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Venon Tian’s playbook: ZUS Coffee’s COO on managing people & core business philosophies

Before Venon Tian became the face of ZUS Coffee, he was in the business of laundromats. And before that, he was actually a law grad.

These were some of the interesting facts we got at Venon’s recent Dining With CEO event, which you can read more about here.

Aside from those titbits of information, Venon also dived into some of his core philosophies on how he runs ZUS Coffee. Here are some of the advice from his playbook.

Execution eats strategy for lunch

There’s no doubt that ZUS Coffee has had plenty of strong strategies and campaigns that have brought them to where they are today.

But the thing about innovative strategies and cool campaigns is that technically, anyone can execute them.

For example, ZUS Coffee has released a Buttercrème latte, even though a competitor has been well-known for their signature buttercream drink.

But the way Venon sees it, “To us, it’s less of the idea, more of the execution.”

He pointed out that every café does Americanos, lattes, and cappuccinos—it’s not like they’re copying from each other. And some do it better than others, despite it being the same drink.

“We have this very famous internal saying that we use,” Venon said. “Execution eats strategy for lunch.”

You may have heard some variation of this, but it basically means that the actual execution of an idea or a plan beats just having that strategy.

Company culture is most certainly not bullshit

When asked about what some of the biggest challenges Venon has faced at ZUS was, he said: the people.

While day-to-day things such as supply chain issues, procurement, and logistics do crop up, it doesn’t seem to come close to things such as structuring the company and hiring the right people, Venon said.

“Managing business is objective. It’s SOPs, it’s theoretical, it’s execution. For people, you have to handle emotions, which is the hardest thing,” Venon said.

He went on to say, “Some of you may have heard my talks. I used to say culture is bullshit. But I’m wrong. Totally wrong.”

He shared a tale of how hiring a wrong key leader resulted in toxic behaviours all the way down in the HR department, which ended up having domino effects such as issues with late salary payouts and an inability to hire the right people.

Toxic hires can often go undetected, so building a culture that actively weeds these people out is key. Leaders must also be observant and not overlook how one bad apple can topple many business processes, especially when the culture is weak.

Don’t limit yourself with the industry boundaries

At one point of the session, Venon was asked to give some advice to aspiring F&B entrepreneurs.

He jokingly responded, “Don’t run F&B.”

However, as he elaborated, we learnt that there’s some truth to what he said.

Instead of seeing ZUS Coffee as an F&B business, Venon revealed that he sees it as an ecommerce business, and therefore runs it as one.

“Coffee is just one of the products,” he pointed out.

Unlike the more traditional business models in F&B, ZUS looks into things such as UI/UX, customer lifetimes, retention rates, and more metrics that ecommerce businesses look at.

Invest in capex to save on opex

“The question we always ask ourselves is, as we scale, how do I not need to hire more people,” Venon shared. “Not because we don’t want to not hire people, but because of the jobs are very much mundane and boring.”

An example of such jobs he provided was QA—quality assurance. Currently, the ZUS team has 13 auditors conducting QA for 336 stores. That means that if the chain expands to, say, 600 stores, they’d need a department of 26 doing that.

“And these are all young, new team members. You have to train them, then there’s retention rates [to think about],” Venon elaborated. “So, how can I utilise technology instead? Maybe it’s going to cost me more, but over the next five years, it’s going to save on operating expenses.”

As such, he said that the ZUS team are believers in terms of investing in capex and saving in terms of opex down the road. Plus, solutions like these also serve as a workaround to the challenge of managing more people.

Innovating the future

One way ZUS Coffee sets itself apart from other brands is its tech lean, such as through its own app. One cool thing we learnt is that the app actually uses weather information to determine whether an area is raining. If so, the app actually pushes out discounts so more people may consider getting drinks.

In any case, being a tech-savvy company, a key thing for ZUS is innovation. With that in mind, Venon shared that the company is actually establishing a ZUS Innovation Centre. Here, R&D will be conducted, not just for products but also for tech.

On staying abreast on trends with the latest innovations in the industry, Venon shared that he likes to read articles. But not just any articles—Chinese articles.

“My Chinese is bad, but I try very hard,” Venon admitted. The reason for his effortfulness is because he believes Chinese business reports tend to give the latest business and technology insights in a very detailed manner.

Meanwhile, he finds articles from the West to be more “fluffy”. That said, he thinks reading a blend of both Western and Asian media is definitely recommended.

At the end of the day, though, Venon said that a lot of the philosophies he lives by is “not rocket science”. A lot of it is just learning as they go, one step at a time.

“There’s no secret formula,” he shared. “It’s just how much you believe in it.”

Learn more about ZUS Coffee here. Read other articles we’ve written about ZUS Coffee here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: Venon Tian

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