up landing on Which Wich Superior Sandwiches. I made up business cards, worked up a logo, and ended up heading to the National Restaurant Association show where I had a bunch of people come up and say they wanted to be a part of this new concept. Trouble was, it was just that – a concept. I went back to Dallas and with the fact that this had become a real “thing” I set forth on creating the model and establishing the playbook. From there it was about creating the culture – what we call The Vibe at Which Wich – so that we could grow with the right franchisees who bought into the vision and continued to focus on providing a next level sandwich experience in markets we’d enter.
Now, I wouldn’t give advice for would-be entrepreneurs to take that same pathway. But I would say to start with a concept that you’re passionate about to solve a need that exists. If you don’t have that fire to succeed because you truly love the business idea that you’re trying to grow, it will be impossible to get others to buy in to that vision. So, it starts with being obsessed with your mission. Then, you need to grow intelligently. Establish a winning formula through trial and error and once you’re confident in your brand’s potential for replication and success, then roll it out while also continuing to seek improvements and enhancements.
Adam: What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges on your entrepreneurial journey have been most instrumental to your growth as an entrepreneur and a leader?
Jeff: I still go back to the first spark of entrepreneurial spirit when I was just a boy and had the idea of opening a lemonade stand at our local farmer’s market. That day, it was cold and rainy. Not ideal weather for a burgeoning lemonade stand magnate. But I learned a lesson that day that I’ve held on to in the more than four decades since – and that is to never give up. That day, I worked hard and won over customers who, likely felt bad for my situation, but also respected my passion and drive. That’s paramount in all stages of a career. You need to be obsessed with customer service and obsessed with winning.
After founding Genghis Grill and growing that to a sizeable franchise system, I ended up exiting with almost nothing. It was a tough patch in my life and I cannot thank my now-wife Courtney for being my guiding light and support structure through that rough time. I’d seen success and enjoyed it, and here I was back at the ground floor again. I like being an underdog though. I like feeling like it’s me against the world. That was a huge part of my professional growth. It was humbling. But it reignited a hunger in my belly that I work to carry with me in all of my entrepreneurial ventures.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Jeff: Leadership starts with being obsessed. As I mentioned, if you aren’t all-in on your business idea, you cannot expect others to get on board. You have to live your brand every day. That’s why at Which Wich we created the team “uniform” of black and yellow. We all wear it in the headquarters office. All of our franchisees and employees wear it too. It’s a reminder that we are all on the same team fighting for the same goals. To me, that’s an important element of being a leader – to be the human embodiment of the culture that you’re working to create and instill in your team.
It’s important to be empathetic to those within your company, but also to make sure that you don’t compromise your values or the things that define what your business is all about. My advice to would-be entrepreneurs would be to hold fast and steady with the basic tenets of your vision but always seek out insights and feedback to evolve and move your vision forward.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Jeff: Gather a Winning Team: This is applicable to both professional and personal life. My family at home is my support structure and my motivation each and every day. My wonderful wife, Courtney, and my two daughters, are the team that keeps me sane and keeps me striving to be a better man every day. Similarly, your business is only going to be as good as the people who are in the trenches with you every day. It’s been important to me that we take care of those who are taking care of the brand. Take care of those who take care of you and you will be rich in both spirit and your bottom line.
Be Loud and Proud: I’ve long been a proponent that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Be proud of your product, service, brand, business. I literally wear my brands on my sleeve. My typically attire is branded. Don’t be afraid to inject some personality into the world. Project your pride and passion.
Be Obsessed: Start forcing yourself into winning habits now and don’t stray from them even if you taste a little success. Stay hungry. I strongly subscribe to the 15-minute rule – always show up 15 minutes early and always leave 15 minutes later than required. That’s part of being obsessed, but when you strive to be your own boss – it’s even more important to embody the type of employees that you want to join you in your mission to build something great.
Adam: What are your three best marketing and branding tips?
Jeff: Dare to be Different: If everyone else is going it, or you feel like it’s safe, then it won’t be noticed. More so than ever before it’s important to separate yourself from the pack. Be vibrant. Think beyond what is expected. There is no value in branding for branding’s sake. Names that sound mundane will be mundane. Campaigns, concepts and products that feel like you could get them anywhere are going to bore your core customer. Get out of your comfort zone and strive for marketing and branding that will surprise and excite your intended audience.
Don’t Stray from the DNA: While you should always push boundaries and look for ways to make your marketing or branding wow, it should always be foundationally grounded in the DNA of your brand and your brand’s promise. There’s a fine line between exciting ideas that are true to your company’s vision and disruption that will cause brand confusion in the marketplace. Always ask yourself if this fits the core of who you strive to be – but challenge those expectations at the same time.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail: No great company has a 100% success rate for new ideas, products or marketing campaigns. You need to give yourself enough of a parachute to be able to try new things and know that some will fail, but will provide you extremely valuable insights into your core audience and into what does and doesn’t work for your brand.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Jeff: I always go back to advice that my grandfather gave me shortly before he passed away, which is, “Make sure you open every piece of mail and sign every check.” To this day, I make sure to open and look at every piece of mail we receive and I sign every check. It creates personal accountability for what you’ve created and also demonstrates the respect you have for those who are connected to your business.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Jeff: Invest time. As a leader, that can mean providing mentorship or even just being purposeful to thank a member of your team for a good job. In a more philanthropic sense, it’s to make sure that you’re not just throwing money at a problem or issue but actually giving of your time to interact with those in need. It’s your time that will make the most difference.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Jeff: I mentioned lacrosse which has re-emerged as a huge part of my free time in the last year. That has really helped form my belief in the concept of a team and to understand that with any team, every individual member has an important role to play in order to drive the overall team’s success.