Launching Startups The Kogi Way: Three Lessons From The Food Truck Pioneer

Many founders ask me for advice on their latest startup. Of all the things I’ve learned, some of the most compelling tips come from starting a business out of an old truck. When I joined the founding team of Kogi BBQ with Chef Roy Choi in 2008, all we had was a food truck and “seed funding” from a maxed-out credit card.

We had no idea that it would change the entire food industry, help popularize Twitter and spawn countless twittering food trucks around the world.

I generally don’t like to attribute Kogi’s success to “growth hacking,” though. I would say instead that our growth was largely attributable to a few fundamental strategies. There are three core insights that I believe apply to any kind of startup, whether you’re selling apps or kimchi and tacos.

Align Your Vision With Your Customer’s Reality

As an Angeleno, Roy’s vision was to bring Korean cuisine to the entire city, beyond just Koreatown. He imagined the street foodscenes he grew up with in Seoul, but with more diverse flavors and customers. To most Americans however, Korean BBQ was a foreign, slightly uncomfortable food experience that you only accessed with a Korean-speaking friend. And with the city’s notorious traffic, driving across town to eat at your favorite spot was rarely worth it. This was the reality of the market, and it would have been absurd to expect it to magically change overnight.

Kogi evolved around the idea of distribution via roaming food trucks: Instead of forcing your customer to come to your restaurant, why not bring the restaurant to them? That delivery platform also helped define who our target customers were. Not traditional fancy restaurant goers, but a connected customer base already out in the city, craving a late night snack.

With that in mind, we launched Kogi in front of nightclubs and hooked up the bouncers with free meals. They were more than happy to send customers our way, at least until the club owners found out about our secret taco kickbacks. We also took our truck to colleges to feed the hungry hordes, and to tech companies where starving developers needed to re-fuel between their late-night coding binges.

Food trucks don’t scale, but they make MONEY.

Through my involvement with LA’s early startup scene, I also brought Kogi to local events like Twiistup and The Streamys. We even taco-bombed one of Brian Solis’ late night drink ups. This was perfect, since we used Twitter as our main communication and marketing channel. What better way to tell a connected community about our ever-changing location than through their mobile phones? Twitter soon became a virtual hangout for customers that persisted beyond their time at the truck.

We couldn’t fix L.A.’s horrible traffic, but now we knew we could rally our customers, any time, any place. Yet we still had one other hurdle: Korean food was generally seen as too exotic and inaccessible for most people.

Be Familiar But Differentiate Your Product

To create a Korean dish that would plug into the diverse culture of Los Angeles, Chef Roy borrowed from another ethnic cuisine that the city loved: The humble taco. Portable and affordable, the taco was fun, accessible and perfectly suited to our target customers who were in search of a quick and tasty bite. Mexican and Korean cuisine also share quite a few similarities, so the familiar form factor worked well with Chef Roy’s flavor combinations. We made gourmet fusion food accessible to all.

Another thing benefited our strategy: Tacos are great photo props. Twitter was soon inundated by pictures of customers proudly posing with their tacos held high. Social media requires a balance of time, money and content. We didn’t have much time or money, but our customers provided us with endless content.

This social presence was amplified by our brand, which was designed to be familiar, fun and easily sharable. Starting with a beloved product category is great, but it’s crucial to build in mechanisms that facilitate easy sharing. Anything that ever had viral growth has leveraged such mechanisms, whether intentional or not. You could say Slack is the current Korean BBQ taco of the SaaS world, a spiced-up version of IRC that’s architected to drive sharing among colleagues.

Neither truck, taco nor Twitter alone could guarantee success, however — which brings me to my final insight…

Build Your Culture Like You Build Your Product

With traditional no-name taco trucks already ubiquitous in L.A., our crazy variation was still unproven. We needed something more. So we invested enormous time and effort to create a culture around Kogi BBQ. Not just a recognizable and distinctive brand, but deep associations with the people we wanted to reach. We popped up and supported many elements of local culture, from music to art shows, museums and more.

Young, forward-thinking, multicultural and distinctly L.A., “Kogi Kulture” came to represent more than just a late night bite. People of different origins and social backgrounds all congregated around our food truck, and Kogi quickly became one of the cultural icons of the city.

Instead of forcing your customer to come to your restaurant, why not bring the restaurant to them?

By engaging existing cultures, we became a bridge between them, which cultivated our own culture around our business — fans not only loved the food, they loved what we stood for. That culture was able to solve many problems we would not have survived otherwise. They turned our food experience into a movement, and whenever we encountered some inevitable bump in the road, they defended us both online and off. When Baja Fresh tried to knock off our brandfans fought back when we couldn’t. And Baja quickly backed down amid the Twitter furor.

Food trucks don’t scale, but they make MONEY. In its first year, Kogi grossed a few million dollars from one and a half trucks selling $2 tacos. Now Kogi has four trucks and a restaurant right inside LAX. Literally the first thing many travelers taste when they arrive in L.A. is a Kogi BBQ taco. Along the way, Kogi also helped launch a disruptive billion-dollar industry.

There are many essential values in building startups; however, there are a few that matter most:

  • Alignment between team, product, customer and market environment.
  • Efficiency in the application of time, money, resources and experience.
  • Strategy in perspective and approach.
  • Culture, both internally and externally.

Kogi was built on all of these, but I’m convinced that culture was the most important. Without a strong and clearly defined culture, strategy and efficiency become muddled. Alignment becomes impossible. Culture keeps your customers and employees with you, fighting by your side against impossible odds. Many startups overlook culture, but I’m pretty damn sure culture is ultimately what made Kogi BBQ succeed.

Image: Used with permission by Kogi BBQ