It’s not supposed to be this easy.
Wing Lam, disillusioned with the nine-to-five grind at a financial services company, decided he had had enough of working for someone else. He and his brothers, Ed and Mingo, decided to go into business for themselves.
The obvious choice was to open a restaurant. They had, after all, practically grown up at their parents’ Chinese restaurant. (Balboa Island, California’s Shanghai Pine Garden was a favorite of locals and celebrities alike, including John Wayne.)
The less obvious choice was what type of restaurant to open. The brothers—avid surfers—ultimately decided to build their business around the fish taco: a favorite of California surfers who made surfing pilgrimages to Baja. The décor would have the feel of Hawaii’s North Shore, another surfing mecca.
Wahoo’s Fish Taco enjoyed almost immediate success. The surfing community embraced it and within months, surfing companies were hanging banners in the restaurant, effectively adopting Wahoo’s as the industry’s de facto “official restaurant.” Within two years, the brothers opened a second location. They were off and running.
Wahoo’s celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and now there are more than 60 locations throughout California, Colorado, Texas, Nevada, Nebraska and Hawaii. Nationally renowned for his expertise in marketing and entrepreneurship, Lam is a sought-after speaker and an adjunct professor at Irvine, California’s Concordia University, where he teaches in the school’s MBA program.
CalSouthern sat down with the laid-back restauranteur—at the local Wahoo’s, of course—for a wide-ranging discussion about the challenges of creating and sustaining business success, adapting to a fast-changing business world and the importance of education to aspiring business leaders.
California Southern University: Did you always have business and entrepreneurship in your blood?
Wing Lam: In a way, I suppose. Whenever I had an assignment or project to do—whether at school or at work—I always enjoyed trying to find a new and creative way of doing it better than it’s ever been done before. It wasn’t about pride or trying to show off; I just figured there’s no reason to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done if you can figure out a way to do it better.
Also, thanks to my parents, I never really learned the meanings of “can’t” or “impossible.” They ran a restaurant here in Southern California and they always did whatever they needed to do to get things done. They didn’t overanalyze things and they didn’t have time to second-guess themselves or worry about failure. They just did it. I’m much the same way.
CalSouthern: Was Wahoo’s your first attempt at starting a business?
Lam: Yes. I tried corporate America for awhile, but I wasn’t cut out to sit—or think—in a box. Boxes are not fun.
CalSouthern: What was the inspiration behind Wahoo’s?
Lam: I was a young man working in the financial services industry and wasn’t very happy. Around that time, my youngest brother was getting ready to graduate and I had a conversation with him about how the work-a-day world just isn’t that much fun. We, together with my other brother, decided to do something on our own and the restaurant industry was something we knew—it was our family’s business.
The original idea was to create a restaurant that was to the surf industry what the Hard Rock Café was to music. We had grown up surfing and we knew what surfers liked. In the ’80s, surfers from California would drive down to Mexico to surf and we’d all eat fish tacos; we all talked about how great they were. We also had a feel for the sort of mellow, chill atmosphere that would appeal to surfers.
We opened our first restaurant in Costa Mesa, California 25 years ago. The surf community and industry embraced it and gravitated to it—they finally had a place to hang out. The food was tasty and healthy and the place had the vibe of going down to Mexico or over to Hawaii on a surfing trip.
But the impetus really was borne out of waking up and having to drive to a job I didn’t like. Life is too short. Why not have seven happy days instead of five bad days and a weekend? For the last 25 years, I’ve woken up thinking, “I can’t wait to get to work today!”
CalSouthern: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs on determining the right time to pull the trigger and launch a business?
Lam: There’s no perfect time, just like there’s no perfect location. Today, with technology the way it is and with the speed of information and communication, it’s rare that a business can slowly but surely build marketshare. In my opinion, today it’s more about speed to market and the ability to scale. You have to know your model, too; you have to be fast to market, but you’ve also got to be able to fulfill that second order. Because if you have success, there will be 10 knock-offs ready to steal your market if you don’t scale immediately.
CalSouthern: Thinking back to Wahoo’s quick rise to success, what elements did you have in place right out of the gate and what did you have to learn on the fly?
Lam: We started Wahoo’s with the belief that the surf industry would embrace us and they did, right away. The Billabongs and Quicksilvers—some of the biggest names in surfing—essentially endorsed us within a month or so of us coming into existence. They hung banners in the restaurant and placed stickers of their logos on our tables. Can you imagine the benefit of becoming the de facto official restaurant of the surf industry, using the industry-leaders’ logos (with their permission, of course) and having their backing? Just think of what that would cost if you had to pay for it. And it happened with the snow and skate communities, as well. Lots of competitors are targeting these communities, but we have decades of relationships, a 25-year head start. It’s a tremendous advantage.
The hardest part—and what we had to learn on the fly—was how to replicate the product and ensure quality as we grew. It was about teaching and training and instilling in others the same passion we had for the brand and its products. It was hard and it continues to be something at which we work diligently.
CalSouthern: What were some of the keys to sustaining your early success?
Lam: Learning how to manage cash flow was very important. Once your business is up and running, it’s like an engine, and you need to figure out how to give that engine a steady supply of fuel to keep it running. That’s where cash flow comes in. It’s the name of the game; come Friday, you have to make payroll.
We had lots of other challenges, too. But unless you’ve managed a very similar business before, you don’t know what those challenges are and when they’re going to arise. Maybe you can seek out a mentor in a similar but non-competing business; I recommend that if you have the opportunity. But mostly, it’s about surrounding yourself with the best possible talent—in law, accounting, etc.—to help you to avoid these blind spots.
CalSouthern: In your opinion, is it more challenging to achieve initial success or to sustain it?
Lam: Oh, sustaining it. Definitely. In my business, if you just open up a restaurant in a decent location, people will come. But how do you get them to come back? Businesses—especially restaurants and retail—often drop off 20 percent after the novelty wears off. Sometimes when that drop-off occurs, the managers of the business start to panic and begin to make decisions for the wrong reasons and next thing you know, the brand is no longer delivering on its promises. Then you’re in real trouble.
CalSouthern: So sustaining it is more difficult. Which is more fun?
Lam: Starting a business—absolutely. Starting a business is a new adventure; sustaining a business is work.
CalSouthern: The business world has changed so much in the 25 years since you started Wahoo’s—probably more so than any other 25-year period in modern history. How have you managed to be nimble and adapt to the myriad of new tools and technologies available today?
Lam: It’s true that the world has changed dramatically, but in many ways, the same principles apply. For example, social media is one of the most important developments of the last decade. But really, it’s just word-of-mouth marketing on steroids, and we’ve been tapping into word-of-mouth since our inception. That’s why we built our menu and environment to appeal to the influencers in the surf, skate and snow communities.
CalSouthern: Any advice on how to leverage social media?
Lam: First, you need to familiarize yourself with all the various social media platforms your customers use, whether they are text-based, photo-based or video-based. Understand how the models work and have a firm grasp of the various ways the platforms can help—or potentially hurt—your brand.
Then, it’s about engaging with your customers with content. But don’t make it about your brand. Make it about them. Given them meaningful content that will inform or entertain them. Contribute to your relevant communities and embed your brand very subtly in the storyline. It’s not about telling people how cool you are; it’s about them telling their friends how cool you are. And, of course, you can have a far bigger impact if you can identify and communicate to the credible influencers within your communities, whether it’s a blogger with a high clout score or perceived street cred.
These are basic concepts, but you’d be surprised at how many brands make it all about themselves. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
CalSouthern: What are some common mistakes you see new businesses make?
Lam: Over-engineering is a common one. There’s something to be said for being first to market with a product, service or concept. We see even engineering-centric companies launch products quickly, strategically, knowing that they may still have a few bugs. But they launch, learn and refine while others stay on the sidelines, waiting until everything’s perfect. When you are first to market, learn your lessons and refine and enhance your product or service, the next person has to be that much better than you to capture even a percentage of your market.
Also, many companies lose momentum because they do not have a clear grasp of what their competitive advantage is. You need to focus on your advantage and constantly improve upon it by utilizing new tools and technologies. Always have an eye toward innovation. Focusing primarily on costs—whether of materials or labor—is a big mistake, in my opinion.
CalSouthern: You have been extraordinarily successful and have the resources to spend your time away from work in any number of ways. And yet you choose to spend much of it teaching and lecturing to business students. What draws you to education?
Lam: I want to inspire young people to consider ways to be creative in business and make their lives—and their families’ lives—better. So many people hate what they are doing with their professional lives. They just need a little knowledge and the courage to jump—the water will be fine! It’ll shock you for a second, but you’ll get your wits about you and begin to swim, free to do what you want to with your life.
I want people to know that it’s OK to think differently, to do things that haven’t been done. It’s OK to be successful and to wake up every morning, loving what you do.
CalSouthern: You have a finance degree and greatly value education. And yet, much of your success seems to be based on instinct and intuition. How much of a role did your formal education play?
Lam: The tools that I received with my finance degree have been essential in allowing me to drive my business. I’ve been marketing my business for 25 years and sure, many decisions have come from the gut. But my finance background enables me to assess decisions based on return-on-investment measures. This is where many marketing-oriented companies fail. It all comes down to ROI; you have to know how to attain it and you have to know how to measure it.
CalSouthern: Any other practical advice for current or aspiring business students?
Lam: I urge students to be very strategic about course selection. Choose courses that will give you the most balance in your business education and which will strengthen any weaknesses you might have.
Many students are creative and drawn to marketing-oriented subjects and have a disdain for accounting and finance courses. Unfortunately, in the real world, businesses don’t run strictly on the things you like to do. So just accept it. Work with your advisors and faculty to learn what courses are most critical in today’s business world and take and embrace those classes.
Sure, pursue your interests, but make sure you take everything you need and if you’re weak in certain areas, don’t avoid them, seek out additional courses and turn them into strengths. The more well-rounded your education, the more quickly you’ll be able to put all the pieces together and understand how an entire business works once you’re in the workforce—and that’s when things get fun.