Life’s lessons learned the hard way

redlantern

Pauline Nguyen grew up watching her parents work too hard at running their own business.

Now managing Red Lantern, Sydney’s hottest Vietnamese restaurants, and the Red Lily cocktail bar, Nguyen’s focus is on innovating to work smarter rather than harder.

Dynamic Business spoke to Nguyen about how the business stays on top of its game.

You grew up watching your parents run their own business, how did that inform you when it came to starting your own?

We were refugees who escaped just after the Vietnam War, we’re boat people, and they came here and after a few years started their own business. It was a video library, an ice cream parlour, a restaurant, so my father was very entrepreneurial. As children growing up in that environment, I saw how hard my parents worked and life wasn’t easy. They were entrepreneurial, but they worked harder instead of smarter, so to a degree it was my blueprint, and I guess I used the way they did things. They had no choice, they just did what they did and did what they knew, but it became almost like an anti-model for how I run my business now.

For us it’s definitely about working on the business instead of being trapped in the business as they were, and also working smarter instead of working harder. One thing I did learn from them, absolutely, was work ethic. It had its good parts and bad parts, growing up and witnessing all of that, but it did shape the way I do business now.

What was it like running Red Lantern in the early days?

I studied film production at university, so I did come in with a production management and producing background, so I guess you can apply that to any area. The cooking expertise came from my brother Luke and my partner Mark, so the business side was, this is what I know, but I know that I need to know more. After a few years of working really hard, we all sat around and said, if we’re still working this hard in two or three years, then there’s something wrong with us.

I think when you start a business with very little revenue, you just work a lot, but we were working 60, 70, 80 hours and we said that if we were still doing that in three or four years, we were doing something wrong. So we went on a journey of educating ourselves, investing in ourselves, and eleven years later, of course we’re always investing in the business with technology and growth and knowledge, but life is a lot more stimulating and a lot more interesting with all the other stuff that we do, which ultimately always leads back into the Red Lantern business, but it’s things that inspire us and fuel us.

What did you do to start the process of stepping back?

First and foremost, developing the skill of being able to let go. I think that’s something business owners find hard to do. Even as a manager, it’s hard to do. But in order to let go, you need to create systems and empower people. It’s about creating systems, empowering people, and learning the skill of letting go.

You spoke about investing in yourself, what did that involve?

Investing in my business education, in surrounding myself with different voices other than my own and the voices of my partners. In that I mean, gaining mentors and constantly re-educating myself by going to business seminars and going on trips where I’m learning things and bringing it back into the business. That’s a constant thing, you can never stop learning. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

Red Lantern is very active on social media, and very interactive – how did you establish that and how does it keep going?

I did all of that myself in the early years. I managed the website and social media. You don’t think it takes very much time, but it does – there’s the constant monitoring, and we’re active on various social media platforms, so I outsource that now.

What made you decide that the business should be on social media?

It makes sense, but I wouldn’t have known about that or learned about that had I not been to seminars that said to me, this is the way of the future, this is where you’ve got to go, and talking to people. I think it would make absolute sense in terms of being a restaurant, which is all word of mouth, discretionary spending, people coming to socialise. I think with the way I like to do things, if someone’s saying something is the way of the future, then I’m going to give it a go. It is important to be current, to be progressive. One of our credos at Red Lantern is sharing the journey, so with social media we’re sharing the journey. We’re also staying current. Change is the only constant, we have to adapt otherwise we perish.

What other tools and tech have you been using to manage the back end of the business as it’s grown?

We didn’t have a point of sales system when we first started, but now all our venues run on POS, we don’t write manual dockets and put them in. That helps with our reporting – I can log on in the morning and know what’s selling and what’s not, what’s working and what’s not. In terms of accounting, we use MYOB AccountRight Live, which lets me log on at any time I like. It just makes the data easier for me to access, and therefore easier for me to analyse.

What tips do you have for other business owners?

The last financial year has been the most challenging for a lot of us in this industry, so this is the time to innovate, and market and think differently. If you constantly do that then you’ll be one of the survivors when the tide rises again, but it’s currently a very difficult time. If you remain dynamic and anticipate the future instead of just waiting for things to happen to you, then you’ll still be around when the tide rises. Incorporating all the technology that we use to analyse for the future is important, because what you don’t know will kill you.