Sometimes, a story unfolds before our eyes that takes us through a range of emotions. We fear for the protagonist, we laugh with them, we laugh at them, and we feel sorry for them.
This is such a story.
This is the story of the Deli Hustler, and it’s a tale of ambition, entrepreneurial spirit, public ridicule, and a righteous fight for self-determination.
And it involves a mysterious sandwich.
The Deli Hustler Origin Story
It all started with a post on Reddit. On a subreddit called “Am I the Asshole,” promising collective wisdom and crushing self-reflection, a budding entrepreneur laid out an account of his commercial scheme.
It had all started with a sandwich. Genius strikes whenever it pleases, and so did it for the Deli Hustler. In a moment of culinary inspiration, he had come up with a recipe for a sandwich of ambrosian proportions. A lunch for kings, rivaled only by the nectar of the gods.
Or so he seemed to think, at least.
After he collected himself, he set out to devise a grand scheme, a master plan for a business empire. He would not merely sell the sandwich, which seemed much too complicated. He would sell the recipe instead, perpetually, licensing it out to delis all over his yet-to-be-named town of residence.
He would treat his sandwich blueprint as intellectual property. Delis would sell his divine creation, and he would expect them to pay him twenty percent of the profits.
It was a genius plan, he thought. Deli managers would love it, as a sandwich of such greatness would attract customers from all corners of the planet, skyrocketing their sales. He would be a sandwich kingmaker.
So he set out to share the good news with deli managers all over town.
To his surprise, they all turned him down. Not a single one of all the eleven deli managers he asked to give him 20% of the profits for his mystical sandwich agreed to his terms.
Dumbstruck, the Deli Hustler returned home and took to Reddit. With surprising consistency, this may not have been a smart choice. The community responded with ridicule, mockery, and a fair amount of name-calling.
When he saw these nay-sayers, he countered with a few responses about how the cleverness of his plans lie in the fact that he wouldn’t need to touch a sandwich to make money, further angering the crowd of armchair entrepreneurs and sandwich experts.
Quickly, he deleted his post off Reddit and vanished from the digital sphere.
But a Twitter user had stepped up as a chronicler of this tale. In a Twitter thread, screenshots of the original post were posted. And more ridicule followed. Tens of thousands of people joined in, most of them laughing derisively at this man’s entrepreneurial attempt.
And I must admit I joined them, initially.
And here is where I want to take a more serious perspective on this whole story. What looks like a rather short-sighted attempt at making easy money is a tale that offers us a lot of insight into the hardship of being an entrepreneur and the resistance we can expect to face.
Because if you take an empathetic view, the story looks quite different. It’s an eye-witness account of an entrepreneur testing a business idea on a pre-defined target audience, trying to validate an assumption about the desirability of his product within a niche market. After failing to verify this, the entrepreneur starts feeling immense self-doubt, reaches out to his community, only to be put down even further. Not a single piece of constructive criticism to be found, he detaches from the conversation and removes all evidence of his failed experiment.
Not so funny anymore, is it?
I only came to realize this because of a conversation I had with a fellow entrepreneur. Once I took a step back, I noticed how this story was much more than a joke and how it was filled with opportunities to learn and grow as a founder.
What We Can Learn From the Deli Hustler
The story has a few essential components that I want to take a look at. It starts with the origin story, and there is a lot in there already. But the Reddit and twitter interactions are worth taking a look at as well. Let’s start with the reactions of the community, and then move into the entrepreneurial details.
The General Public Is an Expert in Everything
The Deli Hustler made the fateful choice to engage a very broad community with his question. He reached out to a crowd that was ready to judge, and judge they did. He approached a community that was not aiming to be supportive. Quite the opposite, posting on AitA seems to result in harsh and punishing responses.
That’s because the people in this community are not entrepreneurs. They don’t see the vision, and they don’t know the struggle. They see the surface, they see the failure, and they latch onto it. Many people don’t want to see others succeed, as it would suggest that they themselves should go out and try the uncomfortable stuff.
In an entrepreneurial community, the responses would have been quite different. They would still be negative but not destructive. Had the Deli Hustler posted in a startup subreddit or, better yet, in a community like Indie Hackers, he would have received responses from people who understand that failing to sell a product is a normal part of the journey and that it’s an opportunity for growth and learning.
When looking for honest commentary about your entrepreneurial struggles, don’t ask everyone. Like in business, find your niche. Find people who understand you, speak your language, and share your dreams. Ask other founders, and you will find valuable input. Ask the general crowd, and you will be howled at.
The Deli Hustler Got It (Almost) Right, but Skipped Too Much
When I reflected on what the Deli Hustler had done after coming up with his rather simple business plan, I wondered what else he could have done, and in what order.
Mainly, he had selected an audience. In his mind, deli managers would be his customers. He’d start locally and then expand his business if it worked in his town. He had found a list of delis in the area, and was ready to sell his recipe to them.
So far, that’s actually an excellent way to get started. What the Deli Hustler did was step one to a successful business: Audience research and verification. Deli managers? Check. Enough in the area? Check.
And then it all fell apart. He jumped right into sales, skipping over audience validation, problem research and validation, solution-finding and validation, and finally product validation.
He assumed that deli managers needed new recipes. He believed that they would prefer licensing over owning a recipe. He thought that they would share profits on individual item categories. He assumed that this was a big enough problem for them to pay for.
None of those assumptions were validated at any step of the way between his house and the delis he visited.
Let’s look into this one step at a time.
Audience Validation, Deli Hustler Edition
The Deli Hustler made a list of local delis. That’s not enough. To turn this into a successful business, he’d need to look at more than the deli market, and figure out if his idea would work at scale in the niche he selected.
From what we know, he selected deli managers as his audience. The interesting question here is: are there other audiences that might be better or at least more interesting? What is it about deli managers that made him chose them over anything else?
I assume that he was looking for the people making purchase decisions at a deli. Selling to the people with the budget makes sense, but it’s not the only way. Let’s look at other audiences that he could have considered.
The first that comes to mind is deli chefs. Other than managers, they have the culinary skills to understand the quality of recipes. They will understand better than anyone else if their current customers would appreciate a new sandwich.
Next, hotel chefs. With an always-open kitchen, hotels will likely need sandwich recipes and might be interested in delighting their guests with new and exciting creations.
Catering businesses could also be interested in new things to try out. They would also have an easy time testing the new sandwich as part of a sandwich lineup that already works, getting valuable insight into customer adoption.
The Deli Hustler went with the managers. That’s alright, as they are at least likely to consider his proposal. Let’s look into the most important thing he didn’t do: making sure that a lack of sandwich recipes is their most pressing problem.
Problem Research and Validation, Deli Hustler Edition
If “a 20% profit split after licensing a single sandwich recipe” is the answer, what is the question? What problem is this product solving? Are deli managers in dire need of a single sandwich recipe? Is this the most important item on their list?
Likely not. I would think that deli managers are more concerned with unit economics, getting more traffic to their deli, optimizing the sourcing and supply chain of ingredients, and so on.
But I don’t know this. That’s because I have not asked them about their pressing issues.
Just like the Deli Hustler, I have not talked to the deli managers about their most critical problem. Like the Deli Hustler, I just started assuming.
Unless you go out and speak to your target audience about their problems, you run the risk of offering a product that solves a non-problem. Nobody will pay for a solution to a problem they do not have.
Preferably, you figure out their problem first and solve it for them. Alternatively, you figure out which problem your product solves and find the audience that has it.
So who would be interested in sandwich recipes? Likely those who don’t have enough of them yet: people who want to open a deli. Deli chefs that frequently change their menu. Connaisseurs who love to experiment with their meals. I imagine that these audiences would have more compatible critical problems that a sandwich recipe could solve.
Solution and Product Validation, Deli Hustler Edition
If you’re the Deli Hustler and you just went through the steps above, you will find that selling your solitary sandwich recipe as a license might not solve anyone’s problem.
So what do you do? You pivot! You’re already interested in sandwiches and delis, so get thinking about helping the people who are just starting out there. Start experimenting with more recipes, or just build a collection of recipes that work, and sell them as a “deli chef starting kit.” Research the steps you need to go through to start a deli, from getting permits to hiring a chef.
Or pivot into providing a new and exciting insight into the sandwich subculture every week by releasing a newsletter that deli managers and chefs can subscribe to. A new sandwich variation every Wednesday.
Create a video course on how to make the most out of a limited amount of components. “How to make ten famous sandwiches from these twenty easy-to-source ingredients.” Provide your expert insight into sandwiches in an easy-to-consume form to anyone interested.
There are many opportunities to serve the deli audience. Limiting yourself to a single business model won’t be enough.
Things I Genuinely Liked About the Deli Hustler
I really liked that the Deli Hustler went out and did it. It takes a lot to talk to the eleventh deli manager after having been dismissed by the ten that came before him. That is entrepreneurial resilience. The fact that he gave up shortly after that sours my admiration a bit, but it’s already much more than most of us have done.
The Deli Hustler unwillingly did something that many wantrepreneurs never do: validate through sales. While his stubborn ignorance of the results of his validation is the source of amusement, the fact that he tried to sell and failed is valuable information for every entrepreneurial effort: it didn’t work. That is more opportunity than it is a setback. One less mistake to make in the future.
So, What’s the Sandwich?
We will probably never know. The Deli Hustler is guarding his recipe, clinging to the idea that he can license it as intellectual property someday.
We don’t know what the Deli Hustler is up to these days. But I am sure he’s planning his revenge.
That or he’s munching away on his perfect sandwich, having forgotten about all of this already.