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Wisdom From An Accidental Entrepreneur, Darina Allen

“That’s all I know about business.”

These were the words of food icon, Darina Allen, as we closed an interview at my annual Dinner For Ladies Who Don’t Lunch recently.

It’s an interesting thing to be the only man in a room with 90 women business leaders, which was my experience as we enjoyed a superb meal at the awarding winning Saba restaurant on Clarendon Street, in the centre of Dublin.

Let’s just say that the restaurant wasn’t particularly quiet, as the wine and conversations flowed. 🙂

But when I eventually began the interview with Darina Allen, you could hear a pin drop as she shared insights from her own experience in life and business.

This was a different Darina than most would get to see, as she wasn’t doing her normal routine of sharing her wisdom on cooking. Instead she was there to share some of her views and insights around business and life. And it was fascinating. 

If you’re Irish, Darina needs no introduction. But if you’re not let’s just say she is Ireland’s original celebrity chef. And over the last few decades she has written 19 books, created one of the best cookery schools in the world, been a pioneer and ambassador for the slow food movement and a renowned TV chef.

She describes herself as an accidental entrepreneur and shared a story on the night about when someone asked her where the entrepreneurial gene came from. She admitted that she didn’t know what the word meant and had to look up ‘entrepreneur’ in the dictionary.

A true pro, on the night of the dinner, it was evident that Darina really wanted to give as much as possible to the room. So much so, that she refused to stop our interview until she had answered every question I’d given to her in advance!

She covered a lot of ground and hit on subjects such as mindset, standards, leadership style, planning (or lack of…), how she manages her days, travel and of course food.

One of the areas that really struck a chord with women in the room, were her answers to this question: What are the top lessons you’ve learned from running a business?

She gave 3 clear answers.

1. Change More, But Be The Best At What You Do

This point made a big impact on the women in the room as many could relate to not charging enough. Darina’s point was that it’s vital to charge enough so that you can do the best job possible. But it’s critical then to ensure you focus on being the best at what you do.

When you charge more it gives you the flexibility to be generous and focus on really creating the best for your customers.

I’ve heard many people say that the courses in Ballymaloe Cookery School are expensive, but it doesn’t seem to stop them attending. And the main reason is that ‘you know you’re getting the best.’ 

If you’re not charging enough for your services or products, she pointed out that resentment can build. And once that happens, you and your customers lose. Which also ties nicely into her second piece of advice…

2. Promise Less, But Give More

Darina explained that she was aware that people thought their courses were on the expensive side but the key focus of the team at Ballymaloe Cookery School was to ensure that all customers left feeling like they had real value for money.

She explained that when the economy crashed in 2008, like all businesses Ballymaloe Cookery School were faced with decisions around costs and pricing. But interestingly they decided to keep their prices at the same level, with one change. They decided to give away more.

In Darina’s words, they decided to ‘give 125%’. This meant that for every course they ran, participants got more for their money – whether it be extra books, discounts on other courses, or free materials.

It must have worked because Ballymaloe made no staff reductions through the recession when many other food businesses were closing or seriously reducing their staff costs.  Knowing that the business didn’t want to reduce staff numbers must have been incredibly re-assuring to the team.

And all of those staff are probably doubly motivated and focused on her third piece of advice…

3. Create A Great Experience

When Ballymaloe cookery school began it was ‘because of desperation’, Darina explained. The family horticultural business was in trouble because of the oil crisis in the 1970s and the cookery classes began purely as a way to make extra money for the family.

“It just had to work”, Darina explained, “failure was not an option”.

They had little money for advertising. And one of the key elements, she realised very quickly, to make the business work was to have great word of mouth. “People are your best advertising. Word of mouth is slower but it’s longer lasting and has more reach.”

And key to Ballymaloe’s success has been creating a great experience for all customers, so that strong word of mouth is maintained.

Overall, you could say it’s simple advice. Yet many businesses often ignore simplicity, and create complexity where it’s not needed.

On a personal note, I was very inspired by Darina.  Not just because of her advice and wisdom, but because of her passion for what she does and the broader implications of it. 

I told her on the night that to me, she was an educator.  She seems to love teaching people and she revealed most of what she has learned about people has come about through her teaching.

Oprah Winfrey is credited with saying “Let excellence be your brand. When you are excellent, you become unforgettable.”

Darina Allen is a great example of those words in action.

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