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Tips From The Top: One On One With Matt Friedman

I spoke to Matt Friedman, Co-Founder and CEO of Wing Zone, about his journey and best advice

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? 

Matt: Something that may surprise people about me is that I am an avid sneaker collector. I have a personal collection of over 100 pairs of sneakers of all different generations and all kinds of styles. I also think that it may surprise people that we founded Wing Zone in our fraternity kitchen at the University of Florida… that’s not a story that you hear every day. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Matt: I’ve been able to get to where I am today by having a great business partner for the past 25 years… I don’t know how many people can say that. The fact that Wing Zone started with a $500 investment in 1993 is an interesting start and saying that we came from humble beginnings is an understatement. I have a great amount of support from my family, my wife and my kids as well as my business partner. They understand what it’s like for us growing the business and have always been there for us, which has always helped us grow and get to where we need to be. We have also gotten to where we are by having dedicated franchisees that believe in us and believe in the brand. At our core, the Wing Zone team consists of a group of passionate people that love our food and have fun. 

My business partner and I founded Wing Zone at the University of Florida in our fraternity house kitchen. We would use the kitchen as a chicken wing laboratory and develop these unique wing flavors to a house full of willing taste testers, never knowing that our “research assignment” would one day become an international franchise operation. We opened our first franchise location in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 2000 and our first international location in Panama City, Panama in 2010. Our international franchisees are growing at a rapid pace and they represent Wing Zone very well in their countries and are fantastic brand ambassadors. Our lineup of distinctive flavors is the result of 25 years of research and development. We’re constantly evolving our menu to keep our guests interested, most often to great success, but along the way we have had some flavor missteps that make us laugh when looking back, like BBQ Bacon, Garlic Butter, Curry and even Blueberry. 

In terms of challenges, the delivery business has had an amazing cycle. When we started in 1993 there was no internet or online ordering. Now, delivery orders are mostly digital, and 45% of our revenue comes through the internet. We have seen the cycle change from free delivery with no competition to now having several competitors in our space, so it’s definitely made us step up our game in terms of product, operations and growth. 

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? 

Matt: There are three things that I believe make up the defining qualities of an effective leader, which go hand-in-hand with how aspiring leaders can take their leadership skills to the next level. The first is leading by example. In this business, being a restaurant operator is challenging and you must be able to do what you’re asking others to do for you, whether it’s cooking in the kitchen or sweeping the floors. The second is that you need to invest in people; no entrepreneur is going to be successful on their own and they need a strong, successful team backing them. The third is that you need to have fun and be passionate about what you’re doing and the business you’re in. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Matt: Lead by example, invest in people and have fun. 

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Matt: I have a philosophy of hiring based on passion over skill. I believe any great leader believes in independence. You can’t micromanage and you need to listen to your team members and those that surround you in order to continue building a better company. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Matt: As a business owner, you get paid last. It puts things into perspective. Sometimes it can be an amazing month or year and a large amount of money, and sometimes it’s not. But you never get paid first. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Matt: Everyone has a story to tell. It’s important that we listen to those stories and learn from those around us, whether it’s the story from an entry-level employee or from the CEO. It’s so simple but I think that it sometimes gets lost in our busy lives. We become accustomed to tuning others out but connecting with others is one of the most important components of our lives.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you? 

Matt: My passion is playing sports and being active. I’m avid about participating in sports, whether it is basketball, tennis, golf or ping pong. It’s my outlet and I treat business as a competitive venture, which has also pushed me to always focus on doing better and winning.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Matt: Every great company has to create and live core value. While the world is continuing to evolve around us, our core values have stayed the same. Believing in our product, investing in our people and our brand are crucial to the success of our company. And we have been fortunate to never have lost faith in any of that.

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