Joe’s Hot-Dog Stand

Selling hot dogs, Joe saved up money over decades to send his son to an Ivy-league business school. His son earned an MBA and returned to advise him, only to contribute to the shutting down of Joe’s thriving business. Who is really at fault here – Joe or his son?

Joe did not have a formal education, but he knew how to make delicious hot dogs. Always a favourite at family barbecues, they encouraged him to try making a living out of it. So he started at the local school’s baseball games, then the bus terminus, railway station and he worked his way up over the years to own a small restaurant by the highway. He did well, and Joe’s Dogs were a big hit. People passing through the area would reroute, just to taste Joe’s Dogs. Joe added more restaurants and business was brisk.

Joe’s son received formal education, and capped it all with a rigorous MBA degree from an Ivy-league business school. While his son was away at university, Joe’s Dogs had become a major chain and he had ambitious expansion plans: more states, industrial kitchens, patented recipes, wait staff; in addition to the billboards, neon signs, and advertising already in place. He had grand visions for his business and wanted to make it happen with his son’s help.

Soon after his son’s graduation, Joe showed him the plan and took him through his vision in minute detail. He was about to get to the “someday all this will be yours, son” part, when his son interrupted him. Visibly anxious, his son wanted to know how much of the plan had been set in motion, and what they could pull out of. Joe wasn’t sure that was wise, but his son mentioned something about recession, unemployment, falling incomes – it all sounded very wise … plus he’d studied at university. ‘Learned some smarts’ as Joe often said, proudly.

“Cancel what you can, Dad. Before you lose it all” was the gist of it. And Joe followed that advice, without hesitation. The impact was almost immediate, though barely noticeable at first. Customer numbers started dropping; then those that came spent less, or came less often. To compensate, Joe shut some restaurants, then offered a narrower range, and took away some of the extras that he served for free. That didn’t help bring customers back, and in less than a year, he was back to the single restaurant that he had started with all those years ago. “My son was right”, Joe was certain. “Imagine what I’d be left with if I’d gone ahead with my plans!” he convinced himself.

If you were Joe, what would you have done? Followed your instinct and pushed ahead with your business plan? Listened to the words of the wise, and become more conservative? Worth thinking through. What could Joe have done differently?

I agree his son knew and understood economics and big-picture stuff pretty well, but I believe Joe understood what mattered more – his business – and he failed to rely on his own experience and business sense. Joe’s Dogs would have been better served by a combination of big picture appreciation and an intimate understanding of the hot dogs business. For instance, since all his sales were to passenger cars along major roads, Joe could’ve thought about the recession’s likely impact on how people would travel. Would people drive less and take the bus or train more? That would have helped him identify options in case passenger traffic was to drop.

Marketers think differently. They are trained to invest and create brands, and do not automatically seek cost-efficiency. That sometimes leads to passionate discussions with bean counters, and that’s okay. Bean counters want the business to grow as well.

Today, marketers ask for guidelines on how marketing spending should be reprioritised if budgets get slashed mid-year. Useful stuff, guidelines; but marketers should remember to combine that data driven analysis with their own understanding of how their business works. Like Joe, they have their finger on the pulse. Unlike Joe, they should show conviction and back themselves more confidently.


  1. I agree her with the conclusion as I have seen to many time marketers looking only at the excel charts instead through the window. Therefore thumbs up for the risk of following the idea, per aspera ad astra!

    • Sometimes people do not give themselves enough credit – richly deserved – for their experience and judgement, and follow the excel guy instead.


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