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10/16/2003

What made sucessful startups work well?

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Nearly 100 members showed up at the Noodles & Company Central Support Office on Wednesday morning to get words of wisdom from two local entrepreneurial stars.

Aaron Kennedy, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Noodles, and Jim LeJeal, former co-founder of Rain Dance, which designed multi-point conference calls with shared Web visuals, sat on the panel — one part of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce’s Esprit Entrepreneur 2003 events.

The discussion at 2590 Pearl St. opened with both panelists recommending corporate culture be developed as a critical, not incidental, business strategy.

“We think about culture in sort of an anthropological way,” said Kennedy, 40. “Like the ancient Incas, we have rituals, taboos, legends and behaviors.”

Early on, he said, culture will be communicated face-to-face. In Noodles’ case, he has aimed to communicate the basics — respect, honesty and clear communication — along with a passion for the food, service and listening closely to customers.

Encouraging openness, he said, inspired changes that led to sales spikes. For instance, dinner sales jumped from 20 percent to 55 percent shortly after the company switched its down-the-line food service to sauteing each dish.

Warming up the decor with more color and removing the aluminum accents also made the restaurants less austere and more inviting to dinner crowds, he said.

Those changes stemmed from the culture in which the employees served. However, as staff grows, leadership must systemize conveying that open culture consistently to all employees — something that can get overlooked during busy startup times, Kennedy said.

“Culture is paramount,” LeJeal said. “We were very conscious about finding ways to reach employee number 73.”

Both also encouraged the group to develop the tightest business plan possible without marrying it — especially at the get-go, when many companies depend on making major changes quickly to survive.

“We were using a pipe wrench back then,” Kennedy said. “Now we’re using an Allen wrench.”

Other discussion points ranged from using discipline in hiring the best people to fit both skill-wise and culturally and frequently initiating meaningful conversations with customers for closed-loop quality control measure.

“You can tell by the questions asked that (attendees) were hungry for the knowledge of what success looks like and how you there,” said Alice Swanson, interim chamber president.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.