Today I toured one of the biggest beef plants in the world – JBS of Greeley, Colorado. JBS is the largest beef producer worldwide and had $120 billion in annual revenue in 2014. The tour was an incredibly enlightening and disgusting experience. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good New York steak, I just wasn’t really interested in seeing how Billy the cow gets turned into one (or many). Yet as unappealing as it may have been, I couldn’t help but admire how incredibly efficient the whole process was. It got me thinking, what could the Billy-turned-steak process teach us about running a startup?
“Not answering these questions ahead of time would be like cleaning a meat grinder without first checking the power is off.”
I understand that for some entrepreneurs, the idea of running a startup like a mega corporation goes completely against why they want to start the business in the first place. Still, it’s important to realize that big businesses don’t get “big” by sheer luck, it takes efficiency and a relentless drive for growth. There are always things we can learn from them and that’s what I’m doing here. In an effort to prevent you from throwing up, I’ll try and leave out some of the “raw” details and instead focus on the main takeaways.
- Specialization is Key
In the disassembly line, everyone has a very specific role. This isn’t really different from any other manufacturing process except that they’re taking things apart rather than putting them together. The same rule applies to startups (unless you’re a one man team, in which case you should think about forming a team soon). Within your team, even a small team, everyone should have their role and avoid overlap. When you’re first starting, it’s likely that your team will all be playing several roles, but you should do your best when forming the team to make sure those skills are independent of one another. A team of 4 with 3 marketing specialists can probably build a rock solid marketing plan, but is definitely going to be lacking in other areas. The goal should be to form a team where each person has their own unique specialty, thus balancing the team overall.
- Safety is Critical
The meat packing industry historically has had one of the highest injury rates of injury compared to any other, yet this plant has one of the lowest rates around. They realize that when you’re in a place built to cut flesh into a million pieces, safety becomes a pretty important concept. The startup world isn’t much different – if you’re not careful, your competition can rip you to pieces. Like a plant safety manager, it’s important to anticipate the risks ahead so you don’t get hurt. For a startup, this means doing your absolute best to anticipate the market, conducting research ahead of time, and avoiding unnecessary risks. Who are your biggest competitors? Who’s your true target market? What are your liabilities and how do you plan to manage them? Not answering these questions ahead of time would be like cleaning a meat grinder without first checking the power is off.
- Everything has a Purpose
As any good hamburger fan out there knows, every part of the cow has a purpose – nothing is thrown away in this plant. While I won’t share what all of those purposes are, I will say that some of them are pretty ingenious. This is how you should consider running your startup. Whether it’s time, resources, or materials, always be thinking of ways you can make more efficient use with what you have. For example, if you’re heading to a startup competition or something similar, consider bringing some product samples to do market research. It’s not every day you will have the opportunity to get in front of a crowd of people that will likely give you feedback about your product. By keeping this mentality, you’ll thank yourself later for using your time wisely.
- Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
While everyone has their specialization, the plant operates in distinct teams. Employees can quickly identify team members just by the color of their hard-hat. When someone is sick that day, becomes injured, or can’t do their job for any reason, they work as a team to ensure the line never stops moving and other teams can continue to perform their duties. Whatever the size of your startup, having team members that will pull their weight, as well as jump in to help others is essential. Startups have a lot to do with very little resources, so it is essential that everyone on the team is committed to make the business work. If you have someone that doesn’t jive well with the team, it could put a halt on your startup. You need to figure how to either get them on board, or quickly find their replacement.
Lessons for entrepreneurs can be found everywhere, gross meat packing plants included. By keeping these tips in the back of your mind, you’ll be thinking more like a big business, which will only help you to grow.
All of this said, I think I’ll be eating salad for a while.
Have any tips you’ve learned from the big boys? Feel free to share in the comments below.