Jiro Dreams of Sushi: The ultimate entrepreneur?

Like many of you, I’m mildly addicted to Netlfix and the seemingly limitless possibilities of movies and TV shows it offers. A lot of parallels have been drawn between media examples and the reality of self-made entrepreneurs – the Silicon Valley TV series, The Wolf of Wall Street movie, to name a couple – but an unlikely documentary may present one of the most inspiring archetypes of them all.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a 2011 documentary that became a sleeper hit with this look at Jiro, an 85-year old chef, and his sushi restaurant. In today’s startup ecosystem, especially in the United States, having an idea or starting a company often with a sense of entitlement or even complacency. “We’ll raise a small, $2 million, Series A.” “It’s the Uber for _____, of course it will scale.” “Our head of design comes from Nest.” Half a year can be the half-life for a start-up. Entrepreneurs need to prepare themselves for a hard-scrabble road to profitability, let alone success – and Jiro is the embodiment of that dogged work ethic.

One, Jiro spent years becoming an expert in his field – not only in production / techniques, but also his entire supply chain. As a result, Jiro was an “athlete” in terms of understanding multiple disciplines enough to make strategic decisions and trade-offs. He understood the “big picture” of his venture but also knew enough details to get involved in the operations. For example, he knew the superiority in taste when massaging an octopus for 45 minutes, versus for 30 minutes, and so he developed his processes accordingly.

Two, he also had the talent – and the self-confidence – to delegate to a stellar “management” team. For example, he realized he would not be the expert when it came to sourcing (e.g., picking the best fish from Tsukiji market), so made an effort to identify, and cultivate through ongoing motivation and opportunities – the right person to fill that role. One of his sons managed a second location in Roppongi, committed to the same culture and values as the flagship store. Not only did this drive operational excellence, but also helped contribute to a culture of mutual respect and emphasis on excellence among the management team as well.

Third, Jiro knew his consumers – and never underestimated them. He only served a product that met all of his incredibly high, strict, and lengthy criteria set. As a result, he created a product that people loved – leading to tremendous word-of-mouth and loyalty among patrons.

Fourth, he understood the importance of simplicity. Jiro had a key advantage in doing one thing very, very well. He didn’t even offer appetizers – only sushi. By having a streamlined product portfolio, the (small) team was able to fully focus on executional excellence of a small number of items, as opposed to trying to reach for excellence across multiple categories.

Lastly, he had a simple but clear vision – to make the best sushi in the world. Although Jiro seemingly absorbed every detail of his team, his facilities, his supply chain, and his consumers, he always kept a laser focus on his definition of success – a definition that was not only understood but also internalized by his team.

Jiro’s journey to get to this point was not one of months, but rather decades. Remember that companies like Google and Amazon spent years innovating and perfecting their craft before becoming household names. Without a complete focus on execution – and the experience to understand how to ensure that – a startup cannot reach that level of perfection that Jiro embodies.

─ March 27, 2015