Everywhere you look in New York City today, you see tech or creative startup spaces. The chaotic, hardscrabble, overstuffed, raging, romping, intoxicating, alluring, terrifying melting pot that is New York inspires. There’s a history of creative disruption here that casts a shadow down Broadway and the Bowery for more than three centuries, with a host of entrepreneurial endeavours.
It’s a city with a rich heritage of business pioneers. Titans of C19th and C20th industry have a legacy marked by buildings bearing their name that dominate the skyline, their omnipresence provides a backdrop and frame of reference to those setting out today about making their own mark.
Entrepreneurship is an endeavour that often requires a suspension of reality to clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of their time, and creation of something that has not yet been. The culture and history of NYC provides a great backdrop for this thinking.
The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set. So a mime artist dreamer and a tablet toting spreadsheet loving tech entrepreneur walk into a bar - it doesn’t have to be the start of a joke but the meeting place for a creative teaming experience that can lead to great success and inspiration for all.
You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s a state of mind, an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but they are as much entrepreneurs as product inventors or app developers. Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life.
Right beside you are your creative tools. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire. What chefs do is take an idea and manifest it into reality. They take a vision that existed nowhere else but in their own mind, and actualising it into reality through their work. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.
On May 10, 2013, Dominique Ansel’s did just this. He started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his New York bakery. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name and crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy.
Last week I enjoyed a couple of Cronuts and coffee in his bakery café in a quiet stretch of Spring Street in Soho, New York. The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees five years ago. Flash-forward to 2016, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as any tech rock star.
Prior to starting his own business, Dominique was executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship French restaurant in NYC. During his six years there, he was part of the team that led the restaurant to receive its first four-star New York Times Rating and three Michelin stars. He also spent seven years at the venerable French bakery Fauchon, where he was in charge of international expansion and helped set up shops in Russia, Egypt, Kuwait and other locations around the world.
Despite his ritzy resumé, the ‘Cronut King’ comes from humble origins. The youngest of four children, he grew up in Beauvais, about an hour north of Paris. His father was a factory worker, and the family couldn’t afford college, so Dominique began working at 16, training to be a chef and saving money.
At 19, he left home to complete a mandatory year of service in the French military, where he worked as a cook. After returning home he headed to Paris, not knowing anyone, and landed the job at Fauchon, where he quickly worked his way up from a temporary holiday season staffer to traveling the world and being in charge of international expansion.
With his unstoppable creativity, the New York Post proclaimed him the Willy Wonka of NYC, Food & Wine called him the culinary Van Gogh of our times, the most feted pastry chef in the world. With successful bakeries in London and Tokyo following New York off the back of the Cronut, he must be doing something right. a croissant-doughnut hybrid that became the most virally popular pastry of its time.
Believe me, they’re really, really good. The Cronut offers all the crumbly benefits of a croissant with the doughy sweetness of a doughnut. Sweet doesn’t really cover it - there’s a two Cronut limit, but eating any more would probably constitute a health hazard. Made with laminated dough, each Cronut is topped with a different colour of frosting and flavour, and each pastry is packed delicately, an elegant box in an elegant bag. If the only thing standing between you and opulence is five bucks and a long line, you might wait, too. But it was well worth the wait.
Ansel has a portfolio of innovative products he’s created – for example the Kouign Amann, a Breton inspired caramelised croissant with tender flaky layers on the inside and a crunchy caramelised shell a crispy shell on the outside. Then there is the Frozen S’more, inspired by the Turkish dondurma, made with Tahitian vanilla ice cream on the insider that's covered in chocolate feulletine, then enveloped in honey marshmallow, placed on an applewood-smoked willow branch and torched to order.
This blog could evolve into a Masterchef critique, but I couldn’t help but think that his self-starter ambitions and product innovation provides some good entrepreneurship lessons. Dominique Ansel is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and innovative pastry chefs in the world and for good reason. He combines craft, nostalgia, analogies, complexity, surprise, shapes, interesting presentations, contrasting textures, and wow factor into his creations. So what are the entrepreneurial lessons we can take from his craftsmanship?
Time as an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and extreme freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and fun, novel presentations - an aspect Dominique obsesses over to deliver the best possible product - is that each item be served at the optimal moment, when it’s at its peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. It was the first time I’d heard of time described as an ingredient, but it made total sense, and it is one of his guiding themes. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.
Put emotion into products One of the screening criteria for what makes the cut to appear on his menu is that the item evokes emotions, often nostalgic emotions tied to childhood, like the warm madeleines that Proust wrote about, or memories of summer camping the Frozen S’mores evoke, or the memories of milk and cookies after school his milk filled chocolate chip cookie shots evoke, or the traditional little pastries from Bordeaux, France called cannelés. Emotion engages customers is a key lesson.
Multisensory innovation Ansel’s creations have textural and temperature contrasts, like the liquid milk and soft cookies, or the S’mores with the soft honey marshmallow exterior, smooth and creamy ice cream inside and the crisp chocolate feuilletine that separate the warm marshmallow exterior from the cold, creamy ice cream inside. Capturing the customer’s imagination is vital for a startup with a new product to market.
Continuous product iteration Ansel’s is always searching for ways to make his products even better, he subscribes to the notion, and works in an environment where the products can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree, so gives him advantage. Build a culture where there is a focus on continuous development and iteration.
Be a relentless learner Ansel’s evidences the appetite for learning that is seen in many successful entrepreneurs. Given how accomplished he is, you’d think there wasn’t much room for improvement, yet he feels there is so much more to try and do and create in his field. Build an ethos to always keep moving, innovating, learning, and growing.
Use your team as a source of new ideas Ansel constantly brainstorms with his staff. The menu changes every 6-8 weeks, so the teams are always coming up with new ideas together. He schedules regular tasting with to give feedback on new menu ideas and what ultimately ends up being added. Use your team’s knowledge and experience as a source of innovation.
Combine ideas The Cronut pastries are not only a creative take on donuts and croissants, but also French and American cultures, combining a classic French pastry with America’s love for the familiar flavours of a caramel, chocolate and peanut combinations. Keep an on open mind to serendipity.
Be authentic Ansel is an expert at the basics of pastry cooking as a foundation for innovation. If you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate. Dominique trained in classic French pastry, it’s an invaluable knowledge he brings to bear in deviating on traditional classics. Build your business on solid foundations before flying off at a creative tangent.
Trust yourself Dominique Ansel is always thinking broadly, about all the different ways he can innovate to make the experience of visiting his establishments special, different, memorable, and wonderful. In a recent interview, he was asked: ‘How do you know that what you’re doing is right?’. There was an awkward silence. Dominique put his hand on his heart and replied, in a serene, untroubled tone: I just know.
We live in an age where you can make anything possible with tech. What Ansel shows tech entreprenerus is that if you have an idea, just go for it. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, because the perfect opportunity is now.