About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
When starting your own business, it’s often important to do things yourself at first. Sooner or later you’ll reach a point when everything starts working without your help. In the latest edition of Success Builder, HSE alumnus Alexander Braylovskiy, the founder of the cafe chain Receptor, discusses how to combine business informatics with Feng Shui, how to learn from your mistakes, how to write your own music, and how to remotely manage a chain of cafes with the help of an effective ERP system that he developed himself.
You come from a very diverse educational background. How do you combine all of your knowledge in life and in business?
I still use all of the experience I gained during my studies quite a bit to this day. HSE gave me an important skill – the ability to structure information so that it is useful at every step of the way. My wife and I created our cafe ourselves – from the recipes on the menu to design and music. We also build all of the technological processes ourselves, putting an emphasis how we select and train personnel, as well as on the information systems that we use.
Sometimes knowledge is structured incorrectly, and we think that we either have to learn something and apply ourselves, or just convince ourselves that we’re stupid
When you were a student, what kind of future did you see for yourself, and how close is this image to what you’re doing now?
When I was a student, I think I liked learning new things and delving into topics that I didn’t know about before. I liked figuring out problems. That’s what I saw myself doing, and this is what I still do today.
Even though I studied business informatics, I was always interested in psychology. It’s psychology in particular that is what we based our interactions with personnel on. Motivation, a customer service code of conduct, training – these are all important aspects to making things run smoothly and effectively. We had to figure this science out for ourselves. I’ve always been interested in the process of acquiring new skills and converting them into something tangible.
A lot of today’s businessmen have become superstitious and extra attentive to ‘forces’ such as Feng Shui. What about you?
Yes, and we also bring in Feng Shui consultants. It works because Feng Shui is a special type of marketing with a thousand-year-old history. It explains how a person perceives and understands space. A person walks in the room and looks left, right, and forward. And the level of comfort with which a person will enter into a space depends directly on how well the space is designed.
You have a very unique approach towards business. In addition to your normal practices, what sort of ‘secrets’ do you have?
We have detailed checklists of what needs to be done inside an establishment from open to close, and the first item on the list is to wash the Jin Chan, or Money Toad. Employees arrive and the first thing they do is focus on the money toad. We keep an eye on this.
We also use mnemonics to help remember things using visual images. To do this, we have created a specialized mnemonic method where all stages of the job are spelled out in the form of images. This looks somewhat strange at first, but it allows a person to visually memorize all of the restaurant business’ standards over just one or two days. We describe our menu as such so that the waiter can talk about each and every dish in an appealing way. The waiter is then able to say in which order certain dishes should be served and how to pair certain things.
Where did you learn about this method?
A few years ago, I took a six-month course on mnemonics that turned out to be very useful when studying foreign languages. You can memorize up to 50 words at a time, and over the course of just five minutes you can memorize 100 digits. Anyone can do it. It’s just that sometimes knowledge is structured incorrectly, and we think that we either have to learn something and apply ourselves, or just convince ourselves that we’re stupid.
People have endless possibilities even though we only use a small part of our brain and consciousness. There are a ton of methods that allow you to learn dozens of pages of text in just a few hours. You just have to love learning and growing without telling yourself that something is ‘useless.’
Are you interested in becoming an innovator in business, opening up training programmes, and developing an image as a sensitive and thoughtful entrepreneur that is truly from the 21st century?
For now, only within the limits of Receptor. We hold training sessions for personnel rather frequently. We’ll soon have a two-hour course for staff on touch-typing, which is a very useful tool for managers and administrators who need to fill out a lot of documentation.
I myself learned to touch-type in English in just two hours. It’s simple if you use mnemonics and practice.
Korean national dishes are on Receptor’s menu
Let’s return to the topic of cafes as a business. You’ve chosen food, not directing or composing; why is that?
I like to do everything at once; it’s just that the cafe has become my main area of focus right now. I can’t say for sure why I chose food, but I remember that the decision was made five or so years ago. My wife and I went through a phase where we were cooking a lot. We got together a ton of recipes and tried them out in the kitchen. We really enjoyed this – why, I can’t really say – and we spent a lot of time cooking different dishes for ourselves and for our friends. So the next logical step for our culinary obsession was a cafe.
But a cafe requires a business plan and money. How did you handle these aspects?
Our first location didn’t cost us a lot. We just invested all of our money into the project – somewhere around a million rubles – and rented a spot that already had equipment. We ended up saving some this way, but because of this, we kept having to repair certain things. This taught us a valuable lesson – don’t try to save money on things that are necessary or else you’ll end up paying three times as much.
Then we opened the cafe, and our first guests started coming. We started making money, so what we did was open up a second cafe. We went to China and bought everything we needed in the city of Guangzhou – from furniture to tea infusers – and we set up regular shipments. We did end up having to learn Chinese along the way, but this was a beneficial side effect. We opened our second cafe and came to understand that the approaches that currently exist in the restaurant business are hopelessly out-dated. Restaurants are in a very inert sphere that hasn’t seen any real change in nearly 30 years, despite the fact that huge innovations are taking place all around.
Why did you decide that a chain of cafes would be better than just one successful cafe?
We believe that in order to in order to stay where you are, you have to run, and in order to move forward you have to run twice as fast. You have to keep moving to avoid stagnation, and if you stop then you’ll only start moving backwards. We opened our second cafe and ran ourselves so ragged that we understood why it’s necessary to standardise everything and create a structure that would work the same in any cafe.
That was when I remembered everything I had learned about business informatics and started creating a system with a developer. We made the system with Filemaker, which is a fairly well known platform. Overall, one and a half years were spent developing the system, and we spent a lot of time afterwards perfecting the product. The product is called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), which does exactly as its name suggests.
For example, the technological processes that take place in the kitchen need to be standardised, and our system has a video guide for each step the chef has to make. And when the chef learns something, they don’t go straight to the kitchen; they study the theory on ‘the cloud,’ and then talk about all of the nuances behind the process. Only after learning the theory is the chef allowed to try something out in the kitchen. This kind of learning system allows us to increase control at every step of the way, as well as cut down on training time.
Can you talk a little more about the ERP system? What makes it unique?
Overall, ERP is a programme built for managing a restaurant. The system helps analyse sales scripts, take orders, and put them on the chefs’ iPad, but it also includes online documentation, diverse analyses, an employee time tracking system, and much more.
Through studying restaurant software, I realized how unbelievable out-dated and ineffective it is. The first thing I wanted to do was make it better and bring things from other different businesses into the mix – combine processes and integrate them. Honestly, it was a huge and expensive project to create our own software for the cafes. It’s literally a completely separate business that has its own staff of developers.
By doing the same thing over and over, you’re always going to get the same result. You should be thankful for mistakes; they help you find a different path
Have you ever thought of selling Receptor as a franchise?
We are coming up with a proposal. In order to do this, we need clear processes that can be replicated and applied in other cities and in other countries. We are in the process of bringing our own mechanism up to the necessary level.
We have had a lot of franchising offers. People from other cities write us all the time, and we’re planning on finishing things up in the next two months. A franchise requires a lot of work, and it takes a lot of responsibility not to sell a pig in a poke, so to speak, because above all we as a brand depend on our reputation.
How often do you have to get involved with day-to-day activities like talking to the tax authorities or making something with your hands?
I remember when we first opened Receptor. My wife had a full-time job as a lawyer. After work everyday, she would come to the cafe, and we’d work – her as a waitress, while I helped in the kitchen. After closing up the cafe, we’d go to Metro to buy groceries, head back to the cafe at 2 o’clock in the morning, spend the night there, and wash ourselves in the kitchen sink. And we’d get up at 7:00 a.m. the next morning so my wife could make it to work on time. Sometimes we’d nap in the car during the workday, and this all seemed completely normal to us. People would ask us why we didn’t find a supplier so we could stop going to buy groceries at night, but it was important for us to do everything ourselves. And on the way from Metro, we’d sometimes stop at Ikea to buy a few things for the interior. We’d make them look old and give them an artistic feel before putting them out in the cafe. Of course, after awhile you understand that you can’t do this forever, if for no other reason than because a person’s physical capabilities are limited. But when you are just starting out, everything’s great. The way we see it, you just have to create a business out of whatever moves you. This is the where the magic is. As soon as you feel inspired, everything starts happening on its own.
How did you overcome any setbacks along the way, if there even were any?
million people are vegetarians in India, making up 15%-20% of the entire population
We didn’t have any customers our first six months, but fortunately this changed. Of course it’s hard when a person comes in alone, orders a bottle of water, and sits on their computer – all while you have to pay your staff and make rent. But every cafe experiences this.
We just kept on believing that everything would work out. We didn’t get discouraged and continued working hard. We didn’t get hung up on the negativities and instead thought of how to make things better. As a result, I can now say that whatever you focus your attention on will improve and grow.
I’m deeply convinced that there’s no such thing as a mistake, only a reaction. Our mistakes are a way for us to grow when we realise we’re not doing something right. By doing the same thing over and over, you’re always going to get the same result. You should be thankful for mistakes; they help you find a different path.
You’ve been a vegetarian for quite some time. Were you ever worried by the fact that you initially limited Receptor’s clientele by basing the menu on your preferences?
It’s interesting for us to communicate our ideas to other people, and this is natural. A few months ago, we opened our fourth Receptor in the business district, and we’re testing out a new audience format. Despite the fact that we’ll obviously have more clients on weekdays, we are still open on weekends on holidays. We were pleasantly surprised when we realized that people were deliberately coming to our cafe. This means that we’ve found our audience and have become a trend. The lack of meat on our menu doesn’t bother anyone.
How is the vegetarian craze impacting the restaurant business?
Honestly, this is first and foremost a source of marketing. The market has created the ‘healthy eating’ label that has a large impact on the consumer as far as general trends are concerned. But for me, what’s important is not just this food ideology, but service as well.
I believe that all successful businesses are exclusively service-oriented, and no one is able to produce a truly unique product anymore. If you go to a cafe that has great food, but rude staff, you won’t come back. The same holds true for banks, stores, and health clinics... Unfortunately, the food market in Russia still operates on the ‘nice or rude’ system while the rest of the world is on the ‘nice or super nice’ system. This is why we create a special atmosphere that people come back for.
How do you personally grow as a person?
I read a lot, go to different trainings, travel, and try to make an impact on my surroundings, including business. If you are solely responsible for your company’s growth, then the company operates thanks to your ability to motivate a team in a way that allows them to function without you. You don’t run ahead and make the same mistake twice. Instead, you walk calmly behind and simply enjoy the results that the like-minded people surrounding you achieve.
What qualities are necessary for building a career, or at least successfully occupying your time for a while?
You have to be guided by your brain, not your emotions, and you have to be determined. It’s important to remain calm and neutral so that you’re able to make the right decisions. The management guru Vladimir Tarasov has a good metaphor of ‘getting close to a deer.’ If you want to shoot a deer, you shouldn’t shoot from far away. You just have to get up close and shoot. And in order to get close, you have to know the facts and try it out yourself. If there’s something you want to do, you have to believe that everything will work out – get close, believe, try things out, test things, and don’t ‘shoot’ randomly. Only then will you seem sure of yourself in front of your employees.
Are you still involved in music and directing?
I have a music project that I started with Sergey Galoyan, who is one of the creators of the band t.A.T.u, while another project I’m working on is a music show. The first is pop-oriented while the second is pop surrealism. It’s funny nonsense and an absurd game, but I enjoy doing it, and I need to in order to dream about new things and move forward.