Case Study #28: Paying the Idiot Tax

Before Uber Eats and DoorDash became the VC-backed juggernauts in the food delivery space, Kenan Hopkins had already taken his 7 figure exit from this new space with lean margins. At the time of sale his company, Valet Gourmet, was doing $4M in annual revenue and employed 50 staff in Asheville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Revenue Model

In 2011, the concept of home delivery of anything other than pizza seemed like magic. Customers loved the idea, and restaurants loved adding marginal additional revenue. The restaurants could make money they weren’t otherwise going to make (these customers didn’t want to leave their house, for whatever reason) and hence utilize unused bandwidth in their kitchens, and customers loved the idea of upgrading from *the* deliver-at-home option, pizza. Restaurants paid up to 30% of the total ticket before delivery, and the delivery drivers/riders got to keep the delivery fee plus any gratuity. Both customer and restaurant were willing to pay something to make this happen, and many companies were born out of the process.

The Idiot TaxIdiot Tax

Among the things Kenan says he would have changed would have been stopping the “idiot tax” sooner. Drivers of said tax included:

  • Having no management skills (and not urgently acquiring them)
  • Having no strategic plan (and not being more intentional about building one)
  • Using credit card debt to bootstrap the business (and not restructuring that debt sooner)
  • Having no company culture in place (and as a result having high turnover)

This all changed when Kenan read Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, about the founding of Zappos.

He realized that the company desperately needed reform from the inside out and he went to work, focusing on branding, core values, and aligning hiring practices with values like “Exceed Expectations Through Service.” Kenan particularly liked this value as it wasn’t customer service but just service which allowed the team to focus on kindness both inside and outside the company.

Accidents and a Text Message

A number of things happened nearly simultaneously which were stressful for Kenan and led him to say “enough.”

Two driver accidents happened and one driver got stabbed. Insurance covered all these situations and no one was permanently injured, but after 7 years of building, Kenan wondered, “what if” and sent a text message to a competitor in the industry:

“Would you buy Valet Gourmet for 50% of projected revenue over the next 12 months?”

The text received a positive reception, and before too long, a 50% cash, 25% stock, and 25% earn-out deal was negotiated. Kenan has learned to read his business growth really well and despite the fact that his previous year was $3.3M he felt confident he could hit $4 in that 12 month window. And he did.

Money isn’t enough

While Kenan says that he wishes he had asked to stay more involved in the business in some way, as a board member, for example, his biggest regret was not planning for having a big pile of money and no purpose. He lost himself in the lifestyle and became, in his own words, a massive jerk. It’s a theme we have discussed before, that planning for what comes after the sale is almost as important as working on the due diligence during the sale.

That’s perhaps the first lesson of many we can take from Kenan’s experience selling Valet Gourmet: Purpose matters.

While he used the exercise of adding company values and a clearer vision which drove better culture for his business, he could have taken some time to identify a core purpose within himself, which would have aligned with his business and given him some kind of roadmap for when that business went away.

The second lesson is closely connected: pay as little idiot tax as necessary.

Identify where you are weak and hire those weaknesses, either in employees, contractors, or advisors. As Ben Franklin once said, “Experience is an expensive school, but fools will learn in no other.” Learn from the experience of others rather than pay to learn yourself.

Finally, network within your industry.

Because Kenan was friends with the competition, he was able to start a sale negotiation with a text message. We can say we don’t often see such a move, but even if you don’t end up selling to the competition, being on friendly terms can often help you share important information, build a better business, and help with hiring.  Lead with kindness, but don’t let it be mistaken for weakness.

Have you been paying the idiot tax longer than you should have been?  We have access to many resources that can help you drive down and eliminate that tax altogether! Give us a call.