09/07/2012 07:49 EDT | Updated 11/06/2012 05:12 EST

Your Start-Up Business: From Tech to Tacos -- Principles for Success


I recently spoke to Amin Todai, serial start-up entrepreneur, founder of onemethod digital+ design about how he applies the principles of The Lean Start-Up to his various ventures.

Amin is also one of the men behind Toronto taqueria La Carnita, which had taken the city by storm. Amin doesn't make a distinction between the two businesses, and has approached their growth from the same perspective.

Karen: You started onemethod over 10 years ago. The Lean Start-up is a book which debuted last year. How did you know to build your agency using these methods?

Amin: It really was born out of the Internet bubble. When it crashed, a lot of that thinking and that approach came out of that. It was all about do what you can, build a little bit, get some traction, and then iterate, iterate, iterate. When I started [onemethod], it was in my parents' house, in my bedroom. I had a day job, and I was doing this on the side. A lot of what I learned was out of necessity.

I worked until I had three months expenses ahead. Once I quit my day job, it was just about getting to the next three months, so those principles stayed with me.

Karen: Did you learn anything else along the way which has stayed with you and informed all of your other ventures?

Amin: I started a car customization shop. We were souping up Lamborghinis and Ferraris. That business failed. For me, that was a very expensive MBA. I learned a lot. That's the type of business where you have to invest and open the doors. It's a lot like the restaurant business. You have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to open, and then you hope people show up.

Karen: Did that help you think more creatively about how to approach La Carnita?

Amin: Yeah. We get compliments all the time on how we changed the way restaurants open. We approached La Carnita in the Lean Start-Up way. We always knew we were going to open up the restaurant. It started out with us doing pop-ups out of our offices at onemethod. We used social media and word of mouth to build that buzz, and that following. Pretty soon, we had lines down the street on the days when we were hosting the pop-up.

La Carnita's business plan was disruptive both in a conceptual and very real sense. Due to legal barriers to entry for "Food Trucks" or "pop-up dining," La Carnita sold original art pieces, and threw the tacos in as a "gift with purchase." Soon, the pop-up moved out to other locations.

Karen: One of the cornerstones of the Lean Start-Up is the pivot (changing the direction of the business based on lessons learned). Did you ever pivot along the way with La Carnita? It seems like a runaway success.

Amin: Originally, we wanted to open an Italian restaurant. For the first two years, we were going down that path. There's no shortage of those in Toronto. We created the investor documents, we had fine tuned the menu. Something about it always bothered me, like we might not do well with it, because it's not new. We were capable of executing it, but I wasn't convinced it was going to be a success. We regrouped about two years into that plan, and said to ourselves "What could we do that hasn't really taken over this city yet?" Based on trips we had made to San Francisco, [Amin's business partner] Andrew got the idea for tacos.

Karen: When you decided to transition from pop ups to the restaurant for La Carnita, how was your approach different than with other restaurants you were involved with (like Weslodge, where our interview was taking place)?

Amin: We kept it lean. Usually, opening a restaurant is at least a six month lead. You start with a bare room, and you do a build out. It's costly, and time consuming. With La Carnita, we knew of a space which was closing (Briscola), and we negotiated to take it over, with the contents, and do a reno on it. Already, the build out is down from six months to three. During this time, we kept doing the pop-ups to keep the momentum going, and to bring in the cash to finance the reno.

Karen:The Lean Start-up Principles and Entrepreneurship seem to come quite easily to you. Do you think being an Entrepreneur is something you're born with, or something you can learn?

Amin: I think aspects of entrepreneurialism can be taught, but I don't think the mentality can ever be forced on someone, or acquired. I've had numerous experiences with people where I've thought, "Well, you're just not an entrepreneur, so you're never going to think that way." I used to think that everyone could be an entrepreneur, but that was back when I was starting out, and it came easily to me, so I assumed it was like that for everybody else. To me, you need passion, drive, and a work ethic. Not everyone is that way.

I encounter people all the time who come to me with problems, and no solution. To me, there's a solution to every problem. If all someone does when I pose a problem to them is come back to me with other problems, you're not looking at it the right way.

In May of 2012, Bensimon Byrne acquired onemethod. Shortly after, La Carnita opened its doors, and has had up to a two hour wait list every night.