Nick Kokonas (Co-owner of Alinea, Next, The Aviary, and Roister) on Maximizing Your Upside – What Got You There with Sean DeLaney

Check out the What Got You There Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Good writing is an invaluable skill
    • It is SO important to be able to clearly express your thoughts and persuade others
  • One way to improve your writing skills – read high-quality books
  • Nick prefers to hire for intellectually curious people
    • How does he filter for this? – In the interview, Nick will often ask what books a candidate has recently read
  • Your job as the CEO of a company is to spend time finding the asymmetric ideas that will really move the “company needle”
    • Then evaluate those ideas in terms of expected value
  • “All business is storytelling. You NEED to be able to tell your story.”
  • “Inspiration is for amateurs, a real artist grinds shit out every day”
  • The book industry is seeing a move away from utilizing publishing companies

Books Mentioned


  • Episode hosted by Sean DeLaney (@SeanDeLaney23)
  • Nick Kokonas (T: @NickKokonas and IG: @NKokonas) is the co-owner and co-founder of The Alinea Group of restaurants which includes AlineaNextThe AviaryRoister (all in Chicago) and The Aviary NYC
    • Alinea has been named the Best Restaurant in America and Best Restaurant in The World by organizations and lists as diverse as The James Beard Foundation, World’s 50 Best, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Gourmet Magazine, and Elite Traveler.
  • Nick is also the founder and CEO of Tock a reservations and CRM system for restaurants with more than 2.5M diners and clients in more than 20 countries.
  • For more Nick, check out the Podcast Notes from his appearance on The Tim Ferriss Show

A Little Bit About Nick

  • Nick usually skips breakfast and doesn’t have a specific morning routine
  • He’s a fan of documentary films – he highly recommends the new Apollo film
  • If Nick could only have one last bottle of wine, he would choose Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
    • An average bottle costs around $13k
  • Why does Nick’s Twitter bio say “I am not unemployed. I’m NSFW”?
    • One day when Nick went to pick up his kids from school, a lady thought he was unemployed because he was at school instead of at work
    • As the co-owner of multiple restaurants, Nick works for himself and can make his own schedule
  • Growing up, Nick looked up to his father who himself was an entrepreneur
    • Although his father encouraged Nick to get a regular job, like being a lawyer, because being an entrepreneur was very stressful, Nick admired the fact that his dad was his own boss and had the freedom to do as he pleased

The Importance of Being Able to Write Well

  • Nick studied philosophy at Colgate, which he credits for teaching him how to think/write clearly, and ask good questions
    • “When I got out, I realized I knew how to write and boy that’s invaluable”
  • Nick is amazed that the really smart people he hires coming out of school don’t know how to write a good business email
    • Jason Fried said something similar about the lack of writing skills taught in school in these Podcast Notes
  • How can someone improve their writing skills?
    • One of the best ways is to read high-quality books
      • When interviewing a potential employee, Nick will often ask them what the last few books they’ve read were
        • He uses this question as a way to filter for intellectually curious people
  • “All business is storytelling. You NEED to be able to tell your story.”
    • People know who Steve Jobs is because he was able to tell the story of his products so well
  • It is SO important to be able to clearly express your thoughts and persuade others
    • “If you can’t inspire other people to do what you want, you’re probably not very clear”

Nick’s Thoughts On Entrepreneurship

  • Nick believes entrepreneurs see the world differently – they imagine better products and work towards building that better future
    • “Instead of waiting for someone else to do it, you just decide to do it yourself”
      • One of the most satisfying parts of being an entrepreneur for Nick is creating something new
      • But…one of the hardest parts is dealing with clients and customers
  • A big motivator for Nick to succeed in business was fear
    • ”I’m motivated by a fear of not living up to possibilities, be it my own or the worlds…I really couldn’t imagine myself going to work in a 9 to 5 job”
      • Nick’s first business was selling posters to college students
        • He did everything himself – from ordering mailing tubes, buying mailing lists, to shipping the posters
  • A major lesson Nick has learned throughout his career is that outcome isn’t always a perfect metric to measure success
    • Many times Nick has made the best decision possible, but the outcome came out negative
    • Sometimes he’s made a “bonehead” decision but the outcome was positive
    • “You have to be honest with your good ideas, but more honest with your bad ones”

Nick’s Mental Models

  • Nick likes to pace or walk around when trying to solve a problem
    • Related to this, when building/creating a new restaurant – he tries to imagine the restaurant he’s building, and pretends to actually walk through it
  • Nick thinks of his job as CEO as the person responsible for spending the time to find the 20-30% of asymmetric ideas that will really move the “company needle”
    • “There are bets that have a 20% chance of working, but if they work, they pay off 20 to 1”
      • “Chances are you’re going to lose, but you should still proceed with that idea if the pay off is more than 5 to 1”
        • However, people are risk-averse and most are bad at statistics
          • Most people prefer making low-risk decisions that give small returns compared to high-risk decisions that give large returns (going to the moon was high risk but the high reward changed the world)
  • For any business plan, Nick will write the story of the business down before working on the spreadsheets or any other documents
  • “Inspiration is for amateurs, a real artist grinds shit out every day”
    • Nick is constantly thinking of new ideas or ways to improve other businesses

Additional Notes & Advice

  • 10 years from now, successful authors won’t use publishing companies
    • “There’s no need too, you just cut out the middleman”
    • As long as you can produce a quality book and have the upfront capital to pay for printing, you’ll be able to sell your work
      • Nick’s self-published book, The Aviary Cookbook, has done more than $2 million in sales so far
        • Here is Nick’s Medium post on lessons he learned from self-publishing it
  • Work to align your incentives with your employees
    • If your goal is to maximize revenue by bringing in more customers, but you don’t have an incentive for your employees for serving more customers, they won’t want to do extra work for the same rewards
  • To learn about any industry or business, constantly be asking questions – even naive ones
    • Industries that aren’t transparent, such as the publishing industry (which might have something to hide), are worth learning about and possibly disrupting
      • “Who doesn’t love a good mystery? And in business, they’re all over the place.”
  • A great way to impress people is to be prepared
    • It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t come prepared for things like business meetings
    • Practice your talks, clearly express your ideas, and know your shit

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

What Got You There with Sean DeLaney : , , ,
Notes By Alex Wiec

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