Anyone can come up with a “brilliant business idea” but it is quite another thing to put your money where your mouth is, take the plunge, give up your job and commit to making your idea a reality. For many founders of startups, taking the decision to leave your job – and a predictable salary – to commit to building your startup full-time can be terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be. There are steps you can take to prove you have a viable startup which reduces the risk, builds your confidence and makes it easier to attract funding.
David Toscano of Cin Cin Italian Bar & Kitchen did just that and Hatty Fawcett of Focused For Business asked him to share the steps he took to build his successful restaurant business – and what gave him the confidence to give up his profession as a lawyer to follow his passion for Italian food.
Hatty: How long had you been thinking about your business idea before you decided to take the first steps in getting your business off the ground?
David: About 10 years. I qualified as a lawyer back in 2001 but was bored of that career about two years in so I started to look for a way out. I spent a lot of time thinking I was not capable of doing anything else.
“I had always had a passion for food and when a friend left law to go into wine, it gave me that little bit of confidence that maybe I could have a second career in something completely different.”
Hatty: Who or what pushed you to take action in creating your business?
“I just did not want to spend the next 20+ years of my life in a job I did not enjoy or care about. I needed to be putting my time and effort into something I had a real passion for”
Having grown up in an Italian family, food was always central to my childhood and something I had always felt comfortable with.
Hatty: What initial steps did you take and why did you choose these steps?
David: The very initial steps were saying yes to catering parties and dinners for family and friends in 2010, even though I had no chef training or experience.
“I did a lot of research about opening a restaurant and quickly discovered it was an enterprise with a high set up cost and high risk of early failure. Given I had never even worked in a restaurant before, this made the jump to restauranteur feel even more precarious.”
So in 2012, I bought a vintage Fiat van and converted it into a street food van which in 2013 I launched as Cin Cin, an Italian street food and event catering business. I started trading at festivals and fairs, as well as taking private bookings to cater weddings, parties, celebrations; all while still working as a lawyer in London.
“Testing my offering in this way was very low risk because I was not reliant on income from the new business to pay my bills and I had set up the business with my own funds.”
I was also aware that I was moving into a completely new sector that I had no experience in so I had no idea whether I would even enjoy working in food & drink. Thankfully, I immediately loved it!
“I spent 2013 testing the business in various street food and private catering events, doing all the cooking myself and calling on family and friends as staff.”
I was enjoying event catering and starting to pick up bigger events which meant I was turning some good profit but by 2014, I was sure that I wanted to open a restaurant so started to look for a chef to work with to put on supper club/pop up restaurant events. This was because I wanted to take the food beyond the limitations of the van and make the Cin Cin offering more refined. That summer I met Jamie Halsall, who is now my head chef in the business, and we started putting on supper clubs in Brighton, London and Kent. This step helped bridge the gap between the van business I had started and the restaurant business I wanted it to become.
Hatty: What did you learn by taking these initial steps?
David: These initial steps allowed me to test the development of the offering in low risk scenarios – I was still working as a lawyer so was not reliant on the income from the fledgling business to fund my lifestyle.
“I still approached each event with the aim of making a profit, but at that stage it was more about getting feedback on what customers wanted and expected from a new restaurant and more importantly, their feedback showed me that there was a gap in the market that we could fill.”
Hatty: Was there a specific event or turning point that gave you the confidence to commit working full-time in your business?
David: In Spring 2015, the business had grown to the point where I no longer had enough leave days from my job as a lawyer to cater all of the events I was being offered.
“I was turning down work and was extremely tired given I was using all my leave for events. So I made a plan to quit law at the end of 2015 and chase my restaurant dream full time. I have never looked back.”
Hatty: What influenced your decision to raise investment?
David: I opened my first restaurant in November 2016 with my own funds. It was a small 20 seat restaurant, all housed in one room which meant the set up costs were relatively low. By Spring 2017, we were constantly full so I began looking for a second larger restaurant site.
“I needed the investment because I could not grow the business without it. While there was cash in the business given the success of the first restaurant, I did not have enough to build and open the second larger site so I raised finance through a mix of bank finance and asset finance on the new kit we needed to open the new restaurant.”
Hatty: Did the steps you had taken to prove your business model make it easier to raise funding for your business?
David: Absolutely. As above, I used the Enterprise Finance Guarantee [EFG] scheme to access bank finance because the business did not have fixed assets to borrow against. In order to access that finance, I had to submit a business plan with costed financials to show that this step to growth was sustainable.
“All of the testing of my business model and offering went into that business plan and was a key part of the data that convinced the bank and asset finance agency to lend me the money I needed.”
Hatty: Do you have any advice or tips for entrepreneurs thinking about starting their own business?
David: Lean testing – there are a lot of ways to try out what you think you’d like your business to be without risking your personal finances with a loan or spending a lot of your savings. But just as important is that it’s also the best and least risky way to get feedback from potential customers about whether your business model and offering is actually what people want. Be prepared to listen and adjust your offering to suit the market.
Passion – I worked hard to become a lawyer but never had a passion for it. Working on something you do not care about is a recipe for mediocrity or even worse, failure.
“So if you are going to start a business, make sure there is something within it you are passionate about. That passion will drive you through fatigue, disappointment, and little failures while also making success all the more sweet as you’ll have created something you can be proud of. And isn’t that why we become entrepreneurs in the first place?!”
Do it now – you can come up with a million reasons why you should not to take a chance on starting your own business or pushing it forward. I spent the best part of 10 years telling myself I could not do it. But rather than saying ‘I wish I’d done it earlier’, I have always just tried to grow the business day by day and make decisions for growth as promptly as I can.
“There is no point waiting around wondering whether you could be great at something. Do it now.”