What the Restaurant Business Taught Me About Making Money Online

I’m not going to dive into the whole nature vs. nurture debate, because the truth is that we are all some combination of the blood that courses through our veins and the circumstances of our surroundings. If a possible genius is never given the opportunity to explore his hidden talents, we’ll never hear of him. Throw a bunch of money at someone who has no idea what to do with it, and chances are they’ll be bankrupt in a week. Bad with a dollar, worse with a million.

My parents have never been technologically-savvy and understandably so. To this day, my mom doesn’t really, completely comprehend what it is that I do for a living and how I am able to make a living doing it. However, my parents have indirectly guided me to where I am today. I grew up in the restaurant business, so the entrepreneurial spirit was always present.

But even on a more granular scale, the day-to-day of running a business instilled in me several key lessons and insights that I apply to my work today as a freelance writer, blogger, and Internet business owner.

What Are Today’s Specials?

Just about every restaurant has daily specials. The restaurants that my parents ran over the years were no different.

We had certain mainstays that would cycle through frequently, like the veal cutlet or the bacon cheeseburger. Regular customers wanted to know what to expect, and they certainly had their favorites. We also had to change things up, not only to keep things fresh and interesting, but also to reflect what was readily available. If the meat supplier had a special on something, that’d oftentimes translate into one of our specials too.

But really, my parents stuck with what they knew and what they were good at. The same holds true when running a business online, even if all my “products” are entirely digital. My clients know what I’m good at, so that’s what they ask of me. And through building up that portfolio and those references, more clients come in via word of mouth who expect more of the same. They’re my specials, because they’ve become my specializations.

Leave Nothing to Waste

I’m going to let you in on the worst kept secret of the restaurant business. Almost nothing is left to waste. If food from the kitchen goes straight into the dumpster, that’s literally money being taken out with the trash. We’re not going to repurpose food from a customer’s plate, of course, but that doesn’t mean unused food in the kitchen is just going to be thrown out.

Say we have a roast turkey special. The whole bird gets roasted and carved… but not all of it sells. The next day, we have a turkey sandwich special. Oh, we still didn’t rid of all of it. The day after that? Turkey noodle is the soup of the day. You’ll find exactly the same thing happens at your favorite grocery store. Those rotisserie chickens are just the raw chickens that were about to go bad. You’re paying for the privilege of taking out their trash.

As an online content creator, the same mentality needs to apply. Nothing goes to waste, because almost everything can be repurposed. That blog post you just wrote? Repackage it into a YouTube video. Or a podcast topic. Or an infographic. Collect and curate your blog posts and publish a book. Turn it into a white paper. Book sales waning? Give it away as a free ebook to build your mailing list. There’s always a new way to repackage what you already have.

Never Off the Clock

You see those business hours on the front door of a restaurant? Those aren’t reflective of all the hours that go into running a restaurant. There’s prep work and cleanup work before and after regular business hours. And my parents often did their accounting and bookkeeping at home after the restaurant already closed for the day.

Particularly with online businesses like blogging and freelance writing, you’re never really off the clock unless you make the conscious decision to do so. Only you get to choose how you spend your time. I’ve long since felt the self-inflicted pressure of the all too familiar paradigm.

Since I can work at any time, I feel like I should be working all the time. There’s always something that could be done, because the business is effectively a 24/7 operation. That said, this flies straight in the face of the dot com lifestyle. And so, it falls squarely on your own shoulders to choose when to clock out. If ever.

A Sudden Expert in Everything

What does it take to run even a modestly successful restaurant? Good food? Good service? Those are cornerstones, to be sure, but they’re only the beginning. It’s only when you find yourself deep in the trenches that you realize just how complex a machine this can be. There are so many moving parts and since you’re mostly (if not completely) doing this yourself, you need to know about all of them.

Do you know about accounting and managing your books? Do you know about marketing and advertising and attracting new customers? Do you know about graphic design for stylizing your menus and daily specials board in an attractive way? What about pest control? Maintaining and fixing kitchen equipment? Negotiating with suppliers, rotating stock, and creatively combining what’s on hand into something profitable? Conflict resolution for employees who aren’t getting along?

It’s a lot. And online business is much the same. Beyond the blogging, you’ve got SEO, marketing, social media, accounting, taxes, customer relations, IT support… the list goes on and on. You’ll be wearing a lot of hats and you need to become an expert in practically all of them, at least to some degree. You’ll learn on the job and you’ll need to adapt quickly.

And it is with this kind of mindset that I’m still around doing this freelance writing and blogging thing some 13 years later… even if I’ve never flipped a burger or made sweet and sour pork in a commercial kitchen.