Why I Had to 'Become French' and Other Lessons Learned to Save My American Business Whether it's technology, regulations or other unforeseen circumstances, every business needs to recognize what is core to its mission versus ideas that can be jettisoned.

By Michael Hickins

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Excerpted from I Lived in France and So Can You, soon to be published by Dzanc Books.

We had been open scarcely a week when the immigration police raided our place of business.

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My former wife Molly and I -- both of us Americans -- had decided to open Molly's Lone Star, an American eatery in the historic French town of La Rochelle. We had decided to run Molly's Lone Star the way we would have run any business in America, with liberal policies for our employees, a customer-is-always-right attitude and authentic American décor. Our mission was to create a fun, high-value American oasis where people could come for a good meal in an inviting place and friendly place.

When the French migra came knocking, I figured they were after one of our kitchen help. It turned out that the "illegal" in question was Molly herself.

Every business runs into this kind of challenge at some point in its existence -- when external factors such as new technology, shifts in consumer attitudes or new forms of competition force it to reexamine everything it does. Certain factors challenge the very basis of your existence, while others are peripheral and can be jettisoned, and that applies to businesses anywhere, whether you're running an American diner in France, a boutique PR agency in midtown Manhattan or a tech startup in Indianapolis.

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Here are some of the lessons we learned about adaptability:

Adapting to the labor force

Having an inviting place meant, among other things, having friendly and welcoming staff. We decided that we would incentivize our employees by instituting a profit-sharing scheme, and by treating them as partners. We didn't ask them to wear traditional French kitchen garb, or uniforms or costumes if they were waiting on customers, because we didn't want them to feel like museum props, or worse, fast-food employees. And we had a very laid-back interview and management style.

But we found that many employees took our casual approach as a sign that we didn't know what we wanted, and started balking at some of our demands, such as timeliness and courtesy.

After losing a number of employees to poor morale, and having to fire others, we adopted a more formal interview process and made profit-sharing a benefit for employees after a year. Most important, we made it clear that our friendliness did not equate to a lack of standards.

The key lesson for us was that while we continued to run the business the way we wanted, we adjusted based on who our employees were. Our mission wasn't to create a new paradigm for labor relations, and we found that adapting to our employees' culture helped us accomplish our real mission.

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Adapting to customer mores

We wanted to create an authentic American experience -- and in our minds, that meant being open all day. It turns out, however, that literally nobody in France wanted to eat a meal after 2 p.m. or before 7 p.m. But we were still burning cycles prepping food and staffing a restaurant floor -- for no one.

It actually took us a couple of years to get over our conceit that we had to mimic an American diner in every way, and just accept that we could close our doors between 2 and 7. But when we did the analytics and realized that we were spending more money on labor and utilities than we were generating in revenues, we swallowed that ridiculous bit of pride.

We did stay true to one aspect of our ideal, which was to stay open much later than any other restaurant -- we served dinner until 1 a.m. That earned us lots of business from exhausted professional athletes, politicians, late-night partiers -- and other restaurant owners.

Our key takeaway here was that your customers don't know what your ideals are, and they don't care. They care about getting the experience that matches their idea of your business. Great food, authentic décor and American music were what they wanted -- and when they got it, they kept coming back for more.

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Observing the letter of (all) the laws

The immigration police raid almost put us out of business before we'd even started, because Molly was our chef, and we couldn't have survived without her. We thought we had all our legal bases covered because I was a permanent legal resident of France, and Molly and I had been married in La Rochelle. But it turned out that this wasn't the case -- Molly should have applied for a visa before moving to France.

Fortunately, we were able to appeal to a high-ranking official who loved Americans, and he gave us a pass. But the lesson wasn't lost on us.

When we found out that our distinctive signage didn't comply with local regulations, we changed it reluctantly -- but immediately. After all, we weren't selling neon signs; we were selling burgers and ambiance.

None of these adaptations forced us to change our original mission. With all the upheaval hitting every industry today -- disruption is the term du jour -- smart business leaders must learn to adapt without losing sight of their original raison d'etre.

Michael Hickins

Director of Media Strategy at Oracle

Michael Hickins is director of media strategy at Oracle. The former founding editor of The Wall Street Journal's CIO Journal, he also ran a restaurant in France and is a published fiction writer and essayist.

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