• Chris Barbin

From World Economic Forum to the County Fair

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

When thinking about what I’d do after leaving the helm of Appirio, I contemplated many options. Should I look at starting another services company? Join the board of a company in a new space? Or maybe sit on the beach with a tequila in my hand.

All of these sounded pretty appealing, but I did none of them. Instead, my wife Lori and I decided to build and open a restaurant in rural Green Lake, Wisconsin. This decision met with some puzzling looks when we first talked about it with friends and colleagues, and that was before the infamous polar vortex hit this week.

It's because restaurant statistics are brutal. According to a study by the Restaurant Brokers, 90% of independent restaurants close during their first year in business, and the remaining have an average lifespan of only five years. The margins suck too - averaging 3-5% (and I thought professional services margins were tough).

Yet, to me, a restaurant was appealing. It was still in services so I could do what I love, which is help build teams. It was in a completely new space so I could learn something new. But most importantly, it was an opportunity to spend more time with my family who I hadn’t seen nearly enough of over the last decade and get off the road for a while. Plus, I could also do this while focusing on my new gig as Global Culture Officer of Wipro.

The Plan

Lori would lead day-to-day operations of ThunderBoss Bar and Grill, and I would oversee the build out, financials & technology. It was a romantic idea, and how hard could it be? If I could help grow a company from 0 to 1300 employees and nearly $200M in revenue, surely this wouldn’t be so hard!

I couldn’t be more wrong. It turns out managing a multinational technology company requires a completely different mindset than managing a restaurant in small town America. Not only are the workforce and customer expectations completely different than what I was used to, the launch and learn iterative mentality that I brought from business-to-business high tech doesn’t exactly fly in an industry where one or two bad dining experiences has the potential to put you out of business.

After one particularly grueling shift, Lori and I found ourselves wondering if we would do it again we had the choice. Then we were introduced to Boomer the Pig.

The fateful meeting came after a brainstorm with Trent Hazelberg, Thunderboss’ creative head chef, who suggested hitting the livestock auction at the upcoming county fair to buy the prize winning pig. A week and $1400 later we came back with Boomer, the 267 lb hog that took home the blue ribbon. I also took back with me a more open mind and a greater appreciation for the community Thunderboss now served and what our little business could contribute to that community.

Boomer and Brandon Friday, Boomer's owner, in the foreground; our chef Trent in the middle.

The Epiphany

There I was on the sidelines at the fair holding an auction paddle, talking with the farmers, suppliers and families who live in our backyard. Talking to them not as a frustrated business owner dealing with higher than expected staff turnover and difficult operational challenges, but as a peer who lived and worked in the community.

It gave me some serious deja vu too.

Flash back to 8 years earlier, Lori and I were attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, an annual event in January where 2,500 politicians, academics, financiers and CEOs gather to share experiences and solve some truly tough problems. I was representing Appirio, who had just been named a WEF Technology Pioneer for our crowdsourcing work.

I came into Davos as a startup CEO and Silicon Valley technologist excited to share our accomplishments and meet other leaders dealing with similar issues. I left with something bigger - a much broader personal perspective and a greater sense of purpose.

I still remember a 90-minute brainstorm with Italy's Minister of Economic Development on creative ways to stimulate their economy, especially for the 15-24 year olds who were facing 30% unemployment at that time. This year the WEF attendees tackled globalization issues from “plastic waste to mental health drives to facilitate peace in countries besieged by conflict” and everything in between.

But it wasn’t the keynotes or those curated meetings that hit me hardest, it was the hallway conversations and barstool debates where people really opened up. Those conversations were a reminder to me that business is about more than just the bottom line. That the casual conversations with people on the bus (or standing next to you at the fair) are sometimes way more impactful than watching someone on stage.

As a business owner dealing with pressing issues like profit margins, payroll or angry customers, it’s easy to get entrenched in the day-to-day crap and your own view of the world. Until you find yourself in sessions, debates and dialogue with people who do something very different than you and live beyond your own “backyard.”

The End (or Beginning)

And while the WEF stage might be bigger than the county fair, it was the sense of community and purpose at both events that sparked my feeling of deja vu and my desire to stay focused on the restaurant. The people speaking at WEF might have bigger names than those at the county fair, but both were just as friendly, just as excited to celebrate their accomplishments and just as open about their own challenges. The challenges at the WEF might be bigger and more global in nature than those faced by people in a farming or lakeside community but they are no less pressing to the people involved.

For Brandon Friday, the senior at Green Lake High School who raised Boomer the Pig for 9 months, Boomer was a down payment towards his plans to go to college. It was recognition for his daily dedication and hard work on top of his schooling, sports and family commitments. His parents and grandparents all came to the restaurant to thank us for supporting him, and their appreciation was humbling. Not unlike my own experience at Davos.

Maybe tech and hospitality aren’t that different after all.


© 2019 by Chris Barbin. All right reserved.