Hamburger Heaven: Business Lessons from a Child’s Bookshelf


Perhaps because I have a sales/marketing/product background, or perhaps because sales/marketing/product development are such a focus of conversation when you hang around with entrepreneurs, I am often asked what business book I would most recommend on these topics.

I am sure that most would expect me to recommend one of the “classics,” such as Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, or Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing. In the healthcare field, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational has also become an instant classic, discussing, as it does, how difficult it is to predict consumer behavior and how to tune your product accordingly. Many believe that Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling is the quintessential book on how to close a deal. If you look around, you can find a myriad of great books on product design, positioning, marketing, selling, and everything around this topic.

But the truth is, my favorite book on product design, marketing and sales is one I got from my daughter’s bookshelf when she was about 5 years old. Children’s books are so often underestimated as something to keep your kids occupied while you work or, at best, a way to teach your kids to read, but some of these books are so wise in their simplicity that I think they belong in the curricula of business schools across the nation.

So in answer to the question, my particular favorite book about the business of marketing and entrepreneurship is called Hamburger Heaven, written by Wong Herbert Yee. What I like about it, other than the cute little critter illustrations and that’s its main character is a Pig called Pinky, is that it teaches four of the most important tenets of marketing in the simplest of forms in its scant 28 colorful pages.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Pinky the Pig is a buspig at a café called Hamburger Heaven. Because sales are dwindling, the rhino and crocodile that run the place are on the brink of laying her off. Pinky looks around, realizes that the product is boring and that customers have drifted away. She sets out to reinvigorate the business and thus save her job.

Here are the key lessons from the book and they are exactly the ones every entrepreneur needs to know:

1) Innovation must be an active pursuit and it can come from the bottom or the top. In this case, Hamburger Heaven has fallen into the trap of selling the same old boring one-dimensional cheeseburgers day after day. While Pinky is only a buspig and not the owner or chef, she has her eyes open enough to realize that the key to success is a commitment to reinvention. Create a learning, evolving culture in your organization and encourage your employees to bring forward their ideas; if you don’t, you will die.

2) Know what your customer wants, don’t assume it. Instead of just deciding what new product to offer, Pinky heads to the streets to interview potential customers. “Pinky asks shoppers she happens to meet, ‘What kind of burgers do you like to eat?’” The book is short so we don’t know how many animal friends she speaks with, but if you follow Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad philosophy, the minimum number of potential customers you should query before circling in on your initial business model is 100. I’m not sure that Pinky’s method of popping up from people’s shopping carts or busting into their store dressing room is the way to gather market intelligence, but get out among the people and see the whites of their eyes. It is a profoundly important experience that will undoubtedly challenge your (often incorrect) product design assumptions.

3) Build demand before spending all your money. In Hamburger Heaven, Pinky takes what she has learned from customers, develops a menu and starts promoting the hell out of it, all before purchasing the supplies the Chef will need to serve said burgers to customers. It isn’t until there is a line forming at the door that Pinky goes out to work her supply chain—in this case by scrounging for caterpillars, acorns and worms since her customers are all animals (don’t get me started on how weird it is that they are eating these as adornments to domesticated beef).

There is always a delicate balancing act between spending in advance of demand (and risking demand not arriving as hoped) and waiting until demand is strong (and risking delay in product delivery and therefore customer disappointment). But knowing that there are pent up orders should be the minimum standard. It is better for customers to have a sense of scarcity than to think they can get something any old time. Just look at the way Apple launches its new phones for evidence of this approach. The bottom line is that getting as close as you can to just-in-time inventory management will save a fortune and not leave you with a bucket of expensive worms that no one wants.

By the way, Pinky’s burgers are a big hit, leading to my favorite line in the book, “Chef, your burgers are totally awesome! Declare Porcupine, Beaver and Possum.” No mean feat to find a word that rhymes with awesome, I tell you.

4) Continuously monitor customer feedback, respond to it and never get complacent. After the first lunch with the new menu, Pinky’s critter customers are out on the street talking about their delicious Hamburger Heaven meal in the animal kingdom’s version of Yelp, I suppose. Particularly in this era of social networking (including all those transparency websites for those in healthcare), your customers’ voice will be heard and they are more likely to squeal (or bark or growl) when their experience is bad. Actively encourage happy customers to give you good reviews and reach out to customers who don’t and make them happier if you can. Customer experience is everything, and the healthcare world in particular is about to learn that in a big way as the marketing focus begins to shift heavily from B-2-B to B-2-C.

So with all due respect to the great business minds and authors out there, I suggest that every entrepreneur keep a copy of Hamburger Heaven close at hand and read it often. And remember, if you are reading this book to your kids, they have the potential for one hell of a lemonade stand.

And speaking of budding entrepreneurs, check out this 9-year-old kid, Vivienne Harr, whose socially-conscious lemonade stand led her to be the one chosen to ring the opening bell at Twitter’s IPO last week.

Lisa Suennen is a managing director with GE Ventures and former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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