What Making 5,000 Picnics Taught Me About Growing a Business
Principles I’ve applied in the tech world — learned from launching a top-ranked dining spot and delivery service in Paris, France.
Photo: on my way to hand deliver a wooden crate filled with French delicacies for one of my first picnics.
Lounging on a blanket in Parc Monceau, our group of 5 nibbled on our last bits of baguette and cheese, and sipped down the last of our chilled rosé wine. It was a Sunday, when most stores in the city are closed, so replenishing our picnic stock would require a lengthy trek around the neighborhood.
The conversation turned hypothetical — “what if someone would bring everything we needed directly to us — from the strawberries, to the fresh, crispy bread?”
This indulgent question turned into a business plan and the next step in my career.
My husband and I joined up with two co-founders, and launched the city’s first gourmet picnic delivery and catering service, Paris Picnic (more on that story here). For two years, I ran the company as CEO (and for some time, also as head chef, photographer, main delivery maiden, chief cheese chopper, etc.), growing the business from a few weekly deliveries to 40+ every day. We quickly got a lot of attention, being profiled in the likes of the New York Times, Lonely Planet, Vogue and on French TV, and rose through the ranks in the Paris dining scene to become the #1 ranked food experience in the entire city on TripAdvisor (out of 13,000+). The company’s held a top-ten rating since, and the team has opened a restaurant and boutique in the heart of the Marais.
It wasn’t easy. The growth required immense amounts of passion, time, creativity, sweat, laughs and the occasional tears. Though I’ve since moved on to work in tech and startups outside of Europe (Uber and RingMD), the Paris Picnic experience continues to yield applicable lessons, no matter where I am. Here’s what I learned.
1. Sell an experience, not just a product.
Our customers might have thought they were just buying an Instagram-worthy picnic, but our team knew we were delivering a unique experience, convenience, and for many, a life-long memory. As such, we did our best to make every delivery a “perfect Paris Picnic experience” and constantly looked for ways to improve the customer journey. We had a rule of trying to accommodate every special request we’d receive (more on this later), and worked to quickly resolve any of the inevitable mistakes that accompany rapid growth. Our awesome delivery crew, made up predominantly of Parisian DJs, musicians and international 20-somethings, were an important part of the overall customer experience — always providing helpful tips and that Parisian je ne sais quoi to customers.
Whether you’re selling an app or a trip in the back of someone’s car, be obsessed with understanding your customer’s needs, and then deliver on it.
Photo: Pay attention to the details! If your customer likes to take photos of your product — add in props that can be used, like flowers. If your customer is only in the digital space, make it easy for them to share about their great experience.
2. Surprise and delight your customers. Often.
I encouraged my team to take on a gifting mindset, which included spending two extra minutes at a delivery site to share a joke or give a dinner recommendation to foreign customers. We also encouraged physical gifting of something extra — wrapping a flower in the blanket, providing a handwritten note or adding the occasional 5 extra minutes to a photo session to get the perfect shot.
The extra time and money spent on the details made the experience more memorable for the customer, and it made my team feel good about what they’re doing, and think about their impact on the customer beyond the business transaction. It’s also good for the business — being nice and pleasantly surprising the customer makes them happy → increasing the chances of converting them into repeat customers.
Photo: Get out and face your customer. Here’s one of our first pop-ups during the summer of 2012 on the River Seine. Getting out there was both scary and exciting.
3. Empower your employees to make decisions.
By the time my first employee joined I was in over my head. With the demands piling up, I didn’t want to become a bottleneck, so I spent a lot of time working closely with each founding team member in the kitchen and making deliveries. Once knowledge was transferred, I let them make decisions in many areas. This trust led the team to take ownership in our mission and take pride in delighting our customers. We built a culture that accepted mistakes, which encouraged the team to speak up when there were errors and freely share customer feedback without fear of being reprimanded.
The open environment we created, where idea sharing was encouraged, allowed us to deliver a better product. This culture is time consuming to create and hard to maintain as a company grows, but very important for the long-term success of any team, in any industry.
4. Accountability. If someone isn’t in charge, then nobody is.
Define key tasks and make sure that a point person is responsible and accountable for each. Equally important is to not make assumptions and “hope for the best” when there’s important work to be done. We stumbled many times due to miscommunication and overlapping responsibilities that led people to think “someone else will take care of this.” Wrong.
Photo: Empower your team to make decisions — it makes them feel good, saves you time and is good for the business. Many hands and minds make for a beautiful picnic.
5. Lead by example. The tone is set at the top.
Our team truly is our greatest asset, and the fact that everyone was invested in the mission to deliver great experiences helped it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Startups are hard and the work never stops. Some of this work is fun, but most of it is much less glamorous (maintaining spreadsheets, staying on top of customer support e-mails, inventory management, waking up at 4:00am to ensure that products are delivered on time…). Throughout, I always tried to do my best in following through with commitments, setting an example through my actions and trying to be the most Paris Picnic-y teammate. An amazing company culture is not built when hiding behind a desk or a screen.
Photo: Ultimate multi-tasking and no opportunity missed — doing a picnic photoshoot for our website launch in my wedding dress after a rewear-the-dress shoot near the Notre Dame de Paris.
6. Get out and meet people.
We spent as much time defining and building out the Paris Picnic brand (“what we stood for”) as we did on tasting dozens of wines and hundreds of cheeses. The startup, entrepreneur and food communities in Paris are vast and established, so instead of sitting behind our computer screen solely to market our products, we worked to meet with and integrate into the community. This led to both spreading the word about our business, as well as getting valuable recommendations and feedback on our products and business model. To build a brand, focus must also be placed on long-term relationship building with key providers, journalists and customers, to name a few.
Photo: Go out and create some buzz! Here’s a crowd pouring out of the Paris Picnic restaurant at one of the summer parties we hosted. And there’s my yellow friend Pépé, too.
7. To protect your team and company, saying “no” is necessary.
I built the company on the premise that we should always say “yes” to customers. If they’re gluten free — we’d cycle up to a gluten-free boulangerie in the 9th arrondissement and pay 5x the price for the bread, without charging extra. I said “yes” to delivering a picnic at 9am to a park behind the Chateau Versailles, even though it required renting a car, a 1hr+ drive and piling my parents and husband into the car because we had plans to tour Monet’s house in Giverny later that afternoon. Then there was the time I agreed to 10+ hours of work to craft and deliver welcome bags to hotels and apartments all over Paris for someone’s wedding, resulting in a few late picnics later that day. Oops.
Saying yes and being flexible to make customers happy is essential for any business. But saying yes without assessing the opportunity cost and with no limits can ruin a business and a team. I said yes to too many orders and exceeded a sustainable capacity in the first season of operation, and ended up severely burnt out within 6 months of operation.
Photo: We still accommodate special requests for customers, but have predefined a batch of acceptable requests. Saying “no” is difficult and uncomfortable, but sometimes necessary!
8. Templatize to make space for creativity.
We implemented checklists for the order, prep and delivery process, and templates for inventory management. These checklists helped make sure we made the right amount of food each day and also prevent us from accidentally forgetting one of the 20+ items that would be included in a typical picnic. Though these seemed unnecessary and superfluous at first, they became critically important as we grew. The docs freed up mental space for each team member and ensured that customers got what they needed to enjoy themselves. I also noticed a spike in innovation from my team from the increased time on their hands, and decreased overall stress.
9. Never compromise on quality.
A great product speaks for itself. From the beginning, we sought to deliver a premium product and experience. While this meant that our price point was higher, we saw this as an advantage because it allowed us to compete on quality rather than cost. This focus on delivering premium products and experiences has helped Paris Picnic retain a top place in the market, even as several similar copycat services began operating in Paris over the past few years.
10. Don’t just talk about it, do it.
After the initial idea for Paris Picnic came up, my husband and I eagerly developed the concept and discussed our thoughts widely with friends. The feedback was good, and we spent weeks continuing to research and plan. Eventually, a friend and serial entrepreneur, Andrew, said,
“If you want to do this, then go make some picnics and see if you can sell them. If you aren’t going to try it, then you need to stop talking about it already.”
The gauntlet had been thrown. Two days later we tested the concept. Then the business quickly moved from being an intellectual exercise to a real entity as we brought on co-founders and worked towards the formal launch.
The most important first step is to be passionate and motivated to create something valuable and of quality. The second is to take the leap and actually try to build it. And last but not least, no matter what you set out to do, don’t forget to take care of your own health (physical and mental), or you may find yourself absolutely burnt out. I’ve been there and done that, too.