Jeff Goldstein, 36, plunged into his business without a business plan-but with his two best friends, Todd Eischeid and Chad Walldorf, both also 36. Today, they own Sticky Fingers RibHouse, a chain of 14 casual-dining ribs and barbecue eateries in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. They have also partnered with Amazon.com to offer their products via mail order, and their business brings in $25 million per year.
Goldstein says that the friends still don't have a business plan. His idea for a ribs and barbecue restaurant came from his parents, who moved from Tennessee to Charleston, South Carolina. They noted the lack of such a place to eat and then suggested, half-jokingly, "You should come down here and open a Memphis-style rib house, and it would go over really well."
At the time, says Goldstein, he had been working at exactly such a restaurant "for 10 months, and that was about the extent of my experience." He began pestering his friends, insisting they should go into business together. They finally agreed-after a few drinks at a bar. "But when I first called them," says Goldstein, "they thought I was crazy."
Goldstein says they didn't have a plan or much of an idea but "knew how to cook ribs and barbecue. We knew the type of equipment we had to buy, we knew the brand of ribs and pork shoulders that were the best, and we knew how important it was that those were perfect every time."
They shared the startup costs of $25,000 by persuading all their parents to cosign loans. The downside was that, because they didn't have much of a plan, they never really knew what they were doing. As Goldstein recalls, he was saying goodbye to one of the last customers on opening night and asked how everything was. The reply was bittersweet: "We didn't get anything we ordered, but it was sure good."
There was a lot of stress among Goldstein, Eischeid and Walldorf. One night, they almost got into a fistfight in the kitchen-something to do with baked beans, Goldstein recalls. When they considered opening a second restaurant, Goldstein was against it-until his partners pointed out that, with two restaurants, they wouldn't have to work near each other as often.
"Our 20s are a complete blur," says Goldstein. "We made every mistake in the book, but we covered up for it by working really hard and being especially committed to great service. We learned quickly and got lucky. Of course, some might argue that we still don't know what we're doing."
What may be more vital than a plan is settling into some sort of rhythm of doing business. Goldstein says they don't have any timetable for adding new restaurants-it depends on when an employee has risen through the ranks and fully understands how to manage and operate a Sticky Fingers. He says that they will never franchise; the only way to run a Sticky Fingers is to start out as a server or a cook.
And while business expert Frank Fantozzi recommends having a business plan-few people would argue against a plan-he agrees that, "You don't need a full business plan to start a business." More important is understanding who your client base is, says Fantozzi, president of Planned Financial Services in Cleveland. "You [need] somebody who's going to buy your product or service. If you can't do that, you're a charity."
If there's a reason for their success, says Goldstein, it's that "we're always trying to make our business better," he says. "We're successful because we don't think we're successful. If we're any good at all, it's because we think we suck."
is a writer in Loveland, Ohio.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.